Jan Morris

National Portrait Gallery, London

Jan Morris; portrait by Arturo Di Stefano, 2004–2005

Jan Morris’s remarkable life was made up of many journeys, and now that the journey is over, two examples of her resolute walking are haunting me. One is the thousand steps she made herself take, as a very old woman and “a strong believer in the strength of Routine,” every day, rain or shine, right up to her death at ninety-four. If the weather was too appalling, even for her, she would (as described in Thinking Again) march up and down inside Trefan Morys, her Welsh house, knocking things over, bumping into the furniture, not stopping until the “statutory” thousand paces were done, and then triumphantly say “Snubs to you” to the howling wind outside. This old-age walking, proudly recorded in this “thought diary,” as in the previous volume, In My Mind’s Eye (2018), would always be done to the tune of a sung or whistled marching song—and almost any tune, she found, could be turned into a marching song. She didn’t like to think of herself as “an old woman…shuffling” but as an adventurer out on an interesting expedition.

And she enjoyed her encounters on the road. She always smiled at people to see if they would smile back, and she often asked them questions. Most people responded, especially on a sunny day by the sea: “The thing is that nearly all of us, old and young…only want to be at one with the world, and welcome even the tiresome conversational devices of elderly literati.” She had a strong belief in the kindness of strangers, and if she was stuck outdoors, looking for a house number, or in a car that wouldn’t start, or lifting heavy firewood, she usually found that people would help: “In every row of houses, almost anywhere, in any country, decent people are living, only waiting to laugh, cry and be kind.” At least, she hoped so.

The other walking is that of a young journalist who had never been up a mountain before ascending from Kathmandu toward Everest in order to report on what turned out to be, magnificently, the first British conquest of the mountain, led by Sir John Hunt and Edmund Hillary and guided by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.

James Morris, as Jan was then known, was twenty-six, child of an English music teacher and a Welsh father, who had been gassed in World War I and died when Morris was young. Morris was public school–, Oxford-, and Sandhurst-educated, a cavalry officer in the Ninth Queen’s Royal Lancers during World War II, and then a wandering foreign correspondent for the Arab News Agency in Cairo, The Times, and The Manchester Guardian. This young man had been aware from the age of about three of being in “the wrong body.” From 1964 Morris began the transition that culminated in the publication of Conundrum in 1974, under the name Jan Morris.

At the time of the Everest expedition he had been married for four years (Morris’s wife, Elizabeth Tuckniss, remained the life’s partner until Morris’s death), and one of their five children was born during the Everest ascent. James went with the mountaineers from Base Camp as far up as Camp IV—the South Col, at 26,000 feet—and devised a secret code that would get news of the ascent back to The Times in time for the coronation of Elizabeth II, on June 2, 1953. (For “Snow Conditions Bad Stop Advanced Base Abandoned Yesterday Stop Awaiting Improvement,” read “Summit of Everest reached by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on May 29.”) With great ingenuity and resourcefulness, James beat off all the competition from other journalists and then became “a minor celebrity” after the famous scoop.

Morris describes the walk—or climb, or scramble, or slither—up and down between the camps with a kind of proud astonishment. Morris knows it’s worth “swanking” about (“I don’t like to swank, but I often do,” she would still be saying at ninety-two), but also gives a vivid and comical picture of being a hopelessly incompetent climber next to the professionals, as when getting back down to Base Camp at night in order to radio the great news, “in a condition of impending disintegration…my footsteps growing slower and wearier and more fumbling”:

The laces of my boots trailed. The fastening of one of my crampons had broken, so that the thing was half on, half off my foot, and kept tripping me up. I had torn my windproof jacket on an ice-spur, and a big flap of its red material kept blowing about me in the wind. My rucksack, heavy with kit, had slipped on its harness, so that it now bumped uncomfortably about in the small of my back.

“I think I’m going to stop here for a bit…and get my breath back,” James says to the experienced mountaineer in attendance, who replies, “Don’t be so ridiculous.” This story of The Diary of a Nobody’s hapless Mr. Pooter tackling Everest makes you smile, and also takes your breath away: just like the daily thousand steps of the very old woman in Wales.


In between, there was sixty-seven years’ worth of adventure, travel, observation, experience, wandering, and writing. Apart from the Everest scoop, the other thing Morris was famous for was the journey to becoming Jan Morris, and Conundrum gives a brave, tender, candid, and pragmatic account of that difficult process, long before gender dysphoria was a well-known condition, and long before transitioning was the much-discussed public and political issue that it is now. The painful struggle she had in the first thirty years of her life to understand and deal with her condition, when she “was dark with indecision and anxiety,” often involved—as for many others wrestling with this “conundrum”—profound depression and thoughts of suicide: “For if there had been no hope of ending my life as a woman, I would certainly have ended it for myself as a man.”

But the support of her partner and, later, her children, the fortunate, gradual discovery of doctors and clinics willing to treat her, and her own determination not to “live a long life of falsehood”—in sum, “love, luck and resolution”—saved her life. It was, and is, a moving story, helpful to many readers undergoing the same journey, even though, she recognizes, it now reads like a “period piece,” and even though some of its attitudes—for instance, to the way she expects men to treat women, lifting cases and opening doors and bottles for them—now seem dated and retrograde.

