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Why the mystique of Wales gave strength to a legendary writer

With Welsh legends and landscapes as her muse, Jan Morris circled the globe—and reinvented travel writing.

Nant Gwynant which is a valley above the town of Beddgelert in North Wales

Celebrated travel writer Jan Morris, who died November 20, 2020, lived and worked in the scenic Nant Gwynant valley in westernWales.

She was at ease in the world, but she was never more herself than when at home in Wales. Author and journalist Jan Morris, who died last week at 94, embraced Wales as her physical, intellectual, and spiritual foundation. “I am emotionally in thrall to Welshness,” she said.

She loved its rugged mountains, the spring-green hills where sheep grazed, even the gloomy weather, which was ideal for writing by the fireplace. In Wales , Morris saw an ancient nation that retained its indomitable essence. The endurance of identity was among her great themes.

Morris would often take visitors to lunch at a handsome, ivy-cloaked climbers’ lodge in northwest Wales. The lodge is a converted 200-year-old farmhouse called Pen-Y-Gwryd . One could say it was here, in 1953, that the first successful ascent of Mount Everest began, with Morris joining training climbs up nearby Mount Snowdon.

historian and writer Jan Morris standing outside for a portrait

Late in life, Welsh historian, author, and travel writer Jan Morris is shown near her home in Wales.

Morris was a 26-year-old reporter for the Times of London , the sole journalist on the British expedition led by Colonel John Hunt that was the first to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain.

( Related: Hike the Wales Way to see the best of this ancient land. )

On May 29, 1953, when Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary reached the summit, Morris hiked thousands of vertical feet above Everest base camp to be the first to get the news. Upon learning that Hillary and Tenzing had succeeded, Morris raced back to base camp, roped up with another climber, then hustled down the mountain and sent an encoded message back to London . The news reached the British on the eve of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, giving the nation another reason to celebrate.

Morris later described the Everest scoop as the first and only of her career, which spun her out from Wales to travel the globe, filing lyrical, impressionist essays from Venice , Sydney , New York , Hong Kong . But she’d always return to Wales.

Finding a home and kinship

Born in 1926 to a Welsh father and English mother in Somerset, England—140 miles west of London and just across Bristol Bay from Cardiff, Wales’s capital—Morris loved Wales and wanted to share it.

The Welsh name for the country is Cymru, a word rooted in “kinship.” This appealed greatly to Morris, as did the defiantly proud red dragon that commands the national flag. Despite seven centuries of domination by England, the region of northern Wales that Morris called home remains irrefutably Welsh.

The Welsh language, one of the oldest in Europe, is still spoken widely there, and national pride is so strong that visitors can be initially suspect. Yet the moment outsiders show even a hint of sympathy for the Welsh cause or appreciation of the place, they’re typically welcomed with open arms.

“I live, though, in a Wales of my own, a Wales in the mind, grand with high memories, poignant with melancholy,” Morris writes in her 2002 book, A Writer’s House in Wales , published by National Geographic. Although Morris fiercely supported Wales and all it stands for, she recognized that she had adopted her country; she wasn’t wholly of it. The weathervane gracing her home in Llanystumdwy on the Llŷn Peninsula symbolizes her dual Welsh and English ancestry: E and W mark east and west; G and D stand for gogledd and de , the Welsh words for north and south.

Morris described her small home in Trefan Morys as “a summation, a metaphor, a paradigm, a microcosm, an exemplar, a multum in parvo, a demonstration, a solidification, an essence, a regular epitome of all that I love about my country.” And she opened her doors to countless travelers over the decades.

a person sitting overlooking the Dee Valley

A man and his dogs rest at the viewpoint from Castell Dinas Bran, a medieval castle far above the Dee Valley in Wales.

The village of Beddgelert in Snowdonia at dusk

Beddgelert is a pretty Welsh village known for the legend of a faithful dog by the same name.

“She had a choice, being half English and half Welsh. She chose Wales,” says photographer Jim Richardson, recalling lunch with Morris in the Smoke Room at Pen-Y-Gwryd. The lodge, festooned with ropes and oxygen tanks and boots used on the Everest expedition, was the site of many reunions.

“But most revealing was her ability to find the richness in this simple Welsh countryside,” says Richardson. “As we drove up the Nant Gwynant valley past Mount Snowdon, she was as likely to point with pride to the sheep as she was to the mountain; she did not need epic places in order to see epic things.” Morris told the story of racing down Everest, “as if she were sitting around with some Welsh farmers talking about sheep shearing. She laughed. It was fun, this world of hers.”

Wales, for Morris, was both a place to discover and a place to define. “You can see from the way she writes about Wales that her heart and soul is in it,” said author Paul Theroux in an email after Morris died. “In a word, Jan was passionate about Wales—the land, people, the language—and she was subtle yet forceful in writing about it, to the point of being a Welsh nationalist, not a popular role in Great Britain.”

Forging an identity in an ancient land

Morris was raised as a boy, but “was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl,” she writes in Conundrum . Morris began taking hormones in the mid-1960s and had gender confirmation surgery in Casablanca in 1972, at age 46.

In her view the world made too big of a fuss over this—she lamented her obituary would read: “Sex change author dies.” Yet it was another pioneering journey. “I haven’t gone from one sex to the other,” she told the Times of London in 2018. “I’m both.”

(Related: See how these 21 female explorers changed the world.)

The scenic ruins of Castell Dinas Bran

The ruins of the medieval Castell Dinas Bran tower above the Dee Valley and the bustling town of Llangollen. The rugged, foreboding pinnacle was an ideal spot for a castle, but the native Welsh princes who erected it only occupied the site for a few decades.

As an explorer, an author, and most of all as a human being, Morris contained multitudes and didn’t fear contradictions. But she remained steadfastly Welsh.

“I think it was very important for Jan to be Welsh and always to define herself as such,” says author Pico Iyer. Morris’ writing inspired him to envision a life as a traveling journalist. “She was our master impressionist, the greatest portraitist of place we’ll ever read: She gathered a thousand details and pieces of history and perceptions and put them together in a mosaic that caught the soul of a place,” Iyer says.

“Though such a lover of cities, she chose to live in relative isolation in the country; her Welshness allowed her to cast something of an outsider’s eye on all that London sent around the world in the days of Empire, and to feel for the oppressed, the marginal. Solitary, in her own domain, not hostage to England and its limitations, Jan’s life in Wales seemed in many ways a model of her position in the world.”

A diligent and erudite scholar known for her seminal Pax Britannica trilogy about the rise and fall of the British Empire, Morris conveyed a sense of fun in her writing. In keeping with her Welsh roots, she laughed easily and brought a lighthearted tone to much of her work. She loved language and enjoyed using words, such as “kerfuffle,” that may have caused some critics to take her work less seriously than they should have.

Another favorite word was hiraeth , Welsh for an ineffable longing. In the end, Jan’s world was all about kindness and kinship, and she fostered a community of open-hearted travelers.

“There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own,” she writes in her elegiac book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere . “They share with each other… the common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them you know you will not be mocked or resented … they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically. They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. … They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it.”

Capturing the magic of her homeland

This concept of exile is deeply rooted in Morris’ experience of Wales. It’s not just what her chosen country transmitted to her, but what she projected onto the place. Morris often said that she couldn’t make a sharp distinction between fact and fiction: While her reporting was rigorously accurate and thorough, her writing was typically a synthesis of her imagination and her experience.

an island and lighthouse that sit on the southwest coast of Anglesey in North Wales

Llanddwyn Island sits of the southwest coast of Anglesey in North Wales. To reach it, you must cross a spit of sand at low tide or take a boat.

“It is a different thing for [my son] Twm,” who grew up in Wales, Morris told the Guardian , last year. “I don’t have his instinct for Welshness. With him it is more basic, it comes out of the soil.”

In her 1984 book, The Matter of Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country , Morris writes that the Welsh “never altogether abandoned their perennial vision of a golden age, an age at once lost and still to come—a vision of another country almost, somewhere beyond time.”

( Related: Why does Wales have the most castles of any country in Europe? )

At her 90th birthday party in 2016, Morris said that although her travels have taken her to many exotic locations, her corner of Wales has been her “chief delight,” recalls Paul Clements, author of Jan Morris: Around the World in Eighty Years , a collection of tributes by noted authors. “What I have done for Wales,” Morris said at her party, “is infinitesimal compared to what Wales has done for me.”

When I interviewed Morris for my book, A Sense of Place , she noted that for centuries Anglo civilization has been “pressing on Wales, and yet the little country seems to have survived and kept its soul and spirit. I like the nature of the Welsh civilization, which is basically very kind; it’s not very ambitious or thrusting. It’s based upon things like poetry and music, which are still very deeply rooted in this culture.”

