New Welsh Review
Jan Morris 1926-2020
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Wales’ most celebrated writer, Jan Morris, has died, aged 94. The news comes at the end of a grim year during which her guiding passion – travel – has been on hold. If reading has been a survival strategy for many people during 2020, then for those of us who have itchy feet, a viable solution was to acquire one of Morris’ books and take off for Venice, Hong Kong, Oman, Sydney or Chicago.
There’s something clubbable about Morris’ prose style, a kind of off the cuff ease of spirit that makes you think she’d be a good travel companion. She reveals herself as someone who has read the primary sources and done all the research but who still believes in the art of conversation. It’s a trick of course – she travelled alone and was as likely to be chatting to Che Guevara, Kim Philby or Mary Pickford as to porters or waiters – but it’s one of the reasons people keep reading her books, long after the places she visited have changed beyond recognition.
Jan Morris had a knack of being in the right place at the right time. Getting the scoop, famously, when Hillary and Tenzing successfully made their ascent of Everest in 1953, she also visited Hiroshima after the bomb, reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem and met Guy Burgess – one of the Cambridge Spies – in Moscow.
Her journalism was sharp-eyed, analytical and eclectic. Matthew Arnold wrote that curiosity was a ‘liberal and intelligent eagerness about things’, and ‘a desire after the things of the mind simply for their own sakes and for the pleasure of seeing them as they are’. He was reflecting on a quality the English often lacked, and the French possessed. Morris, in this as in many other respects, was a European, a cosmopolitan, an observer of things for their own sake.
Long-form travel writing allowed her to combine her reporting talents with a more reflective gaze. She studied history with care and critical acumen, and then applied what she knew to what she saw. ‘I resist the idea that travel writing has got to be factual,’ she told the Paris Review. ‘I believe in its imaginative qualities and its potential as art and literature.’ The ambition and high tone are typical of Morris, but she was also a master of the memorably pithy pen-portrait.
On New York:
Movement was the essence of Manhattan. It had always been so, and now its sense of flow, energy, openness, elasticity as Charles Dickens had called it, was headier than ever. Half the city’s skill and aspirations seemed to go into the propagation of motion.
On Sydney: ‘Not the best of the cities the British Empire created… but the most hyperbolic, the youngest at heart, the shiniest.’
On Trieste: ‘It has offered a new home to many expatriates, voluntary or compulsory, but in the event many have spent half their time here wistfully wishing they were somewhere else. For this is an ironic gift of the place – to attract and to sadden, both at the same time.’
Her fictions departed from the travelling experiences. Last Letters from Hav (1985), which was nominated for the Booker Prize, is a fantastical collage of many places she visited and is structured as a travel journal. The Upstairs Donkey, and Other Stolen Stories (1961) is a miscellany of folk tales lifted from other cultures.
Jan Morris was born James Humphrey Morris on 2 October, 1926, in Clevedon, Somerset. Her father had been gassed in the First World War and died while Jan [or James at the time] was still a child.
Her earliest memory, she recounted in her bestselling memoir Conundrum(1974), was being aged around three or four, sitting under the piano her mother was playing, convinced she should be a girl. In 1936, aged nine, she went to the choir school of Christ Church, Oxford and then on to Lancing College, which she detested. After a short spell with the Western Daily Press, she joined the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers in 1944.
She served in Italy and Palestine, acting as the regiment’s intelligence officer. Morris later wrote about her early experiences of travel with nostalgia, and retained a fondness for her time in the army, notwithstanding the machismo and oppressive rules of conduct. Aged 22, while working for the Arab News Agency in Cairo, she married Elizabeth Tuckniss – the daughter of a tea planter.
After several years working as a peripatetic foreign correspondent, Morris was awarded a Commonwealth Fellowship, which allowed her to travel through America for a year and resulted in her first book: Coast to Coast (1956). Another sabbatical produced Venice(1960), perhaps her most widely praised non-fiction work.
In 1964, she began taking hormone pills and in 1972 travelled to Morocco to have gender-reassignment surgery. She wrote thePax Britannicatrilogy, about the history of the British Empire, while transitioning. Life rarely got in the way of the next book. She left a manuscript behind with instructions that it be published on her passing.
Morris wrote over 40 books, more than half of them travelogues and meditative books about cities and far-flung regions, with memoir skilfully woven into her observations about place and history.
Not all of Morris’ writing was flawless. She was too prolific to be a perfectionist. She certainly was not the ‘Flaubert of the Jet-Age’, as claimed by Alistair Cooke. Her tone can sometimes seem pompous. Some of this may be put down to her time and her social class. She belonged to an era when historians and travel writers talked down to their readers – many authors are still doing it – and when people who travelled widely belonged to a tiny privileged set. She viewed modern tourism as a scourge.
But this is a superficial problem. Running through her work is a rejection of authority, a contempt for social injustice and a fierce belief that the individual is his or her own most powerful agent. For all the cocktail parties and dinners, the conversations with VIPs and leaders, she always turns – in the end – inward, and brings to the reader a private, even solitary vision of the world. Art is often fundamentally ambivalent; Jan Morris went out into the world and mingled with society in order to sit at a desk, entirely alone, and put it quietly into prose. Some of her later books are collections of impressions, fragments of never-to-be-written travelogues, diary scraps; her compulsion to record, and to be read, was urgent and untiring.
Theinveterate traveller lovedto be at homein the Welsh village of Llanystumdwy. In Wales: The First Place(1982) and The Matter of Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country(1984), she presented her homeland as a geographical conundrum, a place where common notions about history and governance, power and influence, never quite pertain. The rebel spirit of Owain Glyndŵr pervades the latter book, and is as much an inspiration for the ‘epic views’ as the mighty mountain ranges. Wales, she writes, is a land that seems at times ‘so full of echoes, allusions and half-memories as to be almost metaphysical itself’. Morris spoke ‘pidgin’ Welsh, but still managed an insightful take on its cultural and mythic validity:
‘The language itself, whether you speak it or not, whether you love it or hate it, is like some bewitchment or seduction from the past, drifting across the country down the centuries, subtly affecting the nation’s sensibilities even when its meaning is forgotten.’
Morris only ever shared her private frustrations about gender with Elizabeth, and they would stay together through her transition and to the end. They reaffirmed their love in a civil union ceremony in Pwllheli in 2008. Elizabeth, who has dementia, survives her, along with their four children: Henry Morris, Mark Morris, Suki Morys and Twm Morys.
Chris Moss is a travel writer.
Photo: David Hurn, Magnum