Interviews

Jan Morris, The Art of the Essay No. 2

Interviewed by Leo Lerman

Jan Morris was born James Humphrey Morris on October 2, 1926, in Somerset, England. As she recalled in her memoir, Conundrum, “I was three or four when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.” First intimations. But he would live as a man for the next thirty-six years, mentioning his sexual confusion only to his wife Elizabeth, whom he married at twenty-two in Cairo, where he was working for the local Arab News Agency.

Morris left boarding school at the age of seventeen and served for the next five years in the 9th Queen’s Lancers, one of Britain’s best cavalry regiments. He then moved to Cairo, but soon returned to Britain, attending Oxford for two years before reentering journalism as a reporter for the Times, which assigned him, because no one else was available, to cover the Hillary and Tensing expedition to Mount Everest. At twenty-six, having never before climbed a mountain, he scaled three-quarters (twenty-two thousand feet) of Everest to report the first conquest of the mountain. It was a world scoop, and won him international renown. He went on to a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent, for both the Times and the Guardian.

In 1956, he was awarded a Commonwealth Fellowship, which allowed him to travel through America for a year and resulted in his first book: As I Saw the U.S.A. A similar book was published to great acclaim in 1960, The World of Venice, the product of a year’s sabbatical in that city with his family. Morris ended his career as a full-time journalist in 1961, in part because of a newspaper policy that prevented him from expanding his journalistic assignments into books. He went on to publish numerous books, including The Road to Huddersfield: A Journey to Five Continents (1963), The Presence of Spain (1965), and the Pax Britannica trilogy.

In 1964, there was another change, personal rather than professional: Morris started taking hormone pills to begin his transformation into a female. The process was completed in 1972, when he traveled to Casablanca for the definitive operation. Her first book as Jan Morris, Conundrum, chronicles the passing from male to female. But when asked to discuss the sex change further, she demurs, preferring to let that account speak for itself and referring to the whole matter simply as “the conundrum thing.” Since then she has published thirteen books, including Travels (1976), Manhattan ’45 (1987), Hong Kong (1988) and two novels, Last Letter from Hav (1985) and Fisher’s Face (1995).

Divorce necessarily followed the sex change (it is required by British law), although Morris still lives with his former wife, currently in a house in North Wales called Trefan Morys. Morris describes the house in her book Pleasures of a Tangled Life (1989): “I love it above all inanimate objects, and above a good many animate ones too . . . It consists in essence simply of two living rooms, each about forty feet long. Both are full of books, and there is a little suite of functional chambers on two floors at one end, linked by a spiral staircase.” They have four children.

At seventy-one, she looks remarkably youthful, perhaps a result of the hormone pills. And she still travels, this summer to Hong Kong to cover the transfer of power from Britain to China. The interview was begun in 1989 under the auspices of the 92nd Street Y, at Hunter College in New York City, and continued through telephone calls and letters.

 

INTERVIEWER

You resist being called a travel writer.  

JAN MORRIS

Yes. At least 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 must say that my campaign, which I’ve been waging for ages now, has borne some fruit because intelligent bookshops nowadays do have a stack called something like travel literature. But what word does one use?  

INTERVIEWER

Writing about place?  

MORRIS

Yes, that’s what I do. Although I think of myself more as a belletrist, an old-fashioned word. Essayist would do; people understand that more or less. But the thing is, my subject has been mostly concerned with place. It needn’t be. I believe my best books to be far more historical than topographical. But like most writers, I think far too much about myself anyway, and in my heart of hearts don’t think I am worth talking about in this way.  

INTERVIEWER

Basically, what you are then is a historian.  

MORRIS

Well, my best books have been histories. That’s all.  

INTERVIEWER

So let’s start with your Pax Britannica trilogy. Did you have Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in mind when you began?  

MORRIS

No, not at all. When I began the trilogy I didn’t know I was going to write it. I ought to tell you how I got into writing it. I’m old enough to remember the empire when it still was the empire. I was brought up in a world whose map was painted very largely red, and I went out into the world when I was young in a spirit of imperial arrogance. I felt, like most British people my age, that I was born to a birthright of supremacy; out I went to exert that supremacy. But gradually in the course of my later adolescence and youth my views about this changed.  

