The Long Voyage Home Essay, Research Paper
The long voyage homeOn the Sunday after the attack on the World Trade Centre, the New York Times published a special supplement of essays about the city. While the articles were mostly written by New Yorkers, the introductory essay was by a product of the British Empire who is now a Welsh nationalist. A few lines from Jan Morris’s 1987 book Manhattan ‘45 were placed below an apocalyptic picture of the newly shattered cityscape: “The Manhattan skyline shimmered in the imaginations of all the nations, and people everywhere cherished the ambition, however unattainable, of landing one day upon that legendary foreshore.” Morris says she was “deeply touched” to see her writing used to help capture the catastrophe that had overwhelmed a city she loves. But the conjoining of her words to important world events is nothing new. It was Morris who broke the news that a British-led expedition had conquered Mount Everest the day before the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Then working as a young reporter on the Times, Morris describes the assignment in the Himalayas as, “an exercise in splendidly old-fashioned journalism”. Final preparations included packing a new ribbon for the typewriter and collecting a pair of corduroy trousers from the cleaners. But allied to physical courage in getting down the mountain and a dogged resourcefulness in getting the news home, Morris scooped the world and was launched on one of the most remarkable literary careers in the second half of the 20th century. As a foreign correspondent in the 50s, Morris chronicled the rolling back of the British Empire from north Africa and the Middle East. It was Morris as star reporter who delivered set-piece reportage from Adolf Eichmann’s 1962 Jerusalem war-crimes trial. The early travel books about America, Oman and South Africa were all well-received before the publication of a cultural and historical study of Venice in 1960 elevated Morris to the first rank of writers. The book has become a classic, never out of print. Equally acclaimed studies of Spain and Oxford followed, as did the Pax Britannica trilogy, encompassing the rise and fall of the British Empire from Victoria’s accession in 1837 to Churchill’s death in 1965. Later still came a Booker short-listed novel, a fiercely patriotic series of articles and books about Wales and a continuing stream of journalism and criticism. Alistair Cooke dubbed Morris the Flaubert of the Jet Age and Rebecca West hailed, “perhaps the best descriptive writer of our time”. But what makes this body of work unique is the story contained in an autobiography, Conundrum, published in 1974. As one reviewer pointed out, “no writer of such intelligence, humour and sensitivity has ever undergone a complete sex-change and written about it so well”. James Morris, as she was until then, was not only an extremely famous writer, but was also married and had fathered five children. The publication of Conundrum was a source of intense public interest as well as one of the major cultural events of the 70s. Nearly 30 years on, Morris declares herself “bored to death” with her sex-change, but she did speculate in 1978, reluctantly, one suspects, that in its aftermath she became a writer of “changed sensibilities, of a softer prose style”. One critic notes that while James’s early books convey exotic parts of the world almost through adventure stories, “Jan hasn’t really written that type of book. Hers are more leisurely strolls.” The writer Simon Winchester, a longstanding friend, says the “brilliant foreign correspondent, reporter and raconteur rather left her reporting roots behind. She began to get much more imaginative both in her writing and thinking.” These developments have not been to everyone’s taste. Rebecca West cuttingly claimed that “he was a better writer than she”, and others have complained about a flowery prose style and tendency to feyness. The criticism of Jan’s increasingly personal approach to her subject matter reached a peak two years ago with historian Andrew Roberts’s review of Morris’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. “The 16th president gets only an occasional look-in, and readers will discover more that is factual about him from a Ladybird book than from this fantastically self-indulgent concoction of suppositions,” wrote Roberts. “Jan Morris, who has some fine works of seri ous, evidence-driven history to her name, should have known better.” Morris, who has been known to write aggrieved letters to hostile reviewers, was not only taken aback by the comments, she also tended to agree with them. The upshot is that she says her latest book, about Trieste, which is out this month to coincide with her 75th birthday – last Tuesday – will be the last she publishes. “But I have decided to end with a bang and make it the most self indulgent of the lot,” she laughs. And indeed, the part history, part memoir of the “ethnically ambivalent, historically