Tag Archives: Jan Morris

Travel Writing World podcasts

Eric Newby on the trip that would make him famous: a climb up Mir Samir in Afghanistan in 1956. Credit...Hugh Carless/Press Association, via Associated Press

Eric Newby on the trip that would make him famous: a climb up Mir Samir in Afghanistan in 1956.
Credit…Hugh Carless/Press Association, via Associated Press

I was recently directed to this excellent site following a mention in the Eland Books newsletter. Travel Writing World is an award-winning podcast and website featuring interviews with travel writers, book reviews, author profiles, and resources for travel writers and their readers.

To date I have enjoyed a discussion about Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, and Peter Fiennes, former publisher at Time Out, talking about his 2020 publication Footnotes: A Journey Round Britain in the Company of Great Writers.

There are no discussions (yet) about Patrick Leigh Fermor, but I am looking forward to listening to Colin Thubron talk about the recent death of his friend Jan Morris, travel writing in general, and the tenth anniversary of his book To A Mountain in Tibet. An excellent group was assembled to remember Bruce Chatwin on what would have been his 80th birthday.

I hope that you enjoy listening to an episode or two.

Visit Travel Writing World


Obituary: Jan Morris, a poet of time, place and self

Jan Morris, who has died aged 94

One of the true greats of travel writing and journalism, Jan Morris, has died. She is also known as a pioneer, changing her gender whilst maintaining her relationship with her partner Elizabeth for over 70 years.

First published on BBC News 21 NOvember 2020.

Jan Morris, who has died at the age of 94, was one the finest writers the UK has produced in the post-war era.

Her life story was crammed with romance, discovery and adventure. She was a soldier, an award-winning journalist, a novelist and – as a travel writer – became a poet of time and place.

She was also known as a pioneer in her personal life, as one of the first high-profile figures to change gender.

Born 2 October 1926 in Somerset, it was while sitting under the family’s piano – at the age of three or four – that Morris made a decision. Feeling “wrongly equipped” as a boy, there was only one conclusion. Morris should have been a girl.

Morris attended Lancing College in West Sussex and then the cathedral choir school at Christ Church in Oxford, attending lessons in gorgeous “fluttering white gowns”. “Oxford made me,” she later wrote.

The heady mixture of High Anglican ceremony and the city’s architectural majesty sensitised Morris to an aesthetic that was to influence her as both a writer and a human being.

As a teenager, training as a newspaper reporter in Bristol involved interviewing the victims of bombing raids at the height of the Second World War.

Morris tried to join the Navy but was ruled out by colour-blindness, instead joining the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers.

A spell at Sandhurst was followed by a posting as an intelligence officer that led to stints in Italy and Palestine by way of two more cities that came to be inspirations: Venice and Trieste.

Demobbed in 1949, Morris returned to Christ Church to read English, and seized the opportunity of a 12-month fellowship at the University of Chicago to visit every state of the union.

The result was a first book, Coast to Coast. “I love the idea of America,” she later wrote. “It has let itself down very badly since in many ways, but that doesn’t mean to say I don’t admire and love the core values.”

In the same year, Morris married Elizabeth Tuckniss, the daughter of a tea planter. It was, they both recalled, love at first sight – and a partnership that would produce five children and last for 70 years.

Everest scoop

Upon graduating, Morris indulged a fascination with the Arab world by taking a job at a news agency in Cairo. That experience eventually led to a job at the Times.

In 1953, Morris brought the newspaper a world exclusive, travelling with Edmund Hillary as far as the base camp on Everest to witness the historic attempt on the summit.

Morris greets Edmund Hillary on his return from the summit of Mount Everest

It was a physically arduous assignment. “I was no climber, was not particularly interested in mountaineering. I was there merely as a reporter.”

When Hillary and Tenzing Norgay returned in triumph, The Times had exclusive access to the expedition – but the reporter was terrified that someone else might break the news first.

Morris sent a coded message from a telegraph station: “Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement.” Back in the newsroom, they knew what it meant.

The news was famously splashed on the day of the Queen’s coronation. The world’s highest mountain had been conquered and a new Elizabethan age had begun.

Suez shockwaves

In 1956, Morris left the Times – unable to support the newspaper’s editorial line in the Suez crisis. After joining the Manchester Guardian, as it was still called, the journalist set out to witness the looming conflict first-hand.

The reports Morris sent from the Suez crisis caused great difficulty for the British government. Allegations that Britain and France had secretly persuaded Israel to launch an invasion of Egypt had been hotly denied by all three countries. Morris discovered evidence that this was a pack of lies designed to give the two European powers an excuse to intervene and re-take the all-important canal.

Morris witnessed the fighting in the Negev desert and canal zone before flying to Cyprus to file a dispatch and escape Israeli censorship. While waiting for a flight, the writer struck up conversation with French pilots who said they had played a pivotal role in the attack.

