Jan Morris was a dazzling historian who was constantly fascinated by the new. She could throw off precise and stunningly compact reports – on the trial of Eichmann or her interview with Che Guevara, for this paper and many others – and then compose 30-page master portraits of cities for Rolling Stone. She was mellifluous and mischievous at once, and perhaps an ideal chronicler of the 20th century, as a classical Brit who nonetheless sustained an undeluded love for brash and forward-looking America. Thousands of us recognised the beauty of her watercolour prose, but what gave it fibre was its unsurpassable acuity. London for her was “hard as nails,” Kyoto a city of ghosts.
Her command of the past was compendious enough to disclose the future. By the 1970s she was detecting a slightly disquieting global tomorrow in Singapore; in 1984, she saw how Toronto was offering a fresh kind of multiculturalism. She never stooped to the prosaic diary entries of travel writers, but urged us rather towards impressionist canvasses worthy of Hazlitt or Virginia Woolf. While closely perusing the phone directories of a city, she somehow gave us its soul.
As a teenager coming of age near London, I schooled myself on her sentences, not only because she offered a vision of living an unaffiliated, roaming life, but also because she kept herself out of the picture, yet infused every intricate clause with a sense of fun, of rigour, of independent-mindedness. Her Pax Britannica trilogy endures because Jan embodied much of the curiosity and erudition, the sympathy towards other cultures, that was the best part of Britain abroad; yet she never hesitated to expose empire’s cruelties and hypocrisies. Her meditation on Trieste pierces because in this haunted, wistful place that doesn’t quite belong anywhere, she seemed to be giving us a glimpse of herself, a solitary “Welsh republican” who could feel equally at home almost everywhere.
Anyone who wrote on place soon found that Jan exemplified the kindness she extolled, training her gift for enthusiasm and affection on every last upstart who approached her. I can still see her zipping around California in a blue Mustang convertible – to seek out some old dogs of empire – and investigating a Palm Pilot with a genuine excitement that showed me why she would never become stodgy. The last time I wrote to her was for her 94th birthday this October. As every year, I reminded her, mistress of the telling detail, that she shared her special day with (could it be more fitting?) Graham Greene and Mohandas Gandhi.
My introduction to the travel writing of the late Jan Morris was her book Venice, which was first published 60 years ago. Despite the passage of so much time, it retains an extraordinary freshness – a clue, I think, to her genius as a travel writer. The book is the fruit of a long and passionate relationship with the city. By the time she revised it for the third time in the 1990s, Venice had changed, so had she, and she was no longer quite so in love with it. But as a vivid evocation of the place and as a “record of old ecstasies”, Venice is still utterly compelling.
The book is patient, wise and lyrical, and its deep scholarship is lightly worn. There is something magical and virtuosic in her care for her sentences: “With a thud, a babble of voices and a crinkle of travellers’ cheques, summer falls upon Venice. The pleasure factory works at full blast and the city’s ingrained sadness is swamped in an effulgence of money-making. This is not quite so unpleasant as it sounds.”
I think what comes through most in her writing is a feeling of magnanimity. You’re in the hands of a companion who’s gracious, self-effacing and above all kind. Compassion is a constant in her work. She can be waspish, but on the whole she resists the travel writer’s temptations of snark and cheap laughs. The virtues she cultivated instead – doubt, humility, complexity, ambivalence – give her work its sense of timelessness.
As with the city of Venice itself, different sensibilities can arrive and find themselves reflected in it. This is true whether she’s writing about the ambiguous inheritance of the British empire in the Pax Britannica trilogy or her own struggle to resolve the puzzle of her gender in Conundrum. She was also drawn to places – Venice, Trieste – that reflected transience and liminality. Her uncategorisable book Hav is about an entirely imaginary country, but one which also embodies many real strangenesses of history.
Wings clipped by her advancing age, she travelled less as she got older, but In My Mind’s Eye, published in 2018, recorded the musings of a still insatiably curious mind, in her encounters with Siri, her love of Wales and care for animals, and her anger at repeated examples of human cruelty. Still, it managed to be suffused with a sense of optimism. She was heartened when a friend sent her a photo of some graffito in Charlottesville, Virginia, that simply said, “Be Kind.”
“These magical words,” Morris noted. “So all is not lost!”
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Jan is leaning on the bonnet, a boy racer in women’s clothes ready for the off. Grey slacks, chunky white velour turtle neck, red coral necklace. Her car is a low slung, souped-up Japanese classic with go-faster stripes. Her “dear Elizabeth” is grinning from the back seat, at the start of another adventure.
