Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: Jan Morris

Paul Scraton | 23rd November 2020

We were honoured to host the revered travel writer Jan Morris as a guest of Caught by the River / Faber Social on two occasions at Festival No 6. The first time, in 2012, was mentioned in our post-festival roundup here.

The second time, 2013, was even more memorable. Scheduled to open proceedings on the Sunday (on a bill shared with Wire, Viv Albertine and Jonny Trunk), Jan arrived to find our stage closed — and dismantled — due to adverse weather conditions. We quickly converted a snug bar room in the nearby Portmerion Hotel into an ad hoc performance space where Jan, without fuss, was happy to follow Roy Wilkinson and his legendary Pop & Nature Quiz, and share her story with a room squeezed full to busting with adoring fans.

Following the sad news of Jan’s passing last week, aged 94, Paul Scraton pays tribute.

Jan Morris, pictured at her home near the village of Llanystumdwy in Gwynedd, north Wales. (Photo by Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images)

I first discovered the work of Jan Morris in a Belfast bookshop when my daughter was a baby. We had travelled to Ireland to visit family, and as I’d just started a job as the editor of a travel magazine, I was on the lookout for books that we could profile and writers we might interview. The book I picked up on that overcast late-autumn day was Venice, first published in 1960 when Jan Morris was still living and writing as James, and revised three times at roughly ten year intervals.

We walked up from Belfast city centre towards the university, stopping for something to eat in an Indian restaurant. As we waited for our food to arrive, I began to read: 

At 45°14’N, 12°18’E, the navigator, sailing up the Adriatic coast of Italy, discovers an opening in the long low line of the shore: and turning westward, with the race of the tide, he enters a lagoon. Instantly the boisterous sting of the sea is lost. The water around him is shallow but opaque, the atmosphere curiously translucent, the colours pallid, and over the whole wide bowl of mudbank and water there hangs a suggestion of melancholy.

Immediately I was taken away. The hum and chatter of the restaurant had retreated. I no longer heard the conversation at our table, the music coming from the speakers in the corner of the room or the clatter and clang of the kitchen. It read like the opening of a novel, and I was right there with the navigator as he crossed the shallows of the lagoon, the city of Venice slowly rising in front of him. Over the next few days I raced through this wonderful portrait of a city. Venice is a place I’d been to a couple of times and never really liked, but Jan Morris helped me see what I had missed. She made me want to go back and to look again. 

It is always a great moment when you discover the work of a writer or musician and you realise that there is a whole back-catalogue to explore, and with Jan Morris I soon found that I had a lot to catch up on. Having completed military service, James Morris became a journalist – first for The Times and later The Manchester Guardian – whose big break came as the correspondent at base camp for Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first ascent of Everest in 1953. In 1956 a first book was published, Coast to Coast, with more than forty to follow over the next 64 years, the most recent of which is Thinking Again, a collection of daily diary entries, published earlier this year.

After Belfast and Venice I picked up Jan Morris books wherever I found them, in new editions or second hand. She soon became the writer with the most entries on my bookshelves at home, an essayist and writer of place who has become probably the biggest influence on my own writing. Through these books I learned about places and how best to explore and tell their stories, the importance of observation and time, of asking questions and of listening carefully. I also learned about Jan Morris the person, for she is present in all her books without ever dominating the narrative. I learned about the young soldier standing on the quayside in Trieste. About a lifelong love with Elizabeth and their life together in Morris’ beloved Wales. About the gender reassignment surgery in 1972. About the places that have taken hold of the writer’s heart and which she never let go of until the end.

My favourite of her books was one of her last, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, published in 2001. It is a remarkable work, both an evocation of a real place, this port city on a tiny sliver of Italy between the Slovenian karst and the sea, and a city of the imagination, told through the lives of just some of the souls that haunt its streets. And it is also a book about Jan Morris herself, about the journey from the quayside at the end of the Second World War to the writer who has returned once more, half a century later, reflecting on how she got from there to here.

I feel that this opaque seaport of my vision, so full of sweet melancholy, illustrates not just my adolescent emotions of the past, but my lifelong preoccupations too. The Trieste effect, I call it. It is as though I have been taken, for a brief sententious glimpse, out of time to nowhere.

I feel it too. I return to Trieste with Jan Morris often, to the point that I no longer know how many times I have read it. I travel with her to Trieste in my apartment in Berlin and I have travelled with her to the city itself, on a train down the coast, with the book in my bag. I return to Trieste because it never fails to inspire and because I don’t think I have ever found a better example of what place writing can be. When I heard the news about Jan Morris’ death I pulled it down from my shelf once more and began to read, returning to Trieste once more.

I never knew Jan Morris, and I never got the chance to tell her how much I appreciated her work and all that I learned from her. But in this sadness, there is also the thought that when we lose our favourite artists there is some consolation in the fact that the work remains. I will continue to travel with her, to Venice and Sydney, Hong Kong and New York, Istanbul and Weimar, some places that I know well and others that I only know at all because she took me there. She was one of the best, and we were lucky to have her as long as we did. 

It feels right to end this tribute with something she wrote, something from my favourite of her books, the final lines of Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, that brilliant evocation of both the story of a city and the story of a life: 

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. 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.

Jan Morris, 2 October 1926 – 20 November 2020