Jan Morris, photographed by Rick Pushinksy for the New Statesman.
“Over the years I have begun to feel that nothing in life has only one meaning,” says Jan Morris, and perhaps the greatest example of the truth of this statement is Morris herself. Her first meaning was as James Morris, born in 1926, who had various incarnations: an army intelligence officer in Italy during the last knockings of the war; the journalist who on Coronation Day 1953 broke the news of the conquest of Everest; a writer of evocative travel books that sit just outside the genre; a husband and father. Her second great meaning was confirmed in 1972 when, at the age of 46, she went to Morocco for sex reassignment surgery and returned as Jan Morris. She has been in turn a historian of empire; a divorcee who recommitted to her former wife in a civil partnership; a Welsh nationalist; and a CBE.
Morris is now 88 and after a writing career that has spanned about forty books (“I don’t know the number to the exact digit”) she has written what she says will be her final work, Ciao, Carpaccio! – a small, personal study of the delightful but minor Renaissance Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio, now better known as a dish of thinly sliced raw meat or fish than as a painter.
When we met, Morris was at a signing in her local bookshop in Porthmadog, the coastal town on the edge of Snowdonia, a few miles from her home. As she settled down with her pen and pile of books, she mentioned casually to the well-wisher at the head of the queue that there are only two things she doesn’t like talking about: “the sex-change thing and my military career”. I suspect the words were meant for me to overhear and take note.
It seems typical of her sprightly intelligence. As we left the bookshop to go back to her house a woman walked up to Morris in the street, said how much she had always wanted to meet her and proceeded to praise “your books and your bravery”. Morris was courtly in response. “Does that happen to you a lot?” I asked. “Oh no,” she replied, “I laid it on especially for you.” And although she now walks with a stick, appearances are deceptive. Following her car down the narrow roads as she drove home was like taking part in the Rally of Wales.
Home is a beautiful converted coach-house at the end of a long farm road, next to the “big house” where she used to live. There has been a leak, so the kitchen is a mess, but beyond it is a perfect writer’s room, a long promenade of bookshelves covering all four sides, with a desk at the far end, like an altar. Upstairs there is a matching room under the beams, filled with sofas, pictures, model ships and yet more books. The conversion was, Morris said proudly, overseen by Elizabeth, her wife and partner of 65 years.
Theirs is one of the most remarkable love stories of our times. They married in 1949, when Jan was still James, and had five children together (one of whom died in infancy); they were forced to divorce after Jan underwent her sex reassignment surgery because the law did not permit them to live as married women. They stayed together nevertheless (Jan would describe Elizabeth as her “sister-in-law”) and in 2008 they officially pledged themselves to each other again in a civil partnership.
Elizabeth has gone out, so I don’t get a glimpse of this extraordinary woman. When we sit down to talk I ask Morris why she is adamant that her Carpaccio book will be her last; after all, it is something she also said when she published Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere in 2001. “I said that was the last book at the time and I meant it. It was the best book I ever wrote and I knew I would never write one as good as that again.” She has since put together compilations of essays that have been published before, “but none have been proper, full-sized books. And this [Ciao, Carpaccio!] is the last of any kind.”
It was, she says, a “pure pleasure” to write. “What fun!” I wonder if writing about a Venetian painter provided some sort of closure with the city that had made her name as an author? (Venice by James Morris was published in 1960.)
“Yes, I thought it would be nice to end with one about a place that has given so much pleasure to me, that has meant so much to me,” she replies. “Carpaccio was lovable, fun, a man akin to merriment. His religious faith is something matter of fact. His representation of faith is one that strikes me very much. I’m an agnostic and I believe that the answer to life’s problems is kindness. Carpaccio’s genius is to be the master of kindness. Women are portrayed lovingly; children he obviously adored, and animals. But I’m not an art historian. All these things are from my own mind, from my interpretation of him.”
There is, in fact, at least one more book to come, but not until after her death. Why publish posthumously? “I thought when I first began it that it was going to be a more personal kind of book,” she says. “Over the years it has changed its slant. I began to think all life was allegory, my own life was allegory. So I called the book Allegorisings. From time to time I add things to it. I think it is in print in New York and London, and ready to go. So when I kick the bucket the presses will roll.”