“Come along, you oafs,” Jan calls to Justin and me. Justin Marozzi and I are deserting our charges at Tŷ Newydd, the National Writing Centre of Wales, on another lark. Yesterday Jan had us around to Trefan Morys for tea. Showed off her Welsh slate gravestone. Served bara brith fruit loaf beneath high shelves of books, model frigates and stern gaze of the late Admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher, who she plans to seduce in the afterlife. She told us that she didn’t like being called a travel writer, teased that she’d never had more enjoyable visitors, even invited us back for “a boiled egg perhaps, or a plate of cornflakes”. Today she’s driving us to Portmeirion.
Now Jan’s hands are on the wheel, her foot to the floor, her eyes regarding the road only on the bends. We are talking about fact and fiction, again. She’s apt to assert – “as an old pro of the writing game” – that she doesn’t recognise the distinction. “The two kinds are irrevocably mingled in my own work, and to one degree or another, I suspect, in most other writers’ work, too.” She gives me that look, deadpan yet mischievous, then laughs her deep laugh as she commits the line to memory. “The thing is, truth is not absolute. It’s all in the mind.”
We’ve corresponded on and off for years. It’s almost 30 years since she reviewed my first book, Stalin’s Nose, and fast-tracked my writing life. In thanks – with love and respect – I’ve sent her postcards and mail from Moscow and Yangon, while changing planes in Changi, after a canoe trip through the Canadian woods.
On a particularly sharp bend on the A487, Jan adds – as she’ll later write, “What’s true to some people is untrue to others. What’s true now may not be tomorrow. Just think, after all these centuries some people maintain that there is no such thing as God!”
Somewhere in her four dozen books, Jan suggested that the British have another people in themselves, a sort of alter ego which yearns to break out of the prosaic realities of this northern island and “live a more brilliant life in Xanadu”. It’s a yearning for things foreign and incongruous, a leaving behind the damp greens and greys to live in more vivid places “where outrageous enterprises can be undertaken”. Of course Jan has always had another person in herself, undertaking “outrageous enterprises” on Everest, in Morocco, from Venice and Manhattan to her beloved Wales and imaginary Hav.
Hence, Portmeirion, the real, jumbled, fantasy village on the Dwyryd estuary. Jan has known it for more than half a century, cherishing it as an allegory – that is, the quality of having more than one meaning. Above the town she calms her high-octane coupé, and we four travellers wander down to the central piazza and giant chessboard colonnade, past Arts and Crafts Hercules Hall to the Campanile, stunned by its surreal magnificence (says Justin). Over Caffi’r Angel ice-creams (Jan chooses salted caramel, Elizabeth goes for creamberries), she talks – playing, teasing, deadly serious – of “a subtler kind of truth, the inner kind that is seminal and personal to every one of us, that I will defend to the death my right to exploit.” She adds to me, “Like your books, which have the spur-of-the-moment feeling that I love. It may be illusion, but then there’s truth in illusion too, is there not?”
A year or so later, Jan writes that she has finished Thinking Again “and with it my literary career. Out of the Sixth Age, on the brink of the Seventh. Never grow old, dear Rory”, she notes in her last mail to me. And through her books, she will long be with us, leading the way – once again – on the next journey.
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In my 20s, when I was living in Dunedin, then Wellington and Auckland, trying to survive as a student and later as a writer in a language I had only started learning a few years earlier, Jan Morris was my lifeline to the world. The actual world that I was hungry for, and the Writer’s World. I’d open any of her books – and I bought them all, secondhand – and feast on her language, on her expansiveness of experience and perception, her learned and practical worldliness, richer in many more decades than I had been alive and that showed me what literary humanism is: polytheistic, generous, curious, forever open to transforming itself, and ultimately (though I only saw this later) of service to others.
Inhaling her sense of place, inhabiting her places as states of mind and soul, was pure oxygen. She had written the book on all that preoccupied me, geographically and existentially: the feeling of nowhere brought by exile, farewells as “premonition of infinity” the rich gifts of the broken-yet-beautiful – these are the best places of course, they call to me like sirens – “to attract and to sadden”. Triestinità, tanguidad, duende, saudade. Yes! When I finally made it to Trieste last year, she was in every street:
“I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard felt came not but from myself”
On Trieste’s shore, I realised that all my writing life I had been building on things I had learned from her, among others: how to really see the world and hold it in your gaze, then in your prose, then in your heart – even when you are finished with it. When she endorsed, with typical generosity, my British debut, Street Without a Name, she wrote me an email.
