The greatest distance travelled by Jan Morris, who has died aged 94, was not across the Earth’s surface but between extraordinary identities: from being the golden-boy newspaper reporter James Morris to the female voyager and historian Jan Morris. James became Jan when what was then called a sex change was unexplored territory, from which she boldly sent back an early dispatch in 1974.
The 70s reaction to that transformation was at best incomprehension, at worst hostility, especially literary hostility, but Morris wrote on – publishing more than 40 books, many still in print, even though the places they describe have metamorphosed too. She became an institution after having experienced the world, and herself in it, change radically in a lifetime.
James Humphrey Morris came from a house not of words but of music, in Clevedon, Somerset, as the youngest of three sons of an English mother, Enid (nee Payne), a church organist, and a Welsh father, Walter Morris, an engineer by training who had never really recovered from being gassed in the first world war. James’s brothers, Gareth and Christopher, went on to have long careers in music – Gareth as a flautist and Christopher as an organist. James went at nine as a chorister to Christ Church Cathedral school in Oxford, then to Lancing college in Sussex.
He slipped into journalism at 16 on the Western Daily Press in Bristol. Colour blindness prevented him from joining the navy during the second world war, so he signed for the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers and a commission as intelligence officer, celebrating his 21st birthday onboard a troop train from Egypt to Palestine. “I knew life was going to be OK. At last, in the army of all places, I felt I was free.” After demob, he worked in Cairo for a news agency, read English at Christ Church, Oxford, and edited Cherwell magazine.
On an Arabic course, Morris met Elizabeth Tuckniss, a former Wren and daughter of a tea planter. They married in 1949 and had five children, one born while his father was high on Mount Everest in 1953, as a correspondent for the Times covering the Himalayan expedition led by John Hunt. He packed a new typewriter ribbon for the ascent (“I was a sucker for the romance of newspapers”) and his coded communique to the paper announcing that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had reached the summit arrived just in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
Morris’s first book, Coast to Coast (1956), came out of a cross-US journey funded by a Commonwealth fellowship. After the 1956 Suez invasion, which the Times supported and Morris did not, he left for the Manchester Guardian, as it was then, alternating six months of researching books with six on the paper (hence one book dedicated to “philanthropists in Cross Street” – the paper’s Manchester HQ).
Later Morris forfeited a promised job on the Observer after telling its anti-colonial editor, David Astor, that the British empire “is on the whole a force for good in the world, and … fighting a rearguard action is the right and honourable thing to do”. He was anyway an outrageously successful journalist, moving with his family to live in the French Alps, flush with flash magazine commissions (a single piece – not one for the Guardian – paid for a car) and contracts for more books, including Sultan in Oman (1957) and The Hashemite Kings (1959).
The port of embarkation for a postjournalistic life was Venice, and the first recognisably Morrisian work was a biography of the city (1960), “less a case of finding a voice and more the voice finding something that was right for it”. His approach to all conurbations was to “run about the city like a mad dog”, sniffing for vital trivia. “The first place I visit is the law court … Then the market. And the railway station.”
Critics cavilled that his travelling was over-impressionistic, yet the intensity of the details still hooks readers: Istanbul’s mud, a gloop of civilisations; fingerholes poked in the paper screens of Kyoto. Morris could even create a collage of a location out of tiny facts retrieved only from archives, as in the exhilarating Manhattan ’45 (1987), a love letter to New York at its postwar apogee of neon and nylons; Morris did not arrive in the city until rather later.
Morris’s written voice always sounded certain, as if he strode about the world whistling. Yet what he was most sure about, and had been since toddlerhood, was that the male body of James was an error; that James’s identity was female. Elizabeth, who intuited this early, supported the choice to make belief reality through courses of female hormones in the 1960s and reassignment surgery in a Casablanca clinic in 1972, from where James returned as Jan.
Morris relished the adventure: “I was a member of two clubs in London, one as a man and one as a woman, and I would sometimes change my identity in a taxi between the two.” Morris had been denied surgery in the UK because the couple refused to divorce, and wrote in Conundrum (1974), which told most of the story, that the marriage had no right to work, “yet it worked like a dream, living testimony … of love in its purest sense over everything else”.
Even the kindest public response at the time was bafflement. Germaine Greer was not alone in denying the validity of Morris’s female persona. Interviewers were prurient or bemused, or both; literati were spiteful –“He was a better writer than she”, spat the novelist Rebecca West, although in perspective any softening in Morris’s prose is more attributable to the era’s change of tone from public assertion to private confession, from reportage to memoir.
Morris’s exploration of sexual identities enhanced her trilogy on the social history of the British empire, Pax Britannica (1968), Heaven’s Command (1973) and Farewell the Trumpets (1978). “I thought how wonderful it would be if some Roman centurion in the last days of the empire had written not only a description of it, but also something about his own feelings. Then I thought, ‘here I am, on the collapsing frontiers of the British empire, why don’t I do it?’”
Pax opens at the imperial zenith of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee; Heaven’s Command, a prequel about the empire’s creation, understands the grand illusions in the projection of power, both of masculinity and imperialism. Morris’s knowledge of altered states, plus her memories of post-1948 nights when so many new presidents of former colonies, lately released from detention, danced with Princess Margaret after the union flag was hauled down, enriched Farewell the Trumpets.
Morris naturalised as Welsh through elective affinity with her father’s land. She did formally divorce Elizabeth, and after their children had grown and left the family home, Plas Trefan, in Llanystumdwy, they moved to live together for decades as “sisters-in-law” in its converted stables, Trefan Morys. At their home’s heart was a great kitchen where the postman left the mail on the table long after the habit was abandoned elsewhere. (After other customs and laws had also evolved, the couple registered a civil partnership at Pwllheli council office in 2008.)
Morris was “emotionally in thrall to Welshness” and wrote of it, notably in The Matter of Wales (1984); she had steadied from “a wandering swank”, she said, into a matron who came home to a sure core of warmth.
Sometimes she made whimsical choices of subject, and of genre, especially the fantasy-fiction travelogue Last Letters From Hav (1985), and other works dispraised, along with their author, as “fantastically self-indulgent”, as Andrew Roberts wrote of her biography Lincoln: A Foreigner’s Quest (1999). Morris acknowledged the indulgence, adding that “the whole oeuvre of travel is one enormous ego-biography”, but the criticisms hurt.
She vowed several times to type no more, but could not give up the daily practice of writing, which produced the inspired Fifty Years of Europe (1997) and Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (2001). Both fixed as their nexus Trieste, the Adriatic port whose allegiances and importance, even name, had always been in flux; both explored the landscape of the middle and far distances of lived time – white-haired Jan in age, looking, as John Walsh wrote in the Independent, like the “nation’s head brownie”, perched on a bollard on a Triestine jetty, connecting back to young James in the dislocated Europe of 1945.
Both books now read as unintended valedictions for a long interlude of optimism, for, as Trieste was at the printers, Morris circled the globe in search of the zeitgeist; “everywhere people were fed up with being bullied by other cultures, or of other cultures coming in”. She returned to Wales on 11 September 2001 just as that “zeitgeist manifested itself”. The daily writing continued, though, producing, among other volumes, In My Mind’s Eye (2018), serialised on BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week, and, earlier this year, Thinking Again.
Morris was elected to the Gorsedd of bards in 1992 and made a CBE in 1999.
For years a joint memorial stone for Jan and Elizabeth, destined for an islet in the river near Trefan Morys, lay submerged in a muddle of junk under the house stairs. It was inscribed in Welsh and English: “Here are two friends … At the end of one life.”
Elizabeth and four of their children, Twm, Henry, Mark and Suki, survive her.
• Jan Morris, writer, born 2 October 1926; died 20 November 2020