As NIMBLE AT conveying the vagaries of power in Southern Africa, as the play of light on Venice lagoon or the patter of the New Yorker, Jan Morris is the great virtuoso of travel writers, sometimes summoning the energy of a full verbal orchestra, on other occasions reflecting with the poignancy of a carefully stopped single instrument.
She first became widely known in 1953, when, on cue for Coronation Day, she gave the world news of the conquest of Mount Everest. At the time she was James Morris, a dashing former army officer turned journalist. Under this name, over the next twenty years, she produced a series of books, including superior travelogues about America and Arabia, sophisticated histories of cities such as Venice and Oxford, and the first two volumes of her colourful Pax Britannica trilogy, charting the rise and fall of the British Empire during the nineteenth century.
But she always felt an outsider because, for as long she could remember, she was certain she was a woman. After great personal anguish she summoned the courage to change her sex – the story she told in Conundrum, published in 1974.
In the three subsequent decades, she has continued her travels in different parts of the world, but has also become more identified with Wales, where she lives in what she calls her ‘library-house’, the converted stables of a much grander villa, or plus, where she brought up her family. She is half English and half Welsh. But, as reflected in The Matter of Wales, a tour d’horizon of the principality, in her novel Our First Leader, and in her semi-fictional A Machynlleth Triad, she has looked to Wiles – its history, countryside and values – for personal regeneration, after relating perhaps over-strongly to the more pragmatic English during her earlier career. A Machynlleth Triad was written with her son Tym, a Welsh-language poet who in August was awarded the coveted bardic chair at the National Eisteddfod – a day which Jan described as ‘the proudest’ of her life.
Sometimes her cultural pronouncements from her North Walian fastness have sounded over-romantic. But, as one irnrnedately recopses on meeting her, she combines a fierce literary intelligence with polite attentiveness and good humour. Her house, Trefon Morys, consists of two 40-foot rooms, lined with carefully located books. Dotted around are decorous artefacts, including a collection of model boats, treasured souvenirs, such as a wicker goat from China, and examples of her own meticulous drawings which she has unostentatiously used to dustrate her books. (Her favourites are in Fisher’s Face because she likes sketching shlps.)
A mini-stroke en route to a Spectator party last year has slowed down her writing (her first reaction after being rescued in Doughty Street by Boris Johnson was to sit down and see if her hand had changed). But her mind and demeanour remain as energetic as ever, even if she speaks wishlly of a confusion about and sense of exclusion from the world – sentiments which permeate her last book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (2001). She quickly made clear that she was ‘absolutely sick’ of tallung about her sex change. As for gender, she described her views as ‘extremely cloudy and probably nonsensical’. So it seemed tactful to approach her life from a dfferent perspective – fiom her writing, and in particular her collection of travel writing A Writer? World, published this month (Faber & Faber 457pp £25).
She responded with a benevolent and wide-ranging overview of her near-eight decades (she is seventy-seven next month). Many details don’t fit exactly into a literary discussion. For example, she is mad about cars. She used to drive Rolls-Royces, but now loves her sporty Honda Civic Type R, with its 200 horsepower and (a recently acquired ‘toy’) satehte navigation. She would like to visit Burj A1 Arab, that seven-star hotel built in the shape of a dhow’s billowing sad off Dubai, confirming that she likes, and probably always has liked, to travel with a fair degree of comfort. Does one take her seriously when she says, ‘What I’d most like to be in life is a cafk pianist in Manhattan’? Absolutely. The wit and the whimsy, the warm precision
Would you call ‘A Writer’s World’ a summation of your writing career?
Not really: this is only the journalism and the reportage. The summation – if that’s not too grand a word – was the Trieste book, which I said was the last book I would publish in my lifetime. Because I also thought that was my best book, I decided it was a good time to give up.
What have you hoped to achieve in this latest book?
Because I’m an intensely introspective writer, always thikng about myself, this is one person’s view of the last half-century, written in all sorts of circumstances, with different techmques too. There are very Merent pieces here, and in my particular case a great change in the middle too.
You certainly cover a wide span not just chronologically but in terms ofthe places you visit.
