It is impossible to neatly encapsulate Jan Morris’ life, nor dispel the notion that here was someone living more than one life at one and the same time. Soldier, Arabist, chronicler of the Hashemite Kings, roving reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, celebrant of kindness and marmalade, inveterate traveller and rapacious and attentive reader, all these and more.
It is difficult, too, to evaluate which of her many achievements stood out most proudly, or select the best titles from a shelf which groans under the weight of over forty volumes. In journalism her most extraordinary feat was probably getting the news of the ascent of Everest back to the Times before everyone else. This involved tearing down the mountain from Base Camp in falling light and navigating the Khumbu icefall to send a coded message that would ensure that the paper could announce ‘Everest has been climbed’ on the eve of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.
As a historian, it was certainly the magisterial Pax Brittanica trilogy, which charted the rise and fall of the British Empire from the over-reach of the East India Company to its fracturing and splintering as independent nations threw off the imperial shackles.
And as a travel writer she was simply peerless, conjuring up places she loved such as New York City, to which she wrote a besotted love letter in the form of Manhattan ’45. It was little wonder that Colin Thubron described her as ‘one of the finest and the most sympathetic writers alive.’ She brought the world alive, more fully alive to a legion of readers, even in recent years when her dispatches from Llanystumdwy and her home which she shared with her beloved Elizabeth in books were packaged as books brim-full of curiosity and zest for living. These qualities were matched by a rare, deep generosity and egalitarian regard for others.
Such was her demonstrable influence on generations of writers that I once heard another travel writer, Horatio Clare, recite the opening of Jan’s Venice that he had learned by heart:
‘At 45°14’N, 12°18’E, the navigator, sailing up the Adriatic coast of Italy, discovers an opening in the long low line of the shore: and turning westward, with the race of the tide, he enters a lagoon. Instantly the boisterous sting of the sea is lost. The water around him is shallow but opaque, the atmosphere curiously translucent, the colours pallid, and over the whole wide bowl of mudbank and water there hangs a suggestion of melacholy. It is like an albino lagoon.’
Her evocation of Venice was achieved with such sensual alertness and awareness that anyone who visited the sinking city after reading her book would genuinely believe that they had already been there, that this was their second trip.
Her writer’s voice was distinct, urbane and elegant, and always recognisable, as if she was putting herself into everything she wrote just as the artist Titian added himself to a painting. As her long-time literary agent Derek Johns put it in Ariel: A Literary Life, it was writing that was often unashamedly subjective and fashioned in a ‘distinctive prose style that is elegant, fastidious, supple, and sometimes gloriously gaudy.’
Born James Morris in Clevedon, Somerset in 1926 to an English mother and Welsh father, her life explored both heritages – but as she got older her interest in Wales, and love for the country deepened, resulting in fine considerations such as The Matter of Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country, a romantic, history-attuned travelogue in which the delight in place is infectious beyond. As she once put it: ‘Wales is where my heart is. A lost England made me. I have had more delicious pleasures in Venice.’ But perhaps her biggest journey, as she described in Conundrum, took place when with a ‘sense of sacrament and fragility’ she came to ‘identify as femaleness,’ which led to gender reassignment surgery in a clinic in Casablanca.
Her modus operandi as a travel writer was different to many others. She elegantly eschewed the hardships of some of her contemporaries such as Colin Thubron or Paul Theroux, staying in nice hotels from which she would sally forth to smile at people and pretend she was lost, thus turning simply anyone she encountered into a native guide. The resulting tomes stand on the landscape of modern travel writing as a cathedral set on the plains, be it her celebration of Oxford, where she studied in Christ Church College, or Hong Kong, or Trieste, a city she adored in great measure even as she allowed that not everyone would see it that way.
That book was enough to persuade us to visit the city on a family holiday, using it as pretty much the antithesis of a Rough Guide…, allowing ourselves to be seduced by the stylish vim of the sentences. We visited the castle of Miramar, where I’m convinced I saw her, out at sea in a little boat, cresting the cerulean waves. That sighting derives from the closing passage in the book, which encapsulates a lot of precious things:
‘As for me, when my clock moves on for the last time, the angel having returned to Heaven, the angler having packed it in for the night and gone to the pub, I shall haunt the two places that have most happily haunted me. Most of the after-time I shall be wandering with my beloved along the banks of the Dwyfor; but now and then you may find me in a boat below the walls of Miramar, watching the nightingales swarm.’