INTERVIEWER

Did they change at a particular moment?  

MORRIS

Yes. I was living in what was then Palestine, and I had occasion to call upon the district commissioner of Gaza. He was an Englishman. It was a British mandate in those days, and he was the British official in charge of that part of Palestine. I knocked on his door and out he came. Something about this guy’s hat made me think twice about him. It was kind of a bohemian hat. Rather a floppy, slightly rakish or raffish hat; a very, very civilian hat—a sort of fawn color, but because it was bleached by imperial suns and made limp by tropical rainstorms all of the empire was in that hat. He seemed to be rather a nice man. I admired him. He had none of my foolish, cocky arrogance at all. He was a gentleman in the old sense of the word. And through him, and through meeting some of his colleagues, I began to see that my imperial cockiness was nonsense and that the empire, in its last years at least, wasn’t a bit arrogant, it wasn’t a bit cocky. People like that were simply trying to withdraw from an immense historical process and hand it over honorably to its successors. Because of this, my view of the empire changed.

I went on and wrote a book about an imperial adventure, which was a crossing of southeast Arabia, with the Sultan of Oman, but under the auspices of the Raj, really. One of the reviewers of the book said, Why does this author fiddle around along the edges, along the perimeters of this imperial subject? Why not get down to the heart of it? For once a writer did take notice of what a reviewer suggested: because of what he said, I decided I’d write a large, celebratory volume at the center of the imperial story, 1897, which was the time of the queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the climax of the whole imperial affair. I wrote that book, and I loved doing it. Then I thought, Well, I’ll add one on each side of it and make a triptych. I’ll have a volume showing how Queen Victoria came to the throne and the empire splurged into this great moment of climax. Then we’ll have the climactic piece. Finally, we’ll have an elegiac threnody, letting the thing die down until the end, which I took to be the death of Winston Churchill. Nothing at all to do with Gibbon.  

INTERVIEWER

In what’s now the Queen Victoria volume you demonstrated something you do frequently. You began with the particular, with Emily Eden, and then spread out over the British Empire. The reader sort of grows up with Queen Victoria. In the preface of the first volume you state that you are “chiefly attracted by the aesthetic of empire.” Did this dictate a different approach?  

MORRIS

Yes, it did. Because I did not set out to exhibit a moral stance about the empire. I treated it as an immense exhibition. By and large, I accepted the moral views of those who were doing it at the time. Things that would seem wicked to us now didn’t always seem wicked to people in the Victorian age. I accepted that. Since this is an escapist point of view, really, I decided that I would not in any way make it an analysis of empire but rather an evocation. The looks and smells and sensations of it. What I later tried to imagine was this: Supposing in the last years of the Roman Empire one young centurion, old enough to remember the imperial impulses and the imperial splendor but recognizing that it was passing, sat down and wrote a large book about his sensations at that moment. Wouldn’t that be interesting? Said I, But somebody could do it about this still greater empire, the British Empire. Who is that? I asked myself. Me!  

INTERVIEWER

As empire began its decline, more frightening than the loss of territory, you say, was the possibility that the British might have lost the will to rule. In what ways was empire’s decline an expression of British character at the time?  

MORRIS

In several ways it was. In the more honorable way, I think it was in the way that I was trying to express my responses to the district commissioner of Gaza. There were a great many very decent men who were devoting their lives to the empire. Perhaps, when they began their careers, they did it in a paternalistic way, which is in itself a form of arrogance; by the time I got into it, very few of them were arrogant. They were only anxious to hand it over honorably and at a reasonable speed. I think they did it very well on the whole. Compared with the record of the French leaving their empire, the British did it in a successful, kindly way. But at the same time, of course, the British had been absolutely shattered by two world wars. The first one left the empire physically larger than ever before. The second one was an obvious death knell for it. The British came out of the Second World War an extremely tired and disillusioned nation, exemplified by the fact that they immediately gave the boot to their great hero, Winston Churchill. All they were interested in then was getting back to their island and trying to make it a more decent place to live. In that respect, the will to empire had most certainly gone. And the sense of enterprise and of adventure and of push and of just a touch of arrogance too—of swagger, at least—that had been essential to the extension of the empire. All that had been kicked out of the British. Perhaps a very good thing too.  

