The day that Jan Morris died, I found a new footpath. We’ve lived here ten years, but on the twentieth of last November, after hearing the news and aching for air, I set off, sad and bleary, not really noticing where I was going. 

As a result, I stumbled across a beautiful and hitherto hidden route, of ancient walls, gnarled old hawthorns and eternal views. I’ve christened it llwybr Jan, and now walk it often.  As a memorial to the undisputed high priestess of allegory, it seems so very appropriate.

In the aftermath of the death of a true great, it is fascinating to watch what happens to their story, especially when their passing came peacefully at the end of a very long life so brilliantly lived. In her last few years, Jan was visibly shrinking, her output still glittering with almost defiant optimism, but much reduced in both scope and ambition. Conversations in her final years were tinged with melancholy at her and Elizabeth’s declining health.

In death, there is, if not resurrection, then an elevation to its rightful place of the dazzling body of work that she left behind.  And like my llwbyr Jan, it is of all time, eternal and undaunted, biding its moment in plain sight. 

I’ve re-read a lot of her work in lockdown, and I am in no doubt that as the years progress, as her presence fades, her stature will only grow.  She was magnificent; the very finest chronicler of the in-between places and times, of the folds in the map, the cul-de-sacs of history and the quirky exclaves of our identity. Such places, such lives and such identities are where we find the diamond truths of the human condition. We will always have Jan to help guide us to and through them.  And in dark times, times like these, we need them so much.

A growing reputation is also the posthumous lot of a true artist who was never terribly à la mode in life.  Whether they own up to it or not, anyone who creates for a living has an idle dream of hitting the zeitgeist, tilling the hard earth for years before glimpsing a flash of buried gold, the dazzling jewel that will make their name and fortune (at least for a while, that is; the sudden jackpot often proves ultimately to be rather more a millstone).

Jan was never quite trendy, even in the 1970s, when her pioneering gender reassignment brought invites on to every chat show, and Rolling Stone magazine put her on their – extremely well-padded – payroll.  If they were hoping for an Anglo-Welsh Hunter S Thompson or a gender-bending Burroughs, they were to be surprised by the elegant and sometimes matronly despatches from Llanystumdwy.

Ah, Llanystumdwy...that rock-hewn huddle above the crook of the bay, with a backdrop of purple mountains and soundtrack of the Afon Dwyfor as it tumbles towards the sea. For Jan, the road back there counted for more than all of the others she ever travelled. 

Though her passion for Wales as a whole never dimmed, her deepest loyalty was to “the profoundly civilised society of Caernarfonshire”, as she described it nearly half a century ago in Conundrum. This fierce yet tender devotion to her milltir sgwar was perhaps the Welshest of all her traits. To someone who had made such a life and career out of their citizenship of the world, this extreme rootedness may seem paradoxical, but I think not. Without such roots, Jan could never have flown so far nor so high.

It’s why, if told that I could keep only one Jan Morris book, I’d have to eschew the glories of Venice or Trieste, Manhattan or even Machynlleth, for her slim volume, A Writer’s House in Wales. In it, she takes us around Trefan, her old stone house, through its rooms and garden. In its sights, sounds and smells, in the small, still place at the heart of the machine, she finds the very essence of Wales and its place in the world beyond. It is a masterpiece of the travel genre, yet we journey no further than a few yards.

Like my llwybr Jan, the magic is right under our noses, and her challenge to us is to find it.

Mike Parker is a writer, broadcaster and map addict.

He will be appearing alongside Jan Morris' son, Twm Morys, as well as Simon Jenkins, Dea Burkett, Angharad Price and many others at the Amdani, Fachynlleth! festival in honour of Jan Morris next weekend, 26 – 28 November.  You can find out more about it here.

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