Writer Jan Morris on reporting from Everest and changing sex
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To write any book aged 91 is noteworthy; to publish one that critics deem worth reading is remarkable. Yet halfway through our lunch, Jan Morris — the Flaubert of the jet age — casts doubt on the whole endeavour.
“Was it God who said ‘three score years and 10’? It’s in the Bible, isn’t it? That’s the right age to end,” she says seriously, over fish tacos by the Welsh seaside. “I wish in a way that I had died when I was 70 . . . Generally speaking, 70 is the age when things begin to go wrong.”
It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had lunch with someone who wanted to be elsewhere. Nor is it the first time I’ve wished I knew more of the Bible. And I accept Morris’s point: she has lived enough for several lifetimes. She is perhaps the best-travelled Briton alive.
Her dispatches have shaped our idea of what it is to go abroad, and what it is to belong. As a writer, she left out the dry detail, and gave free rein to her impressions (she rejects the term “travel writer”; her books cover places not journeys). She has found inspiration almost everywhere, from Venice to Vancouver. If old age really were a foreign country, Morris would be much fonder of it.
There was an earlier career, too: as a soldier in the last days of the second world war, and as a journalist for The Times and The Guardian. It was Morris who accompanied Hillary and Norgay to Everest in 1953, and who secreted news of their success back to London. (Privately she was depressed by “the blankness of the achievement”.) It was she, too, who exposed French involvement in the invasion of Suez three years later.
Then, of course, there’s the other reason that Morris stands out: her sex change. Until 1972, she was James, married and father to five children. But she had known by the age of four that she was in “the wrong body”, and, at the age of 45, an operation in Casablanca put her right. She wrote about it in her book Conundrum, relevant again today in the battle for transgender rights.
Morris’s transition was like Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out: it magnified her fame. No such pretext should have been required. As her fellow writer Paul Theroux said: “You can take what she says to the bank.” He was right, with one exception. In 2001 Morris promised that she had written her last book. This year, however, she published another — perhaps her 46th, although everyone has lost count — Battleship Yamato, a short tale about the sinking of the world’s largest battleship. Yamato steamed out magnificently in April 1945 to fight a war that was already lost, against American aircraft she could never defeat; her crew of 2,278 went down with her. To Morris, it represents “the end of the battleship era”, “perhaps even the end of the imperial idea itself”. “The point of the book is to show the irony of war,” she says.
In her books on Venice, Oxford, the British empire and now Yamato, she has been an observer of what happens after the heyday. Now the melancholy is personal. She arrives at the restaurant walking hesitantly; her voice falters, too. But she is determined to keep herself lively. Soon after her gloomy words on things going wrong, she changes her tune and starts mocking the prospect of state-imposed euthanasia for anyone turning 70: “Happy birthday! Ave! Farewell!”
To have lunch with Jan Morris in 2018 is to understand the challenge of enjoying one’s own decline.
We are meeting in Criccieth, north-west Wales, where Snowdonia meets the sea. Morris has chosen Dylan’s, a fish restaurant overlooking the beach. I’d asked for a quiet table, and been educated: “We don’t have any quiet tables.” They genially show us to a loud one.
“Can I have a glass of the house white?” Morris says when the waitress reappears. She tells me that the “best thing” is the mussels, but refuses to order them, because she worries she will embarrass herself by drinking the sauce. This is no place for vegetarians, and I review the list of 20 fish options plus a Thai vegetable curry. “Do try the mussels,” says the guest. If she managed four decades as a man, I can probably do an extra day as a fish-eater.
Morris, whose father was Welsh, has adopted the country wholesale. She has even learnt the Welsh language, although she describes her level as “pidgin”. The buildings help: in Criccieth, the architecture spans from medieval to postwar, “which I enjoy very much”.
Most importantly, the Welsh are “lovely people”, although she has also described them as lacking dynamism. When I point out that she admires Americans for their whizz, she laughs: “You can be fond of opposites, can’t you?”