INTERVIEWER

There was such a show of panache, such a show of grandeur, such pageantry.  

MORRIS

You mean the ending of it or the running of it?  

INTERVIEWER

The running of it.  

MORRIS

The ending of it too was done with a certain panache, a lot of grand pullings down of flags and trumpet calls and royalty going out to kiss prime ministers lately released from jail.  

INTERVIEWER

You begin the trilogy as James Morris. The second volume was written during the ten years of sexual ambiguity when you were taking female hormones but had not yet changed your gender. And the third was written as Jan Morris. To what extent is the character of the trilogy seasoned by this change?  

MORRIS

I truly don’t think at all, really. 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.  

INTERVIEWER

The very heart of this question is: do you feel your sensibilities at all changed?  

MORRIS

That is a different question. The trilogy: I started it and finished it in the same frame of mind. But I suppose it is true that most of my work has been a protracted potter, looking at the world and allowing the world to look at me. And I suppose there can be no doubt that both the world’s view of me and my view of the world have changed. Of course they have. The point of the book Pleasures of a Tangled Life is to try to present, or even to present to myself what kind of sensibility has resulted from this experience. I’m sick to death of talking about the experience itself, as you can imagine, after twenty years. But I’ve come to recognize that what I am is the result of the experience itself. The tangle that was there is something that has gone subliminally through all my work. The one book I think isn’t affected is the Pax Britannica trilogy.  

INTERVIEWER

At the end of the trilogy you say that you’ve come to view empire less in historical than in redemptory terms. What do you mean?  

MORRIS

I was thinking of Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of “infurling,” in which he thought that history, by a process of turning in upon itself, was very gradually bringing humanity and nature into a unity. When I was in Canada I came across an old newspaper article about a lecture on imperialism given in about 1902. Nearly all imperialist talk of that time was about the majesty of the British economic power or the strength of the navy. But this one wasn’t at all; this lecturer viewed empire as an agent of love. He thought that among all these mixed emotions there was a common thread of love—of people being fond of each other and trying to do the best for each other. And I’ve come to think that the good is simply more resilient than the bad. If you have a great historical process like the British Empire, the bad is dross; it is thrown away. The good is what stays on. There was some good in imperialism. It did enable people to get to know each other better than they had before. It allowed people to break away from shackling old traditions and heritages. It introduced the world to fresh ideas and new opportunities. These are the contributions that matter for the redemption and the unity of us all. Although I am at heart against empires, I do think that the British did leave behind them a great number of friends.  

INTERVIEWER

At the end of the trilogy you ask, “Is that the truth? Is that how it was? It is my truth. Its emotions are mine. Its scenes are heightened or diminished by my vision. If it is not invariably true in the fact, it is certainly true in the imagination.” In what way is this statement true of any history?  

MORRIS

Oh, I think it can be untrue of some histories . . . There are people who write history as a deliberate distortion because they want to deliver a message or shove over a creed. Mine wasn’t false in that sense. I tried to present both sides of the story. I didn’t try to distort anything to fit another purpose.  

INTERVIEWER

I was thinking of that extra inch or half-inch that Lytton Strachey added onto the archbishop. Such is the temptation when one is writing history—to add that extra inch.  

