From 1960s Venice to modern Wales – Jan Morris captured travel like no other

Chris Moss
·5-min read
jan morris - getty
jan morris - getty

Very few travel writers capture the imagination of the general reader as well as the traveller looking for a bit of literary company while on the road. Even fewer are almost universally liked and admired.

Only one lived long enough to leave so many and such a diverse range of books that they serve as a living history of travel writing.

Jan Morris, who has died aged 94, wrote more than 20 travel books, as well as novels, a collection of short stories, a biography, hundreds of essays, and the Pax Britannica trilogy of history books about the British Empire. Her travel books combine travel and memoir, some emphasising one mode rather than the other. But from her 1956 debut, Coast to Coast, about a zigzagging trip across the United States, all the way to 2010’s Contact! A Book of Glimpses, she was a keen-eyed observer of the human condition and engaged with her subjects – people and place – at a personal, deeply curious level. 

She famously got her break as a writer when she delivered the scoop on Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s ascent of Mount Everest in 1953. She filed the story back to the Times in code and it was published on the same day as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. From then on, the byline of James Morris, and – following a sex change in 1972 – Jan Morris had kudos in the media and publishing worlds. 

Four books about La Serenissima – Venice, A Venetian Bestiary, The Venetian Empire, The World of Venice – are testament to the love she had for the Italian city. Visiting before mass tourism and overtourism, she found there a kind of city-archetype, multi-layered, labyrinthine, elegant and chaotic. As she put it:  

“Venice is a cheek-by-jowl, back-of-the-hand, under-the-counter, higgledy-piggledy, anecdotal city, and she is rich in piquant wrinkled things, like an assortment of bric-a-brac in the house of a wayward connoisseur, or parasites on an oyster-shell.”

venice - getty
venice - getty

Drawn as much to the history of traders and merchants as to politicians and warmongers, Morris was fascinated by the world’s great ports. She wrote two superb books about New York, another about Hong Kong and, in 2001, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere evoked both the decline of the great Habsburg port and the author’s own sense of a travelling life coming to its natural end. Morris had first visited Trieste while serving as a soldier in the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers just after the Second World War, an experience that gave her a first taste of travel and of the ambivalent allure of the entrepot: 

“[Trieste] has offered a new home to many expatriates, voluntary or compulsory, but in the event many have spent half their time here wistfully wishing they were somewhere else. For this is an ironic gift of the place – to attract and to sadden, both at the same time.”

There is something of the historian’s gaze in almost all her observations. In Fifties America she noted how Chicago and the once sophisticated, liberal Midwest were losing out to brash Los Angeles and full-of-itself Manhattan. In The Market of Seleukia , she caught the impact of the Suez Crisis and the dwindling of the colonial era as a more fragmented and violent Middle East emerged.

Morris wrote acclaimed books about Sydney, South Africa, Spain, Oxford and Oman. She researched her subjects thoroughly, but also took with her an open mind, free of cliché and lazy preconceptions. Extraordinarily well-connected – though far too discreet to be called a networker – she always seemed to be able to meet the people she wanted to meet. Mary Pickford, TS Eliot, Walt Disney, President Truman, Guy Burgess and JFK all sat down to be interviewed by Jan Morris. But her books are also full of loneliness, or at least aloneness – the necessary solitude of the travel writer who needs to collect their thoughts, scribble up their notes, and turn experiences and encounters into something enduring.

Over a long life, she made many conflicting remarks about travel. It was “something that every self-respecting citizen ought to undertake, like a high-fibre diet, say, or a deodorant,” she joked. But it was also a “commodity” and a misconceived “social requirement”. She also said, “I resist the idea that travel writing has got to be factual”, but was rigorous in recording historical detail in a way that other authors perhaps are not. What she gave to the “facts” were reflections, artistic impressions, and an internalising of a sense of place that sometimes reads like philosophy.

Wales was the antidote to the footloose adventures and the rootless roamings. She spent much of the last 30 years of her life at Trefan Morys, the 18th century stable-conversion she shared with Elizabeth, once her wife, later her civil partner.

jan morris -  Colin McPherson
jan morris - Colin McPherson

In her last book Thinking Again, published earlier this year, she writes of driving to the beach to enjoy, with Elizabeth, picnic lunches of supermarket sushi and takeaway coffee from a shop called Bargain Booze. They parked the car and “sat in it lordly, as though we owned the place”. Then, the engine off, they tuned in to Classic FM and “sure enough… the first traitorous raindrops began to fall.”  She loved rural Wales, had learned “pidgin” Welsh, and embraced its history as her own.

Erudite yet unpretentious, wise and witty, a world traveller with a homely touch, Jan Morris was a genuine one-off in British letters. We are very lucky that her need to write was even more urgent and untiring than her desire to travel; she leaves behind four children, the love of her life, and a body of work that maps the contours of the 20th century like no other.