Review: Jan Morris – Life from Both Sides by Paul Clements
Like her beloved cats, Jan Morris had at least nine lives, and each one packed to the hilt. Throughout her nine-and-a-half exhilarating decades, she refused to countenance a biography, but after her death two years ago this month, the gates finally creaked open. Quite what might tumble through them is a mystery.
Not though with the first out of the traps, a handsome volume by longtime Morris scholar Paul Clements. This is careful, sifted, footnote-heavy stuff, a chronological canter through a century of an utterly captivating and outrageously blessed life.
At every turn, Morris struck lucky. All her greatest hits – Everest, Suez, Eichmann, empire, Venice, Manhattan, Conundrum, Rolling Stone, and of course Wales – are combed through with commendable rigour.
Clements leaves no research stone unturned, even eliciting from 10 Downing Street confirmation that Boris Johnson may well have helped Morris at a party in 2002 when she suffered a mini-stroke, though he can’t be quite sure (‘Spectator parties being what they are (or were) it’s quite hard to remember what happened the day after, let alone at a distance of many years’, Johnson wrote in reply to Clements).
Jan was a friend and my greatest literary inspiration, yet I still discovered so much from this work. I knew that she was schooled at Lancing College, but instead of the famous gothic campus near Brighton, I learned that her school career took place in an assortment of creaky old manor houses near Ludlow, to which Lancing was evacuated for the duration of the war.
Unsupervised time to pedal and poke around the Welsh borders was a far more fitting education for Morris Minor.
Neither did I know about her books for the World Bank and the Liberal party, the dizzying number of pre-Wales homes, or the fierce regularity with which she wrote to newspapers to contest any poor reviews of her work.
I gaped in green-eyed wonder at the freelance fees commanded in print journalism’s lavish heyday ($1500 per article from a prestige US magazine in 1962, a quarter of an average annual family income at the time), and was no less jealous of her carefree jetsetting.
Not for Morris a scintilla of doubt about any of it; this was the bright sleek future that her generation had very nearly had to fight for.
Perfect timing again: she enlisted two days before the German surrender, and was sent on peacekeeping duties to Venice, where she and another soldier had to operate the city’s motor boats and were billeted “in a vast and magnificent villa surrounded by cypress trees”. Of course.
I knew that the reactions to her gender reassignment surgery in 1972 included some pretty rough stuff, but not quite the full prurient brutality of it. It’s an infuriating read, and clarifies just why Morris was so reluctant to discuss the issue in the years to come (not that it stopped her, as one of the very few trans people in public life for decades, from helping countless people who wrote to her in desperation, or in many cases, beat a lonely path to her stone sanctuary in Llanystumdwy).
Morris herself often said that she feared no matter what she did or wrote, the small headline on her death would be ‘Sex Change Author Dies’, and at least that proved wrong, for in such a long and remarkable life, her gender identity proved to be one of the least remarkable aspects of all. On that, Clements is exemplary, his research solid, his sensitivity paramount.
Crammed full of facts, it is inevitable that some are wrong. Clements is not as sure-footed in Wales as in other of Morris’ milieux; he writes that there was a 1997 “referendum on Welsh independence”, and that the pressure group Cymuned leafleted “motorists pausing to pay their toll fees on entering Wales” (they did so on the Cob at Porthmadog).
More nebulously, there is little real feeling that he understands Morris’ Cymreictod beyond quantifiable facts and stats, something that illustrates a wider shortcoming of his book: so much information, yet not much illumination.
That perhaps is an echo of Morris herself.
“She did not want to be unmasked” said New York’s Paul Holdengräber, who’d interviewed her many times, and plenty of other contributors say much the same.
I loved her dearly, but with Jan, both up close and from afar, there was always the sense that you were being enchanted, beguiled, danced a merry whirl of words and hugely evocative sensation.
Quite what it added up to was perhaps another thing altogether, and after five hundred pages of this book, I’m not sure that you’ll be very much the wiser.
You will have learned what practically every reviewer made of each of her books; what accolades and awards came her way; which cities she visited and when; who she clashed with and why…but you will not be much closer to the sometimes difficult enigma at its heart.
There are tantalising glimpses, particularly from within her immediate family, but Clements lets them slide hurriedly by, unexamined, decontextualised, for another day, another biographer.
He has built a massive database of Jan Morris’ extraordinary life, and filled it to the brim with detail, but all too often it feels as if you have been given a long list of GPS co-ordinates, and are expected to use it to locate a rainbow.
Jan Morris: Life from Both Sides by Paul Clements is published by Scribe. It is available from all good bookshops.
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