MORRIS

Of course, there is one small distortion in my kind of history in that it aims to entertain. So it does in effect ignore little matters like economics. But I have a story too. In Pleasures, I have a piece about first enjoying food and drink. Until I was in my mid-twenties, I didn’t take much interest in them. But when I lunched in Australia at the famous cartoonist George Molnar’s house on the lawn overlooking Sydney Harbor, the meal was something quite simple but delicious: pâté, crusty rolls, a bottle of wine, an apple, this sort of thing. There was something about the way this man presented and served the food. He crunched the bread in sort of a lascivious way. He spread the pâté kind of unguently. He almost slurped the wine. I thought it was so marvelous. When I came to describe it, I could see it all again so clearly: the dancing sea, the clear Australian sky, the green lawn; above us were the wings of the Sydney opera house, like a benediction over this experience. It was only when I finished the chapter that I remembered that the Sydney opera house hadn’t been built yet!  

INTERVIEWER

I would like to ask you about The World of Venice. Judging from the book and from the entire trilogy, you seem supremely interested in declines and falls. Are you trying to tell us about the decline and fall of the whole world, of reality in our time? And if so, is there any new beginning?  

MORRIS

I certainly don’t think that I’m trying to describe the decline and fall of the world. Rather, it seems more vigorous as every year goes by. Perhaps, it is because I am aware of the excitement of the present age—the explosive beauty of the new technologies that are overcoming us, the vivacity of the world—that I am attracted to decline, to the melancholy spectacle of things that get old and die. But another reason I tend to write about decline is because I don’t believe in pretending it doesn’t exist. I believe in age; I believe in recognizing age. I’m sure that I shall always love Venice, but in a way I do wish it wasn’t being touched up. I think it’s trying to deny its age, pretending that it isn’t antiquated and decrepit, which it is, really. One part of me is very attracted to that decline, and another part of me is fascinated by the fact that Venice denies that decline so adamantly. Such a scenario is not part of my view of the world in the 1990s. Rather, I take the opposite stance. I see the world today as in a very vigorous, virile, and interesting state.  

INTERVIEWER

You first published The World of Venice in 1960 as James Morris. In the preface to the 1974 reprinted edition, you, as Jan Morris, see the book as a period piece: “Venice seen through a particular pair of eyes at a particular moment,” which “cannot be modernized with a few deft strokes of a felt-tip pen.” Would Jan have written a different book than James?  

MORRIS

It’s extremely hard to say. As a reprint it was no longer a contemporary portrait of the city because a lot had changed in the meantime. I resigned myself to the fact that the Venice I had described was my Venice, really. As to whether Jan Morris would write the book differently . . . I used to think that as Jan I tend to concentrate more on the smaller things, the details, rather than on the grand sweep of things. But as I’ve got older, I’ve come to think that the grand sweep and the details are exactly the same; the macrocosm and the microcosm are identical.  

INTERVIEWER

You speak of the book on Venice as “a highly subjective, romantic, impressionistic picture, less of a city than of an experience.” Is that true of any city you portray? Is it more true in some cases than in others?  

MORRIS

It’s true of them all, certainly. I’m not the sort of writer who tries to tell other people what they are going to get out of the city. I don’t consider my books travel books. I don’t like travel books, as I said before. I don’t believe in them as a genre of literature. Every city I describe is really only a description of me looking at the city or responding to it. Of course, some cities have a more brilliant image. In this case the city overtakes me so that I find I am not, after all, describing what I feel about the city but describing something very, very powerful about the city itself. For example, Beijing: I went to that city in my usual frame of mind, in which I follow two precepts. The first I draw from E. M. Forster’s advice that in order to see the city of Alexandria best one ought to wander around aimlessly. The other I take from the psalms; you might remember the line “grin like a dog and run about the city.”  

INTERVIEWER

And scare the hell out of the populace!  

MORRIS

Yes. Well, I went into Beijing wandering aimlessly and grinning like a dog and running about in the usual way, but it didn’t work! Beijing was too big for me. Its size imposed upon what I wrote about the city.  

INTERVIEWER

In the introduction to your collection of writings about cities you say that you’ve accomplished at last what you set out to do.  

MORRIS

I drew an imaginary, figurative line between two cities, Budapest and Bucharest. All cities above that line qualify as what seem to me “great cities,” and all below that line could be very interesting but not in the same class. So I resolved that before I died I would visit and write about all the cities above the Bucharest line. I could do some below if I wanted to, but I would try to do all the ones above. In the end I did. Beijing was the last one.  

INTERVIEWER

Is there any place you haven’t written about that you would like to?  

MORRIS

I think I’m tired of writing about places qua places—if I ever did that. But I’ve never been into Tibet proper (only on the frontier) and I would like to go there, also Vladivostok—both places where the situation would be as interesting to write about as the locality.  

INTERVIEWER

Is there any place you have been unable to capture?  

MORRIS

I always think London has defeated me; probably heaps of other places too—who am I to judge?  

INTERVIEWER

You say that by 1980 you had fallen out of love with Venice. What happened?  

MORRIS

I fall in and out of love with Venice very frequently as a matter of fact. I’ve known Venice since the end of the Second World War. For most of that time Venice has been trying to find a role for itself, to be a creative, living city, or to be a kind of museum city that we all go and look at. At one time it was intended to be a dormitory town for the big industrial complex around the lagoon and Mestre. That fell through because of pollution, so Venice was out on a limb again. The attempt to bring it into the modern world had failed. Then one day I saw that the golden horses of Saint Mark’s were no longer on the facade of the basilica. They’d taken the statues down and put them inside. Outside they’d placed some dummies . . . good replicas, but without the sheen and the scratches, the age and the magic of the old ones. I thought, This is the moment when Venice has decided. It won’t be a great diplomatic, mercantile or political city, nor will it be a great seaport of the East. Instead it will be a museum that we can all visit. Maybe that’s the right thing for it, anyway. Age has crept up on it. It can’t do it anymore. Perhaps that’s the answer. For a time I went along with that, but in the last five or ten years mass tourism has taken such a turn, especially in Europe and particularly in Venice. It seems to me that the poor old place is too swamped with tourism to survive as even a viable museum unless it takes really drastic steps to keep people out.  

INTERVIEWER

Still, there are strange, haunted squares in Venice that one can find, away from tourists.  

MORRIS

There are haunted squares where one can sit in Indianapolis!  

INTERVIEWER

Those dummy horses are very significant to me too, but to me they meant something slightly different. They seemed to be symbols of the decline and fall of reality in my time.  

MORRIS

If it is true about the decline and fall of reality, then its chief agency is tourism. Tourism encourages unreality. It’s easier in the tourist context to be unreal than real. It’s the easiest thing in the world to buy a funny old Welsh hat and pop it on and sit outside selling rock in some bogus tavern. It’s much easier than being real, contemporary. Tourism encourages and abets this sham-ness wherever it touches. I detest it.  

INTERVIEWER

For those who don’t know what rock is, it’s a very sweet candy.  

MORRIS

And it can have the name of the place written all the way through it. However much you chew it, it still says Wales. Wales, Wales, Wales.

INTERVIEWER

In your book Conundrum you answer almost every conceivable question about your decision to change your gender and the process involved. Your life seems made up of journeys, both in terms of travel and of personal exploration. To what extent was travel a relief or escape from feeling trapped in a man’s body?  

MORRIS

You mean just ordinary travel, don’t you, not travel in a metaphysical sense?  

INTERVIEWER

We can come to metaphysical travel later.  

MORRIS

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. 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.  

INTERVIEWER

From what I know of you, both personally and through your writing, I think it must be so.  

MORRIS

I’ve become obsessed with the idea of reconciliation, particularly reconciliation with nature but with people too, of course. I think that travel has been a kind of search for that, a pursuit for unity and even an attempt to contribute to a sense of unity.  

INTERVIEWER

Your description of climbing Mount Everest is such an extraordinary symbolic venture.  

MORRIS

Well, it’s nice to have it thought as symbolism, but I really don’t think of it that way. It was just an assignment, and I did it.  

INTERVIEWER

So you have nothing to say about metaphysical travel then?  

MORRIS

No, because it seems to me such an inner, indeed inmost matter that, old pro as I am, I can’t put it into words.  