She and her partner Elizabeth used to live in an old manor house in the hills; with age, they have downgraded to a converted stable. Morris spends her days in her study coming across books that she has forgotten she owned. She still races round in a battered Honda.
“Plenty of people do, don’t they? I don’t know — I don’t know many people of my age.”
Her mother was a pianist, and Morris was not born to great fortunes. So what made her outsized life possible? “My chief fault is an utter self-centredness,” she says. “It hasn’t always been good. Luckily the children have forgiven me generally, but not always.”
She used to sit at her typewriter even on Christmas Day; one of her sons, Twm, recently confessed to having wished she would come downstairs. “That is a true fault, and I’m ashamed of it, and I admit it to you. That’s the key to it all: you’re utterly self-centred, you’ve got time to do all sorts of things like writing books and having [imaginary] affairs with dead admirals.”
So she wasn’t doing much childcare? “Three-quarters of the time I was abroad wandering around, having a marvellous time. Twm says that, although he admits at times he resented it, he admired it, too — wishes he could do the same. Who wouldn’t?” Her body is fragile, but her confidence is not. “I don’t want to sound complacent, but I have had a marvellous life.”
The waitress comes to take our order. “I’ve forgotten,” Morris says, and I remind her she wanted the crispy sea bass tacos.
Earlier travel writers tended to be explorers such as Wilfred Thesiger. Morris rejected his philosophy, which she summarises as “nothing modern was good”. “I thought it was perfectly preposterous. I was quite certain he would go to a doctor if he were very ill.”
Her own outlook is eclectic. She is broadly proud of Britain’s empire, the subject of her three-volume history Pax Britannica. (“I met so many people who devoted their lives to it without any thought of being bosses or racists or anything.”) But she is also an enthusiast for modernity. Cruise ships in Venice? “The doges would have loved them! Showy, moneymaking, marvellous engineering!” Double-decker tourist buses? She often took them: “For an introduction to the city, what could be better than that? Don’t be stuck up about it.”
For Thesiger, the prospect of space travel could not have been less appealing. For Morris, the opposite. Indeed, after partially scaling Everest, she expected Nasa to call on her to perform a similar role for the space expeditions. “I thought I was the obvious person to go.” Reality quickly struck.
For these reasons, and because she loves fast cars, Morris is fixated on Elon Musk, the SpaceX founder who wants to colonise Mars. “He’s the most interesting man alive, I think,” she says. “What’s his background? . . . He’s got a family? . . . He also hasn’t joined the celebrity circuit, has he?”
The food has arrived, and Morris wrestles to contain the fish and avocado in a flour tortilla. After her sex change, she noted that waitresses started mothering her, and sure enough an extra plate has been fetched. Meanwhile I am rediscovering that mussels can have a mysterious crunch.
Morris says she has written “solid books” about only five cities: Trieste, Oxford, New York, Hong Kong, and Venice; the rest of her work she dismisses as “flibbertigibbets”.
Her talent is to give places personalities, to generalise about their attributes. Trieste had “the flavour of true civility”. Oxford was “almost a civilisation”, where there was no norm and where no one was entirely wrong; Manhattan was a surprisingly “human city, where personal aspirations, for better or worse, unexpectedly take priority”.
But her finest observations were perhaps about Venice. “She fitted into no convenient category of nations. She was the lion who walked by herself,” Morris wrote of the city in 1960, appearing to recognise a kindred spirit. Venice was no longer the meeting point of east and west by then, but “she only awaits a summons”. Venetians, meanwhile, were provincial, curious, meditative.
I ask how this fondness for generalisation fits with Morris’s own unique story. “Don’t understand the question.” Well, what I mean is, if we see the world through generalisations, we would never conceive of an individual story like her own.
“I know what you are, poor fellow, worrying your way around, and that is the matter of sex.” I protest, but we both know that on the notepad in front of me are the words sex change in capital letters. “Don’t worry, I’m armed,” Morris says.
