I imagine that any book written by Jan Morris will be worth reading. No wonder The Times named her the fifteenth greatest British author to have emerged since the second world war. Her prose is fluid, dynamic and full of insight. The scope of her approach is grand, yet each sentence is full of detail - the kind of writing that smooths your progress over the terrain of a subject like a brush clearing the ice in front of a curling stone.
Over her very long and distinguished career she has taken her curling brush over subjects as diverse as Spain, New York, Venice … and Huddersfield! Although one might imagine that these books are all about travel she refutes the label of travel writer. She writes not about movements and journeys, but about people and places.
Of all her fifty-plus books, I’ve only previously read A Machynlleth Triad, probably not long after I arrived in Machynlleth in 1994, a book which imagines the town’s past, present and (perhaps utopian) future. Having now glided so easily over the 458 pages of Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country I don’t know why I left it so long to pick up my second Morris.
I was reading the 1998 edition, a revised and updated edition of The Matter of Wales which was published in 1984. The book is mostly concerned with the character of Wales, as defined by the past, so the 'last century' publication date isn’t a problem, although there are some moments that jar. For example, she talks about the Welsh Assembly as an infant concept, rather than what it is now, a late-teenage reality. It would be good to know whether she feels Wales’ vision of itself has changed in that time, especially following Wales’ surprise Brexit vote.
In the 1998 edition, there is much made of the lack of Conservative political representation in Wales, which is no longer the case. Obviously, there is no mention of UKIP, which secured 7 seats at the Senedd in 2016. Politically, the Wales of 1998 is dominated by the Liberals, Labour and Plaid Cymru. Forgotten insights from the time surface: the fact, for example, that Cardiff itself voted against having a Welsh Assembly. Which reminds us that people don’t always know what’s good for them, for Cardiff itself has benefited enormously from the presence of governance.
Nevertheless, putting these things aside (and there is a 2014 edition should you not wish to) the 1998 edition of Wales is glorious and relevant, an exhilarating ride through the many deep and layered cultural dimensions of our small nation. Politics, religion, sport, medicine, industry, community, agriculture, music, literature, architecture: each subject is covered with equal passion, dexterity and detail.
There is one intriguing question I am left with: is this a book for those of us who love Wales but are not of Wales, or also for those who were born here and are already steeped in its language, culture and history. In other words, is it for those who seek a mirror to a world they know well or for those who want a window into a world they wish to know better?