INTERVIEWER

Is there a book you’ve written as Jan that James would not have written?  

MORRIS

Pleasures of a Tangled Life. The whole point of this book of essays is to try to present the sensibility that has been created or has evolved out of “the conundrum experience,” as we say in our evasive, euphemistic way. People who come to interview me at home often ask, Do you mind if we talk about the conundrum thing? The book tries to present, to readers as well as myself, what kind of a sensibility has resulted from this sort of thing. I think the conundrum aspect runs subliminally through the whole book. I recognize that the pleasures, nearly all of them, are ones that I enjoy in a particular way because of “the conundrum thing.”  

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk about Sydney. How do you prepare yourself for a particular book?  

MORRIS

First of all I decide why I want to write the book. The reason I wanted to write Sydney gets me back to the good old empire once again. It seems to me that when the tide of empire withdrew it left behind on the sands of the world a whole lot of objects, some of them unpleasant, some of them dull, but one of them particularly glittering. Not the nicest object, rather a sharp, hard object, but a brilliant one. And that seemed to me the city of Sydney, New South Wales, a city that is not only a remnant of that old empire but also, in a way, the New City. It is creating new people in the same way that America created new people in the 1780s. So I decided that would be a good book to do. I wanted to conclude my commitment, my obsession with the empire. And I thought Sydney was a good place to end with. Somebody reviewing Sydney said that most of the books I’d written were cousins to empire in some way; they’re related.  

INTERVIEWER

At what point during the progress of the book do you feel that you’ve captured your subject, that the place is yours?  

MORRIS

It varies. I usually write the first draft in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way, without thinking very hard about it. I let it all go through. Then when I go back to the second draft, very often I find that what I’ve already got is much better than what I’ve planned. Sometimes the unconscious bit is very much better than the conscious bit. I’m a weak person, and so I do, in fact, always replace the unconscious with the conscious bit, but I’m often wrong in doing so. Sometimes I go back and see that the early draft is better and more natural. Incidentally, talking of stream of consciousness, after forty years of trying I’ve finished Joyce’s Ulysses. I must say I still think life is too short for Finnegans Wake.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel you got to the bottom of Sydney in this book?  

MORRIS

No, I don’t think so. I got to the bottom, as I say, of my own feelings about it. Sydney is not a city that at first sight is going to incite one’s sensibilities. It wants to be frank, macho, fun, you know. But the more I felt the city, the more I thought about the city, the more I realized that sort of wistful quality in it, which perhaps is behind all such macho places, really.  

INTERVIEWER

A wistful quality?  

MORRIS

Yes. It’s a kind of yearning. Often what I feel about the Australians themselves is that they resist it a bit because they don’t feel they ought to feel these sort of feelings. But they probably do, really, I think. It has something to do with the landscape. D. H. Lawrence got it all those years ago.  

INTERVIEWER

But when you have a city, such as Sydney, that’s a little bit elusive in terms of its wistful quality, how does that reveal itself to you? Is the realization an active process on your part, or is it something that just flowers as you spend time there?  

MORRIS

I think that it is purely passive. All I do, really, is to go to the place and just think about nothing else whatever except that place. I have to say in the case of Sydney that if its transcendental quality hadn’t emerged the book might have been a little bit boring. I didn’t know it was going to show itself. I felt it more and more the longer I stayed there.  

INTERVIEWER

So it wasn’t an immediate transcendence?  

MORRIS

No. A lot of people see Sydney as if it were a “road to Damascus” experience. It wasn’t.  

INTERVIEWER

You use anecdotes and stories in certain places to punctuate the narrative. Do you consciously use the techniques of fiction to move a narrative along?  

