Sunday, 4 March 2018

Brexit Britain, in a "pitiful muddle", is no country for an old Historian of 'Empire' called Jan Morris

Jan Morris is 91 years old and has had an extraordinary life. She spent the first half of it as a man. She was a soldier in the Second World War and then, as a Times journalist who broke the news, in 1953, of the first conquest of Everest. She changed sex in the 1970s, wrote more than 40 books, including the 'Pax Britannica Trilogy,' the history of the British Empire and through her writing built her reputation as one of the greatest descriptive writers of her time. Now, her latest book is 'Battleship Yamato: Of War, Beauty and Irony,' which deals with the life and death of the largest battleship which fought in the Second World War.

Last week Jan was interviewed by Mishal Husain on the BBC Radio 4 'Today' Programme who asked Jan : "Now we are in a relative time of peace, yet you write of this century as being 'anguished.' 'Our anguished 21st century.' Given the long sweep of you life, when you look at the United States, or indeed, the UK's decision to leave the EU, what is your assessment of the way that powers are shifting ?"

Jan : "It's a mess and a muddle isn't it ?  We're none of  us sure, quite, of anything : a path to take or destination to aim at."

Mishal : "When you consider Brexit and the decision to leave the EU, you, a historian of the British Empire, what do you think it says about the UK's place in the world ?"

Jan : "I think it is complete abdication of our place in the world or, indeed, if we want that place in the world. We've turned into a totally different sort of nation altogether. So, nationally, I've never seen this country in such a pitiful muddle."

Mishal : "Can you see a route that might work, that doesn't lead to a pitiful conclusion ?"

Jan : "No. If you count 'pitiful' meaning 'less than ever place in the world', no, I think that is absolutely inevitable."

When asked about her choice of subject matter for her latest book she said that she'd always interested in warships and didn't know why. The Yamato, operating in the Japanese Navy in the Pacific, had been the biggest and greatest battleship that had ever existed and : "The Japanese who had been reduced by then, chiefly, to to fighting their war by means of kamikaze air pilots, they'd' run out of those. They hadn't got kamikaze pilots any more, but they had this one great ship, which they decided to use as the ultimate kamikaze pilot, so to speak, and to send it into action against overwhelming American forces and sink itself in the course of its final action with the loss of almost all of the 3000 men on board."

Jan is best-known for her travel writing, particularly her portraits of cities such as Oxford, Venice, New York and Sydney. However, she calls her 'Pax Britannica Trilogy', a history of the British Empire, her most important work. Written, thirty years ago and, although her methods and views are now unfashionable in academia and discredited by the presenters of 'Post Colonial Theory,' it still stands as a magnificent achievement.

It is with supreme irony that Jan's greatest work, which focused on the Britain at its zenith as the premier world power, should now in its nadir and "complete abdication" of its place in the world and a country in a "pitiful muddle", should write about the fate of the Yamato. It could well be a metaphor for the fate of Britain which is also involved in a suicide mission as it attempts to cleave itself from the European Union and win a victory in a senseless and unwinnable 'I Want My Country Back' War.


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