Conundrum was a special kind of autobiography, which, like her much later old-age diaries, gives an appealingly forthright account of her own character. She describes herself as an Anglo-Welsh person of “dual affinities,” a lifelong wanderer whose wandering was “an outer expression of my inner journey,” “curiously compounded…fired by patriotism, inhibited by upbringing, inexhaustibly in love,” romantic, flamboyant, emotional, liking to show off, and capable of great happiness. She also thought of herself, for a long time, before she transitioned, as an outsider, a spy, a detached onlooker of the world. Although she says she outgrew that sense of not belonging, it stood her in good stead as a reporter and travel writer. Morris had an exceptional talent for evoking places, cultures, civilizations, and institutions with wit, precision, feeling, and eloquence.

These places were often historic urban centers, and though she ended her days in remote rural Wales, she spent much of her life vividly communicating her passion for cities: Cairo, Venice, Trieste, Hong Kong, New York, Oxford. In every case she would make you feel you knew just what it was like to live there at a particular time; she was funny and sharp about customs, peculiarities, and ingrained habits; she was a mine of odd and intriguing bits of information; and she had a poetic eye for the aesthetics of a place. Here she is at her best, first (in 1965) on the unwelcoming air of Oxford colleges:

They are strange structures indeed, expressing a mixture of militance and domestic satisfaction. They began as little fortresses in a generally hostile city, self-sufficient for minor sieges, with their own treasure-houses, vegetable gardens, water supplies and sewage systems—the cess-pit at New College was so large that during the first 300 years of the college’s history it never had to be emptied. Even now the colleges do not encourage strangers…. Their buildings are open to the public only with reluctance, and it is odd how often college porters forget to turn the little notices outside their lodges from Closed to Open.

They often look redoubtable still. Their outer walls are high and frowning, sometimes castellated, sometimes viciously studded with spikes or broken glass to prevent undergraduates climbing in after hours…. At night heavy wooden gates are closed upon the street, barred with iron, locked with elaborate padlocks, pierced only by a small postern and powerfully suggesting chain-mail and boiling oil.

Here she is on the “astonishing” beauty of Hong Kong as she saw it in 1988, a beauty that, in spite of the city’s “inchoate” design and mixed architecture, results from its setting and its “impression of irresistible activity”:

It is like a cauldron, seething, hissing, hooting, arguing, enmeshed in a labyrinth of tunnels and flyovers, with those skyscrapers erupting everywhere into view, with ferries churning and hoverfoils splashing and great jets flying in, with fleets of ships lying always off-shore, with double-decker buses and clanging tram-cars, with a car it seems for every square foot of roadway, with a pedestrian for every square inch of sidewalk, and funicular trains crawling up and down the mountainside…all in all, with a pace of life so unremitting, a sense of movement and enterprise so challenging, that one’s senses are overwhelmed by the sheer glory of human animation. Or perhaps by the power of human avarice.

And here is her characteristic riff on one particular quality of Manhattan, whether in 1945, when her book on New York is set, or in 1987, when she wrote it, or now:


Like Venice, the place is all dapple. Its lights and shades are intense, and endlessly varied—the shadows of the skyscrapers slant-wise across the avenues, or plunging the cross-streets into cavernous darkness, the sudden black that New Yorkers prefer for their bars and restaurants, the flicker of bridge girders upon passing cars, the dense patterns of fire-escape ladders, the shifting silhouettes of park trees along sidewalks, the tenebrous gloom, speckled and latticed with light through the ironwork above, that lurks beneath the tracks of the elevated railroad. On a bright summer day…the skyline of Manhattan seems to stand against the blue like a masonry thicket, or a huge jagged palisade; in winter, when the tops of the skyscrapers are sometimes lost in cloud, their bases suggest so many gigantic roots or trunks, and the life of the city seems to proceed as within a gargantuan forest.

As when she is reimagining the Manhattan of 1945 “in its glitter and its pride” or saying goodbye to British rule in Hong Kong, Morris often writes in elegiac mode, capturing places on the edge of changing forever, looking back on something that’s vanishing. She can be sentimental, not least on the subject of the British Empire. Anticipating, with well-founded apprehension, the worst possible scenario for Hong Kong after 1997, she makes the claim that “the British are bringing their rule in Hong Kong, and with it the record of their Empire as a whole, to a conclusion that is not ignoble.” In her epic trilogy of empire, Pax Britannica, which took up ten years of her life, between 1968 and 1978, her tone often echoes Kipling, a writer she greatly admired, and his farewell to empire, “Recessional”:

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart.

“Recessional” was written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the year Morris sees as the “moment of climax” for the British Empire, the point when “the morality of imperialism as a principle was not generally in question” and when “to most people…British dominion seemed far more a blessing than a curse.” This view of imperial history—which, fifty years on, has become questionable—is the basis for her vivid, action- and character-packed account of the empire, in which her pleasure, excitement, and admiration for the spectacle is weighed against her clear and growing sense of its greed, opportunism, brutality, ugliness, “bullying, arrogance, drilling and flag-wagging,” and eventual degradation and dissolution. Her conclusion is that “it was time the Empire went, but it was sad to see it go.” But she is still moved by the memory of “all those whose lives may seem to have been wasted in the imperial cause, those who died to create the Empire and those who sacrificed themselves to end it.”

