Review of "Ariel, a Literary Life of Jan Morris" by Derek Johns
published as "Free Spirit" in TLS, February 3rd, 2017
Jan Morris is in the pantheon of British travel writers, even though she has repeatedly tried to escape from this restrictive label. She started out as a jobbing journalist (trained upon a provincial newspaper) but through her own talents broke free of all constraints to become a travelling writer, the very role model of a free spirit, living a life of her choice. She was beholden to no editor but instead built up a devoted readership, staying true to her own distinctive literary style and remaining with one of the finest, and most enduring, of the independent publishing houses, Faber and Faber. Her range is vast, fifty-three books now carry her name. Ironically for a famous stylist this literary freedom was won with a brief, coded telegram – the world wide scoop of Hillary's conquest of Mount Everest ( the crowning glory) on the eve of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
The old journalistic travel assignments were thenceforth transformed into her preferred form of the free-standing essay, especially acute when observing, mingling within and sounding out the identity of a city. In this form she is the absolute mistress, and has drawn up highly opinionated and devastatingly incisive portraits of more than 74 cities.
Oxford and Venice remain the enduring role models. Both are loved, of course, for their intimate architectural beauty, but also for the very act of their survival. They have both, in their different ways both gracefully adapted out of the swagger of Imperium to make a new identity for themselves out of learning, while flirting to the world with their treasury of stories. She cherished other places for different energies: the bustling, booming modern metropolitan-entrepots of Manhattan and Hong Kong, alongside their lesser sisters Chicago and Sydney. Trieste is also loved, but as one of the last staging posts of internationalism, switching frontiers and labels, to survive. And the decline of the Levant (shorn of all its cosmopolitan minorities to become good nation states) has encouraged Jan to create her own city of Hav, to my mind a fusion of Istanbul, Thessaloniki, Smyrna and Ragusa.
Jan also used her role as a freelance travelling writer to put in the leg-work required for her global history project. The Pax Britannica trilogy took fourteen years to write and embraces a life of experience on the ground. It rests on the firm foundations of five years as Middle East correspondent for the Times, extended by a period when she wrote for the Guardian and prefaced by serving as a soldier. So at first hand, Jan experienced the Suez war which finally snapped the last military sinews of the British Empire, as well the slow morphing of our misrule of Egypt, Aden, Iraq and Palestine into a still enduring friendship with Oman, Jordan and the many Arab states within the Persian Gulf. In her one true travel book, Sultan in Oman, we get to the taste this extraordinary period for ourselves, when Jan accompanies the ruling Sultan as a trusted observer in his personal motor-convoy, an expedition that literally opens up a new road to the troubled south-western province of Muscat and Oman.
So the Pax Britannica (like Venice and Oxford) is also about the survival of the things that matter, the animating stories which empower life. It begins with the apogee of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, then becomes more critical, as it chronicles the rise of Empire, Heaven's Command, and its decline, Farewell the Trumpets.
Derek Johns considers the Pax Britannica trilogy to be one of Jan's most important works. It is a celebration of not an apology for the British Empire, perfumed "with saddle-oil, joss-tick and railway steam". It is an "impressionistic evocation, subjective and often emotional" work, which every subsequent scholar will need to consult, not so much about facts but feelings. The world-curious Herodotus is the role model, not Gibbon. Derek Johns is also clear about the nature of his own work, which is not a biography. It is an annotated scrapbook of Jan Morris's writings (arranged chronologically) created by her one time literary agent, who delights in his friendship with "one of the most remarkable people I have known." At first I mistook it for a very fulsome garland of praise, the sort of hardback every writer would like to receive from their literary agent, especially when you hear your name being turned into an adjective, as in "Morissian'.
However once you accustom yourself to the well-mannered praise there are some healthy insights to be extracted. Jan is taken to task about her dismissal of an entire continent, South America, and her failure to report more critically about the bedrock of racism within the USA and on her first visit to apartheid South Africa. Derek Johns also points out various carefully closed doors, that any future biographer will need to force open, such as how a 16-year- old drop out from Lancing College – could find his feet so quickly in the highly competitive world of journalism. There is also probably some sleuthing to be done about Jan's recruitment into The Times and his role in the Middle East. Jan's successor was assassinated. Jan's relationship with her own father will also clearly require examination, for although he died young, he is both the avenue of her much treasured Welshness and surely her most important male role model.
Jan ran with both these issues as live wires for many years. Indeed the honesty with which she chronicled her change of sexual identity has made Conundrum arguably her most famous book. Derek Johns again has a refreshingly independent take on this matter, and sees no great difference between James and Jan. Both were recklessly brave and set their own moral agendas; both loved the same partner and the same children. What is more important in his eyes is that in middle-age Jan turned her back on her endless questing into far urban horizons, and turned her talents to living in, learning from and espousing the cause of the Principality of Wales.
Like Oxford and Venice, Wales is a place of great mystery with an indelible heritage of ancient learning and respect for the gifts of the mind: scholarship, history and music. It's a fitting homeland for a romancing writer not a travel writer.
Back to Articles page
by Barnaby Rogerson