The main event that I had nothing to do with was the Vietnam War. That’s a lacuna in the book. The rest of the great progressions of the second half of the twentieth century I did witness in one way or another.
How would you encapsulate that period?
Muddled. I’m an advocate of the school of sound and fury. I don’t believe in any shape to history. I’m reading a book by Felipe Fernlndez-Armesto about the whole of the American continent – a very clever book, I’m enjoying it very much – but nevertheless I can’t help thinlung he’s having to tighten it all up to make it fit the theme. Because I don’t believe in themes. But he does it very slulfully of course. He half convinced me this was the shape of it. But I can’t really subscribe to it. That’s why not only do I consider this period a muddle but I consider the book a muddle too.
Are there things you would have liked to write about and haven’t?
As I mentioned, Vietnam, which I feel is a big gap in my experience. Because it was one of the seminal events of my half-century. And then there are places I have never written about. I have never been over the border into Tibet, for example. A few years ago I was walking down the beach at Criccieth and a lady I know looked out her window and said, ‘Hello, where have you come back from this time?’ I was swanking, saying ‘Rio de Janeiro’ or ‘Sydney’ or somewhere. And then I said patronisingly, ‘And have you been anywhere abroad this year?’ And she said, ‘Well, yes, we did go to Tibet.’ That cut me down to size.
You’re basically a city person? [She looks quizzically through the window at the Welsh countryside and shrugs her shoulders.] All right, you mainly write about cities.
Yes, I’m mostly interested in cities. Maybe if I hadn’t lived in the country, I wouldn’t be quite so interested in cities. Cities are what draw me. Partly because I find it &cult to try and encapsulate an entire country. Fernindez- Armesto can encapsulate entire civilisations, but a city is about as far as I can get. I have only done one book about a country, which is Spain.
You respond to the vitality of a city.
Yes, I like to say that I have one foot in Llanystumdwy [her nearest vdlage] and one in Manhattan.
I loved ‘Manhattan 45’ , your book about New York after the war.
What I like best is the dedication – to a handful of American servicemen whose deaths were announced on the day the first shipload of troops came back from Europe. It began with the Queen Mary coming into New York harbour and everybody celebrating. In the same day’s paper the deaths of these servicemen were announced. I dedicated my book to them, but nobody knew why until the last page which explains it. That moved me – the idea of these poor fellows who never saw the celebration – and I liked the idea of not saying why until the end of the book. I had a letter from the widow of one of those soldiers. That touched me too.
You obviously like getting those responses.
Yes, I do, I like it very much indeed, and not least from New York, which I find a very emotional city and I’m emotional about too. I do love that place.
You had a rather dgerent response when you wrote about Sydney, didn’t you?
Yes, I received terrible letters – for five years – because I wrote an awful essay about it. But when I later wrote a nice piece, nobody took any notice. You have to write a bad piece.
Going back to places, what is your favourite? I was surprised when you wrote about Canada providing yourfavourite essays. Is it also a favourite place?
St John’s in Newfoundland is. But, otherwise, no. I like the essays, but I’m not very keen on the places. Except that they’re very decent aren’t they? It’s a very good country, I thnk, Canada.
Yes, poor thing. It’s bang next to an infinitely more interesting and vibrant giant. I asked my son [Mark] who lives in the dreariest part of all, just outside Edmonton, ‘Wouldn’t you like to go down to live in the States?’ He said, ‘Nothing would induce me to go to America.’
Some people would baulk at America in its current political climate.
Who wouldn’t? Even me. In fact, I wrote a piece the other day saying the last place you’d think of going to at the moment, if you were huddled and poor, yearning to breathe ffee, would be New York. You asked about my favourite city. I have to say that the best of the whole lot is Venice. We were there earlier this year. Every time I’ve gone to Venice, and I’ve gone since the Second World War, practically every year, I’ve always taken a taxi into the city from where you have to leave a car. Always. There are lots of vaporetti, but I’m darned if I’m going to go on them. This time Elizabeth [her partner] was with me. She said, ‘Oh, Jan, why do you have to be so extravagant. Other people wdl go on the vaporetto, why can’t we? We’re not made of money.’ You know: all that lund of stuff. So I thought: anything for a quiet life, and we went on the vaporetto and tripped over everything, dropped our bags, it was chaos as usual. Before we’d got as far as Rialto, I’d had all my money stolen. So she’ll never nag me into thrift again.