Trefan Morys, the home Morris shared with her lifelong partner Elizabeth Tuckniss Morris, who survives her, sits just above the River Dwyfor. A year from now her ashes will be spread on an island in this stream, said Morris’s son, Twm Morys, the renowned Welsh poet and author. The islet is called Ynys Llyn Allt y Widdan, which means the “Island of the Pool of the Slope of the Sorceress.”

How fitting. For Jan Morris was, in a way, the sorceress of Wales. She conjured a sympathetic and uplifting vision of her beloved adopted country, and through eloquence and determination transmuted it into her personal reality. Through a lens of generosity and imagination, Morris saw Wales as no one has before, and the world is richer for it.

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Remembering Travel Writer And Memoirist Jan Morris

Terry Gross square 2017

Terry Gross

Morris, who died Nov. 20, transitioned to female in 1972 when she was 46. She later reflected on gender in her memoir, Conundrum . Originally broadcast in 1989.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.


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For Jan Morris, Staying in One Place Was Never an Option

A new biography examines what made the prolific travel writer and transgender figure so driven, and who was ignored along the way.

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The writer Jan Morris, her white hair blowing in the wind, with the Welsh seaside behind her.

By Alexandra Jacobs

JAN MORRIS: Life From Both Sides: A Biography , by Paul Clements

The travel writer and historian Jan Morris hated being pigeonholed. Indeed, she bristled mightily at being called a travel writer at all, finding the term “demeaning” and reductive, though many of the books and articles she wrote during a plush and renown-stuffed career of seven decades were set far from her native England and the home in North Wales she made for much of adulthood with her wife, Elizabeth Tuckniss. She wrote plenty about both those places too, but Morris was no stranger to an expense account. She once called tourists “morons” in a speech, biting the hand that was feeding her at a travel magazine breakfast.

Toward the end of her long life — Morris died in 2020 at 94 — she also rejected the idea that she had transitioned in a linear way from male to female, despite a 1972 operation toward that explicit end in Casablanca, Morocco, which she documented two years later in the landmark memoir “ Conundrum .”

“I’m both now,” she told The Times of London in pronoun-plastic 2018. “I’ve got to be legally one sex or the other, but I’m both.” Decades earlier, she had opined that “the greatest writing is omnisexual, like Shakespeare.”

Paul Clements, a journalist and — eek! sorry! — travel writer who knew Morris for 30 years, has produced a lovely and scrupulous biography of her, subtitled, with a whiff of Joni Mitchell, “Life From Both Sides.” He absents himself entirely from the narrative, as if to counterweight his subject’s fondness for the first person, which magic-carpeted her right into the bloggy internet era, and pitches a generous tent for her ambiguities and contradictions — even her self-centeredness. It’s a book that properly situates Morris in the literary canon while also acknowledging her status as a “transgender pioneer,” another term she would have probably loathed.

As James Morris, after attending Oxford and serving in the British Army, she had already been a pioneer, as a correspondent for that same Times — then a quite fusty newspaper with a “largely sedentary editorial staff” who lunched at the gentlemen’s club Boodles and shared snuff after supper. Morris got the exclusive assignment to join the 1953 ascent of Mount Everest, recording such details as the “ubiquity of cuckoos,” before sending word of the expedition’s success through relay runners delivering a coded message, just in time for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Another career highlight: covering the war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s trial for The Manchester Guardian. In him Morris noted “a queer stiffness or jerkiness of locomotion,” and then delivered the small but powerful realization: “Eichmann was trembling.”

She was not just closely observant but astonishingly prolific. In one period she clocked 12 pages, or 3,000 words, per day, “hammering at a blue Olivetti more or less uninterruptedly,” Clements writes; even in supposed retirement — The Observer joked she had as many as Frank Sinatra — that count was only reduced to 1,000 words, about the length of this review (for which I, bleary in mere middle age, wangled a deadline extension).

Morris reviewed lots too, and pounded out essays, diaries and so many books, sometimes reissuing them in different forms, that even her agent couldn’t keep track. Tallying the grandchildren was also a challenge. Jan and Elizabeth had three sons and two daughters, one of whom died in infancy after being stung by a hornet, though Morris, who occasionally deep-tangoed with the truth, in “Conundrum” blamed “an unidentified virus.” Even before her transition, she asked not to be called “Daddy,” and parenting naturally suffered from her workaholism, though she bonded closely with one son, Twm Morys , in particular over Welsh poetry. Her surviving daughter, Suki, agrees with Germaine Greer that Elizabeth, now in a care home with dementia, “did not have a voice”; and further tells Clements of Jan’s “drip, drip, drip of unkindness … undermining everything, making me look and feel inferior and worthless.”

But any intriguing domestic snapshots in “Jan Morris: Life From Both Sides” — donkeys, vintage Rolls-Royces — are crowded out by the constantly whirling carousel of her adventures. She ranged so widely and richly that questions about a certain looseness with facts, or whether her prose style changed after transition, seem almost beside the point. Imperialism was a favorite and perhaps over-romanticized topic (“unctuous effusions,” one Middle Eastern scholar called her 1957 book on the Sultan of Oman). Morris swept through continents and centuries, calling Australia “flabby, spongy, unadventurous”; reporting on apartheid in South Africa; and — like Simone de Beauvoir and other midcentury intellectuals before her — traversing America “coast to coast.” So convincing were her dispatches that many believed the fictional titular country in “Last Letters From Hav,” her 1985 novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was real.

Though Morris wrote that her marriage was “open,” Clements keeps things strictly PG, whether out of discretion or lack of dirt. Her most passionate affair might have been an imaginary one with Lord “Jacky” Fisher of Kilverstone, an Admiral of the Fleet who was possibly first to use the expression OMG, in a 1917 letter to Winston Churchill. Though she obviously longed for academic credibility, an essential drollness and self-deprecation perhaps got in the way; more than once she dismissed herself as a “flibbertigibbet,” one in a lexicon of favored “ricochet” words that included “harum-scarum” and “razzle-dazzle.”

As a cub reporter, Morris had interviewed Cary Grant and Irving Berlin, and later became a celebrity in her own right, going on “The Dick Cavett Show” and drawing the scorn of Nora Ephron in Esquire. Some thought her prose ran toward the purple (“the finest descriptive writer in our time, of the watercolor kind,” sideswiped Dame Rebecca West in these pages ), but her many admirers included Paul Theroux — though he once rather crudely compared her appearance to Tootsie’s — and Tina Brown, who commissioned Morris to profile Boy George for Vanity Fair . Long-faded glossies with names like Holiday, Venture and Horizon sent her to faraway lands and paid her handsomely, though she talked about money as “a constant worry.”

Like the finicky cat of yesteryear’s advertising who shared her name, Morris had strong likes and dislikes, enumerated here with savor. Yes to: maps, marmalade, music (she also favored the adjectives “melancholy,” “myriad” and “magnificent”); Elon Musk, battleships and wine. No to: complainers, Washington, D.C. (“perhaps the most ineffably boring city on the planet”), zoos and — oddly, considering how it had helped her — science. “Even evolution was suspect to her,” Clements writes, one of the few moments in a very full telling when I wanted to know more.

This biography is a boon companion to Morris’s sprawling oeuvre, even if her complex psyche, like her physicality, might be impossible to corral. Jan Morris was one woman who “had it all,” as the old Helen Gurley Brown guide so mythically proposed — but the cost to other people is left somewhere in the mist.

JAN MORRIS: Life From Both Sides: A Biography | By Paul Clements | Illustrated | 608 pp. | Scribe | $35

Alexandra Jacobs is a book critic and the author of “Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch.” More about Alexandra Jacobs

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Jan Morris, the Celebrated Travel Writer Who Elegantly Chronicled Her Own Journey of Transition, Dies at 94

By Stuart Emmrich

Image may contain Furniture Cushion Pillow Human Person Couch Chair Bed Indoors Room Bedroom Face and Clothing

Jan Morris, who spent the first half of her life as James Morris, a journalist who found global fame chronicling Sir Edmund Hillary’s historic ascent of Mount Everest, and then the second as a celebrated essayist and one of the most famous transgender women in the world, died Friday at the age of 94.

No matter what topic Morris covered over the course of her nearly eight-decade career—from travel to history to her own transition—she did so with insight, elegance and unflinching honesty. As one reviewer wrote when her landmark memoir, Conundrum, was reissued in 2006 with a new introduction by Morris, “ Conundrum remains an exquisite read — a rare gift of empathic insight into an experience which most of us will never have but which is strewn with elements of the struggle for belonging, acceptance, and authenticity that most of us face daily in one form or another.” Her death was confirmed by her son, Twm Morys , who said his mother died in a hospital near the Welsh village of Llanystumdwy, where she lived. He did not name the cause.