Morris’s life has been so extraordinary that she must have been approached frequently by would-be biographers. “Yes, but I say no. I’ve written it all myself – in these forty books. There’s nothing more to say. It’s all vanity.” As to those books: “They’re all memoirs; they’re about me and my views of things rather than about outside subjects.” Does she dislike being labelled a travel writer, then? “I don’t consider myself to be one. I don’t think I write travel books. The greatest of my contemporaries, of whom Paddy Leigh Fermor was pre-eminent, wrote about what they saw, about what was true. I’ve never claimed that. Very often people disagree with my responses to a place. To which the only response is that I’m not writing about your responses, I’m writing about mine.” I suggest that seems a slightly equivocal attitude to her life’s work. “I think my work is fun, it’s light – I hope – it is distinctive. Occasionally it can stir a tear. More than that I wouldn’t like to claim.”
Does that mean she is satisfied as a writer, that she has written the books she would have wanted to? “I wasn’t capable of it,” she replies. “I would have preferred to have written fiction, but I didn’t have the gift. Well, I have written fiction [Last Letters from Hav, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1985, and Hav of the Myrmidons] but it was phoney fiction. Even then it was really just rambling on about me.”
Of her works, which is her favourite? “The book I like best, that’s nearest to art, is the Trieste one. The book that’s nearest to scholarship is the trilogy about the British empire.” She means Pax Britannica, which covers the period from 1837 to 1965. Who, I ask, are her imperial heroes? Jacky Fisher, the admiral who pushed reform of the Royal Navy, is one – “He’ll be my lover in the afterlife” – and, she says, “I’m interested in Churchill” (Boris Johnson’s biography is lying on a side table).
But Morris is not a tub-thumper. “The reason I’m proud of the Pax Britannica books, which will outlive me, I think, is that they’re genuinely not biased,” she says. “I saw the evils of empire just as clearly as I saw the benefits. I recognised the very great number of good people who went out to serve in that cause, even though now it is out of the question that one people should rule another. I tried to get into the minds of those people – I couldn’t get into the minds of the subject peoples.”
After her period of service in the Second World War, did she envisage that the future would remain such a mess and that international relations would, half a century and more later, remain so precarious? It seems she was no idealist: “My colleagues and I thought about the future of Britain and someone said the only thing for us is to march off the end of Land’s End and have done with it. There was no revival of jingoism or revival of the British empire.
“I don’t think my vision went as far as the future of the world. I was too juvenile even to think about that.”
Now that she is mature she is simply saddened. She warned me when we started talking that the world was weighing her down rather that day: nothing in particular but the news in general, all seemingly gloomy. The Middle East, for instance, which she knows well: “The Arab spring was a great disaster, really. I’m writing a piece about Lincoln. I love Lincoln – but by expressing the idea that democracy was right for everyone and that it was the duty of the Americans to spread that idea, he has been, in a way, the author of all our troubles.”
Morris is barely cheerier about domestic politics. “Westminster politics ought to be important to me but I can’t be bothered with it really. I just read the headline and I despair. Not that I would join Mr Russell Brand, or Ukip.” She is, however, a member of Plaid Cymru and that is a source of comfort. “When a general election comes I congratulate myself that I have a party I believe in and hope for,” she says.
As a Welsh republican (she is in fact only half Welsh) she naturally watched the Scottish referendum with interest. “I admired the vote because it was taken so seriously by both sides. I was disappointed by the result, of course. I’m a romantic and I have a romantic approach to politics, and Scotland, like Wales, is such a wonderful idea. And in my escapist way I ignore the economics and concentrate on the imaginative part of politics, which can be pretty powerful as we know: politics of loyalty, pride – which is not to be sneered at. I have come to dislike the word ‘nationalism’, though.” So, would she want Wales to have a referendum of its own? “Yes, I’d like that but I don’t think we’ll get it. What I’d really like is a federal Britain within a federal Europe. But I think we’re heading that way anyway. I think most Welsh people would accept that.”