What’s the attraction of Venice? It’s just the ensemble of it, the sheer beauty of it, it is like something God-given to me.
And the history? That, too; the whole thing muddled up together. For me, it is like a comet. A couple of years ago there was one which hovered over there. [She points.] I thought it was absolutely magical. Just like Venice. Because for me it all alone there in the water. I’m only just getting used to having a causeway. I like to think of it all alone there in the lagoon, with extraordinarily beautiful buildings everywhere, the water gleaming, dappled with sunshine, the food. The whole thing is so beautiful and so nice.
You’re obviously on the move a lot. I imagine you’re away half the year.
In the past, yes. But not so much now I don’t write books.
That could mean you’re away more.
I don’t like travelling except for doing something. For that reason I like to travel alone. I like to think about what I’m doing.
Nevertheless there have been places where you’ve put down roots. Oxford and Wales seem to be two ofthem, possibly London.
London not very much, but New York I’d agree to. had an apartment there. Oxford I suppose is true. It has been a running theme of my life and now I’m an honorary student of my college, which gives me great pride. Also Cairo. I spent quite a lot of time in Cairo.
Oxford and Wales represent two … I don’t want to say opposite, but two different aspects of your lige: the ideal of the English gentleman and the lure of Celtic romance. Do they sit comfortably within you?
Yes, I’m a born hybrid. I sense the difference between my son Tyrn and me. Elizabeth, his mother, was brought up in Sri Lanka. He is half British and half Welsh. But he kuch more Welsh than I am, being brought up here. Although we are very ahke in many ways and have collaborated on books. the difference between us is extraordinant really. He doesn’t have any feeling for that sense of statel; order that I Ue about England, and his humour is different too. Mine is Enghsh humour, his is Welsh humour.
You haven’t turned your back on your English side?
No, I’m like Giraldus Cambrensis, who was part Norman and part Welsh and proud of the best in both of them, and so I am. The fact is I no longer believe in race. I no longer believe in nationality.
You say that, but you seem very conscious of what it is to be Welsh.
I’ve changed over the years. I’m no less proud to be Welsh, but I think of it now as a culturalism rather than nationalism, because nationalism has soured on me. never did like the word, which implies something mean and aggressive or oppositional. Now I’ve thought about it, and I explored in the Trieste book about how you can be whatever nationality you want. It’s partly a matter of chance; you can go and alter your nationality; it can be altered by war or something. The whole idea of nations has soured on me while the idea of cultural entities has grown stronger, do you understand me?
More or less: what do you mean by ‘cultural entities’? In this context it is the Welsh wav of life. which is particularly focused on the language, whether we like it or not. But it goes deeper than that – it goes into an outlook of life, it goes into a tradition of the way you live, the way you think, the way you act towardsother people, and the difference, for example, between Welsh people living here and even Welsh people living in South Wales. It’s very pronounced I think. And because I don’t think it’s got racial origins, but has got cultural origins, therefore I’ve come to think of myself as a culturalist. But it’s very hazy thinking, like everything I do.
Back to your travels, are you aware of the homogenisation of cultures?
I am a bit now. I’ve got a bit depressed about the state of the world lately. I used to argue that the Big Mac sprang from the human heart and I think that was true – everyone wanted a big hamburger, even in the most sophisticated places people are happy to have a good hamburger. But I can’t help thinlung it’s gone too far. What used to seem a rather pleasing thing – nations coming together, as Teilhard de Chardin used to say – now it’s gone too far because homogenisation has come to mean Americanisation, pretty well.
The only thing to counter that is Islam.
Yes, that stands out against it, and Buddhism to a degree. But Islam is the only one that is confiontationally exposing it, that’s true. It’s not going to win, though.
When you first went to Oxford, the University was still producing the young men who weregoing to run the British Empire.