confused” Adriatic seaport is typically full of personal flourish. As a soldier Morris was posted to Trieste just after the war and has returned regularly ever since. Her leisurely and apparently free-wheeling approach to the subject captures its strangely shifting geographical and cultural significance. But underlying the book is a strain of melancholy, and at one point Morris compares the city to a “specialist in retirement”, no longer reading the journals because they make him feel out of date, pottering about the house trying to keep himself busy while all the time knowing that, “the fascination of his calling that has driven him with so much satisfaction for so many years, is never going to be resumed”. It begs the question about her withdrawal from publishing. “I will be writing other things, but that review of Lincoln did hit home,” she says. “It does seem that almost everything I write comes back to me. When I write about a city I’m writing about my response to the city, my invention of the city in a way. There are a few exceptions – I think the empire books were more detached – but many of the others have been concerned with myself and I’m getting a bit tired of that. But having said that, and you must forgive me for this, all this is because if you look at it, my life has been interesting.” James Humphrey Morris was born in Somerset in 1926. His Welsh father was an engineer and his English mother a pianist who had studied in Leipzig and went on to give recitals for the fledgling BBC. Morris has two brothers who were also musical; one became head of music publishing at the Oxford University Press and the other, a flautist, also had a role in the family input to the coronation by playing at the Westminster Abbey ceremony. Although Morris won’t talk about her family or childhood beyond saying that it, “was entirely happy”, it is said that some members of her immediate family took many years to accept her change of gender. But she says she knew from the very beginning that she had been born the wrong sex. When aged three or four Morris remembers sitting under the piano as his mother played Sibelius, thinking he should really be a girl. By the time he was five this notion was “profoundly ingrained”. At nine, he was sent to Oxford to be a chorister at Christ Church. Five years later he began boarding at Lancing College, West Sussex, where she recalls in Conundrum, in one of the rare passages she has written about sex, that it was, “fun to be pursued and gratifying to be admired,” by older boys. But he never felt homosexual, always regarding himself as, “wrongly equipped”. Even as an adult, she says, his “libidinous fancies” were always far vaguer than his contemporaries’, being “more concerned with caress than copulation”. His first job in journalism came, when he was 17, with a six-month unpaid stint for the Western Daily Press in Bristol, where early career coups included interviews with James Cagney and Cary Grant. Despite claiming to have been “frightened” by the strictly hierarchical disciplinary regime at Lancing, Morris then enrolled at Sandhurst before joining the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, where he served as an intelligence officer in Italy and then Palestine. Surprisingly, he had a wonderful time. “I was rotten military material,” she now recalls. “I arrived in the Po Valley, fresh from Sandhurst all weedy and hopeless, at one of the best and grandest regiments in the British army. I walked into the commanding officer’s tent and to my astonishment this war-worn, very distinguished colonel rose to his feet to greet me. And from that moment of courtesy I knew life in the army was going to be OK. At last, in the army of all places, I felt I was free.” After demob in 1949, he took a course in Arabic back in England then returned to Cairo to work as a reporter for an Arab news agency before returning to Oxford where he read English and edited the student magazine, Cherwell. “I loved Oxford but didn’t much like academic life,” she now says. “Really, I just read books, which is what I would have done anyway.” By this time Morris had married Elizabeth Tuckniss, the daughter of a Sri Lankan tea planter. Tuckniss had been in the Women’s Royal Naval Service and they met in London while Morris was on his Arabic course. They went on to have five children, born between the early 50s and early 60s, one of whom, Virginia, died aged only two months. Of the others Mark, who edited an encyclopedia of 20th- century composers, lives in Canada, Henry is a musician and teacher living in Devon, Susan is a mature student at the university of Wales reading Celtic studies, and Twm, an acclaimed poet in Welsh, also makes television programmes. There has been much speculation as to how the children responded to their father’s sex-change. Morris has written about how supportive the family have been and, indeed, Mark provided the art work for Conundrum’s cover. Twm, now a close neighbour, was also