Monday, November 30

Jan Morris: She felt like she was “at the end of things.” What a life it was… | Jan Morris


ORTypically, nine months after meeting someone, interviewing them, and writing about them for the newspaper, hopefully one or two details of the encounter remain vivid in their minds. But my memory of the day in late February when I visited Jan Morris at his home in North West Wales is not so. Every moment remains alive.

Perhaps, you could say, this is because my pre-lockdown trip there, driving through Snowdonia on a wild and windy morning to the sea at Criccieth, was about the only trip I made all year. But I don’t think that’s it. As anyone knows who made that trip to visit her at home, or who opened one of her 40 books, Morris set about the adventure. Having filled his life to the brim with extraordinary travels, pilgrimages and quests, he knew exactly how to conjure up his contours for others.

On Friday, his son Twm, a celebrated poet who writes in Welsh and has a cabin opposite his, announced his death, at 94, in bardic terms: “This morning at 11:40 in Ysbyty Bryn Beryl, in the Llyn, the writer and traveler Jan Morris began her greatest journey. He leaves his lifelong companion, Elizabeth, on the shore ”.

James (now Jan) Morris shaking hands with Edmund Hillary on a snowy slope
James (now Jan) Morris congratulating Edmund Hillary after the mountaineer successfully reached the top of Everest in 1953. Photograph: Getty Images

When we met, in the promise of spring, part of Morris’s ever-cheerful talk was about that last trip. Elizabeth, greeting her from her bedroom, had suffered from dementia for years. Morris feared his own mind was failing, although there was little evidence of that in their conversation. While we drank tea and talked in the living room with its long beams, like the cabin of a tall ship, a small bird that fluttered would beat the window with its beak from time to time, as if it wanted to enter. “Do you hear the bird patter?” Morris asked. “Used to herald death, right? We have it every day in different windows. “

If she had the feeling, as she said, that she was “at the end of things,” she hadn’t forgotten any of the steps that had brought her there. And what a trip! Morris, 26, was the only journalist to accompany Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their ascent to Everest in 1953, and published the story in the Times the day of the coronation. At other times, he wrote about living in Field Marshal Montgomery’s family houseboat on the Nile, and in a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice. He retained only a vestige of the journalist’s superiority. Pointing to a picture of the 22,000-foot Everest camp he came to, he said, “That wasn’t a bad story, was it?”

When I came back from that day in Wales, I filled in the gaps for Morris’s books that I hadn’t read and, locked up, listened to the audio versions of some of the ones I had. These included his imposing trilogy on the British Empire, Pax BritannicaY Riddle, a personal odyssey that began with her understanding at the age of “three or maybe four … that she was born in the wrong body and that she really should be a girl” and ended with years of hormone treatment and pioneering body reassignment surgery. genre in Casablanca in 1972.

Of all the dangerous trips he had ever made, the biological one seemed almost of the least interest to him when we first met, although it did correct something I said in a moment. “I must say that I would never use the word change, as in ‘sex change’, for what happened to me. I did not change sex; I really absorbed one into the other. Now I am a bit of each. I freely admit it … But that’s about it in that book I wrote, right?

One consequence of what she called their “union” was that she and Elizabeth had to divorce, although they continued to live together and maintain a home for their children. When possible, Jan and Elizabeth reaffirmed their bond at a civil union ceremony in nearby Pwllheli in 2008, witnessed by a local couple who invited them for tea at their home afterward.

That union will persist. When we first met, Morris mentioned that they owned a small island in the Dwyfor River, which flows past their home. When the time came, their ashes would be scattered there together, and the place would be marked with a slate headstone, currently in a cupboard under the stairs, which read: “Here lie two friends, at the end of a life.”

The idea of ​​eternal rest held little appeal to Morris’s wandering soul. In a fantasy, he imagined a posthumous affair with a 19th century admiral, Jack Fisher; and in his most haunted book, about the city of Trieste, he imagined another eternity under his castle by the sea that sounds almost perfect. “Most of the time afterwards, I will be wandering with my beloved along the banks of the Dwyfor, but from time to time I can be found in a boat under the walls of Miramar, watching the swarm of nightingales.”

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