“They told me quite frankly that they had been in action in support of the Israelis during the Negev fighting and had used napalm,” Morris later recalled. British pilots, they claimed, had also been involved.

The Manchester Guardian went with his story. It sent shockwaves through the British establishment and shamed both nations into withdrawing their forces. It was an incendiary revelation that caused huge embarrassment to Prime Minister Anthony Eden. A few months later, he resigned.

A writer who travels

In the 1960s, Morris left journalism, preferring to be simply known as a “writer who travels” rather than a “travel writer”.

Morris wrote about places that were inspirational – Oxford, Venice, Spain and the Arab world – with the dream of capturing the history, style, spirit and challenges facing every major city in the world.

Most dear of all was the trilogy on the history of the British Empire: Pax Britannica. Morris described it as “the intellectual and artistic centre-piece of my life”. Later, the author would reject the suggestion of being too kind to this period of history.

“There was a whole generation of very decent people, many of whom were genuinely devoted to the welfare of their subject peoples,” she later said. However, she conceded, the end was a mess.

In the same year, Morris began taking female hormones in the first stage of the life-long ambition to become a woman. Elizabeth, who had always known of her husband’s conviction, was supportive.

Morris had a high public profile and the publicity that surrounded her decision was stressful. As same-sex marriages were not then possible, they were required to get divorced. But as a family, they stayed together and remained tight-knit.

Jan Morris was legally required to divorce her wife, Elizabeth, but the couple remained together. Morris wrote about the process in her worldwide bestseller Conundrum – published in 1974. It describes the clinic in Casablanca where she had surgery and her subsequent adjustment to life as a woman with a female partner. She was generous to those who found it awkward and “the kindly incomprehension of sailors and old ladies”.

She was forced to ignore warnings from doctors that the procedure could change her personality and even affect her ability to write. The book was the first to be published under the name Jan. There was a sense in which all that travelling was a symptom of forces beyond her control. It was “an outer expression of my inner journey”.

The couple moved to a remote corner of north-west Wales. Jan embraced her father’s Welsh identity – becoming a convinced nationalist – and continued to write. Her output was prodigious. In all, she wrote more than 40 books – so many that she was often a little hazy about the exact number.

There were works on places she had visited, essays, memoirs and some well-received novels. One work remains unpublished because she did not want it made public until she died. “It’s at the publisher’s waiting for me to kick the bucket,” she breezily told one reporter.

On Oxford – the first city to inspire her – she wrote: “The island character of England is waning as the wider civilization of the West takes over. Soon it will survive only in the history books: but we are not too late, and Oxford stands there still to remind us of its faults and virtues – courageous, arrogant, generous, ornate, pungent, smug and funny.”

And on Venice – perhaps her most celebrated work – she recalled the “smell of her mud, incense, fish, age, filth and velvet” and predicted that “wherever you go in life you will feel somewhere over your shoulder, a pink castellated, shimmering presence, the domes and riggings and crooked pinnacles”.

Her biographer and agent, Derek Johns, described what he thought made her writing so distinctive. “She involves the reader,” he wrote, “while she remains unobtrusively present herself; who uses the particular to illustrate the general, and scatters grace notes here and there like benefactions. She is a watcher, usually alone, seldom lonely, alert to everything around her.”

In 2018 – by now in her tenth decade – Jan Morris published In My Mind’s Eye, a personal work collecting the musings of her everyday life.

The world had become kinder to people who had changed their sex, she told one journalist. Kindness and marmalade were her two essentials in life.

She was still living with Elizabeth – with whom she had entered a civil partnership – although the “subtle demon of our time, dementia, is coming between us”, she wrote.

As far as death was concerned, though, they had prepared for it. As a writer, Jan had chosen the words for their eventual headstone with some care. “Here are two friends,” it will say, “at the end of one life.”

Listen to Jan Morris discuss her classic travel book Venice on BBC Sounds.

Jan Morris review of Nick Hunt’s Where the Wild Winds Are

Nick Hunt reads from his new book at the launch at Stanford’s bookshop, London on 6 September 2017

Jan Morris’ review of Nick’s new book, Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to ProvenceFirst published in The Literary Review. She is effusive in her praise, concluding …

Hunt’s own summing-up of the whole venture expresses it better than I can, anyway. He says that he and his senses have been washed, scoured, scrubbed, frozen, heated, pummelled, pounded, downcast, uplifted and animated by the Winds.

And so, in a way, have mine, by reading his book.

This extraordinary work is a prime example of that contemporary genre, the ex-travel book. Travel writing as such being a bit obsolete now, since so many readers have been everywhere, the form has evolved into something more interpretative or philosophical. Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence is a work of this sort – a thoughtful (and perhaps rather too protracted) relation of a journey on foot across half of Europe – and it contains much admirable descriptive writing of the old sort. It is also, however, something far more interesting than most such enterprises: it describes an expedition into the Winds!

