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23 February 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 9:12am

Jan Morris’ Diary: The poetry of warships, my lover in the afterlife, and kindness as an end in itself

The thing about kindness, for a start, is that everybody understands it.

By Jan Morris

I have a new book coming out concerning the Japanese battleship Yamato, the greatest of its day, which was sunk by the Americans on a suicide mission in the Pacific during the last months of the Second World War. I am anything but belligerent and you may think it’s an odd subject for me, especially if you happen to see the American version of the book, the jacket of which is dominated by a vast, black, murderous explosion. The English version, though, shows the great ship at peace against a background of Japanese cherry blossoms, and this better expresses my purposes.

I was introduced to the story of Yamato  by reading a memoir of one of the ship’s company, a cadet, not really a man of war at all but a youth not so very different, I suppose, from the American airmen who destroyed the battleship in the end. He and his fellows struck me as being decent young people, obeying decrees of custom and loyalty very different from ours, but who were fundamentally more suited to being our friends than our enemies. They were oblivious, it seemed, to the evils of their cause, or perhaps ignorant of it, and when its last battle came they fought bravely and loyally to the death.

So it is, above all, the bitter irony of war that my book tries to commemorate.

A bust on my terrace

Warships have always interested me, and particularly battleships, for centuries the front line of any fleet. The first truly modern example was the British Dreadnought of 1906, which for years gave a kind of generic name to the class: dreadnoughts became the backbone of every big navy. The original was the brainchild of Admiral “Jacky” Fisher, who died in 1920.

I have for years been so bewitched by him that I long ago proposed to have an affair with him in the afterlife, if he will have me – perhaps one of the most blatantly publicised of all posthumous romances. Fisher’s style was at once majestic, quixotic, maddening and magnetic, and I am by no means alone in my besottedness. Churchill, with whom Fisher fatally disagreed about the tragedy of Gallipoli, was frankly under his spell (though Mrs Churchill detested him), and people of all ranks responded to his gifts of merriment and childlike conceit. He is generally forgotten now, I suppose, but on my terrace at home in Wales is a bust of him, made for me by an eminent New Zealand sculptor. When passers-by ask me who it represents, I say, “Why, that’s Jack Fisher, the man I’m going to have an affair with in the afterlife”, and they go on their way not much the wiser.

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Elizabeth sprang a leak

Mind you, if I had a bust of Nelson himself on my terrace, they would probably not recognise him, either. I am saddened by the demise of the particular emotional bond the British people as a whole once felt with the Royal Navy. I don’t think they ever felt it about the army, and the RAF probably only meant a lot to them during the Spitfire days of death and glory.

The navy was different. Not so long ago Navy Day was celebrated more or less as a national holiday, with displays and functions of all sorts to remind the public of the old link. They still celebrate Navy Days in a dozen foreign countries, notably Russia of course, and China, too, but in Britain the event has mostly been whittled down to publicity drives at the nation’s last major naval base at Portsmouth.

It is inevitable, I suppose. Without an empire encircling the earth, without great shipbuilders, Britain is hardly a maritime power at all now, and the Royal Navy (which true addicts used to say was actually founded by Alfred the Great!) has lost its magic. I suspect the public has been generally sceptical, as I am myself, about the need for the two huge new aircraft carriers, the largest and most expensive ships the navy has ever manned. Probably people were not so much disillusioned as sadly amused when in December, the first of them, the Queen Elizabeth, which was so recently launched with royal ceremony, sprang a leak! I don’t know how serious a calamity that really was, but there was something rather comical about the news, although I could not help wondering if Fisher, or Nelson himself, would have been much entertained. As for myself, laugh? I could have cried.

Simpler than love

Perhaps the saddest thing about the wretched state of the world, to my mind, is its lack of certainties. So many convictions have lost their sureness, from patriotisms to ideologies to religions, and I get the sense that people everywhere are looking for a route to some better-defined objective – a Way, in short, to a Destination, both with capital letters.

There are many, of course, who still trust in the route through life that their particular religion or political conviction offers, but many more, it seems to me, are floundering anchorless in the sea of life.

You must forgive me my presumption, but I venture to offer to them a simple solution to their quandary: kindness, in italics.

The thing about kindness, for a start, is that everybody understands it. It is simpler, less demanding than love. We need no political theorist or theologian to explain it to us, no Luther or Karl Marx as guides – from our childhood we have known very well what kindness is, and unkindness, too. What’s more, if we know what pleasure it is to receive kindness, most of us have experienced the satisfaction of being kind ourselves. Kindness is fun! The kinder you are, the happier, and so is everybody else – it is the very opposite of those religious theories that demand self-sacrifice, or political systems that rely upon resentment and debate. Its only commandments are these: be merciful, be generous, be grateful, be happy, be kind.

In short, dear muddled fellow humans, I suggest to you that kindness is not only the Way, it is the Destination itself.

“Battleship Yamato” is published in March by Pallas Athene.

This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia