The writer who captured the essence of Europe
- Credit: Corbis via Getty Images
CHARLIE CONNELLY pays tribute to the late Jan Morris, the author he credits with firing his passion for the continent.
At the end of her book Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, published in 2001, Jan Morris speculated about an afterlife where, “I shall happily haunt the two places that have most happily haunted me. Most of the after-time I shall be wandering with my beloved along the banks of the Dwyfor; but now and then you may find me in a boat below the walls of the Miramar, watching the nightingales swarm”.
If there is an afterlife, specifically one that grants even such low-key ambitions for eternity, one of our greatest writers is as you read this either taking a Welsh riverside stroll or bobbing off the shore of Trieste in an Adriatic avian reverie. Her death last week at the age of 94 brought to a close a life so extraordinary it’s a wonder she still managed to squeeze it into nine-and-a-half decades.
As a journalist it was Morris who, as the Times correspondent, broke the news of Hillary and Tenzing becoming the first conquerors of Everest in 1953, having ascended with the party as far as the final camp before the summit. Thanks to Morris’s quick descent the news could be published in London on the morning of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Morris covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann, reported on the Suez war, lived for a time on the Nile in a houseboat that once belonged to Field Marshal Montgomery and met Che Guevara in Havana.
Her 1974 book Conundrum documented her transition from James Morris to Jan, beginning with the realisation at the age of three sitting beneath a piano as her mother played Sibelius that she should have been a girl. She began taking hormone pills in her late 30s in 1964 and underwent full surgery in Casablanca eight years later. As James she married Elizabeth Tuckniss in 1949 and had five children and although they were legally obliged to divorce after transition the pair remained together. In 2008 they entered into a civil union. Elizabeth survives her.
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Despite all the above, it is as one of our greatest authors of non-fiction that Jan Morris will be remembered (although even her one attempt at a novel made it onto the shortlist for the Booker Prize). Described by Dame Rebecca West as “perhaps the best descriptive writer of our time” Morris wrote more than 40 books, most of them classed as works of travel literature even though she always baulked at being labelled a travel writer.
“I’m not the sort of writer who tries to tell other people what they are going to get out of a city,” she said in 1997. “I don’t consider my books travel books. I don’t like travel books; I don’t believe in them as a genre of literature. Every city I describe is really only a description of me looking at the city or responding to it.”
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To call what she did ‘description’ would be a little like calling Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling a nice bit of interior decorating. Nobody wrote about place like Morris wrote about place. She had an exceptional gift for capturing the essence of somewhere, its atmosphere, its character, sometimes distilling a whole city into viewing a painting, overhearing a brief snatch of conversation or seeing a particular building. Even a glimpse of the face of a passer-by could open up wherever it was Morris happened to be in a way that made it familiar despite the reader never having been within a thousand miles of the place.
This ability was enhanced by a deep natural warmth and empathy. “I would like to have been asked if there was any moral purpose emerging from my 40-odd books,” she said, “and I would answer yes, my gradually growing conviction that simple kindness should be the governing factor of human conduct.”
She wrote entire books about Venice, Oxford, Sydney and New York and books about Spain, Hong Kong, South Africa and her beloved Wales. Many others have written about these places but no-one has ever achieved the same combination of wit, description, literary allusion and lightly-worn historical expertise.
Her best writing of all was always reserved for Europe. It’s possible, likely even, that there are readers of this newspaper whose passion for our continent was forged at least in part by reading Jan Morris. This writer is certainly among them: my copy of her 1998 Fifty Years of Europe: An Album in particular, a collection of stories and anecdotes from a half century of pan-European travels, is falling apart, and, while not remotely as well-travelled as its author, has long accompanied me on journeys across the continent from Iceland to Bosnia.
It was through her writing I first came truly to know Europe, beyond the map on the classroom wall and childhood family package holidays. Her words inspired me to travel through the continent, from buying my student Interrail ticket dreaming of Venice with her book about the city in my pocket to reading her words lying flat on sunny Faroese hillsides and sitting in dingy Sarajevo cafes, aware that these were the kind of places where I’d learn the most, trusting, Morris-style, in serendipity.
“I draw from E. M. Forster’s advice that in order to see the city of Alexandria best one ought to wander around it aimlessly,” she said. “The other inspiration I take from the psalms; you might remember the line ‘grin like a dog and run about the city’.”
Her genius lay in an ability to open up the sheer variety of Europe to the reader, its languages, its histories, its constantly shifting borders, its quarrels, its people, its traditions, its landscape, with a mixture of curiosity and love underpinning every word. She lived through some of Europe’s most tumultuous times – her first experiences of the continent were as a soldier of the 9th Queen’ Royal Lancers in the closing years of the Second World War – yet never lost the sense of magic she discerned in its architecture, landscape and people.
She retained an unshakable optimism about the European future, writing at the end of the last century of how she sensed “an exhaustion with almost every kind of violence, racism, sexism and nationalism: the often floundering efforts of the late-20th-century Europeans to unite are instinctive impulses towards a friendlier, quieter life for everyone”.
From Brexit to Victor Orban it's been hard to retain that level of optimism in recent years, but if Jan Morris could do it after witnessing at close hand the Second World War and the Cold War then perhaps there is still cause to be positive even in a post-Morris Europe. Her absence will be keenly felt and along with the stilling of her pen a bright light goes out in the world. At least the world can only benefit from the legacy she leaves in favour of that fast-running Dwyfor and those swarming Miramar nightingales.
“If you are not sure what you think about something, the most useful questions are these,” she said. “Are you being kind? Are they being kind? That usually gives you the answer.”
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