I paraphrase: “In all my wanderings, and even when I changed my gender, I have been privileged to know where I depart from and where I will return to: Wales. But you have experienced a dislocation and a loss like nothing I’ve known – the dislocation of not knowing either your point of departure or your port of return. Keep writing about it!”
As a beginner, I thought her greatness was to have written the world. Now I see that her other greatness is to have offered us the highest truth: “Kindness is all that matters in the end. She said it often and lived and wrote by it. That has now become my own point of departure and my port of return.
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I can remember a cold December morning when I was about eight, staying with my cousins in France. We decided to take the pet pig for a ride. The pony, Bilbo Baggins, bolted with me on his back, while Hallelujah (the pig) dragged my cousin into a ploughed field. Afterwards I wrote my first ever “travel story”.
On most occasions, my elder sister was up for any adventure I could think up – the pig ride in France among them. My younger sister was the opposite. She wore a red ribbon around her neck with a silver bell, which tinkled when she wafted gently by so my mother would always know where she was. For me, that ribbon would have been tantamount to shackles. I didn’t want anyone tracking me down, except via the walkie-talkie I painted on to a wooden brick with a black felt-tip pen.
The truth was I couldn’t understand why everyone was always telling me to sit still. It seemed to me entirely contradictory given I was also being fed stories of faraway trees and lost boys who could teach children how to fly. All the books I ever read presented adventure as a near-perfect way of living, with every new story a call-to-arms for yet another magnificent journey.
Then, in my teens, I began to get into travel writing, devouring books about the worlds I longed to visit as soon as I could earn some money. They were no longer Neverlands, but Patagonia, Venice, India. When I started to write my own travel articles, I leaned in heavily on any writer who had been there before. Jan Morris was among them.
But it wasn’t until I hit my 40s, when I pulled back from my day-to-day journalism to write a book, that I truly appreciated her genius. Jan Morris gave us neither guidebooks, history books, nor reports but, as she later described her seminal book on Venice, “a highly subjective, romantic, impressionist picture less of a city than of an experience”. She wrote books that breathed “the spirit of delight.”
That optimism mattered to me, her compassion for the world embodied in the rhythm of her prose. She wrote so fluidly, so beautifully it’s as if she were whispering in my ear. By the time she delivered the darker realities about a world divided, she had me by the gut.
In her compendium of essays, A Writer’s World, there is a magnificent section on the 1970s. This was when she was “reaching a solution of my lifelong sexual dilemma … I was still accepting commissions from magazines, but I found my reportage and travel writing metamorphosing more and more into impressionism – perhaps because nothing in world affairs seemed to me so clearcut as it used to be.”
I urge anyone who doesn’t know her work to at least dip into these pages, to understand why Jan Morris will endure: she didn’t write self-indulgently, about the “I” in adventure. Her work was more far-ranging and searching than that. In her own words, Jan wasn’t a travel writer; she was a writer who travelled. She unshackled herself and everyone she influenced from the bounds of a genre so often relegated to something less important than other literary forms. She transcended the boundaries of every expectation.
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To limit Jan Morris to being “a travel writer” would be as reductive as making casual judgments based on her gender choices (and be something she would have equally hated). Morris was a writer who worked across many genres – history, biography, fiction and travel – and brought to all of them an infectious enthusiasm and mischievous wit.
She only wrote about subjects she really cared about, however wildly different, in a world where most publishers encourage you just to rewrite the last book you did. This could lead her down some strange and delightful byways. Who else would produce a biography of Admiral Fisher, a pivotal figure in the first world war, because she rather fancied his portrait in uniform and thought it would be fun to have “a literary affair with him in the afterlife”?
It is telling that many of her “travel books” involved no travel whatsoever other than staying in one place, whether it be Venice, Oxford or Trieste, and telling their stories; for her great strength was as a narrative historian, as her most substantial achievement, the Pax Britannica trilogy, also shows.
Her travel writing could stand with the best of the genre. Sultan in Oman, published when she was still James Morris in the 1950s and usefully reissued by Eland just a few years ago, is an intoxicating drive across that country just when oil was transforming it from a backwater. And collections like Destinations – her pieces for Rolling Stone magazine after Conundrum had made her a counter-culture heroine – show her at her most diverse, from Los Angeles, “the city of knowhow”, to the beginnings of her obsession with Trieste, which she described memorably as “a fulcrum of nothing but an extension of much more”. A phrase that could equally be applied to her own remarkable and mercurial books.
Jan’s gift to other writers, including myself, was that she always celebrated the wide variety of impulses that can make travel, gender and indeed life all satisfyingly complex.
• Hugh Thomson’s travel books include The White Rock about Peru and The Green Road into the Trees about England