It was a bit late for people to think of running the British Empire by then . If people were thinlung in that way they were loolung forward to a pretty short career. Nevertheless I felt that the lone”e r we extended the rearguard action to keep British influence paramount in the world, especially in an imperial context, the better it would be for everybody, including the subject peoples. I couldn’t accept the principle of empire now. I’m not sure I could then. The idea of one people ruling over another by force is very hard to argue for in principle at least. In practise it’s a bit different.
I suppose what you’re saying is that once you saw it in situ, you made the rational decision that it was better that it should remain as it was. Have you experienced that in thejesh?
In West Africa, Nigeria, yes. And in India to begin with. I certainly wouldn’t say it now. But the feeling of collapse meant that at the time it seemed to me to be worth procrastinating about. I would have felt the same, I expect, about the decay of the Roman Empire. When I did my empire books [the Pax Britannica trilogy, 1968- 781, I was specifically thinking of myself in Roman terms. I thought how wonderful it would have been if there had before a young centurion at the time of the Roman Empire, not only describing but expressing his feelings. I thought that I was that observer.
You acknowledge that you like power and the trappings of power. Maybe you’ve changed on that.
No, I haven’t. I’m dazzled. I hate authoritv but sometimes it seduces me because it’s so beautifui. Bad things can be beautiful very often, I think. The thing about the British style of power in empire was that for me it always had a slight air of irony, even of comedy. You might say that the design of the Nazi empire was superior to that of the British one – it was clearer and cleaner and in many ways more beautiful: its cars were more beautiful, its colours more beautiful. But the British one being always slightly fusty, I like that too. I like the idea that there were tleotlle behind these I I ridiculous costumes who were slightly amused about it themselves. I don’t know whether they were but I like to think they were. From our distance in time I can regard it with affectionate humour – and admiration too.
We’ve seen power rather unattractively extended of late by the Americans.
Have we not?
But on the other hand there is such a diversity ofopinion there. It is very odd, with talk ofcoups, and all that. What do you make of it?
I’m very depressed. As I say in the later essays in my latest book, for years and years I’ve sneered at the old farts who say the world is going to the dogs and now I realise they’re right.
It’s ironic. In the 1950s the Americans favoured Arab .l nationalism as the coming force which would supersede the reactionary regimes which we British tended to support. They took over our dominant role in the Middle East. But when another poweful Arab nationalist came along, Saddam Hussein, they couldn’t handle it. Perhaps we should have been more forcefir1 about hanging on to our empire in the face of American power. But we bowed to the inevitable and managed our exit reasonably well.
I suppose the blot was Palestine. That’s where we did fail.
I realise that you feel strongly about that. You’re not an unthinking pro-Arab, and at the same time you’re sympathetic to theJewish people.
Absolutely. It is one case where there really is a conflict of two rights. I can’t see how there is an answer to it. We began it all with the Balfour Declaration. We encouraged the Israelis in the first place and when it got too messy and tricky for us we just cut and ran – urged, of course, bv the Americans again.
That was your introduction to journalism, wasn’t it – when you left the army and, for a year before you went up to Oxford, joined the Arab News Agency in Cairo in 1948?
It was not actually my introduction, because before I joined the army I spent two or three months working on a paper in Bristol – the Western Daily Press. It was also the cradle of Tom Stoppard.
You weren’t there long.
I wanted to go into the army but I couldn’t before I was seventeen. SO I went and did that. Great fun it was too. That was where I met Irving Berlin. That’s a proud claim, isn’t it?
I was going to ask you about Irving Berlin. When you did ‘Desert Island Discs’, every song you chose was by him.
It was, but that was the second time I did it. The first time I dld it like everyone else. To show how broadrmnded they are, they have a bit of Prokofiev, an unaccompanied Bach, stuff like that, and then a bit of Jerome Kern and then the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. The first time I did that. The second time I thought I’d go the whole hog.
Talking about the Middle East, after university you wrote about the region for ‘The Times’. You very much related to being the representative of ‘The Times’, didn’t you?
I did really. There again I was amused by it.
All of it?
Parts were a bit macho for me. I liked the paper in the abstract really. Again I liked its humour – ironic – and I liked its ungoody-goodyness in the days before political correctness.
Yes, you’re very un-politically correct.
I hope so, I do hope so.
