It would be hard to conceive of a life more varied or punctuated with the eventful than that of the doyenne of travel writers, Jan Morris.
At her talk for the Oxford Literary Festival yesterday Morris decried the term, however, stating that she hated to be called such. And indeed the body of work which she has created is highly varied, although much of it is necessarily infused with her knowledge of and enthusiasm for the places and people of the wider world, knowledge gained in a lifetime of professional travelling.
She is one of my favourite writers. Deeply humane and seemingly based on Chesterton’s dictum that the three most important things are to be kind, to be kind and to be kind, the writing has for me an elegiac tenor, a barely-apparent regret. This quality is present in all her work, and I have tried in vain to locate the source. The nearest I have come is to conclude that, so all-encompassing is her interest in and passion for the people she meets, places she visits, that she longs to be able to hold all of them in view and mind at once. The regret creeps in as a result of the inability to do this.
And what things to keep in mind. As James, Morris was the Times’ correspondent accompanying the Hillary/Tenzing ascent of Everest. By subterfuge he was able to break the story on the morning of Elizabeth II’s coronation – the Times gave the stories equal billing on the front page and Morris’ name was made.
A prolonged sojourn in Venice led to the book of that title, 50 years old this year, which established Morris’ reputation for getting under the skin of a place, a reputation that has been justified in books on Manhattan, Spain and Oxford itself, among many others.
The key work of the 1970s was the trilogy Pax Britannica, an examination of the British Empire during the phases of its development, zenith and senescence. During the writing of this Morris made the most dramatic journey of her life, undergoing hormone treatment and finally surgery in Morocco in order to say farewell to the James she had been born as and emerge as Jan, the woman she had known she ought to be since a moment of blinding revelation as a small child, sitting beneath the piano at home. This most momentous transformation was shared in a sane and touching account, Conundrum.
Countless articles, and many further books later, Morris was moved to write Last Letters from Hav, a spirited account of the geography, traditions and people of the state of Hav. All completely fictitious, it was followed by Hav of the Myrmidons, describing the changes wrought on this quixotic society by the Myrmidonic revolution documented in the first book.
The most valedictory of all her books is, however, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. A late work, it takes leave of travel writing and beautifully describes this half-way city, its tangled history and mingled people. The city seems almost a metaphor for Morris herself – subject to transformation, mercurial, with a rich and salty past.
Born in 1926, Morris is now an elderly woman, yet to hear her talk about some of the individuals she has encountered in a long life filled with incident was to witness someone with an undimmed delight in the folly, humour, variety and, yes, kindness exhibited by people the world over.