The Winds? Yes, four European winds, sometimes with a capital W, sometimes not, into which, one by one, Nick Hunt goes. He wants to experience and explore them all. Each is rich in history, myth, folklore, superstition and effect. Many of us have travelled across Europe, but as far as I know nobody has hitherto so deliberately explored the kingdoms of the great winds. Scientists, geographers, glider pilots, artists, poets and theologians have investigated and commemorated them, but travel writers never before. Hunt immerses himself in those Windlands and manages to give his readers a blast, a sigh, a shiver of each.

He chooses four named winds out of dozens, four being a geographical sort of number. His first and smallest wind, one I have never heard of before, blows across a northwestern corner of England. It is called Helm, and its headquarters, it seems, is a desolate plateau called Cross Fell in a particularly uninviting stretch of the Pennines. Helm is the only named wind blowing across Britain. It sounds perfectly awful and its reputation is frightful: it howled for fifteen days in 1843, it demolished a castle tower once, everybody complains about its psychological and temperamental effects and for centuries the countryside it rules was plagued by vendettas, pillagings, rapes, cattle-rustlings and murders. Hunt relates an awful curse that a 16th-century archbishop cast upon the place: it ran to more than a thousand words and finally declared that the souls of the local miscreants should be condemned to the deepest pit of hell, their bodies to be torn apart by dogs, swine and wild beasts.

Of course Hunt does not blame Helm for all this, but the wind does seem to have a baleful influence upon people, even now. He never experienced it for himself, diligently though he tried, tramping the high fells in search of it and miserably camping out, but his description of the experience is sufficiently vivid. It seems to me that the whole of Helmland is blown through with scoundrels and demons.

Less baleful, thank goodness, seems the influence of Foehn, which the novelist Hermann Hesse once described as the south announcing news of spring to the snowbound north. It is a warm wind (katabatic, Hunt helpfully explains, meaning that it blows downslope, not anabatically), and although it is said to cause migraines and depressions, it is also associated with clear skies and warmth. It sounds an ambiguous sort of wind. Our author starts his walk through its realm in Zurich in late March. He hopes to catch the wind doing what Hesse said it did, and he gives us some classic travel-book stuff on the way (‘flocks of sheep clanged their bells in a satisfyingly Alpine way’). When he gets to Liechtenstein he finds an entire exhibition devoted to Foehn. ‘We say’, announce its curators fondly, ‘that Foehn is the Oldest Man of Liechtenstein.’ This lively exhibition seems to reveal a different sort of attitude to the wind from anything Helm inspires in the bitter Pennines – more considerate, more affectionate perhaps. As Hunt walks on, though, he finds that while his front is growing warmer, his back is getting cold, and I take that to demonstrate that Foehn is a two-faced sort of wind.

It apparently is responsible for an illness of its own – Föhnkrankheit (‘Foehn-sickness’). Citizens complain of wind-induced depressions, anxieties and headaches. Farm animals grow fretful when Foehn blows and schoolchildren become uncontrollable. Hunt saw for himself a horse ‘excitedly’ performing ‘a small dance in its field’, and took this to mean that Foehn was on its way. When he told one elderly citizen that he was hoping to experience the wind for himself, the old boy scowled, tapped out his pipe on his trouser leg and simply said schlecht (‘bad’).

When our author did at last encounter Foehn in person, as it were, sure enough it was an ambiguous fulfilment. The energy of its gusts was evidently thrilling: ‘Now that I had found the wind, I had to follow it.’ But with Foehn, he says, came a powerful sensation: ‘Melodrama was everywhere: in the lake, the trees, the grass, the birds, the mountains, the sky, the light.’ He was, he says, ‘worn ragged from the struggle … I had come a long way to find the wind, but now for the first time … I had the strong sensation of wanting it to stop.’

Ah, but Hunt’s fourth wind (I will get to the third one later) is the Mistral, and we all know that one. The very name whispers holiday, art and the warm south. Van Gogh, Hunt tells us, painted his Summer Evening specifically because the Mistral was blowing through the Midi that day. ‘Aren’t we seeking intensity of thought’, Van Gogh asked a friend, ‘rather than tranquillity of touch?’ Intensity is evidently a hallmark of the Mistral. Both the French and the Spanish have warships named after it. Van Gogh himself, of course, eventually went mad.

Hunt knew all about the Mistral when he began his exploratory walk at Valence, where the wind is popularly supposed to start, and he had no difficulty in finding it for himself. It hit him in the face the moment he went out, and all around him, he tells us, passers-by ‘walked at forty-five-degree stoops, their hair-styles heading south’. Was this indeed the Mistral? he asked one of them. The reply was definitive: ‘Oui … This is the place with the most wind in France.’

He need not have asked. Throughout his stay in Provence, the Mistral was boisterously and proudly with him, and everyone talked about it. It used to be called ‘the idiot wind’, he learned. In the town of Orange in 2004 it blew for sixteen days without stopping, and it regularly blows there for one in three days throughout the year. ‘It makes us nervous – angry, even. Yes, it makes us angry! He enjoys this! He likes the passion! Me, I hate it.’ It had lately changed its blowing patterns, some said, while others suggested that in the law courts judges sentence more leniently if the Mistral is blowing hard.

One connecting theme of Hunt’s book is the subject of madness and its supposed links with particular winds. Van Gogh spent a year at Arles in Provence and painted two hundred pictures there – scenes all distinguished, Hunt suggests, by ‘the restlessness of the air’. Van Gogh himself called the Mistral merciless and wicked, but he loved the clear light of it, and it was not in Mistral country but in northern France where in the end he shot himself.

Nick Hunt reads from his new book at the launch at Stanford’s bookshop, London on 6 September 2017

I have left to the end Hunt’s second Wind, the Bora, because it is the one I have personally experienced, and because it seems to me the one most dramatically associated with a particular city. The Bora is a terrific climactic phenomenon that periodically storms down the mountainous coastline of the Adriatic and bursts through gaps in the highlands to fall upon places on the coast. Hunt calls it the ‘enfant terrible of the Adriatic’, and at its worst it can reach hurricane strength.

The Bora is intimately associated with Trieste, a city of tangled nationality, mingled fortunes and pungent character. I have known the place myself for seventy years and have written about it often, but until Hunt’s book reached me I had never heard of the Bora Museum, which is in a back street near the docks and contains 150 bottled winds from the four corners of the world.
Trieste and the Bora have become almost synonymous and they are proud of each other.

Everyone in the city has tales to tell of the wild and boisterous Bora, its rolling over of trams, its stripping of roofs and all its extravagant goings-on – such a contrast from the sometimes melancholy suggestiveness of the city itself. The Bora is fundamental to the self-image of Trieste. There is a street named in honour of it, artists repeatedly celebrate it, you can buy comic postcards of it and local historians like to claim that a nearby battle fought under its influence in AD 394 led directly to the fall of the Roman Empire. I forget exactly why.

I can myself testify that the Bora has the usual deleterious wind effects, including odd sensations of desolation or enervation. Nevertheless, after finishing this fascinating work, it seemed to me that the Bora is the happiest and jolliest of all Hunt’s Winds, the only one, perhaps, with a sense of humour.

Where the Wild Winds Are is full to the brim with learning, entertainment, description, scientific fact and conjectural fiction. It is travel writing in excelsis, and if I have judged it to be too long, that is perhaps because I have had enough of the genre itself. Hunt’s own summing-up of the whole venture expresses it better than I can, anyway. He says that he and his senses have been washed, scoured, scrubbed, frozen, heated, pummelled, pounded, downcast, uplifted and animated by the Winds.

And so, in a way, have mine, by reading his book.

Buy Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence
By Nick Hunt
Nicholas Brearley Publishing 258pp

Jan Morris – Travels Round My House

Jan Morris and members of the 1953 Everest team

Jan Morris and members of the 1953 Everest team

Jan Morris knows a good story when she sees one, and she is one too. A gravestone under the stairs; a posthumous book written and printed; over 60 books – history, biography and novels under her belt; Jan Morris has lived and written as a man, as a woman, and believes one day she may transcend both conditions. In this BBC Radio 3 Sunday Feature we hear Jan interviewed and can listen to readings from her books.

As the 60th anniversary of Hillary and Tenzing’s conquering of Everest approaches, writer and critic Anthony Sattin visits the Welsh home of Jan Morris and gets an exclusive peek into the scrap books and mementoes from that great Imperial adventure – part of the sketches and the relics of a lifetime’s travel.

Morris recalls the scoop that made her reputation; joining the successful Everest expedition of 1953, and, against extraordinary odds, reporting the successful ascent back to The Times of London, in code, and in perfect timing – the news reached London to be announced on the morning of the Coronation.

To ferry the news back to London she employed two runners who actually ran all the way from her wind-battered tent at the foot of Everest, 180 miles to Kathmandu and back; avoiding the clutches of Daily Mail journalists, eager to steal the story.

A committed Welsh Nationalist Republican – though not actively involved in burning things down or blowing them up – Morris tells of early years in Wales, hobnobbing with more active nationalists, and of her infatuation with things as diverse as Manhattan and her recently deceased cat Ibsen. She also discusses the ‘ten confused years’ during which she undertook gender reassignment, and the approach of mortality – hence the gravestone under the stairs.

Fellow writers Pico Iyer and Sara Wheeler, both talk of the inspiration she has provided over the years.

And for Jan, the last word, “It was all in aid of fun”.

Presenter: Anthony Sattin
Reader: Eleanor Bron
Producer: Sara Jane Hall

Listen to the programme by clicking on the picture below of Mount Everest.


Jan Morris’ review of An Adventure

Patrick Leigh Fermor on horseback at Baleni, Moldavia

‘He is justly commemorated in this magnificent biography, and will surely be remembered for ever as one of the best of men.’

By Jan Morris.

First published in the Telegraph, 6 November 2012.

Happy the hero who, after a lifetime of glorious achievement, in death finds a biographer worthy of his memory. Patrick Leigh Fermor, “Paddy” to all his acquaintances and half his readers, died last year to a plethora of obituaries, and his life has been so widely celebrated in print, in film and in legend that the task of writing another 400 pages about him would seem, as he might himself say, Sisyphean. Artemis Cooper, however, rolls the immense boulder with an apparently effortless grace, and makes this marvellous book less a mere life story than an evocation.

The life itself hardly needs retelling. The rapscallion school years, the wonderful adolescent walk across Europe, the derring-do in wartime Crete, when Leigh Fermor was responsible for the kidnapping of a German general, the books that established him as one of the great prose writers of the 20th century, the profound explorations of things Grecian and Byzantine, the illumination of everything by tremendous gifts of scholarship and linguistics – all this is almost too familiar.

But Cooper makes it all seem new. She knew Paddy well herself, she has travelled almost everywhere he travelled, and she has had access to unpublished diaries and innumerable informants. More to my point, she has immersed herself in the minutiae of Leigh Fermor’s character, so that the epic figure of his reputation becomes not clearer, but more convincingly blurred.

In no way does she diminish his renown, but she humanises it. Of course he could sing folk-songs in eight languages, and translate PG Wodehouse into Greek, and swim the Hellespont in his 70th year, and mingle as easily with dukes as with layabouts, and extemporise sonnets, and design his own house, and discuss the most obtuse points of theological dogma or historical theory and write lyrical extravaganzas in a manner that was majestically his own.

Dear God, we knew all that! Did we realise, though, that Paddy smoked at least 50 cigarettes every day for half his life, and for much of it was more or less penniless? Does it surprise us to observe Joan Rayner, later to be his wife, slipping him a few banknotes at the table in case he needs a girl after dinner? We surely would not have expected Somerset Maugham to define him as “a middle-class gigolo for upper-class women”; on the other hand we might be mildly taken aback to learn that in his old age he was simultaneously a member of four London clubs – White’s, Pratt’s, the Beefsteak and the Travellers.

It is no surprise, though, to be told what terrific fun Paddy was. For myself, with a slight distaste for raconteurs and virtuoso conversationalists, I feel I might have been rather overwhelmed by the torrential exuberance of his company, but a vast company of his acquaintances revelled in it, and his friendships were lifelong. Even General Kreipe, the man he kidnapped, was reconciled to him, and a violently vindictive Cretan whose son Paddy had accidentally killed forgave him in the end. Almost at the moment of his own death, Leigh Fermor touchingly wrote in the book he was reading: “Love to all and kindness to all friends, and thank you for a life of great happiness”.

His days were full of astonishments, but I find myself most amazed, as I read this record of his 10 decades, by the truly prodigious energy that pervades its every chapter. His social life, pursued among all classes of society (but mostly, one must concede, among cultivated toffs), was unflagging. His instinct for travel kept him constantly on the move, from boyhood to old age – tirelessly exploring new places and revisiting old haunts, and absolutely never, it seems, either daunted or bored. For years he never learnt to use a typewriter, writing everything in a longhand whose endless crossings-out and juxtapositions were the despair of his publisher, “Jock” Murray: but once he had mastered the machine he could play his prose upon it, so he once reported, in “mad obbligato”.

There seems an element of frenzy to all this. There are few passages of calm in this book, few moments of inner contemplation. As I read about its incessant goings-on I am sometimes haunted by the feeling that they shelter a quieter soul. We hear little about religious convictions in his life, but one of his lesser books concerns three separate sojourns in monasteries, he wrote thoughtfully about his experiences on Mount Athos and he was intensely interested in the varied mysteries of sacred thought. That smashing obbligato passage was played in order to get rid of unwanted visitors; inveterate socialiser that he was, and a cheerful lesser sinner (wine, women and the occasional fib), perhaps just now and then he pined to be alone with one god or another.

He was a good, kind sort of hero anyway, and his life did end on a gentler note, spent largely with his beloved Joan in the house they had built beside the sea in the southern Peloponnese. When she died he divided his time, as was only proper, between Greece and England, and gradually his splendid body failed him. He lost part of his sight, part of his hearing, and in his 96th year he went to his rest beside his wife in Worcestershire.