Somewhere you refer to yourself as an anarcho-radical. Somehow I have you in my mind as a typical ‘Guardian’ reader. But you didn’t like ‘The Guardian’.
I’m an anarchist manqué.
There is a conservative side to you, though.
I think an anarchist is someone who doesn’t conform to any particular form of authority – or any example, for that matter. How could I incidentally conform to any particular authority or style or example? I can’t because I’m a permanent compromise.
In 1956 you moved to the ‘Manchester Guardian’. Why?
It was about Suez. I thought that was a great mistake – squalid, miserable and very unstylish. Also I moved partly because The Times would not allow me to write books. They wouldn’t let me do a book about Everest [Coronation Everest, 19581 and I had trouble doing a book about the crossing of Oman [Sultan in Oman, 19571. The Guardian offered me much more freedom. Its staff included people like Bernard Levin and Michael Frayn.
I suppose you haven’t thought too much about Everest until this year, the fiftieth anniversary of the conquest.
No, except that everywhere I go in the world people remember it. They say, ‘You were the person who got the news home for Coronation Day.’
You’ve written mainly about places. In your trilogy you write wondeful biographical sketches. But so far as I know you’ve only done two full lives – about Admiral Jackie Fisher [‘Fisher’s Face’, 19951 and President Lincoln [‘Lincoln’, 19991. Why places rather than people?
Probably because I’m better at places than people. Or perhaps I’m more interested in places than people. The only people I’ve done books about have been people I’ve been intensely interested in. Also I’m intensely ungregarious and unsociable. I don’t awfully like the human race. I’m not crazv about its foolish face.
Do I really believe that? As a writer you seem to engage people.
I quite like people, but I try to get away from them too. That’s whv I don’t like bed and breakfasts. I don’t want people to come and talk. I want to go to a motel where nobody’s going to be a bore.
I write about places purely because circumstances took me to them – they were the first strange things I was interested by. Returning to this latest book, the awful thing is that my style doesn’t seem to have changed or even greatly improved.
I thought you suggested that your style has changed.
Not exactly. I say that you might be interested to see if it has changed, because people often do say that. It begins with an essay about Manhattan – or there’s one near the beginning – and there’s another near the end. Really it seems to me they’re about as good as each other. They haven’t got any better. What you gain in experience you lose in that first breezy enthusiasm.
Do you still have that kind of immediate travel writer’s reaction when you go somewhere? You’re able to sum it up in a few pithy sentences at a particular moment in time?
I think so. It’s those breezy generalisations I’m more wary of now.
You wrote a lot for ‘Rolling Stone’. I can imagine they rang you out qf the blue and asked you to work for them. It seems to have been a good relationship.
It was my happiest. I thought they were delightful people.
The paper grew out of rock’n’roll, with all the permissive values that went with it. You seem to have been at home in that world.
Yes, I got on well with it. I liked young Americans of that generation – I thought they were decent people, interesting and clever. Now they’ve all matured and got a bit more ordinary.
Did your sympathy for their alternative lijiestyle result partly from the profound personal change you were going through?
I don’t think I was influenced by them, but I was sympathetic to them for that reason.
At the same time you do present Welshness in alternative terms. What is that about?
It is certainly mixed up with liberty and the freedom to be what you like, which I proved when I went through this sex-change thing. People around here – oldschool people on the whole, brought up in the chapel, they took it all in their stride. That open-mindedness – I don’t know I would have felt it in England – is part of what I like about the Welsh spirit. But mostly what I like about it is a profoundly ingrained kindness. It is a very kind civilisation. I think kindness is the answer to all our problems. Kindness is the thing. And the Dalai Lama agrees with me. Someone sent me a car sticker – ‘Kindness is my religion’ – and it is a quote from the Dalai Lama.
You could say that is the basis ofany religion.
It is, but in my case it is not mixed up with any mumbo-jumbo.
Is there something about the Welsh way of lifethat is based on religion?
I suppose so. Many heads must have been tempered by religion because until recently they were such avid chapel-goers.
That’s one aspect, and also there is a mythical or perhaps mystical side, reflected in the bardic traditions.
