Waving Off a Writer in Full Sail

Three Tributes to Jan Morris

From Planet 241

by Angharad Price, Gray Brechin and Mike Parker

In eulogies stretching from Jan Morris’ square mile to San Francisco, Angharad Price, Gray Brechin and Mike Parker remember an epoch-defining foreign correspondent and writer whose most beloved muse was Wales, and whose work continued to push boundaries up until her death in 2020 aged ninety-four.

To the rest of the world, she was the renowned, Booker-shortlisted writer, the Flaubert of the jet-age, author of some fifty books of outstanding prose about place, history and self; famed as The Times correspondent who accompanied Hillary and Tenzing on the Everest expedition in 1953; the reporter who covered the Eichmann war-crime trials in Jerusalem in 1961; the distinguished essayist who had met some of the greatest personalities of the day, including Che Guevara, Irving Berlin, Haile Selassie, the Dalai Lama and Lauren Bacall; and, most strikingly, as the author of Conundrum, a frank and courageous memoir documenting the transition from male to female during the 1960s, culminating in gender-reassignment surgery at Casablanca in 1972. However, to her friends and acquaintances at her home in Llanystumdwy, especially in her latter years, she was a constant and reassuring presence, out on her daily walk, enjoying her coffee in the coffee shop on Cricieth High Street, walking the prom or the banks of the river Dwyfor beside her home, ready with a smile and more than happy to swap pleasantries or share a funny anecdote. Meeting her was always rather special. Not because of her eminence or indeed her striking appearance – her shock of pure white hair and keen expression. It was the quality of her attention towards you, generous and observant, which, however brief the encounter, always left you feeling that you mattered.

Born in Somerset on 2 October, 1926, James Humphry Morris was educated at Lancing College, Sussex and Christ Church College, Oxford, and served as a member of the 9th Queens’ Royal Lancers at the end of the Second World War. Married to Elizabeth (née Tuckniss) in Cairo in 1949, they and their children – they had five, one of whom died in infancy – finally came to live at Trefan in the village of Llanystumdwy in north-west Wales. Morris’s attachment to Wales intensified from this period onwards, and Derek Johns in Ariel, his literary life of Jan Morris, notes that the move from male to female and from Englishness to Welshness ‘roughly concurred’. But in many ways, Morris was merely reclaiming her patrimony: her father, who had died from the after-effects of the Great War’s poison gas when she was very young, stemmed from a large, long-established, family in Monmouthshire, some of whom spoke Welsh, whilst her English mother was rumoured to be a descendant of the ancient king of Gwynedd, Rhodri Mawr. She often said that the first book she ever bought was The Welsh Fairy Book by W. Jenkyn Thomas, which had a profound influence on her.

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