At 86, Jan Morris is curtailing her travels but, as she tells Susan Mansfield, she has lost none of her fascination with life
Usually, authors give interviews when they have a new book to promote. So it feels strange to be talking to a writer about a book that hasn’t been published, and won’t be until after she dies. But Jan Morris is quite cheerfully telling me that her final, posthumous book is “with the publishers, waiting for me to kick the bucket!”
Morris, who is 86, is one of our best loved travel writers. She has written around 40 books – no-one seems sure of the exact total – in a career lasting more than 50 years. She has been called “the Flaubert of the jet-age” (Alistair Cooke) and “perhaps the best descriptive writer of our time” (Rebecca West). Her oeuvre includes biography, fiction, essays and memoirs. She resists the term “travel writer”, preferring “a writer who travels”.
Talk of the posthumous book has led to speculation about the revelations it might contain. Yet, Morris has always written openly about herself, including the chapter of her life most likely to attract solacious attention: how James became Jan in 1972, Britain’s first high-profile gender reassignment case. And the plot thickens when she reveals that she will be talking about the unpublished book at the Wigtown Book Festival next week. Does that not rather defeat the purpose?
“Believe me, it’s not because any hidden secrets are going to be revealed. It’s just a different sort of book altogether, I just didn’t want it to come out while I was alive, I don’t quite know why.” The book, she says, is “a sort of about a philosophical conception about allegories”. “More and more I’ve come to think, almost nothing has got just one meaning. There are nearly always other meanings to everything. Take the exclamation mark, that’s got more than two meanings,” she chuckles knowingly.
Morris is speaking about the finer points of the exclamation mark from her home in the hills of North Wales. From the window of her converted stable block she can see “a corner of Cardigan bay”. She and her partner Elizabeth have lived here for 60 years. They were married when she was James, had five children together, were forced to divorce after the gender reassignment, but remained together and remarried in 2008 in a civil partnership. They’ve written their epitaph: “Here are two friends, at the end of one life”.
Morris is not Welsh (she grew up in Somerset) but chose to make her home in the land of her father, where she is a member of Plaid Cymri and a staunch supporter of Welsh independence. I wonder if home becomes more important when you spend so much of your life travelling. “I think so, for me it is. I suppose people of other temperaments don’t care, do they? I certainly do.”
For someone who writes so beautifully about cities, who has a gift for sensing the temperament of a city – whether Venice or Dubai or Istanbul – by walking around it, as if through the soles of her shoes, she has chosen a remote, rural home. “But I’ve always had one leg here and one leg somewhere else. I used to boast I had one leg here and one leg in Manhattan. But nowadays both legs more and more seem to stay here.”
She says this without regret. In fact, her conversation is tinted with a sense of delight: even after a lifetime of travelling, she is thrilled by the world rather than weary of it. Indeed, at 86 the only frailty she suffers from is impaired balance, following surgery for a blood clot on her brain several years ago. “I had a trepanning, like the Incas used to do, I was very proud of it! I’m not so good on narrow places, climbing up things. It’s a handicap in Venice because that means a lot of getting in and out of boats.”
That said, she still goes to Manhattan every year, she hasn’t missed a year since 1953. “I’ve always found it a very kind city, I’ve always thought if I had a heart attack in the middle of a street somewhere, I’d much rather have it in the middle of Fifth Avenue than in the middle of Picadilly or some French boulevard.”
Her most recent foreign trip was to Trieste, the subject of her last travel book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, published in 2001, which was highly acclaimed. In this book, she believes, she found her true style, and she describes the city – part Adriatic, part European, “on a fold of the map” – as “my favourite, my alter ego”.
“The nature of my writing is that I write about myself, really. All the books I’ve ever written are terribly egotistical and self-indulgent. People sometimes say, ‘You’ve been to Paris,’ for example, ‘and it wasn’t a bit like I found it’. Well, of course it wasn’t how you found it, you oaf, I was writing about it not you! I wasn’t writing about how it affected you, I was writing about how it affected me.”
Trieste, she admits, has come almost to supplant Venice, about which she wrote a beautiful cultural history in 1960 which has never been out of print. “I have to confess that I have gone off Venice just a little bit. At heart I haven’t, but superficially I have because it’s so overwhelmingly crowded now. Although I adore the place, it doesn’t compel me back quite the same way that it used to. It’s because I have a taste for melancholy, you see. When I first knew Venice, it was very melancholy, at the end of the war, it was a defeated city, it was all grey and lonely and a bit sad and I loved it. Just my style.”