Over the course of her career, Morris published more than 30 books, their subjects ranging from a coast-to-coast journey across the United States in the 1950s to a celebrated “biography” of Venice that remains one of the most-read books about that storied city . Among Morris’s most notable achievements was the three-volume Pax Britannica , which chronicled the history of the British empire from the earliest days of the East India Company to the disruptive post-colonial years of the 1960s. In 1968, The Times Literary Supplement described Pax Britannica as “a tour de force, offering a vast amount of information and description, with a style full of sensuality.” And in the The New York Times Book Review , the British biographer Philip Magnus called it “a successful portrayal of what the Empire looked and felt like in a variety of places at the end of the 19th Century — how it ticked, who pulled the strings, and the practical ends and ideals it served.”

Morris wrote the first two volumes as James and the last as Jan. In 1997, she was asked by an interviewer for The Paris Review whether the change of genders altered in any way her perspective on history.

“I truly don’t think at all, really,” she responded . “I’ve reread the books myself with this in mind. I don’t think there is a great deal of difference. It was a purely intellectual or aesthetic, artistic approach to a fairly remote subject. It wasn’t anything, I don’t think, that could be affected much by my own personal affairs . . . less than other things I’ve written.”  

Another two dozen books came after Morris’s transition. Besides Conundrum , originally published in 1974, they included Destinations (1980), a collection of travel essays; the novel Last Letters From Hav (1985), which was a finalist for the Booker Prize; and Fisher’s Face, or, Getting to Know the Admiral (1995), a biography of the British naval reformer John Arbuthnot Fisher. Her last book, a collection of essays titled Thinking Again , was published in 2019 .

Before all that was Hillary’s headline-making ascent of Mt. Everest when Morris was a young correspondent for The Times of London . It is hard to overstate the impact Hillary’s conquest—and thus Morris’s journalistic scoop—had on the newspaper-reading world back in 1953. The Times had secured the exclusive rights to cover the Everest expedition, which was led by Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand explorer , and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa guide from Nepal, and picked Morris to cover that journey. As The New York Times later wrote, “Filing dispatches by using guides as relays between the expedition’s overnight camps and the city of Kathmandu in Nepal, [Morris] wrote of deep snow dragging at the explorers’ feet, sweat trickling down their backs, their faces burning from cold, ice and wind.” Morris would later describe the event as one of the high points of her career. “I think for sheer exuberance the best day of my life was my last on Everest,” she wrote in Conundrum . “The mountain had been climbed, and I had already begun my race down the glacier toward Katmandu, leaving the expedition to pack its gear behind me.”

Jan Morris was born James Humphrey Morris on October 2, 1926, in Somerset, England, the youngest of three to an English mother, Enid, a church organist, and a Welsh father, Walter, an engineer and World War I veteran who died when Morris was 12. Morris started her career in journalism at the age of 16, working as a reporter for the Western Daily Press in Bristol.

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At 22, while living in Cairo, where she was working for the local Arab News Agency, Morris met and married Elizabeth Tuckniss, the British daughter of a tea planter. The couple raised four children (a fifth died in infancy) and stayed together—first as spouses, then as ex-spouses, and finally as domestic partners—for nearly 70 years. (Tuckniss survives her.)

In 1964, Morris, whose fame as a journalist had continued to grow through her coverage of such events as the trials of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal , and the American spy Francis Gary Power , started taking hormone pills to begin her transition at the advice of a doctor she met in New York . Then, in 1972, at the age of 46, Morris traveled to Casablanca and underwent gender-reassignment surgery. Conundrum , which chronicles those events, was her first book published under the name Jan Morris. As she wrote of the surgery, “I had reached Identity.” 

The opening lines of Conundrum soon became among the most famous of any 20th-century memoir: “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.”

Morris was not the first to make headlines for her transition— Christine Jorgensen came 20 years before her—but she was probably the person who possessed the most pre-transition fame until Caitlyn Jenner covered Vanity Fair in 2015 .

The impact of Conundrum was immediate, and it continues to draw raves from later generations of readers. As the author Jonathan Ames noted recently , “This is a beautiful book. I found it to be melancholic, courageous, and wise. That its subject matter is Jan Morris’s transsexual journey almost seems secondary to her incredible prose and the clarity of her honesty and introspection. Beyond the issue of gender, she searches for an answer to that most elusive of questions: who am I?” (Though most of the book’s initial reviews were laudatory, not everyone was a fan. Reviewing Conundrum for The New York Times Book Review , Rebecca West gave it grudging respect while seeming to wonder why Morris felt the need to change genders, much less make it the subject of her book . For good measure, West sniped, “She sounds not like a woman, but like a man’s idea of a women, and curiously enough, the idea of a woman not nearly as intelligent as James Morris used to be.”)

Despite the enhanced celebrity her transition brought her, Morris maintained that her day-to-day life was little changed. As she wrote in Conundrum , her longtime Welsh neighbors seemed unfazed by the new person in their midst:“The Welsh are kind to most people and especially kind to their own.”

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Besides her many books and essays, Morris also wrote elegant travel pieces for Vogue , on such varied subjects as Crete, the Napa Valley, Trieste, and her adopted homeland of Wales. Her editor at Vogue , Richard Alleman, recalled this weekend the pleasurable experience of working with Morris. “She was a breeze to work with–editing her meant adding or deleting a comma here and there and nothing else because she was such a fine writer,” Alleman said. “She was incredibly polite and kind and appreciative of the editor’s work, even if we had done practically nothing.”

In that Paris Review article, Morris was asked if she was initially drawn to travel as a kind of metaphorical escape from the life she then lived as a man. “Well, I used to think it hadn’t anything to do with escape because I’ve always enjoyed traveling; it’s one of my great pleasures,” Morris answered. “My original travels were not quite voluntary. I went abroad with the British army, and there wasn’t much sense of escape in that. But later I did begin to believe that maybe there was some sort of allegorical meaning to my traveling. I thought that the restlessness I was possessed by was, perhaps, some yearning, not so much for the sake of escape as for the sake of quest: a quest for unity, a search for wholeness. I certainly didn’t think of it that way in the beginning, but I’ve come to think it might be so.”  

Though a trailblazer, Morris was not one to dwell too deeply on the significant role she played in the history of LGBTQ rights.

As The New York Times noted in 2019, when her last book of essays, In My Mind’s Eye , was serialized on BBC Radio , giving her another jolt of late-in-life fame, Morris had always been impatient with reporters’ questions about transgender politics, “possibly because she made peace with her own decisions so long ago.” As she told the paper of her transition , “I’ve never believed it to be quite as important as everyone made it out to be…I believe in the soul and the spirit more than the body.”

She made a similar point in Conundrum, writing, “To me gender is not physical at all, but is altogether insubstantial. It is soul, perhaps, it is talent, it is taste, it is environment, it is how one feels, it is light and shade, it is inner music, it is a spring in one’s stem or an exchange of glances, it is more truly life and love than any combination of genitals, ovaries and hormones.”

In one of her last interviews, conducted in March of this year, Morris talked of her advanced age and the realization that her life was nearing its close. “I am sorry to be so indistinct,” she told a reporter for The Guardian , when briefly losing her train of thought while recounting an anecdote. “The truth is, you are talking to someone at the very end of things. I felt that first about two years ago. I felt it creeping up, and now I know I am approaching the end.” 

And while she might not have meant it to be, the final passage in her 2001 book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, could well serve as an epitaph. “As for me, when my clock moves on for the last time, the angel having returned to Heaven, the angler having packed it in for the night and gone to the pub, I shall happily haunt the two places that have most happily haunted me,” Morris wrote. “Most of the after-time I shall be wandering with my beloved along the banks of the Dwyfor; but now and then you may find me in a boat below the walls of Miramar, watching the nightingales swarm.”

travel writer jan morris

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Jan Morris was a historian, author and travel writer.

She was born James Humphrey Morris in 1926 and educated at Lancing College Sussex and Oxford University, becoming editor there of the student magazine, Cherwell . She is a former journalist, and spent time as a reporter for both The Times and The Guardian . She was published under the name James Morris until the 1970s, when she went on to publish travel essays, autobiographies and fiction under the name of Jan Morris.

Her trilogy, comprising Heaven's Command (1973); Pax Britannica (1968) and Farewell The Trumpets (1978), charts the rise and fall of the British Empire. She has written portraites of many cities, including Oxford (1965), Venice (1955), Trieste (2002), Hong Kong (1988) and Sydney (1992). A collection of her travel writing and reportage from over 50 years was published as A Writer's World: Travels 1950-2000 in 2003. She has also written an autobiographical book, Conundrum (1974), a gripping account of her 10-year transformation from man to woman which The Times chose as one of '100 key books of our time'. Her biography, Fisher's Face (1995), tells the story of Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Jacky Fisher, naval reformer.

