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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

James and Jan

Aggiornamento: 12 apr 2023

The Berkeley Circle can’t help but dwell on expatriation as distinct from exile, banishment or shame-faced retreat. Members are often English-speakers far from their birthplace who stick around and snuggle up to Italian life. What’s more, George Berkeley, the Circle’s namesake and talisman, was an illustrious expat manqué. He set out in 1728 with a freshly-corralled wife in tow to make a permanent home in North America. Like so many travellers, he also took with him a load of pie-in-the-sky illusions. Rhode Island soon brought him down to earth in its raw waterlogged soil. It was no place to plant his bookish utopia and to warble home-sweet-home. The bishop-to-be decided the pioneer game wasn’t worth his patrician candle and after four years marking time returned to London, future episcopal tail between his legs.

Jan Morris, Life from Both Sides, Paul Clement’s 2022, 598 page biography, tells us, amongst much else, about the expatriation of the great British travel writer. Morris’s freely chosen homeland was Wales, not Italy, although her books on Venice and Trieste are irreplaceable. Jan was born in Somerset at Clevedon, teasingly close to Wales across the Severn estuary. Her father was Welsh, but died when she was twelve and a boarder at Christ Church Cathedral choir school, Oxford, where she had been since the age at nine. Her forceful English mother was a fervent musician and orientated her two brothers and Jan—James in those years—toward careers in music. Jan would have a life-long tie to Oxford. She took her BA at Christ Church College and wrote several books about the city.

Her cocooning in the English university city par excellence like her lifelong nostalgia for things British made Jan an enigmatic expat in Wales. Her literary highpoint was a three-volume history of the British Empire, the affectionate, not to say sentimental, Pax Brittanica (1968-78). Late in life, after waging a spirited campaign for the independence of Wales, she had this to say in her elegiac Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (2001):

Ours [British] seemed to me a good empire then, and on the whole I think so still. Over the years I have learnt to look back at it only occasionally with shame (the fundamental principle of empire having soured on all of us), but more often with a mixture of pride, affection and pathos.

Yet at her death the Financial Times called Jan “a prominent supporter of Welsh independence”.

In fact, she was a vociferous Welsh nationalist, a convinced republican and a paladin of small countries that mind their own business. She campaigned for devolution for Wales in 1979 while insisting that her preference was for Wales to be a sovereign state. In 1997 she was bitter after the referendum on Welsh independence resulted only in a hamstrung Welsh Assembly. In reply to a scoffing Times journalist she wrote:

“…[T]he English now feel themselves to be inferior to every other people in Europe, they are left only with the Welsh and the Scots to sneer at—preferably the Welsh, because there are fewer of them, and they have a language of their own.”

But the motives of expats are difficult to get at, even for themselves. In a review of Jan’s fifth Welsh book, A Machynlleth Triad (1994), a reviewer called her, “More Welsh than the Welsh”. (Victoria Glendinning would call Jan’s embracing of femininity “More Catholic than the Pope“.) Jan Morris, however, was more than a feverish convert or someone unclear about her reasons for changing homelands. She was something of a monster of having it both ways, a virtuoso of ambiguity. That’s what Paul Clement meant by subtitling his biography of Jan, Life from Both Sides.

Jan’s book, Conundrum, exploded like a bomb in 1974. It told how she shed one sex to take up another. At the time trans or nonbinary people hadn’t been much heard of, LGBTQ+ looked like a misprint and sex change was not yet a subject for polite conversation. Here was a well known public figure, author of seventeen books, an apparently happily married father of five giving us an account of how she spent a half-dozen years, culminating with surgery in Casablanca, in a fever to become a woman.

As James Humphry Morris, Jan’s life had a virile veneer. Her sons, who had a heroic picture of their much-out-about-the-world father, were in for a traumatic surprise. Jan had been a nineteen-year-old intelligence officer with the British Army in Venice, Trieste, Egypt and Palestine. World War II over, she worked as a reporter for the Arab News Agency in Cairo. in 1951, newly married, she joined the editorial staff of the Times. The decade would see her achieve fame as the star correspondent on the first ascent of Everest expedition. For the Manchester Guardian she would report on the Suez Crisis, the Algerian War, apartheid in South Africa and the Adolf Eichmann trial.