He is justly commemorated in this magnificent biography, and will surely be remembered for ever as one of the very best of men.

A scanned copy of the review Jan Morris wrote for the Telegraph culture published on 4 November 2012 is below.

Jan Morris review 041112

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

Immrama Lismore 2012 – The Legacy and Influence of Patrick Leigh Fermor on Travel Writing

It may not be quite time for a summer holiday, but next week a trip to Lismore, in Co Waterford, will at least enable visitors to travel the world vicariously. From Thursday until tomorrow week, Immrama, the annual festival of travel writing, will be celebrating its 10th birthday with a mix of talks, panel discussions, workshops, walks, children’s events and the launch of an anthology of essays by travel writers who have participated in the first decade of the festival.

Among the guest speakers will be Colin Thubron, who will talk about his experiences in China; Tony Wheeler, a founder of the Lonely Planet guidebook series; and Mary Russell, who has travelled extensively in Syria and hopes to provide some insights into the crisis there.

The main event on Friday, at 8pm in the Courthouse Theatre, will be a panel discussion on the legacy and influence of the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, with a line-up consisting of Thubron, Wheeler, Jan Morris and Artemis Cooper, who is writing a biography of Leigh Fermor.

Click here for the programme.

Travel writing: Lost art in search of a lost world

Few authors have been able to equal Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ability to dissolve into the places described in his books.

Editorial, first published in The Guardian 18 June 2011

“I hate the French cookery, and abominate garlick,” Tobias Smollett told his readers 245 years ago, with a snooty disregard for foreigners that runs through too much travel writing today. Describing distant places fairly, curiously and entertainingly has never been easy. Few authors, in any century, have been able to equal Patrick Leigh Fermor’s liquid ability to dissolve into the places described in his books, so that he seemed to be less reporting on than living in them. His death this month, at 96, with the third of his great trilogy of prewar European exploration still unpublished, is a moment to ask what travel writing can still achieve.

Leigh Fermor was lucky, in that he walked through an archaic and aristocratic eastern Europe soon to be obliterated by the second world war. His two greatest books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, take readers into a time and place that can never exist again, and that, as much as his pitch-perfect writing, is why they are among those few books worth reading many times.

Few of today’s writers have this advantage. They must describe a world in which it is easier to communicate, and travel, than ever before. No teenager setting off from Tower Bridge now would find themselves amid ballgowns, hunting parties and lonely mountaintop shepherds. Facebook and text messaging have brought Bucharest and Birmingham closer. Describing difference has been made harder.

Leigh Fermor was one of the last of the great travel writers whose experience spanned the previous century. A varied assortment, mostly men, wrote books that still stand as classics today: among them Eric Newby, Norman Lewis and Wilfred Thesiger. Jan Morris, still writing, deserves to be among them. Two decades ago, a fresh crop of authors revived the art but then fell victim to their own celebrity, Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux included.

Where does travel writing stand now? There are fewer famous authors and fewer sales. Some of the best books involve almost no travel at all: Roger Deakin’s account of wild swimming in Britain, Waterlog, or Neil Ansell’s lovely Deep Country, about the birds and landscape of mid-Wales. William Dalrymple remains an explorer in the classical sense: in From the Holy Mountain he shows Byzantium is not quite destroyed. William Blacker’s Along the Enchanted Way, about eight years living in rural Romania, is the closest modern writing has come to Leigh-Fermor, and not only because the Gypsy and Saxon life he shares is almost gone.

Always, the attraction is the slow pace. There is no need for hurry, no requirement for horror, just immersion in a place and time that is different, even when it is not far from our own.

A personal tribute by Jan Morris: A war hero and a travel writer of grace, Paddy was the ideal English scholar

Patrick Leigh Fermor, who has died aged 96, was one of ‘God’s intimate loners’. Quirkily bold and full of fun, he reflected the easygoing confidence of the best of Englishness. The doyenne of travel writing assesses his unique genius.

by Jan Morris.

First published in The Guardian, 12 June 2011.

Envy, they say, is the writer’s fault, but no writer of my acquaintance resented the pre-eminence of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the supreme English travel writer, who died on Friday after 96 years of a gloriously enviable life. He stood alone.

One must not gush, but like Venice, Château d’Yquem or a Rolls-Royce of the 1930s, he really was beyond competition; and since so far as I know everybody liked him, everyone enjoyed his mastery.

Few of us want to be called travel writers nowadays, the genre having been cheapened and weakened in these times of universal travel and almost universal literary ambition, but Leigh Fermor made of the genre a lovely instrument of grace, humour and reflection. He was, in my view, perhaps the last of a line that began with Alexander Kinglake and Eothen in the 1840s and depended for its style upon the easygoing confidence of the best of Englishness, in the best days of England. Nobody could be less racist, insular or pompous: but then the best of England never was.