She is also the author of a novel, Last Letters from Hav (1985), shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction.

Jan Morris has received an honorary doctorate from the University of Glamorgan, was an Honorary Fellow of Christ Church, Oxford and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She was awarded a CBE in 1999.

Jan Morris died on 20 November 2020. 


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The Extraordinary Life of Jan Morris, Travel Writer and Pioneering Trans Person

In her classic travel narratives, Morris captured the essence of the world’s great cities—and the complexities of her own life.

In her masterful 2002 book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere , Jan Morris writes of how the northern Italian city always evoked in her a vague but powerful yearning. "My acquaintance with the city spans the whole of my adult life, but like my life it still gives me a waiting feeling, as if something big but unspecified is always about to happen," she writes.

A twilight book, published the year Morris turned 75, it is about the port city of the former Habsburg Empire and how the city's essence lies in its long and layered history as a generally felicitous meeting of cultures and peoples, languages and empires. But it is also a book about returning to places we knew in the past, and how travel lets us take the measure of ourselves as well as of our destinations. "The allure of lost consequence and faded power is seducing me, the passing of time, the passing of friends, the scrapping of great ships!" she writes of the city. "It is as though I have been taken, for a brief sententious glimpse, out of time to nowhere."

That description is pure Morris. So is the exclamation mark. There's nothing mournful or lugubrious here, but exuberance, vivacity, a piercing clarity of vision that characterizes all of Morris' work. I also can't help but read Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere as somewhat autobiographical—an account of a city that, like Morris herself, is a palimpsest of lives, that contains multitudes and layers and does so with dignity, clarity and self-awareness.

Morris died in late November at age 94 after an extraordinary life. Born James Morris, she (then he) sang in the boys' choir at Christ Church, Oxford, served in the British Army, scaled two-thirds of Mount Everest to report on Sir Edmund Hillary's triumphant ascent to the summit in 1953, became a foreign correspondent who broke news of French involvement in the Suez crisis in 1956, wrote dozens of brilliant works of history and travel reportage—and then, after years of hormone therapy, underwent a change of sex in Casablanca in 1972, emerging as Jan.

Her 1974 autobiography, Conundrum , begins: "I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl." The book is notable for its matter-of-fact lucidity. "I never did think that my own conundrum was a matter either of science or of social convention," Morris wrote in a 2001 introduction to the book's reissue. "What was important was the liberty of us all to live as we wished to live, to love however we wanted to love, and to know ourselves, however peculiar, disconcerting or unclassifiable, at one with the gods and angels."

That same spirit of self-knowledge informs the works in which Morris captured the spirit of a place with a few seemingly effortless brush strokes. Deeply learned, Morris was more a student of history than a teacher—always an enthusiast, never a pedant. I particularly love the dispatches she wrote for Rolling Stone between 1974 and 1979—socio-anthropological portraits of cities. (They were collected in a 1980 volume, Destinations .)

On Johannesburg in 1976, after the start of the township riots that would years later help bring down the Apartheid regime: "There it stands ringed by its yellow mine dumps, like stacks of its own excreta, the richest city in Africa but altogether without responsibility." And Istanbul in 1978: "There can never be a fresh start in Istanbul. It is all too late. Its successive pasts are ineradicable and inescapable."

Related : 2 Transgender Travelers on Exploring the U.S. and the World, Episode 15 of Travel + Leisure's New Podcast

Morris was fascinated by what makes cities work—their geographies, the source of their wealth. " London is hard as nails, and it is opportunism that has carried this city of moneymakers so brilliantly through revolution and holocaust, blitz and slump, in and out of empire, and through countless such periods of uncertainty as seem to blunt its assurance now," she wrote in 1978. In 1976 she visited Los Angeles, stayed in the Chateau Marmont, and examined the city's celebrity industry. Of New York in 1979, Morris observed: "Analysis, I sometimes think, is the principal occupation of Manhattan—analysis of trends, analysis of options, analysis of style, analysis of statistics, analysis above all of self."

Although Morris is more often generous of spirit, her dispatch from Washington, D.C. in 1976 is cutting. "Nowhere in the world, I think, do people take themselves more seriously than they do in Washington, or seem so indifferent to other perceptions than their own," she wrote. In her visits to all three American metropolises, she was struck by their peculiar combination of global power and extreme provincialism.

In this era of Instagram stories and this pandemic season of armchair travels , I have found great pleasure in reading Morris' dispatches. They offer rich, complex pictures, not individual pixels. But it's still her Trieste book that hits me deepest. It is a vision of a city fully aware of itself and its historical obsolescence, yet that nevertheless endures. "To my mind this is an existentialist sort of place," she writes. "Its purpose is to be itself." So was Morris'. Her work lives on.

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Tom Robbins

Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.

Jan Morris, the writer celebrated for her lyrical, evocative prose and hailed as the Flaubert of the Jet Age, made her name with a bald report of barely a dozen words. “Snow conditions bad,” it read. “Advanced base abandoned yesterday. Awaiting improvement. All Well.”

That downbeat dispatch, carried by runners down Nepal’s Khumbu valley then telegraphed to London, was in fact a coded message designed to protect a famous journalistic scoop. On June 2, 1953, the day of Elizabeth II’s coronation, its true meaning was revealed in the Times: Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay had become the first to stand on the summit of Everest.

Morris was the sole reporter on that expedition, an experience which would have been the pinnacle of most careers. For Morris, who died on Friday aged 94, it was just one chapter in a long adventurous life of remarkable breadth and scope. She was a child chorister at Oxford, a soldier crossing Europe in the second world war, a feted historian, one of 20th century’s greatest travellers, a Booker-shortlisted novelist and transgender pioneer. Along the way she met Che Guevara in Cuba, exposed French collusion in the invasion of Suez, and lived on Field Marshal Montgomery’s houseboat on the Nile.

James Morris was born in Somerset in 1926, to a Welsh father and English mother. It was a musical childhood — his brothers became an organist and flautist and James went as a choral scholar to Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford then Lancing College. In 1944 he joined the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, serving as an intelligence officer in Italy and Palestine and at one point being stationed in Venice — the city that would become the subject of the award-winning 1960 book that would establish his reputation as a travel writer.

After the war he worked for the Arab News Agency in Cairo, returned to Oxford to read English and edit Cherwell, the student newspaper, then joined the Times, first as a subeditor then correspondent. In 1949 he met and married Elizabeth Tuckniss — a relationship so joyful and intense he would accompany her morning commute by bus across London just so they could keep talking — and they went on to have five children. In 1968, he published the first volume of the Pax Britannica trilogy, a monumental account of the British empire which the Times Literary Supplement declared “a tour de force”.

But though the life of the dashing army officer and intrepid journalist seemed to epitomise the era’s ideal of action-man masculinity, Morris knew all along he was living in the wrong body. Sitting under his mother’s piano aged three or four, “her music falling around me like cataracts, enclosing me as if in a cave”, Morris realised he “should really be a girl. I remember the moment well and it is the earliest memory of my life.”

Supported throughout by Elizabeth, he began hormone treatment in 1964 and in 1972 had reassignment surgery in Casablanca, returning afterwards to resume family life at their home in Wales. (British law at the time forbade same-sex marriages, so the couple were forced to divorce, only to remarry in 2008). “It was a marriage that had no right to work, yet it worked like a dream, living testimony, one might say to the power of mind over matter — or of love in its purest sense over everything else,” wrote Morris in Conundrum (1974).

That book was a frank and groundbreaking account of her transition but in later years she declared herself “sick to death of the whole business”, joking that her death would be marked by the headline: “Sex Change Author Dies”.

Rather, she liked to expound the power and importance of kindness as a virtue overlooked in the modern obsession with romantic love and sex. “Everything good in the world is kindness,” she told the Observer earlier this year. “Though the only person who ever uses that word in politics is the prime minister of New Zealand. She is tremendous isn’t she?”

Though that first message from Everest was abbreviated and factual, the full report which appeared on June 8 showed the early hallmarks of Morris’s expressive style: “implacable Everest’s sting has been drawn at last.”

In these pages in September, the Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis argued travel writers and explorers should ignore their own sentiments and strive to look “beyond the shadow of self”. Morris was, by her own confession, the complete opposite. Returning after a decade to update her book on Venice, she noted: “it turns out to be nothing like the objective report I had originally conceived. It is a highly subjective, romantic, impressionist picture less of a city than an experience. It is Venice seen through a particular pair of eyes at a particular moment.”

