Dying to tell her final story

Jan Morris

Jan Morris Photo: Mike Segar

This article by Toby Clements appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 16 September 2012. Jan Morris who was both a friend and admirer of Paddy talks about her last book which will only be published after her death.

Authors usually see literary festivals as a chance to sell a few copies of their books, but Jan Morris, now 86, is at Scotland’s Wigtown Book Festival, sponsored by the Telegraph, to discuss an unusual project: her book which will be published posthumously, provisionally titled Allegorisings, though she is not sure if the word exists.

“I decided not to write another proper book after Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere [her superb 2001 evocation of the Adriatic city] because it was the book in which I think I found my true voice, and I don’t think I’ll ever write a better one.”

But what is Allegorisings going to be about? Can we anticipate any dark revelations?

“No amazing revelations. It is a little book, about everything from childhood to whistling to the exclamation mark. It stems from a conviction that’s been growing in me for quite a while, that nothing is what it seems, and that everything has one or multiple meanings.”

If it didn’t first require the author’s death, it would sound like a treat, and it will take the number of Morris’s books up to 40, almost half of which are travel-related. She is adamant they are not to be called travel books, since they do not tell a reader where to go and what to see, but are rather “travel literature”, since they describe not a city – be it Venice, New York or Oxford – but her reaction to that city, or in the case of her first book, Coast to Coast, published in 1956, a whole country, the United States. She has also written a book about Wales.

But by the mid-Fifties, long before Morris underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1972, she was famous as James Morris, who brought news from Nepal that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had climbed Mount Everest. Morris’s adventures on the mountain, including the coded message sent from an Indian army base and the perilous descent of the mountain, are brilliantly described in Coronation Everest (so called because the news reached London on the day before Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953).

By a quirk of fate, Morris’s trip to Wigtown next month will take her through the Lake District, and her return journey to North Wales, where she has lived for 60 years, coincides with the memorial service for Michael Westmacott, the mountaineer who was with Morris on that hair-raising descent in 1953, who died in June. There are only two of the original party left: Morris and the New Zealander George Lowe.

This newsgathering brilliance meant Morris was considered likely to become influential and he was awarded a Commonwealth Fellowship scholarship, which allowed him to study International Relations at Chicago for a year. He did not enjoy the course and took the car (which came with the scholarship) and drove around America, “falling in love with it”. His first book came from this, but what changed his life, and made him the writer she has since become, was Venice, published in 1960. It followed his second visit to the city, which he first saw in 1945, when he was sent by his commanding officer to help run the requisitioned motorboats in Venice.

“The city was half-empty and had a curious melancholy that I found immensely attractive. It is what keeps me coming back to certain places, like Trieste, places on the end of one thing and the beginning of another.”

This interest in melancholy and decline led Morris to start a history of the decline of the British Empire, which grew into the Pax Britannia trilogy, research for which took her all over the world – to India, for example, where she found beauty in the crumbling bungalows of long lost imperial administrators.

It was while Morris was writing these three – in the late Sixties and the Seventies – that James became Jan, and the confusions and contradictions are vividly described in Conundrum (1974) and, later, Pleasures of a Tangled Life (1989) in which she describes the legal and emotional complications that arose from her sex change, including the necessary divorce of her wife. Morris bats aside any further questions on it.

“I don’t want to talk about that,” she says. Yet it remains a fascinating situation: Morris and her ex-wife, Elizabeth, had five children together and stayed with one another after the sex change and divorce and have entered into a civil partnership. Today they live together in North Wales, where Morris has become an advocate of Welsh independence.

She has since said that the best way to get to know a place is, borrowing from Psalms, to “grin like a dog and run about the city”, and I wonder if she has applied the same technique to her own life. There has been a delightful randomness, with one thing leading to another. Perhaps it is the open-eyed manner in which Morris approaches her life that allows these chances to blossom into something more meaningful.

* Jan Morris will appear at the Wigtown Book Festival on October 3 2012 at 6pm


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