quoted a few years ago as saying that, “the effect on me has not been unhappy. On the contrary. It is fascinating. For Jan it has been a kind of journey, which few people, except in myths, have undertaken.” Two of the children have adopted the Welsh spelling of their name, Morys, and Jan says she’d have done it if she was a bit younger. She began to learn Welsh in 1960 and says she can read it adequately but speaks only pidgin-Welsh. Jan and Elizabeth divorced, but today they still live together, sharing a converted stables with a cat called Ibsen in the small north Wales village of Llanystumdwy, just up the road from Lloyd George’s old home. Their relationship is, of course, by any standard remarkable. Elizabeth knew of Jan’s belief that she was a woman from the outset and observers claimed that, if anything, Elizabeth accepted the inevitability of the sex-change before Jan did. Watching them now when they are together, preparing lunch or prompting each other with old stories, they are a touching mixture of old friends, sisters and, still, husband and wife. Trieste, like many of Morris’s other books, is dedicated to Elizabeth, and Morris has already taken possession of the headstone that will go on their joint grave on a small island on the River Dwyfor behind the house. The inscription will read, in Welsh and English, “Here are two friends, at the end of one life”. “It was a marriage that had no right to work,” claimed Morris in Conundrum, “yet it worked like a dream, living testimony, one might say, to the power of mind over matter – or of love in its purest sense over everything else.” But even without the sex-change, Morris’s extensive travelling meant the marriage was never a clichéd suburban arrangement. Elizabeth would be left holding the baby, literally, so their son Henry was born when James was on Everest. Sir Edmund Hillary is his godfather. Morris had gone to the Times straight from Oxford and within two years was being vetted by Everest expedition leader John Hunt for his suitability to make the trip. “Hunt had been Montgomery’s staff officer,” Morris explains, “and he had the same attitude. Instead of ‘this fellow Rommel is a nuisance’, it was ‘this mountain Everest is a nuisance, let’s fix it’.” Morris says he would have done anything to get the story. “I was a sucker for the romance of newspapers, especially for a huge story like that. If someone had turned up with a radio I would have happily smashed it up if they were going to get the story before me.” Morris’s first book came in 1956, when he published Coast To Coast, about a journey across America. It was ecstatically reviewed, particu larly in America where her reputation has been, if anything, greater than at home. His journalism was in huge demand and one friend recalls Morris buying a car on the proceeds of one article. She has subsequently spent more time in America than any other country outside the UK. The book of the Himalayas expedition, Coronation Everest, was not published until 1957, by which time Morris had left the Times because the paper would not allow its journalists to write books. His family moved to a home in the French Alps from where he intended to be a full-time writer and in the next two years he published first Sultan In Oman then The Market Of Suleika, which was a political tour d’horizon of the Middle East; a book of reportage about apartheid called South African Winter; and a history of the Hashemite Kings. But he was again working as a journalist, this time for the Guardian, which had lured him back to cover the Suez crisis, offering him the chance to work six months of the year for the paper and six months on his books. This arrangement lasted five years, but Morris says he was never really comfortable, complaining that, “the paper had its roots in northern non-conformism, not a faith that appealed to me”. A proposed move to the Observer was abandoned after a disastrous interview with then editor David Astor. Morris had just covered the British withdrawal from Iraq and Jordan for the Guardian and Astor asked him his opinion. “I said I think the British empire, although in retreat, is on the whole a force for good in the world, and therefore I think that fighting a rearguard action is the right and honourable thing to do,” recalls Morris. “Of course this was the exact opposite of what the Observer thought, so I didn’t join the paper.” The journalist and television presenter Alan Whicker, then a fellow war correspondent, first met Morris when they shared a flat in Egypt. Morris was already a star because of Everest, and Whicker says “he was easy to admire as a colleague. He was quite quiet, very neat and rather a prim young man, although also laconic and funny. She is patently very nice now and he was too, although he was a little waspish at times, and I think she has retained just enough acerbity to avoid boredom.” Morris’s period of dissatisfaction with his newspaper career ended in 1960 with the success of Venice, which