For all her convictions, she has no animus towards the political class. “I suspect they’re quite decent people really, but they get in the most awful messes and terrible challenges, especially at the moment,” she says. “Pity is awfully crippling, isn’t it? I feel sorry for everybody. It is not in the slightest bit empowering; it’s not like kindness.” That word again: why is kindness so important? “It is often called love – but love is harder to achieve than kindness. I’ve always thought kindness to be a great power. I’ve often wanted to found a political party of kindness. I’ve had a lot of people say they’d like to join.” And, given the circumstances of her life, I ask if people have been kind to her: “Oh yes, even at difficult times, nearly always.” She should know; at the time of her gender reassignment she needed it more than most. As she wrote with great understatement in Conundrum, a narrative of her transition, the surgery, even though it would “make no difference to my status in the mind of God, would certainly affect it in the mind of man”.
If it would seem rude to ask her about this transformative episode it would seem rude not to ask her about Everest. “I didn’t realise what a big deal it was at the time,” she says. “I wasn’t that interested in mountaineering. But it ended up being a big deal for me, a stroke of fortune.” As she talks she gets up to pick a slim book from her shelves. “Just before I went off to cover the expedition the Times gave me a proof copy of W H Murray’s new book about Everest – I took it with me up the mountain.” She shows it to me, now bound in calfskin and with the signatures of all the expedition members inscribed opposite the title page (as well as tea stains from base camp). Edmund Hillary’s is there – “He’s the godfather of one of my children” – and Morris’s, too: “James Morris, the Times, who owns the book”.
When word reached the expedition that Hillary and Tenzing had made the summit, Morris used a series of runners to sprint the 180 miles to Kathmandu with a message in code to be wired to London. What was it like, I ask, to have a scoop of that magnitude? “It was the last, really, the last of the British imperial adventures, and it changed my life to a degree I never dreamt of,” she says. “I didn’t realise what an enormous worldwide event it was to prove – or what a lingering one.”
If Everest and the coronation seem to belong to another world Morris doesn’t. She is a little younger than the Thesiger, van der Post, Leigh Fermor generation of scholar-travellers and she sees herself standing outside that illustrious cluster: “Thesiger I disapproved of, and he disapproved of me. Such a silly approach to life – the idea that anything modern was to be ignored.”
Another reason she is slightly apart is that many of her books have been about cities – Venice, Trieste, Sydney, Oxford, Hong Kong – whereas the others wrote about less populated places. Morris, however, has rarely lived in a city. “I like the peace of the countryside, but I like the excitement of a city – the way that, as you approach, everything gets faster and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. I would like some great city to be nearer. One of the great regrets of my life is that I never wrote a book about San Francisco.” America is close to her heart. After winning a Commonwealth fellowship that enabled her to travel across the US (her first book, Coast to Coast, published in 1956, recounts her experiences), she has been to New York every year since 1953. “That fellowship made me half American for the rest of my life. It was the second-best gift I ever had,” she says. And the best? “Going to Venice for the first time.”
London doesn’t have the same draw. I ask if she misses it, and specifically its literary world. “I never belonged to it, anyway. I was asked recently, ‘If you were going to host a literary dinner, who would you invite?’ Well, nothing on earth would induce me to host a literary dinner.”
As our conversation draws to a close she suddenly says, no doubt as a result of being prompted to reach back into her life: “My gravestone is under the stairs.” I ask if I can see it and follow her as she busies herself moving papers and files, to reveal a simple stone bearing hers and Elizabeth’s names and the simple words Morris wrote herself: “Here are two friends, at the end of one life.” When I tell her how touching it is she says, “I think so. It moves me.”
The stone and its sentiment seem entirely consistent with her improbable life. But perhaps, I suggest, to her, as the person who has lived it, that life has seemed if not ordinary, then at least normal. “No, not at all, I think what an extraordinary life it’s been. And how lucky.”
“Ciao, Carpaccio! An Infatuation” is published by Pallas Athene (£12.95)