I wonder if that adds up to the sense of wildness that I like. If you mean wildness as being organic because it is rooted in the wildness of the earth itself, I would agree. Most of my son’s friends are poets. They seem to me very separate, slightly on a different plane from ordinary life – and I think it is deeply rooted in the soil and the countryside – nature, really. That part of it I like very much. It is in a way the opposite to chapel-going but deeper than that I think. It is the way in which they are brought up with a strong sense of family and friendship and of living close together and being dependent on each other.
You’ve turned tojction a couple of times when writing about Wales. For your most ambitious fictional creation you invented a place, with its own intricate history and geograjhy, in ‘Last Lettersfrom Hav’ [ 1985}.
I’m terribly fond of it, but it’s a terribly confusing city: you never really know what is happening there. It’s got all sorts of undercurrents – part Trieste, with touches of Beirut. Partly because I had come to the conclusion that I didn’t really understand any of the cities I’d visited, I thought I’d put all these feelings into this book. That was the chief one – one of mystification when I realised that I was just a superficial observer and a city’s a mysterious place – much more so than a writer such as me recognises. Normally I would never admit that I was baflled. But in this case I do admit it. The longer I stay [in Hav] I realise how little I do understand it. And it ends in a calamity, a rather topical one, when an unspecified hostile power takes over.
To what extent in your fiction were you exploring ideas that vou couldn’t tackle elsewhere?
I’ve always aspired to fiction, which is why I hate people calling me a travel writer, because it seems to me the books I have written are not exactly fiction and they’re not exactly fact either – but a sort of mixture of the two in which imagination plays a very large part. But I never went the whole hog and never shall.
Is there something you would still like to write about? In a desultory way I’m writing a book now for posthumous publication. We lost a child, a girl, when she was just a couple of months old. I’ve always regretted not getting to know her. We never had time to exchange words at all, so I’m writing the book for her benefit. When it’s finished I’m going to put it under the stairs with all the rest of the junk and my greatgrandchildren will find it and they’ll sell it to Random House for a million bucks and they’ll all be happy. It’s certainly not going to be didactic like Lord Chesterfield’s ‘Letters’ to his son. It’s just something which I think mi”eh t amuse her – “general stuff. It’s a pleasure because I know nobody’s going to read it for half a century anyway. I can say absolutely whatever I like without fear of reviewers.
You’re not writing an autobiography?
I’ve done that. My whole work is an autobiography, besides two specific things – Conundrum and Pleasures of a Tangled Life , which is intended to be the obverse of Conundrum. I don’t know if anvone recognised it as such. But that was a memoir too.
Corny question, but who are your favourite writers?
I have so many, but two I always mention are Alexander Kinglake and Charles Doughty. Doughty is actually more than a favourite; he is a fascination. It is the rhythm of his writing and the strangeness. He is marvellous, strange, weird – unlike anyone else who ever wrote. The Trieste book was very important to you, wasn’t it? I see it as a realise equivalent to ‘Last Letters from Hav’.
Not really. It’s got more about me in it than the other books even if it’s often between the lines. It’s like acredo or a confessional although it looks like a travel book. It makes a good pendant to Venice , my other book about an Adriatic city. Because Wnice is a very straightforward book, a very happy book. I had no problems in life then; nothing was wrong. That was forty years ago. Trieste was two years ago: everything happened to me in the intervening period, and the book is much more complicated and subtle than the Venice one. For the first time I feel I’ve really found my voice, describing a city with such a divided history. In the same way I’ve always felt out on a limb, slightly vain, but somehow pulling through.
Is there anything I’ve neglected to ask you?
You haven’t got anything about Ibsen [her Norwegian farm cat, who has been loitering]. I suppose he is not relevant to literature but he sort of is. He’s got a literary name anyway. I’ve written a lot about cats, and more about animals in general. I believe very strongly in the association of animals and humans – I think it is important to one’s sensibility and one’s nature. Unlike a dog, a cat can go away; he can go anywhere he wants to, and does.
And you relate to that freedom?
Absolutely. I used to have a birdcage in here because it was rather beautiful. I hate the thought of birds in cages so I ostentatiously always kept the door open. I’ve never kept anything inside a cage.