enabled him to write full-time. The book was written while the family were living in the city during six months away from the Guardian. “It didn’t seem like a key moment at the time,” Morris says now, “but it was. It was better than anything I’d written before, and some would say better than I’ve written since.” She says it was less a case of finding a voice and more the voice finding something that was right for it. By the mid-60s it had been followed by studies of Spain and then Oxford, which cemented his reputation. Paul Clements, who has written an insightful, critical study of Morris, says the strength of these books, all still in print, is that “James Mor ris’s writing is almost impervious to time. Venice, Oxford, and Spain are timeless books. Even if the buildings change, the way he describes, for instance, the sound of a place, makes it still fresh..” Simon Winchester also commends Morris’s use of the narrative periphery. “She is great with the little charming and tangential footnote. She can tell a ripping story but then attaches to the main core so many little asides and adornments that you feel constantly rewarded by her writing.” Morris says that Pax Britannica “is the best thing I’ve done. I’d been reading Gibbon and 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 the empire, but also something about his own feelings as well. Then I thought, ‘here I am, on the collapsing frontiers of the British empire, why don’t I do it?’ I hope that’s how it is read in 100 years, as being by someone who was actually there.” The three parts of the trilogy were published in 1968, ‘73 and ‘78. All were initially published under the name James Morris, although subsequent reprints have used Jan. Morris’s physical transformation from man to woman had begun in the early 60s, when he began taking female hormones, and was concluded with an operation in a Casablanca clinic in 1972. Morris will publish a new edition of Conundrum next year, 30 years after she became a woman. “Some of it now reads as very dated,” she says, “particularly passages about the attitudes of men to women, but I’ve decided to leave it, it’s such a period piece.” Morris has endured constant physical scrutiny ever since. People comment that she drives her sporty cars like a man and that she whistles, an apparently male trait. The writer Paul Theroux, who says he doesn’t “think there is a writer alive who had Jan Morris’s serenity or strength,” ended an account of a visit to her home with a reference to Tootsie, the 1982 film in which Dustin Hoffman plays an actor who pretends to be an actress. Whicker speaks for many when he says how uneasy he was about their first meeting after the operation. “I was staggered to learn that he had gone to Morocco, and was nervous about meeting her afterwards. Do I shake her hand or kiss her cheek? Do I buy her a beer or a plate of cucumber sandwiches? A few years later I was in Hong Kong and out of the street maelstrom I heard someone shouting my name. Jan came over to me all smiles and said I hadn’t changed a bit. I could n’t say the same for her.” Robin Day, an Oxford contemporary of Morris, claimed the most embarrassment he ever felt on television was when asking Morris about her sex life. “I was reduced to a gibbering incompetent mess,” he recalled. “I said , ‘Do you?… Can you tell us how often? Can you live a f-f-full life?’ Of course, she knew exactly what I was getting at. She pulled herself up and said it was the most disgracefully intrusive question and that she would be complaining to the director-general.” Sir Patrick Nairne, a former senior civil servant, first met Morris as a neighbour in London nearly 50 years ago. He praises her bravery in every aspect of her life. “The descent down Everest was exceptionally dangerous; it was just one example of the courageous commitment to exploration which, I have sometimes thought, led Jan Morris to face the dangers of fulfilling what she had always felt – that she was really a woman, and then to go through with it alone in North Africa.” Morris acknowledges that “I do like a bit of danger and I don’t get much now,” and says she mostly enjoyed the social dangers of the sex-change. “There was a spice to it as there is in any undercover work. For a time I was a member of two clubs in London, one as a man and one as a woman, and I would sometimes, literally, change my identity in a taxi between the two. Anyone would be entertained by that.” Nairne says that a couple of Morris’s own lines about one of her heroes, Admiral of the Fleet Jackie Fisher, who was first sea lord at the outbreak of the first world war, could equally apply to her. “She wrote that the ‘greatest of his gifts was an ageless genius for delight’,” recalls Nairne, and that, “‘he played life as an artist might play it’. I think that is also true of Jan.” Morris has said that her first ambition was to be a novelist but she was ruined by journalism: “I thought journalism was the route in because I’d read