That approach attracted some criticism. Reviewing her biography of Abraham Lincoln the historian Andrew Roberts complained “the 16th president gets only an occasional look-in”. But Morris’s willingness to give personality and atmosphere to the cities she visited, her “sensitivity to the poetry of place” as one reviewer put it, made her books uniquely compelling. Rebecca West called her “perhaps the best descriptive writer of our time”; Jonathan Raban said her essays were “very close to being pure magic”. Michael Palin praised the books’ ability to elevate rather than distract from a traveller’s own impressions: “they made you relish the place even more when you went.”

Writing in the Financial Times in 2016 she gave short shrift to detractors who complained that their experience of a place was nothing like her evocation of it: “Well of course it isn’t, I always feel like replying, you didn’t write the book!”

Despite a career circling the world, it was Wales that Morris found “unmatchably beautiful” and where she lived for most of her life, becoming a prominent supporter of Welsh independence. For the last three decades she and Elizabeth shared an 18th century, slate-roofed barn on the Llŷn peninsula in the country’s rural north, a mile from the sea and a dozen from the summit of Snowdon. Their son, the poet Twm Morys, lives close by and announced her death on Friday: “This morning at 11.40 . . . the author and traveller Jan Morris began her greatest journey. She leaves behind on the shore her life-long partner, Elizabeth.”

Though the remote Welsh house might sound like a retirement hideaway, Morris kept working, publishing her most recent book “Thinking Again” only in March. She zipped around the lanes in the bright red seat of her Honda Civic Type R — a model beloved of boy racers but which she acquired in her 80s — and she continued to give interviews to visiting reporters from the world’s newspapers. Often she would show them the grave stone, stored in the under stairs cupboard, which she and Elizabeth will eventually share, inscribed in English and Welsh with the words: “Here lie two friends, at the end of one life”.

Morris was the last surviving member of the 1953 Everest expedition. For all the flag waving triumphalism surrounding the achievement and the coronation-day reporting of it, she would later write of it not as the zenith of empire, but a final fling, “a last hurrah of old-school Britishness”.

She often wrote about places and people looking back on their prime and latterly her subject had become her own old age. But while her descriptions of Venice and Trieste had an air of graceful melancholy, her words about her own final chapters were shot through with a defiant cheerfulness. “I don’t want to sound complacent,” she told the FT in 2018, “but I have had a marvellous life”.

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Jan Morris, ground-breaking travel writer, dies at 94

Nov 21, 2020 • 3 min read

Welsh author Jan Morris pictured at the 1998 Hay Festival Hay on Wye Powys Wales UK

Welsh author Jan Morris pictured at the 1998 Hay Festival Hay on Wye Powys, Wales © Jeff Morgan 13 / Alamy Stock Photo

Jan Morris passed away on Friday morning at Ysbyty Bryn Beryl, a Welsh hospital on the the Llŷn Peninsula, at the age of 94. Born in 1926 in Somerset, her storied career started with a stint at the  Western Daily Press  in Bristol before she joined the army and served in World War II as an intelligence officer in Palestine and Trieste, Italy. After the war, Morris worked for  The Times  as a sub editor and two years later was sent on the assignment of a lifetime to cover the summit of Mt. Everest achieved by Colonel John Hunt, Tenzing Norgay, and Edmund Hillary in 1953. 

Those early experiences were the foundation of a prolific and influential career as a journalist and author. Morris covered destinations from Hong Kong to Oman, Sydney to the South Africa in dozens of magazine and newspaper features, as well as books that spanned travel, history, biography, and memoir. One of her first full-length works was  Coast to Coast,  a family travelogue of the United States at the height of its post-war glitter. Morris spent much of the 1970s writing and publishing  The Pax Britannica Trilogy, an exhaustive history of the British empire – indeed, her travels and nationality gave her a bird's eye view of the dawn of the post-colonial era. Even Morris's fiction was steeped in place, in particular  Last Letters from Hav  and  Return to Hav – a pair of short post-modern novellas that fictionalized some of her long-term observations about the Middle East and cast them through the lens of science fiction.  Last Letters  was short listed for the 1985 Booker Prize. 

Edmund Hillary being congratulated by James Morris

Despite her success with travel writing and numerous awards, Morris often chafed at categorization , uncomfortable with the confines of genre or even the idea that she was strictly a place-based writer. In a 1989 interview with  The Paris Review  she observed, "I resist the idea that travel writing has got to be factual. I believe in its imaginative qualities and its potential as art and literature. ...I think of myself more as a belletrist, an old-fashioned word. Essayist would do; people understand that more or less. I believe my best books to be more historical than topographical."

Twenty years into her career, in 1972, Jan Morris traveled to Casablanca, Morocco for gender affirming surgery and ceased to use the male given name James personally or professionally. She published a book about her transition in 1974, noting that she had felt since she was a small child that she had been born in the wrong body. “I no longer feel isolated and unreal," she wrote. "Not only can I imagine more vividly how other people feel: released at last from those old bridles and blinkers, I am beginning to know how I feel myself.” Though she was forced to legally divorce her wife upon returning from Morocco – same-sex partnerships not being legal in the UK at the time – Morris and her wife Elizabeth were able to obtain a civil union in 2008. Their marriage lasted the rest of Morris's life, and spanned 71 years.

Morris never retired from writing; she published her final book, Thinking Again , in March of 2020. It collects a series of daily diary entries penned between 2018 and 2019, which range from personal reminiscences to reflections on Welsh nationalism and current affairs like Brexit. Though she was by then sticking close to her home in Llanystumdwy, Morris's final work still conveys a deep and abiding passion for people and place and the acute observations that drew many to her oeuvre. But her legacy is broader and deeper than her writings, encompassing nationality and identity as well. She will be remembered not just as an author, but also as a pioneer for women – and particularly trans women – both in travel and in publishing. Indeed, what Morris once said of libraries could well be said of her life – "Book lovers will understand me, and they will know too that part of the pleasure of a library lies in its very existence.”

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  • Nation & World

Jan Morris, artful travel writer who broke many boundaries, dies at 94

As a young reporter, Jan Morris was on the mountainside, at 22,000 feet, when the first expedition in history reached the top of Mount Everest. She reported on wars and revolutions around the globe, published dozens of elegant books exploring far-flung places and times and was regarded as perhaps the greatest travel writer of her time.

Yet the most remarkable journey of her life was across a private border, when she cast off her earlier identity as James Morris and became Jan Morris.

A writer of extraordinary range and productivity, and one of the world’s first well-known transgender public figures, Morris was 94 when she died Nov. 20 at a hospital in the Welsh town of Pwllheli. Her son Twm Morys announced the death in a statement but did not state the cause.

Jan Morris spent her first 45 years as James Morris, who had been a British cavalry officer, a World War II veteran and a dashing reporter renowned for international adventures and evocative writing.

“On the face of things,” a onetime colleague, David Holden, wrote in 1974, “a less likely candidate for a sex change than James Morris would have been hard to imagine. His whole career and reputation had created an aura of glamorous and successful masculinity.”

In the 1940s, James Morris lived on the Nile on the houseboat of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. In 1953, never having climbed a mountain before, James joined the expedition of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay and came within 7,000 feet of the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak. Scrambling back down, James delivered the news that Everest had been conquered for the first time in history. The Times of London printed the story on the eve of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

“I went up an unknown,” Morris told the New York Times in 1997, “and came down the most famous journalist in the world.”

Constantly on the move, James Morris reported from Israel, Algeria, South Africa and Japan, primarily for British newspapers and magazines, published books and was praised by New York Times critic Orville Prescott as a “poet and a phrase-maker with a fine flair for the beauties of the English language.”

James Morris covered the Moscow show trial of U.S. spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers and the trial in Jerusalem of unrepentant Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann. In Cuba, James interviewed the charismatic revolutionary Che Guevara and in a 1960 dispatch published in the New York Times offered a grim assessment of what the future would hold for the country under Fidel Castro.”

“It is a strikingly immature regime – not just in age but in style and judgment too. The rulers of Havana reduce all things to simple right or wrong, East or West, in or out, yours or ours. There still is good in many of their notions, a surviving streak of idealism, a genuine quality of young inspiration. But there is little subtlety, no experience, and scarcely a jot of that prime political commodity, irony.”

In 1960, James Morris published the best-selling “Venice” (called “The World of Venice” in the United States), creating a distinctive style of travel writing, a literary dreamscape evoking past and present at once, as sensory impressions and a poignant awareness of what some called the “psychology of place” were threaded into an elegant, flowing prose.

Venice – for centuries an independent republic before it became part of Italy – “was something unique among the nations, half eastern, half western, half land, half sea, poised between Rome and Byzantium, between Christianity and Islam, one foot in Europe, the other paddling in the pearls of Asia. She . . . even had her own calendar, in which the year began on March 1st, and the days began in the evening.”