Did it change your writing? “Not in the slightest. It changed me far less than I thought it had.” What became of her surgeon in Casablanca? “I think he died, but I’m not sure.” Did you stay in touch? “No.” (Dr Georges Burou drowned in Morocco in 1987.) Did the sex change overshadow your books? “It did at the beginning, of course . . . But it’s faded now.” Does she consider whether she would have achieved more as a man? “No.” Her account does not always match up with what she wrote in Conundrum in 1974, but why should it?
There are no regrets, but it strikes me that Morris is without a cheerleader. In her own words, she is “always an outsider”, a “loner”. She is not part of any literary set, and during our conversation barely mentions any friends outside of this corner of Wales. She is a pioneer with little interest in the following pack. Why hasn’t she been made a dame? “They’ve given me a CBE [in 1999]. I consulted Plaid Cymru [the Welsh nationalist party of which she is a member] before I accepted it. They said, ‘Go ahead — it wasn’t for you, it was for Wales.’ ”
I push aside my plate, and vow not to eat mussels again. “That’s the stage where I would pick up the bowl and drink out of it,” says Morris, smiling.
These days travel has become “very laborious”, but “if someone rang and said, ‘Would you like to come over to Manhattan to take in some function?’, I’d go.” Is there anywhere that she regrets not visiting? “Oh, Lhasa,” she exhales immediately. “I always said I’d never go until the Dalai Lama went back.”
Even at a distance, she retains her grasp on the world. “The one thing people felt about Brexit was too many bloody foreigners coming in and changing the country. And it’s impossible not to feel some sympathy for them, isn’t it? Let’s be honest with ourselves.”
She is hopeful that the Welsh are generous enough to integrate newcomers, as they have in the past. “I know that’s a rash generalisation, but I believe it to be true.” She pauses. “Of course there are shits as well.” Yet Morris’s books assumed that places determined people’s identity; perhaps, the more people migrate, the less true that link is. “I agree,” she says.
Morris orders a flat white. Once the waitress has left, Morris turns to me, with an alarmed expression: “Excuse me, I don’t know what a flat white is.” Ah, I think, she’s not as with it as she seems. Do you want me to cancel, I begin. “No,” she interrupts. “I love it but I don’t know what it is.” I confess that I don’t know what a flat white is, either.
We stray back on to the sex change. “I think of myself as both.” Both what? “Both man and woman. Or a mixture of both . . . I thought I was going to be distinctly on one side. I realise now, not so. I’m both.”
Feminists, notably Germaine Greer, criticised her for simplifying gender traits — for assuming that men were obsessed with sex and power, and women were emotional “saints”. “Yes, and I think I did [simplify] to begin with. But I have different feelings about it now.” Why? “Dunno. I matured, I suppose.”
Morris has just passed the point where she has spent more time in a woman’s body than a man’s. She is truly two of a kind. “Looking back on my life, of course I had this feeling that I was in the wrong sex and I had to get out of it. But it didn’t occur to me then that the ultimate object might be to be both. And the next object is to be neither.”
Ah, yes — that’s what people talk about now, a world beyond gender roles. “I was thinking of death,” she laughs. “Not many stages in between now, are there? Only the withdrawal of my driving licence.” She is ready for the day: she’s even written a book on allegories, to be published posthumously. Why not until then? “I don’t really know,” she says. “We’re stuck with it now.”
We continue, talking of whether Britain can afford two aircraft carriers, how she turned down the chance to be a TV presenter, and how she wanted to found a society for kindness, “a sort of political party”. “I think kindness is the answer to all our problems,” she says. “Is Mr Musk kind?”
Eventually, I order the bill and a taxi. Morris relaxes. “I have to admit that I enjoyed our session,” she says. “I was dreading it.” Dreading what? “You. What I was really dreading was you’d get around to this bloody business of sex change as the centrepoint of our conversation. Which it didn’t become, did it?”
But she wrote that the change was the climax of her life. “It was then, wasn’t it — of course. That was 50 years ago.” Finally I realise. Age sometimes wearies Jan Morris, but it also puts her most extraordinary life in the context it deserves. Longevity does have its consolations.
Henry Mance is an FT political correspondent
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