Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Religion of Kindness

Jan Morris surprised and impressed me. She sat, elevated, on an oriental rug, next to Charles Foran at Michelle Garnaut's gorgeous restaurant in the Fringe's old Dairy Farm Building. She wore a delightfully nautical striped shirt, sensible shoes, and the kind of pressed but frumpish skirt that my mom or yours would have worn on a trip to the grocery store. Morris was comfortable, at ease, and without artifice. She would laugh about memories of over-imbibing in a tavern, admit to foolish acts of innocence, and plainly tell us that our proud city, Hong Kong, "has lost its point." She has come to that blissful time in her life when she simply doesn't care what anyone else thinks of her.

She still treasures Manhatten, Trieste, and London, as silly as those three may sound spoken in the same sentence. But she sees herself in these cities, and that is what she has always done: write about herself, not simply places.

"I'm looking out, of course," she says to Foran when he pursues Morris' identity as the world's foremost travel writer. "But I'm consciously looking inward the whole time. I have a purely subjective attitude."

Oddly, Foran followed that by suggesting that Morris writes well of interactions with a city's people. What, pray tell, has he actually read by Morris? Wasn't Morris the author of the poignant and amusing tale of disconnection, Mrs. Gupta Didn't Call? Didn't Morris make us sigh in commiseration at the crazed reaction of a New York matron who she approaches for an innocent chat? Morris wanders on streets and paths, very rarely sitting down to talk to anyone.

And here we all were, the well-heeled and fashionable of Hong Kong, having shelled out the equivalent of $75 US, to drink Michelle's delectable Heidsieck champagne and swallow delicate little blintzes topped with bubbly caviar and creamy cream, hanging on every word from our favorite little old lady of letters.

"All life is allegory," she tells us. "Nothing is only as it seems. There's more to you than I see."

And, indeed, more to her than we see. But we must wait for her to leave before all is revealed.

"I am working on my posthumous book, to be published after I kick the bucket. It will be called Allegorizings." (Oh, gosh, yesterday I thought she'd called it Allegorizons)! She says simply that there are personal things which she doesn't want in the public domain just now.

She concedes that there are a few things which are exactly what they seem. "Nothing straightforward, nothing is simple, except for the great things in life." Kindness, she tells us, is a thing whose meaning we know innately. It need not be explained. And yet we are not practicing it.

"If we could think about kindness more, it would be a happier world. There is only one meaning to kindness, and we all know what it is."

She's talking to an audience that has made its home in a rather unkind city. We need to hear this.

I do feel we need to remember that we are standing on a hard rocky outpost without rivers or lakes, a fought after, sought after territory that survives on guts alone. No time for simple sympathies and smiles, Hong Kong is the scar tissue behind a damn professional face lift. That's my take, but in a few minutes she says it best when she tells us about the first time she wrote about Hong Kong. It was on assignment for The Guardian, and she was walking in a fish market and saw something that lingers as a reminder of what this place is all about.

"I saw live crabs for sale, tied in a clump with string, their claws working to break free. I felt sorry for them. I thought, how remarkable. How are we going to cope with this place, which is fighting nature? Before we answer that, we have to face those crabs."

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