An Audience with Jan Morris

Recently, I attended an interview with the Welsh writer, Jan Morris. It was conducted on the stage at the Times Center in New York by author and editor Don George, who has his own stellar travel writing resume. The event, hosted by Geoex, was a benefit for the American Himalayan Foundation, its hook being the 60th anniversary of the conquest of Mount Everest. Morris, who at the time was James Morris and a reporter for the Times of London, is the last survivor of that expedition and it was she who, using a series of codes and couriers, broke the story to the world when Sherpa Tenzing and Sir Hillary reached the summit. Her scoop reached London just in time to share headlines with Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, making that June day in 1953 a triumphant one for the British Empire, whose history Morris documented in her three-part magnum opus, Pax Brittanica.

Morris’ mane of white hair gives her a multi-tiered aspect – aristocratic (think Barbara Bush tending roses on the lawn at Kennebunkport) but also grandmotherly as well as academic. And, she seems utterly approachable, even as she spun her anecdotes into gold, so naturally at ease with her extraordinary life and achievements that the rest of us may as well be, too. Morris is an icon among writers, especially among the diverse and disparate community (of which I am, as often as possible, a member) of “travel writers”. The fact that there is such a thing is due in great part to her, and Morris’ dispatches published in Rolling Stoneremain some of the most elegant and penetrating essays ever written about place. I remember one she wrote about Manhattan, which I recently found in a collection of hers called Destinations. I read this piece when I was a freshman in college and her words stuck with me: the city’s “glowering ecstasy”, it’s “reluctant and secretive beauty”, it’s citizens who “like the bear, are heightened, in one way or another, by their confinement.” The sting of ambition, the horror of failure: no one has gotten New York better than this European writer, and I kept this issue of Rolling Stone for years because I knew: I need to live there.

This might be the best a writer can do: leave an imprint, splash an image on the brain, plant a seed of desire to transport or be transported. Morris is a master at extracting the essence of a place, including the people who dwell within it. When Don George asked her about her methodology, her secret to doing what she does so well, her honest answer still managed to be a lesson in humility, which many writers either lack or toss off as self-deprecation – usually suspect. “Forgive me,” she said. “It really is a gift from God. I really didn’t know how to do anything else.”

Sitting in the audience, listening to Morris talk about Everest ’53 with as much casual wit as the anecdote about yesterday’s al fresco lunch at a New York City café, it was difficult not to entertain thoughts of, “Why bother?” This is something all travel writers must ponder, at some point. It’s no longer possible to write the seminal work on Venice as Morris did, with its magnificent opening sentence, which Don referenced in passing: “So, the Venetians became islanders, and islanders they remain, still a people apart, still tinged with the sadness of refugees.” Probably a trek through Oman with the Sultan and a team of slaves, an adventure Morris documented in 1957, isn’t going to happen either. That followed 1956’s Coast to Coast, her chronicle of a year spent driving across Eisenhower’s America, a year which Morris claims was the most marvelous of her life and one that, incredibly and in her words, “changed me more than Everest did.” She traversed the same highways towards many of the same places – San Francisco, Nevada, Salt Lake City, Chicago – as Jack Kerouac had done a few years before, but at the time there was no On the Road – that wasn’t published until 1957.

Rather than discourage me, however, my audience with Morris left me emboldened. No, I don’t think I or any of us can find an original way to commune with the ghosts on yonder Mayan ruin or imagine a fresh take on Paris’ Hidden Treasures. But what we can do, when we immerse ourselves in the strangeness of dislocation and remain aware enough to notice and write about it, is offer perspective. By virtue of time’s (and life’s) relentlessness, perspective constantly shifts, adapts, astonishes – this is where the stories come from. Getting stranded alone without a passport in Dubrovnik bears no similarity to dreaming away your honeymoon there ten years later. As long as the travel writer’s hunger to venture forth collides with the desire to drift along the fringe and observe, there is no limit to the tales that can be told. I agree with my friend and editor Lavinia Spalding, who says that all travel stories should ultimately be about the meaning of life (wisdom she, in turn, attributes to Don George). It’s a challenge we accept because of the significance of random events – how discovery comes when you least expect it. Think of the mango fresh from the tree an hour from Port-au-Prince whose juices dripped down your wrists as you peeled it without a blade. Remember the Dire Straits tune blasting through a bar in Samarkand when you were dry and thirsty from travel. Remember the young, off-duty soldier who helped dig your car out from under a fallen tree one icy Vermont morning.

These days, inspiration is most effective when it contains a revelation, and here’s what I thought as I listened to 87 year-old Morris, her narrative bouncing away with stories as fresh as tomorrow: Why not? Because if all else fails, there was something else she said that night, something elemental and yet spectacular: “I write for my own pleasure.” If she can do it, so can I, even if my Everest is just a simple hill, somewhere I’ve never been before.