Other books followed, about New York, Britain, South America and Spain, as well as an ambitious three-volume history of the British Empire that was so authoritatively written that critics were reminded of Edward Gibbon’s monumental 18th-century chronicle of ancient Rome.

James Morris had public acclaim and a seemingly contented family life as the married father of four children – but there remained a central, inescapable fact: a misaligned gender identity, “a life distorted.”

“I was three or perhaps four years old,” Jan Morris wrote in her first book under that name, the autobiographical “Conundrum” (1974), “when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well” – sitting under the piano, while her mother played Sibelius – “and it is the earliest memory of my life.”

Before marrying Elizabeth Tuckniss in 1949, James Morris explained this sense of inner conflict, telling her that “each year my every instinct seemed to become more feminine, my entombment within the male physique more terrible to me.”

James Morris began hormone treatments in 1964 and consulted with Harry Benjamin, an American physician and the author of “The Transsexual Phenomenon” (1966). In 1972, James went to Casablanca for transition surgery, choosing a doctor experienced in the procedure.

Two weeks later, Jan Morris flew back to England, where she was greeted by Elizabeth. Under British law at the time, they had to obtain a divorce because same-sex couples were not permitted to marry. Still, they continued to live together.

“To me gender is not physical at all, but is altogether insubstantial,” Morris wrote in “Conundrum,” which became an international best seller. “It is the essentialness of oneself, the psyche, the fragment of unity. Male and female are sex, masculine and feminine are gender, and though the conceptions obviously overlap, they are far from synonymous.”

Many readers admired Morris’s revelatory candor, but others were confused or hostile. In Esquire magazine, Nora Ephron disparaged “Conundrum” as “a mawkish and embarrassing book. . . . Jan Morris is perfectly awful at being a woman; what she has become instead is exactly what James Morris wanted to become those many years ago. A girl. And worse, a 47-year-old girl.”

In any case, Morris continued with her writing life much as before, only wearing skirts, necklaces, a nimbus of graying hair and a perpetual smile.

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She completed the final volume of the British Empire trilogy and continued to wander the globe, writing for Rolling Stone and other publications. The books seem to pour out of her, often with simple titles such as “Travels,” “Journeys,” “Destinations” and “Among the Cities.”

She became almost a revered figure, considered a founder of modern travel writing, even though she resisted the title.

“The reason why I don’t regard myself as a travel writer is that the books have never tried to tell somebody what a city is like,” she told the Independent in 2001. “All I do is say how I’ve felt about it, how it impinged on my sensibility.”

Morris was often asked which city in the world, out of the hundreds she knew, was her favorite. She invariably named Manhattan and Venice, both of which she visited every year.

But she also had an abiding attachment to Trieste, a somewhat eccentric port city in northeastern Italy. Morris first saw Trieste in 1945, then returned periodically over the years before publishing in 2001 what she considered perhaps her finest travel book, “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.”

“The nostalgia that I felt here 50 years ago was, I realize now, nostalgia not for a lost Europe, but for a Europe that never was, and has yet to be,” she wrote. “But we can still hope and try, and be grateful that we are where we are, in this ever-marvelous and fateful corner of the world.”

James Humphry Morris was born Oct. 2, 1926, in Clevedon, England.

At 17, James Morris joined the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, a storied British cavalry unit, and served in Italy and the Middle East during World War II. James later worked for a news agency in Cairo, then returned to Britain to study at the University of Oxford, graduating in 1951.

After working for the Times of London for several years, James joined what was then the Manchester Guardian in 1956 as “wandering correspondent,” winning a George Polk Award for journalism in 1960. A year later, James became a freelance writer and received a master’s degree in English literature from Oxford.

It was in Oxford where James Morris made the first tentative steps toward becoming Jan, going out in public wearing dresses and makeup, years before athletes Renée Richards and Caitlyn Jenner were heralded as transgender pioneers.

In 2008, Morris and Elizabeth Tuckniss Morris were united in a civil union.

“I made my marriage vows 59 years ago and still have them,” Elizabeth Morris told Britain’s Evening Standard. “We are back together again officially. After Jan had a sex change we had to divorce. So there we were. It did not make any difference to me. We still had our family. We just carried on.”

They settled in the Welsh village of Llanystumdwy, with one of their sons living next door. The couple arranged for a joint gravestone with an engraving in Welsh and English: “Here are two friends, at the end of one life.”

In addition to Elizabeth Morris and their son, Twm Morys, survivors include three other children. Another child, a daughter, died in infancy.

If anything, Jan Morris was a more productive writer than James had been. She often published two or three books a year, and more than 45 in all. Besides her accounts of travel, history and autobiography, she wrote two novels and biographical studies of Abraham Lincoln and British admiral John Fisher.

In 2018, she published “Battleship Yamato,” about an ill-fated Japanese warship that was sunk in 1945. It was believed to be one of the last books about World War II written by a veteran of the war. She continued to publish essays about her life in Wales, her memories and what she called the “tangled web” of her life until shortly before her death.

“I spent half my life traveling in foreign places,” Morris wrote in “Conundrum.” “I did it because I liked it, and to earn a living, and I have only lately recognized that incessant wandering as an outer expression of my inner journey.”

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Jan Morris, author and transgender pioneer, dies at 94

NEW YORK (AP) — Jan Morris, the celebrated journalist, historian, world traveler and fiction writer who in middle age became a pioneer of the transgender movement, has died at 94.

Morris died in Wales on Friday morning, according to her literary representative, United Agents. Her agent Sophie Scard confirmed her death. Morris had been in failing health. Additional details were not immediately available.

The British author lived as James Morris until the early 1970s, when she underwent surgery at a clinic in Casablanca and renamed herself Jan Morris. Her best-selling memoir “Conundrum,” which came out in 1974, continued the path of such earlier works as Christine Jorgensen’s “A Personal Autobiography” in presenting her decision as natural and liberating.

“I no longer feel isolated and unreal,” she wrote. “Not only can I imagine more vividly how other people feel: released at last from those old bridles and blinkers, I am beginning to know how I feel myself.”

Morris was a prolific and accomplished author and journalist who wrote dozens of books in a variety of genres and was a first-hand witness to history. As a young reporter for the Times, she accompanied a 1953 expedition to Asia led by Sir Edmund Hillary and, on the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, broke the news that Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay had become the first climbers to scale Mount Everest.

She was so concerned that rival reporters would steal her scoop she used coded language for the dispatch back home, relayed through an India military radio outpost: “Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement.”

In 1956, for the Manchester Guardian, she helped break the news that French forces were secretly attacking Egypt during the so-called Suez Canal crisis that threatened to start a world war. The French and British, who also were allied against Egypt, both withdrew in embarrassment after denying the initial reports and British prime minister Anthony Eden resigned within months. In the early 1960s, she covered Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem.

Morris went on to receive praise for her immersive travel writing, with Venice and Trieste among the favored locations, and for her “Pax Britannica” histories about the British empire, a trilogy begun as James Morris and concluded as Jan Morris. In 1985, she was a Booker Prize finalist for an imagined travelogue and political thriller, “Last Letters from Hav,” about a Mediterranean city-state that was a stopping point for the author’s globe-spanning knowledge and adventures, where visitors ranged from Saint Paul and Marco Polo to Ernest Hemingway and Sigmund Freud.

The book was reissued 21 years later as part of “Hav,” which included a sequel by Morris and an introduction from the science fiction-fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin.

“I read it (‘Hav’) as a brilliant description of the crossroads of the West and East … viewed by a woman who has truly seen the world, and who lives in it with twice the intensity of most of us,” Le Guin wrote.

Morris’ other works included the memoirs “Herstory” and “Pleasures of a Tangled Life,” the essay collections “Cities” and “Locations” and the anthology “The World: Life and Travel 1950-2000.” A collection of diary entries, “In My Mind’s Eye,” came out in 2019, and a second volume is scheduled for January. “Allegorizings,” a nonfiction book of personal reflections that she wrote more than a decade ago and asked not be published in her lifetime, also will be released in 2021.

Born James Humphrey Morris in Somerset, with a Welsh father and English mother, Morris remembered questioning her gender by age 4. She had an epiphany as she sat under her mother’s piano and thought that she had “been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.” For some 20 years she kept her feelings secret, a “cherished” secret that became a prayer when at Oxford University she and fellow students would observe a moment of silence while worshipping at the school cathedral.

“Into that hiatus, while my betters I suppose were asking for forgiveness or enlightenment, I inserted silently every night, year after year throughout my boyhood, an appeal less graceful but no less heartfelt: ‘And please, God, let me be a girl. Amen,‘” Morris wrote in her memoir.