For in many ways Paddy Leigh Fermor really was the ideal Englishman – good-looking in a gentle sort of way, strong but not beefy, full of fun, poetical and scholarly, metaphysically inclined, with a wife, a house, a cat and a calling, all of which he loved. Besides, he was a war hero.

In an aesthetic sense he was lucky to live when he did, because it enabled him to fight a fine war in a just cause. He was no Rupert Brooke or Wilfred Owen, because to fulfil the heroic image completely he ought to have died in battle, preferably at Gallipoli, but nevertheless he was a hero in a particularly English (as against British) kind – an individualist hero, quirkily bold, adventuring on his own or with friends and enjoying himself.

In war as in peace, he was one of a kind. He went to no university, but he was one of God’s own autodidacts, with a prodigious gift for languages and a fascination with the most intricate, subtle and sometimes obstruse constructions of historical learning. Partly because he chose to live for much of his life in the southern Peloponnese, he was especially good at relating modern to ancient worlds, so that travelling with him, if only on the page, was like simultaneously travelling through several ages.

Nothing illustrates his life better than the story of his most famous book, an uncompleted trilogy about his adolescent pedestrian journey across Europe, from Hook of Holland to Constantinople, just before the second world war. There is nothing ordinary about this work. In it a solitary young man, scarcely out of school, pits himself in a literary sense against the astonishingly varied social and political circumstances of 1930s Europe. He earns his living by his wits, by his outgoing personality, by his willingness to have a go at anything, and by drawing pictures of people, and he makes friends with Europeans of every class and kind, from the wildest of aristocrats to the grizzliest of peasants – treating them all, as Kipling would have liked, just the same. The journey lasted several months. The trilogy took a lifetime to write. Leigh Fermor was 19 when he started his walk, but did not put pen to paper (A Time of Gifts, 1977) until he was in his sixties. The second volume (Between the Woods and the Water) appeared 10 years later, while the third volume has never been published, and perhaps remains unfinished – eagerly expected for 30 years already, and now presumably awaiting its dramatic posthumous revelation.

Nothing could be more Leigh Fermorian! Part of the original manuscript was lost and Leigh Fermor had to rewrite it long after the event, which perhaps gives the work an extra element of the imagination. He was hardly more than a boy when he started thinking about it, a nonagenarian when he last laid down his pen, and in between he had not only fought his war and become famous, but had produced several other books of travel, memoir and fiction.

But just as, so it seems to me, the central character of the narrative remains essentially unaltered, certainly unabashed, from start to quasi-finish of his odyssey, so the character of Leigh Fermor himself remained instantly familiar, in frail old age as in irrepressible youth.

He was a true travel writer. Most of his books were based upon movement and actual journeys remained the basis of his studies of place. Unlike most of his successors and disciples, he was not world-ranging. He wrote little about Africa or India or China, let alone Australasia or the United States. Europe, and especially Grecian and Byzantine Europe, was essentially his stomping-ground and the classic travel works of his maturity were about two regions of Greece, Mani and Roumeli.

The first of his published books, Travellers’ Tree (1950), was indeed a journey through the Caribbean Islands, and won him immediate recognition, but for me its best moment occurs when Leigh Fermor, wandering around the parish churches of Barbados, comes across the graveyard inscription: Here lyeth ye body of Ferdinando Palaeologus, descended from ye Imperial lyne of ye last Christian Emperor of Greece. Died 3 Oct 1679. Forty years after the book’s publication I wrote to reassure Paddy that the inscription was still in good order. “How very nice to know,” he replied, “that you and our old pal Palaeologus are prospering!”

He wrote that message on a picture postcard of Kardamyli, where he and his wife were living in the adorable house above the sea that they had themselves designed, and he wrote it in a form that had become by then a sort of Leigh Fermor trademark. The text was written within a loosely scrawled cloud, and around the cloud, meticulously disposed, were 10 or 12 birds, seabirds I suppose, which gave the ensemble a delightful sense of liberty. Leigh Fermor was an able artist, as those clients of Mitteleuropa had discovered, and he used this agreeable device to make the mere signing of a book, or the dashing off of a picture postcard, a small ceremony of goodwill.

I know little about Leigh Fermor’s religious convictions, although he did frequently retreat into monasteries, and once wrote a book (A Time to Keep Silence, 1957) about his experiences. He ended the writing of it at the top-storey window of a Benedictine priory in Hampshire and said of the blessing he found there that it brought “a message of tranquillity to quieten the mind and compose the spirit”. He was certainly a man of profound contemplative habit, a kind man, and in the course of my own long if sporadic correspondence with him I was chiefly impressed by his generous association with nature – the world, so to speak, seen from that top-storey window.

