Jan Morris at lunch with the FT

This week’s Lunch with the FT, hosted by FT political correspondent Henry Mance, is one of the best I have read. It is very entertaining.

Welsh historian and travel writer Jan Morris, CBE, FRSL (born 1926) published under her birth name (James) until 1972, when she had surgery and transitioned from living as a male to living as a female. Now aged 91, she continues to live with the woman she married in 1949. The couple had five children together.

[Morris] had known by the age of four that she was in “the wrong body”, and, at the age of 45, an operation in Casablanca put her right. She wrote about it in her book Conundrum, relevant again today in the battle for transgender rights. ….

Her own outlook is eclectic. She is broadly proud of Britain’s empire, the subject of her three-volume history Pax Britannica. ….

Morris says she has written “solid books” about only five cities: Trieste, Oxford, New York, Hong Kong, and Venice; the rest of her work she dismisses as “flibbertigibbets”.

Her talent is to give places personalities, to generalise about their attributes. Trieste had “the flavour of true civility”. Oxford was “almost a civilisation”, where there was no norm and where no one was entirely wrong; Manhattan was a surprisingly “human city, where personal aspirations, for better or worse, unexpectedly take priority”.

But her finest observations were perhaps about Venice. “She fitted into no convenient category of nations. She was the lion who walked by herself,” Morris wrote of the city in 1960, appearing to recognise a kindred spirit. Venice was no longer the meeting point of east and west by then, but “she only awaits a summons”. Venetians, meanwhile, were provincial, curious, meditative.

Henry Mance, “Writer Jan Morris on reporting from Everest and changing sex“, Financial Times, 23 March 2018 (gated paywall).

I have visited each of these five cities, and agree with her views. I was surprised, though, to see no reference to Vienna, where I lived for eleven years, and is one of my favourite places on earth. I did locate something she wrote on Vienna: chapter 26 (“Vienna 1983”) of her book The World: Travels 1950-2000 (Norton, 2003). She did not think much of the city, explaining “I could not bring myself to like it. It was no place for a Welsh republican.” Later in the essay, Morris added a somewhat more favourable comment: “Vienna is an elderly, comfortable, old-fashioned city.” Perhaps at the tender age of 57 she could not yet enjoy the city.

Comments are closed.