Jan Morris likes to be known as a ‘writer about places’ (a much classier designation than mere ‘travel writer’). But she herself is best understood in the context of journeys. A loafer who quietly observes as she moves among peoples and places, she has undergone a series of remarkable personal odysseys. These include her well-publicised gender transition in the 1960s and her apparently seamless evolution from an upright Englishman into a fiery Welsh republican, who in 1993 was elected to the Gorsedd (Throne) of Bards.
As she enters her nineties, it is time to take stock. Morris has always rejected the idea of a biography. But Derek Johns was her literary agent for two decades and knows her and her output well, so, with her help (and her own delightful line drawings), he has written a ‘literary life’ – really an affectionate memoir, which is shortish, sharp and full of insight.
Johns adopts a thematic approach that charts Morris’s career in a loosely chronological manner. We start with Morris at Oxford, where he adopted a High Anglican aesthetic, being drawn to the buildings, culture and mission, while also developing a strange ‘sense of sacrament and fragility’, which he came to identify