Here, he once writes, “a big blackbird has settled on my window sill. Can’t move!” Here he is sorry to report that Tiny Tim the cat is “in a better world, mousing above the clouds”. And time again Paddy reports that from the table where he writes under his pergola he can see the dolphins of the Mediterranean delightfully swimming up the bay.

A complex soul, then, but with a stillness at the heart of him. The obituarists, I do not doubt, will make much of his wartime guerrilla exploits – above all his part in the kidnapping of the German general Heinrich Kreipe in Crete in 1944, and his whisking away to captivity in Egypt. It was certainly a wonderfully dashing adventure, bravado at its most filmic, and it certainly illustrated one part of Leigh Fermor’s multi-faceted character.

For me the most telling part of the oft-told tale, though, is an episode when he overhears the captive general, waiting in the dawn to be shipped away from the island, murmuring some lines from Horace which Paddy himself had long before translated from the Latin. He recognised them at once, and responded in kind, with five more stanzas. As he remembered half a century later, “the general’s blue eyes had swivelled way from the mountaintop to mine – and when I had finished, after a long silence, he said ‘Ach so, Herr Major!'”

It was very strange, the young major thought, “as though for a moment the war had ceased to exist”. But I think of that moment as the silent stillness at the heart of his own often tumultuous and complex mind. Beloved as he was, rich in friendships, celebrated, successful, happy, convivial, nevertheless he struck me always as one of God’s intimate loners.

One must not gush, one must not gush, but I am proud to have known him, and happy in my sadness to be writing about him now.


■ Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, born in London in 1915, was the architect of one of the most daring feats of the second world war, the kidnapping of the commander of the German garrison on Crete in April 1944 while working for British special operations on Crete.

Dressed as a German police corporal, he and a fellow British soldier ambushed and took control of a car containing General Heinrich Kreipe, the island’s commander, and bluffed their way through 22 checkpoints.

After three weeks avoiding German searches, Kreipe was taken off the island by boat. The daring escapade was later turned into a film, Ill Met by Moonlight, in which Leigh Fermor was played by Dirk Bogarde.

■ He wrote some of the finest pieces of travel writing and has been described as a “cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene”. His most celebrated book, A Time of Gifts (1977), told of a year-long walk from Rotterdam to Istanbul in 1934, when he was 18.

■ He married Joan Elizabeth Rayner, daughter of the first Viscount Monsell, in 1968. She died in June 2003 aged 91. There were no children.

I say, old chap, that’s my favourite Horatian ode too! By Justin Cartwright

A review of Words of Mercury by Patrick Leigh Fermor, ed Artemis Cooper first published in the Independent

Sunday, 2 November 2003

The overwhelming impression this book left on me was of a lost world of aesthetic public schoolboys, powerful newspaper editors, friendly ambassadors, and an unspoken understanding of what it meant to be upper- middle-class and English. What it meant was easy access to embassies and aristocratic houses around Europe, bicycle polo in Hungary, and the possibility that the next shepherd you met would be an Etonian Special Operations officer, speaking classical Greek. Here you will find the term “middle class” applied in a pejorative sense, rather than in the current usage which has such a wide catchment. That John Murray, the publishers of this book and upper-middle-class publishers par excellence, are no longer family-owned, perhaps confirms that this world has passed. And with it a love of language and literary decoration.

To quote Jan Morris, Paddy Leigh Fermor is beyond doubt the greatest of living travel writers, although the term “travel writing” barely does justice to the beauty, the lustrousness and sensuality of his writing. Take this, for example, speaking of how Greek temples once looked before they were stark ruins: “But the reality of the ruins, re-cohering in cobalt and blood-red, studded with metal, gaudy with idols, shiny with spilt honey and blood and reeking with sacrificial smoke, will have replaced the tinted ivory artefacts that had stolen their place and the void between the cutting of the flutes on the columns and the laying of the tramlines begins to fill up with people and events.”

There are about 40 short pieces divided into headings: Travels, Greece, People, Books and Flotsam. Many of these pieces are from Leigh Fermor’s great books, Mani, Roumeli and A Time of Gifts. (In 55 years he has only written eight books.) Others are from scattered newspaper pieces and obituaries. All the major phases of his life are represented here: the wandering schoolboy heading for Istanbul, the two years just before the war he spent in Romania with a doomed aristocratic family after meeting the daughter of the family in Athens (the woman Artemis Cooper describes as the love of his life), the extraordinary exploits in war-time Special Operations in Crete, where he captured the German General, Heinrich Kreipe, and his post-war exploration of Greece, particularly Mani where he has lived for 40 years in a house he built with his wife Joan, who died recently. Their story will be told by Artemis Cooper in a biography to be published after his death.

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