She discovered Trieste at much the same time, and it has changed too. “I wrote recently about going back to Trieste and I had to admit that visually and temperamentally it was completely unlike my melancholy city of long ago. It was blazing with excitement, vigour, there were huge yachts there, and the whole thing was really very joyous and interesting. I recognise that there were two Triestes: there was the one that was there in itself, and there was the one that was mine, that was in my mind. But in Trieste I can summon up [that other city] in my mind more easily.”
Morris still writes regularly for newspapers, but often her travels these days are of a more local nature. That’s no hardship, she says, brightly. “There’s lots to write about without having to go very far. Recently, I did a piece about Dolgellau, a town just down the road. I thought it would be interesting to go and write about it just as I would write about a foreign town – and just as enjoyable too. Then I began to realise it was quite unlike anywhere else in Wales, and perhaps quite unlike anywhere else anywhere. It was a very fascinating little place.”
The young James Morris began his career on the heights of Everest as a journalist for the Times assigned to cover John Hunt’s 1953 expedition. When Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit, Morris and another mountaineer, Michael Westmacott, made a “heroic scramble” down the mountain to get the news back to London in time for the Coronation. Westmacott died in June, and Morris will attend his memorial service on the way back from Wigtown. Those were the days, I suggest, when journalism was an adventure. “Not half! Now you’d just take a satellite up there – or an iPhone.”
Morris was a journalist for ten years, covering events around the world, blessed with “enlightened employers who encouraged me really to write things which aspired to be literature”. “Once, I was in Iceland for the Guardian covering the fish wars, and nothing was happening. I wrote there was really nothing happening in Iceland today, and rambled on in that sort of way, but the paper put the headline on it: ‘No news from Iceland’,” she laughs. “Which I don’t think any paper would do today!”
In the 1950s, she was granted a fellowship to spend a year at the University of Chicago. She spent it travelling to every state in the Union and writing her first book, Coast to Coast. “It had a terrific effect on me, I loved the place then, and I love it still. I love the idea of America. 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.”
Does she think Obama will get a second term? “I sort of feel he will, don’t you? There’s such romance to the idea of having a black man at the head of this multi-ethnic state, it’s aesthetically good, I think, it fits to have him there. I like the whole set-up with him there, so I hope he wins!”
In the last half century, she has lived through a travel revolution. Empires have ended – the subject of her highly admired Pax Britannica trilogy – international travel has opened up. Now teenage backpackers climb Everest and pensioners take package holidays to Angkor Wat. “Not long ago, Lhasa used to seem inconceivable distant and inaccessible. I haven’t been there, I’ve always sworn I wouldn’t go until the Dalai Lama could return. But, recently I was walking along the beach and I met an elderly lady I knew. She asked me where I had been lately, because I have a reputation here for always travelling somewhere. I said, in a rather patronising way, ‘I’ve been in Italy and New York. Where have you been?’ She said, ‘Well, we did go in the summer to Lhasa’. Which cut me down a slice.”
Morris has written with unusual pessimism about the state of the world at the beginning of the 21st century. In an epilogue to her collected writings, published in 2003, she wrote: “The lingering reproaches of imperialism, the mysteries of technology, the antipathies of race, shifts of balance, bewilderments of progress, corrosions of money and power – all, it seemed to me, were reaching some kind of dark climax.”
But Morris is, irrepressibly, a glass-half-full person. “I do feel that something serious is bound to happen if population continues to grow as it is. But I put it out of my mind, I concentrate on the big picture of getting out in the universe. This is only a small bit of it all, isn’t it? We’re small fry, really, down here.” Or are we? “Lately, I’ve had this conviction that we’re on the brink of something utterly colossal. I think we are going to find sentient life in the universe. The more science progresses, the more likely that seems, doesn’t it? Being able to send a machine the size of a Mini up to Mars – a few years ago that would have seemed absolutely inconceivable.”
Her voice quickens with excitement. “Then, my goodness, that will be a story, won’t it? When that happens the whole of our outlook is bound to change.” She pauses, and laughs a self-aware laugh. “I told all this to a journalist last year, he thought I was going bonkers I think. Perhaps I am!”
• Jan Morris is appearing at the Wigtown Book Festival on 3 October. For full details of authors, visit wigtownbookfestival.com