In her old-age diaries, she looks back with devotion and nostalgia on her own “British past” and doesn’t regret having given much of her life to “the ambiguous epic of the late British Empire.” She is stirred too by old hymns and songs like “Land of Hope and Glory.” She still believes in patriotism—not nationalism—as an emotion that has “power,” though she knows that patriotism is “a problem”: “It can be so awful, but so noble too.” At the end of her life, as “an ancient memorialist of the phenomenon” of empire, she stands “athwart the arguments,” “equivocal” about it “to this day.”

Jan Morris’s tendency to nostalgia is at its most bittersweet when writing about Europe, as in her lifelong love affair with Venice, or in her beautiful and haunting book Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (2001), which she prefaces with a quotation from Wallace Stevens that could stand as an epitome of her work: “I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw/Or heard or felt came not but from myself.” She first came to Trieste in 1946 as a young soldier who had crossed “a shattered, bewildered and despondent continent, which looked as though it could never recover,” and fell in love with the city for its “sweet melancholy” and “feel of mordant separateness, as though time is always passing it by.” She reads Trieste as “an allegory of limbo.”

In the 1990s, when she decided to write yet another book about Europe, it is in Trieste that she starts. By then she saw a continent long “recover[ed] from its wounds of war,” having regained its assurance and “tentatively shuffling towards some kind of unity—the only adult objective for a mature community of neighbours.” For all its fitful groping toward “comity,” for all the “bickering prides of States and Powers” that disfigure it, she still hails and celebrates it, with passion and enthusiasm: “Viva Europa!” In Thinking Again, written in 2018, she laments the rampant triumph of “nationalist bigots” and Brexit’s “disastrous” plunging of a “once-splendid nation into ignominy.” Jan Morris died a few weeks before Britain finally turned her back on and slouched out of Europe. Her undying love for that “ever-marvellous and fateful corner of the world” rings out the more tragically.

In late life, though, all her identification is with Wales. The Welsh part of her Anglo-Welsh dual affinities comes to dominate, as she spends her days with Elizabeth, first in the rambling old house, Plas Trefan, where they brought up their children, and then in their converted stables next door, Trefan Morys, richly cluttered with mementos and vestiges and cherished relics of their life and travels and families—a bit like these diaries. This, as she proudly says, is “Welsh Wales,” farming country between the Irish Sea and the mountains of Snowdonia, which she has come to think of as “the best place on earth.” There is a good deal about the Welsh language, Welsh landscape, Welsh decency, and Welsh passion.

Not everything in the diary is so benign. Morris laughs at her own grumpiness—about Christmas festivities, about having to sing “Happy Birthday,” about English second homes in north Wales, about forgetting names or being pestered by interviewers, about unconvincing modern artists like Christo (“virtuoso baloney”), and about the “cyber-gobbledegook” spoken by her computer: “Who is the Server, who declines to serve me on my screen this morning?”

She is much more than grumpy, indeed despairing, about the hideous state of the world: “wars and rumours of wars…sleazy capitalism and dubious diplomacy, democracy coarsened, loyalties abandoned, religions squabbling, footling gossip and squalid accusations.” Her main feeling, in old age, is “Count me out.” But in her personal life, though she admits to not being as nice as she’d like you to think, she seems generally patient, stoic, and resilient, and stands by her watchword of kindness. In both My Mind’s Eye and Thinking Again, her way of writing about the onset of her “dear old friend” and partner’s dementia is as touching and truthful—and humorous—as was her writing many years before about transitioning, and probably as helpful to others in the same situation. There’s an appealing old-style cheeriness about Thinking Again, in the mode of what used to be called, in last-century upper-class schoolgirl parlance, “jolly hockey sticks”: keep your chin up, play the game, don’t make a fuss, get on with it! This is the spirit in which she approaches death, knowing that she is well past her “sell-by date.” There could be worse role models, and worse ways to go:

I have been disgracefully self-centred all my life, and it’s only proper nowadays that the joke’s generally on me! But it’s not a joke at all. Laughable though it may sometimes seem, the truth is, of course, that I am approaching one of the tremendous mysteries of existence, when I must say goodbye at last to my dear old partner—herself ahead of me in our explorations—to my children and all my friends, every one of whom I can now see, with my ancient mystic eyes, clambering somewhere behind me on the steep rocky track to Nowhere. Some of them are laughing, some are crying, but they are all coming my way too.

Keep smiling, anyway. It may not be to Nowhere at all! It may be to Angels and mercy and kindness and white wine, with toasted crumpets for tea. I do hope so, don’t you? Keep in touch, anyway, and watch out for holes in the road!

An earlier version of this article referred to the ascent of Everest as “English”; the expedition, comprising also members from other UK nations and the Commonwealth, was British.