Conundrum records the stumbles of a lonely trail-blazer. In 2001 Jan herself called it a “period piece,” outdated by fresh thinking. But there are reasons why it was and still remains a world best seller. Jan was a superb writer and keeps her story simple. Since childhood she had never felt at home in her male body and communicated her long, troubled discomfort with conviction. She chose to leave out the medical side of her transition and, to the dismay of the media, gave no details of her sex life. She didn’t scrutinise how her parents might have contributed to her feeling out of place as a man. She refused any psychological probing and insisted that her life began with herself. Her book was autobiography fixed on one event but brilliantly told, full of humour and sharp perceptions.

In no time Jan’s gender transition made of her an international icon. She would note wryly a quarter century afterward:

“…[H]alf a lifetime of diligent craftsmanship seemed to have done less for my reputation than a simple change of sex!”

She was being disingenuous and must have known when publishing Conundrum that the general public was far more interested in sexual gossip than literature. No novice in the book trade, she knew that promotion of her book would involve out-on-a-limb TV interviews in London and New York plus endless newspaper comment. Yet she entered the fray with zeal.

The thirty-eight books Jan wrote after Conundrum did not lessen her fear of having her death saluted by the headline, “Sex-change writer dies.” As it happened, British journalism shifted to treating her as a figure of fun. She had been forty-eight when Conundrum was published. The popular press soon tired of billing her as a drag-queen and cast her as a female impersonator doing a maiden-aunt act. Jan furnished ammunition. She dressed like a sprightly matron topped with scarves and trinket jewellery. She insisted that her change was all about gender-comfort and had nothing to do with bedroom sex. She and her wife, Elizabeth, had divorced after Conundrum but later re-married in a civil union and, in fact, Jan claimed, had never stopped living together.

Her account of how the two spent the rest of their lives like proper and mutually devoted elderly sisters was again disingenuous. It passed over the ordeal that Elizabeth faced during the years of Jan’s transition. Who else but Elizabeth had to explain the situation to her shocked children? She became a single parent and worse, a wife whose husband gave up being a man and, for his greater comfort, became a woman. Everyone tells their story from their own self-justifying point of view. Jan, moreover, as a masterful writer knew all about what critics call controlling the narrative.

Jan would refuse to be called a travel writer, and the label does have something limiting about it. It is true that she also wrote memoirs, history and even an admired novel. All the same, the second half of the 20th-Century was a golden age of travel writing and as far as style and scope went she was one of the best at it. Her excellence is such that she should be allowed her wish and be known as a writer not about travel but about about “place, people and history,” which sounds weightier. However, the places and people she wrote about were rarely her own. She was almost always a foreigner moving through a foreign land and there is no better definition of a travel writer and the inherent limitation of the genre.

At eighty-one, in what Jan thought would be her last book, she strove to make her position clear. She would travel to a place and record it in a way that left it out of time, irreal, no place. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere was a visitor’s book about a foreign city, and so qualified as travel literature. The Adriatic port was put in its frame of a tumultuous past. Attention was paid to its enduring atmosphere—its spirit—“a place of transience”. Yet it wasn’t a guide book. It included no map or tips on restaurants or hotels. The reader found himself entering into the author’s feelings for the city and into her feelings for all cities, and finally, as he read on, into how Jan Morris felt about life itself after tasting it for eight decades. Travel got her to a destination, but it turned out to be no place at all, or every place—or better, in her own words:

“ [A]fter a lifetime of describing the planet, and I look at Trieste now as I would look into a mirror.”

The Nowhere of her title isn’t some metaphysical seventh-heaven. One aspect of it is simply “true civility”. We have to remember that Jan saw life from Both Sides. She was equivocal, didn’t go in for one-sided claims. So she merely asks if the true meaning of Nowhere, of which for her Trieste was the capital, isn’t a “half-real, half-wishful Utopia”. At any rate, she believes what the Welsh playwright Saunders Lewis had in mind when he said the best sort of patriotism was local and “a generous spirit of love”.

To sum herself up, Jan quotes Rudyard Kipling:

Something I owe to the soil that grew-

More to the life that fed-

But most to Allah Who gave me two

Separate sides to my head.

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Feb 15, 2023

Beautifully written - as always! I had the good fortune to meet Jan Morris in Trieste (my alma-mater). And was shocked to see her as you so-well describe: "a sprightly matron topped with scarves and trinket jewellery". But she did give a mesmerising talk about "her Trieste" and how like herself it was always right on the edge of anyone's map.

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