people like Hemingway and Steinbeck, but I don’t think I was right.” However, Last Letters From Hav, her debut novel published in 1985, made the Booker short list, although Morris was dismayed that her notes from the imaginary city of Hav were assumed to be an orthodox travel book: “The map room of the Royal Geographical Society asked for a copy.” A second novel, Our First Leader, was published last year. It is a satirical account of an independent Welsh state being established by a victorious Adolf Hitler following the second world war. Morris claims that the idea of Wales was there from childhood, although it played little part in her upbringing. “I knew it was my dead father’s country, and so properly mine too.” The distinguished Welsh writer Emyr Humphreys praises Morris for making, “a considerable contribution to Welsh cultural and literary life. She has always backed the language in a very positive way and she lives in a sort of a Welsh Shangri-la centred round Portmeirion, where there’s quite a circle of people who write and are interested in the arts.” She was awarded a CBE in 1998 but calls her 1992 election to the Gorsedd of bards – the assembly of poets, musicians and other representatives of Welsh culture – her proudest honour. She is a member of Plaid Cymru, although currently out of sorts with a leadership she regards as seeking votes in the English-speaking south Wales valleys at the expense of its traditional Welsh-speaking supporters in the north. One observer says “a lot of English-speaking Wales would look a little askance at her. They would see her as a romantic nationalist who has come from the outside with a selective and distorted view of Wales based on a too-passionate identification with a small, marginal and reactionary part of it.” Simon Winchester says, “I was reading Decline And Fall the other day and there is a paragraph in that from the hero, who loathes the Welsh. I realised I couldn’t even bring myself to read it to Jan because she’d be so furious.” A hint of how mainstream her views are in the culture in which she lives is that in what some would see as a socially conservative region she has never lost a friend because of the sex change. Professor M Wynn Thomas, director of the centre for research into English literature and language in Wales at the University of Wales, Swansea, says: “You could say she has gone native, but a kinder, and more accurate description, is that she is an elective Welsh person, in a distinguished tradition of writers who have chosen Welshness. These people imaginatively reconstruct Wales as much as they discover it.” Morris goes out of her way to draw a careful distinction between nationalism, “with its implications of chauvinism and aggression, and a patriotism that respects language and tradition and national traits”. She has been a long-standing and idealistic supporter of a European union project that is not a melting pot, but a framework for coexistence between independent and distinctive cultures. At its most benign, this could also be a description of the old British empire, but the attack on America has shaken her hopes and beliefs. “Last summer I travelled round the world sort of looking for the new zeitgeist,” she explains. “I always thought one of the most hopeful things about my century – the last century – was that people and cultures were coming together. But travelling around, even before New York, it seemed to me that this really wasn’t working. Everywhere I went people were either fed up with being bullied by other cultures, or of other cultures coming in. “I was in Sydney when the Afghans were on that freighter. And even in the Australians, whom we thought had at last come to terms with the aboriginals, all the racism that was instinctive and intuitive came out again. You can see it here as well, with the response to asylum seekers and the religious or race riots in Bradford. I was going around thinking about the zeitgeist and getting pretty gloomy and then on the day I got home there was the World Trade Centre. The zeitgeist had declared itself.”
Life at a glance James Humphrey Morris Born: October 2 1926, Clevedon, Somerset. Education: Chorister at Oxford University; Lancing College; Sandhurst; Christ Church, Oxford. Family: 1949 Marries Elizabeth Tuckniss (five children). Career: 1945-’49 British Army; ‘51-56 staff reporter the Times; ‘57-62 staff reporter the Guardian. Some books as James Morris: 1956 Coast To Coast; ‘57 Sultan In Oman; The Market Of Seleukia; ‘58 Coronation Everest; ‘60 Venice; ‘64 The Presence Of Spain; ‘65 Oxford; Pax Britannica Trilogy (’68 The Climax Of Empire; ‘73 Heaven’s Command; ‘78 Farewell The Trumpets). Some books as Jan Morris: 1974 Conundrum; ‘84 The Matter Of Wales; ‘85 Last Letters From Hav; ‘87 Manhattan ‘45; ‘88 Hong Kong; ‘89 Pleasures Of A Tangled Life; ‘94 A Machynlleth Triad; ‘97 Fifty Years Of Europe; ‘99 Lincoln; 2000 Our First Leader; ‘01 Trieste. • Trieste is published by Faber and Faber at ?16.99.