“I felt that in wishing so fervently, and so ceaselessly, to be translated into a girl’s body, I was aiming only at a more divine condition, an inner reconciliation.”

To the outside world, James Morris seemed to enjoy an exemplary male life. She was 17 when she joined the British army during World War II, served as an intelligence officer in Palestine and mastered the “military virtues of “courage, dash, loyalty, self-discipline.” In 1949, Morris married Elizabeth Tuckniss, with whom she had five children. (One died in infancy).

But privately she felt “dark with indecision and anxiety” and even considered suicide. She had traveled the “long, well-beaten, expensive, and fruitless path” of psychiatrists and sexologists. She had concluded that no one in her situation had ever, “in the whole history of psychiatry, been ‘cured’ by the science.”

Life as a woman changed how Morris saw the world and how the world saw Morris. She would internalize perceptions that she couldn’t fix a car or lift a heavy suitcase, found herself treated as an inferior by men and a confidante by women. She learned that there is “no aspect of existence, no moment of the day, no contact, no arrangement, no response, which is not different for men and women.”

Morris and her wife were divorced, but they remained close, and, in 2008, formalized a new bond in a civil union. They also promised to be buried together, under a stone inscribed in both Welsh and England: “Here lie two friends, at the end of one life.”

Associated Press writer Jill Lawless contributed to this report from London.

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travel writer jan morris

clock This article was published more than  3 years ago

World class: Remembering legendary travel writer Jan Morris

Trieste is a narrow Italian city on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, behind the top of the back of the country’s boot. Slovenia is five miles east from the city center, and Slavs make day trips to shop. Illy, the coffee company, traces its roots here, and it’s home to one of the largest synagogues in Europe. Its rich history revolves around its role as a bustling imperial port city. I visited Trieste three years ago, ate, drank, wandered and waded into the Adriatic Sea, glimpsing ancient limestone outcrops in the distance.

But I would not have understood Trieste without the help of Jan Morris, who made a living understanding everything. Her book, “ Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere ” is 188 pages of geography, philosophy, Napoleonic history, Jewish history, maritime history, vintage gossip of the bourgeoisie, personal reminiscence and self-reflection. And despite — or perhaps because of — the multitudes Trieste contains, Morris declares it “a fulcrum of nothing but an extension of much more.”

Morris, who died last month at 94 in her native Wales, published more than 40 books and countless articles. Some volumes are laser-focused on one place, some sprawling essay collections. She is often referred to as a travel writer, but to acknowledge her as such is like calling the Beatles a rock-and-roll band or van Gogh a landscape painter.

She wrote about architecture as prolifically and proficiently as Thoreau wrote about nature. She constantly and easily drew analogies to the works and exploits of novelists, poets, painters, dukes, kings, generals and ancient Greek philosophers. She never presented a narrative without first establishing a solid, intricately constructed foundation of historical truths. She might swerve into detailed exposition of past events, but she quickly slingshots back to her more whimsical, inspired musings.

And her food writing could make Anthony Bourdain blush. In a Singapore market “the shoppers spared me hardly a glance, for they were choosing their victuals with a scholarly concentration, calculating the density of turnips, contemplating the specific gravity of carp, comparing the metabolisms of goose liver and pickled crab before with decisive gestures they solved their several equations, and stuffing liver, noodles, pressed ducks and sharks’ fins into their blue and yellow plastic shopping bags, hastened home to make the soup.”

Jan Morris, artful travel writer who broke many boundaries, dies at 94

It would seem like she spent years poring over stacks of scholarly books and reams of microfiche, but to envision her cooped up in some ivory tower is to insult her very essence. She didn’t travel for the sake of travel, she traveled to study. In 1987 she told the New York Times, “I don’t really enjoy traveling if I’m not writing. E.M. Forster once said that the only way to look at Alexandria is to wander aimlessly. At times, I have drifted to the Lower East Side, to Chinatown and so forth, but I haven’t wandered much.”

I can’t help wonder if that’s because she was long accustomed to a life guided and shaped by missions. Earlier in her career, Morris, a transgender woman, was a military officer in one of Britain’s most distinguished cavalry regiments and a World War II veteran and wrote under the name James Morris. In 1946 she was posted as an intelligence officer in Palestinian territories, which she arrived at via Venice and Trieste, both of which she wrote book-length tributes to.

She later became an international correspondent for the Times of London and remains most famous for her dispatch from Mount Everest, which she scaled partway with Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, scrambling down to file her exclusive just in time to run on the eve of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Coverage of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann’s trial, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro’s Cuba were among her other coups.

Like another matchless chronicler of geopolitics then culture, the New York Times’s similarly prolific R.W. Apple, who covered wars and presidential races before recounting his international dining adventures, Morris is so immediate and engaging in her writing because she possesses that reporter-esque instinct for scrutiny and obsession with detail. If any of her work were turned into a screenplay, there would be no need to contrive sets or costumes. Dutifully and admiringly, she records what would easily go unnoticed — the stitching on a buttonhole, the irregularities of a shadow.

Though British — insistently and quintessentially so (“Oxford made me,” she wrote in “ Conundrum ,” a chronicle of her transition), she came up in the time of New Journalism. The practice, pioneered by Gay Talese and Truman Capote, relies on the specific techniques of fiction but sticks to the facts. Like those pioneers, she told probing and engaging stories that were also true. She just wove them through with a little more philosophy and introspection.

From the Archives: Travel writer Jan Morris, seeing the end of the road

I discovered Morris 20 years ago while working at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. With a newly minted degree in literature, it was pretty much the only job I was qualified for. The used-book department in the basement had that musty scent of dust and other people’s houses. After work one quiet Sunday night I spotted “ The World ” on the shelf in the “Essays” section, equidistant from volumes by James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf. Small images of global landmarks adorned the spine and caught my eye. The minimal title — solemn, seductive and assured — snapped me to attention. The essays — impressionistic but set in tangible and at times familiar places — were like nothing I’d read before.

That volume — coffee- and beer-stained, dog-eared and scribbled in over the years — was eventually lost somewhere in Amsterdam. Rather, not “lost,” but returned to its natural habitat: the world. I only hope some curious passerby picked it up from whatever park bench or lobby sofa or cafe table I left it on, read it and set it back out into the wilds. I like to imagine all these years later it’s still circulating, reaching all the places Morris mused about in its pages.

When taken as a whole, her essays read as fiction, a fitting bridge to journalism for a literature major who had just spent years absorbed in Hemingway, Mann, Joyce, Shakespeare, et al. Morris’s ensemble is the city itself. The structures, buildings, waterways and open spaces, the cast of characters. She imbues inanimate structures with energy and personality. Skyscrapers in Singapore are “very rich, very arrogant, very vulgar” and they “humiliate” the old historic buildings. In Manhattan, the bases of buildings “suggest so many gigantic roots or trunks, and the life of the city seems to proceed as within a gargantuan forest.” In Edinburgh, church spires and austere towers are “thinking awful Scottish thoughts, or plotting the downfall of reason.” She’s insistent that her appetite for cities is greater than that for the countryside that surrounds her when she’s home in Wales, but we nevertheless catch her indulging in glimpses of nature being mischievous or gratified. The fjords of Norway, for instance “creep into the hills for shelter.”

In a 1997 New York Times article, she remarked that stones have a warmth about them, be it mighty Karnak or the walls of her stone cottage. “Inanimate objects express the unexpressed animate emotions,” she said. Those words are like a Rosetta stone to me, unlocking the Egyptology of the inner life that informs her perception.

Morris assumed she would be remembered as “that sex-changed travel writer” and indeed, throughout her life and now her passing, people suggest her perpetual travel was a metaphor for running away and trying to find herself. I think, however, that it was more a case of knowing and understanding herself so well that she could be contented anywhere.

When I saw her speak at the New York Public Library about 10 years ago, I remember her saying that when you travel, “you’ve got to be alone,” even if people want you to have company. As someone who often travels on my own when I’m on assignment, I see the value in that directive. That way it’s easier to talk to strangers who, in my experience, are far more valuable than any guidebook. Some have even become good friends. Moreover, if you want to get to know a city, you have to give it your undivided attention. And once you get to know the place, Morris showed us over and over, you’ll never be lonely. There’s too much to see.

Weisstuch is a writer based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @livingtheproof.

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travel writer jan morris

40 Facts About Elektrostal

Lanette Mayes

Written by Lanette Mayes

Modified & Updated: 01 Jun 2024

Jessica Corbett

Reviewed by Jessica Corbett


Elektrostal is a vibrant city located in the Moscow Oblast region of Russia. With a rich history, stunning architecture, and a thriving community, Elektrostal is a city that has much to offer. Whether you are a history buff, nature enthusiast, or simply curious about different cultures, Elektrostal is sure to captivate you.

This article will provide you with 40 fascinating facts about Elektrostal, giving you a better understanding of why this city is worth exploring. From its origins as an industrial hub to its modern-day charm, we will delve into the various aspects that make Elektrostal a unique and must-visit destination.

So, join us as we uncover the hidden treasures of Elektrostal and discover what makes this city a true gem in the heart of Russia.

Key Takeaways:

  • Elektrostal, known as the “Motor City of Russia,” is a vibrant and growing city with a rich industrial history, offering diverse cultural experiences and a strong commitment to environmental sustainability.
  • With its convenient location near Moscow, Elektrostal provides a picturesque landscape, vibrant nightlife, and a range of recreational activities, making it an ideal destination for residents and visitors alike.

Known as the “Motor City of Russia.”

Elektrostal, a city located in the Moscow Oblast region of Russia, earned the nickname “Motor City” due to its significant involvement in the automotive industry.

Home to the Elektrostal Metallurgical Plant.

Elektrostal is renowned for its metallurgical plant, which has been producing high-quality steel and alloys since its establishment in 1916.

Boasts a rich industrial heritage.

Elektrostal has a long history of industrial development, contributing to the growth and progress of the region.

Founded in 1916.

The city of Elektrostal was founded in 1916 as a result of the construction of the Elektrostal Metallurgical Plant.

Located approximately 50 kilometers east of Moscow.

Elektrostal is situated in close proximity to the Russian capital, making it easily accessible for both residents and visitors.

Known for its vibrant cultural scene.

Elektrostal is home to several cultural institutions, including museums, theaters, and art galleries that showcase the city’s rich artistic heritage.

A popular destination for nature lovers.

Surrounded by picturesque landscapes and forests, Elektrostal offers ample opportunities for outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, and birdwatching.

Hosts the annual Elektrostal City Day celebrations.

Every year, Elektrostal organizes festive events and activities to celebrate its founding, bringing together residents and visitors in a spirit of unity and joy.

Has a population of approximately 160,000 people.

Elektrostal is home to a diverse and vibrant community of around 160,000 residents, contributing to its dynamic atmosphere.

Boasts excellent education facilities.

The city is known for its well-established educational institutions, providing quality education to students of all ages.

A center for scientific research and innovation.

Elektrostal serves as an important hub for scientific research, particularly in the fields of metallurgy , materials science, and engineering.

Surrounded by picturesque lakes.

The city is blessed with numerous beautiful lakes , offering scenic views and recreational opportunities for locals and visitors alike.

Well-connected transportation system.

Elektrostal benefits from an efficient transportation network, including highways, railways, and public transportation options, ensuring convenient travel within and beyond the city.

Famous for its traditional Russian cuisine.

Food enthusiasts can indulge in authentic Russian dishes at numerous restaurants and cafes scattered throughout Elektrostal.

Home to notable architectural landmarks.

Elektrostal boasts impressive architecture, including the Church of the Transfiguration of the Lord and the Elektrostal Palace of Culture.

Offers a wide range of recreational facilities.

Residents and visitors can enjoy various recreational activities, such as sports complexes, swimming pools, and fitness centers, enhancing the overall quality of life.

Provides a high standard of healthcare.

Elektrostal is equipped with modern medical facilities, ensuring residents have access to quality healthcare services.

Home to the Elektrostal History Museum.

The Elektrostal History Museum showcases the city’s fascinating past through exhibitions and displays.

A hub for sports enthusiasts.

Elektrostal is passionate about sports, with numerous stadiums, arenas, and sports clubs offering opportunities for athletes and spectators.

Celebrates diverse cultural festivals.

Throughout the year, Elektrostal hosts a variety of cultural festivals, celebrating different ethnicities, traditions, and art forms.

Electric power played a significant role in its early development.

Elektrostal owes its name and initial growth to the establishment of electric power stations and the utilization of electricity in the industrial sector.

Boasts a thriving economy.

The city’s strong industrial base, coupled with its strategic location near Moscow, has contributed to Elektrostal’s prosperous economic status.

Houses the Elektrostal Drama Theater.

The Elektrostal Drama Theater is a cultural centerpiece, attracting theater enthusiasts from far and wide.

Popular destination for winter sports.

Elektrostal’s proximity to ski resorts and winter sport facilities makes it a favorite destination for skiing, snowboarding, and other winter activities.

Promotes environmental sustainability.

Elektrostal prioritizes environmental protection and sustainability, implementing initiatives to reduce pollution and preserve natural resources.

Home to renowned educational institutions.

Elektrostal is known for its prestigious schools and universities, offering a wide range of academic programs to students.

Committed to cultural preservation.

The city values its cultural heritage and takes active steps to preserve and promote traditional customs, crafts, and arts.

Hosts an annual International Film Festival.

The Elektrostal International Film Festival attracts filmmakers and cinema enthusiasts from around the world, showcasing a diverse range of films.

Encourages entrepreneurship and innovation.

Elektrostal supports aspiring entrepreneurs and fosters a culture of innovation, providing opportunities for startups and business development .

Offers a range of housing options.

Elektrostal provides diverse housing options, including apartments, houses, and residential complexes, catering to different lifestyles and budgets.

Home to notable sports teams.

Elektrostal is proud of its sports legacy , with several successful sports teams competing at regional and national levels.

Boasts a vibrant nightlife scene.

Residents and visitors can enjoy a lively nightlife in Elektrostal, with numerous bars, clubs, and entertainment venues.

Promotes cultural exchange and international relations.

Elektrostal actively engages in international partnerships, cultural exchanges, and diplomatic collaborations to foster global connections.

Surrounded by beautiful nature reserves.

Nearby nature reserves, such as the Barybino Forest and Luchinskoye Lake, offer opportunities for nature enthusiasts to explore and appreciate the region’s biodiversity.

Commemorates historical events.

The city pays tribute to significant historical events through memorials, monuments, and exhibitions, ensuring the preservation of collective memory.

Promotes sports and youth development.

Elektrostal invests in sports infrastructure and programs to encourage youth participation, health, and physical fitness.

Hosts annual cultural and artistic festivals.

Throughout the year, Elektrostal celebrates its cultural diversity through festivals dedicated to music, dance, art, and theater.

Provides a picturesque landscape for photography enthusiasts.

The city’s scenic beauty, architectural landmarks, and natural surroundings make it a paradise for photographers.

Connects to Moscow via a direct train line.

The convenient train connection between Elektrostal and Moscow makes commuting between the two cities effortless.

A city with a bright future.

Elektrostal continues to grow and develop, aiming to become a model city in terms of infrastructure, sustainability, and quality of life for its residents.

In conclusion, Elektrostal is a fascinating city with a rich history and a vibrant present. From its origins as a center of steel production to its modern-day status as a hub for education and industry, Elektrostal has plenty to offer both residents and visitors. With its beautiful parks, cultural attractions, and proximity to Moscow, there is no shortage of things to see and do in this dynamic city. Whether you’re interested in exploring its historical landmarks, enjoying outdoor activities, or immersing yourself in the local culture, Elektrostal has something for everyone. So, next time you find yourself in the Moscow region, don’t miss the opportunity to discover the hidden gems of Elektrostal.

Q: What is the population of Elektrostal?

A: As of the latest data, the population of Elektrostal is approximately XXXX.

Q: How far is Elektrostal from Moscow?

A: Elektrostal is located approximately XX kilometers away from Moscow.

Q: Are there any famous landmarks in Elektrostal?

A: Yes, Elektrostal is home to several notable landmarks, including XXXX and XXXX.

Q: What industries are prominent in Elektrostal?

A: Elektrostal is known for its steel production industry and is also a center for engineering and manufacturing.

Q: Are there any universities or educational institutions in Elektrostal?

A: Yes, Elektrostal is home to XXXX University and several other educational institutions.

Q: What are some popular outdoor activities in Elektrostal?

A: Elektrostal offers several outdoor activities, such as hiking, cycling, and picnicking in its beautiful parks.

Q: Is Elektrostal well-connected in terms of transportation?

A: Yes, Elektrostal has good transportation links, including trains and buses, making it easily accessible from nearby cities.

Q: Are there any annual events or festivals in Elektrostal?

A: Yes, Elektrostal hosts various events and festivals throughout the year, including XXXX and XXXX.

Elektrostal's fascinating history, vibrant culture, and promising future make it a city worth exploring. For more captivating facts about cities around the world, discover the unique characteristics that define each city . Uncover the hidden gems of Moscow Oblast through our in-depth look at Kolomna. Lastly, dive into the rich industrial heritage of Teesside, a thriving industrial center with its own story to tell.

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