MORRIS

I do believe in the techniques of fiction, so I’m very gratified you should ask this. I really don’t see that there’s much difference between writing a book of this kind and writing a novel. The situations that arise are the sort of situations you’d often make up—the background you would devise for a novel, the characters you would produce for a novel. And you have an added attraction, of course: the fact that the overwhelming character of the whole book is the city itself, which is an advantage you have over the novelist. Paul Theroux said to me once that he liked writing travel books because they gave him a plot; he didn’t have to think one up. It works the other way around too. I edited the travel writings of Virginia Woolf. To the Lighthouse is in many ways a travel book: the descriptions of the journey across the bay, the views that she provides, are exactly what she would do if she were writing a work of literary travel.  

INTERVIEWER

What aspect did the sensibility and change of sensibility based on “the conundrum experience,” which you discussed in Pleasures of a Tangled Life, play in writing Sydney?  

MORRIS

Well, of course, Pleasures of a Tangled Life was a very much more varied book. It dealt specifically with personal aspects of life, personal views: what happened to me at home, how I feel about different aspects of life and of living and of art and of religion . . . So, naturally, that presents a sensibility far more directly, doesn’t it, more immediately, than a book like Sydney. On the other hand, I think if you compare with a compassionate eye, a sympathetic eye, a book like Sydney with a book like Oxford, which I wrote in 1965, I think you would think, if you were intelligent enough, that there was a different person writing. You might not think the style had changed enormously, but I think you’d find the mind behind it or the feeling behind it, the sensibility behind it, had changed. Yes, I think I would think that about Sydney. It’s a gentler book, of course.  

INTERVIEWER

When you’re researching a book, do you travel alone?  

MORRIS

I generally travel alone, but sometimes with my partner, with whom I’ve lived for forty years. But dearly though I love her, if I’m going to be working I find I’m better on my own. Love is rather inhibiting in my view. We are always thinking about what each other wants to do. Whereas, to be writing about a place you’ve got to be utterly selfish. You’ve only got to think about the place that you’re writing. Your antenna must be out all the time picking up vibrations and details. If you’ve got somebody with you, especially somebody you’re fond of, it doesn’t work so well. So, although I never have the heart to tell her this, I would really rather not have her come along.  

INTERVIEWER

If you’re going to be any kind of writer you’ve got to be utterly selfish.  

MORRIS

And lonely, I suppose.  

INTERVIEWER

How long do you stay in a place?  

MORRIS

That depends entirely on the nature of the thing that I’m writing. If I’m commissioned by a magazine to write an essay, what I do is go to the place for a week and think about nothing but that place. And then, the last few days, in a kind of frenzy of ecstasy or despair, I write three drafts of the essay, one draft each day. I write continuously—it doesn’t matter how many hours—until the thing is done. I love the feeling of wrapping the whole thing up, popping it off in the post and going somewhere else. It is very satisfying. I do think that the impact of it, the suddenness and abruptness of it, makes it go better.

The best book about a place I’ve ever written is the one about Spain. I hardly knew Spain, but I was commissioned to go there for six months to write a book about it. So I bought a Volkswagen camper-bus, and off I set to this country that I knew nothing about. The impact was tremendous; I thought about nothing but Spain for the entire six months. When it was finished I remember watching an airplane going overhead and thinking, There goes my lovely manuscript, on its way to New York. That book, because it was done in a mood of high ecstasy and excitement, was the best of the lot.  

INTERVIEWER

How does your mood affect your impression of a place? What you write about it?  

MORRIS

I am nothing if not a professional, and I long ago learned to aim off for mood, weather or chance encounters: but of course if I spent a week somewhere with a permanent headache, in perpetual drizzle, encountering only grumpy citizens, I can see that my essay might not be as exuberant as it might be.  

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned being lonely . . .  

MORRIS

Yes. Well, I’m not lonely when I travel, but like every writer, I’m a bit lonely when I have to sit down and write the thing, because you can only do that by yourself. I do it rather laboriously, three times over. It’s a long process. During that time I’m pretty reclusive and shuttered. But traveling, no, less so than it used to be, really, because, you know, I’ve been doing it an awfully long time. Wherever I go now I know people. So there’s no need for me to be lonely if I don’t want to be lonely. The lonely part of it is the technicality of being a writer, which is naturally a lonely one anyway. You can’t talk to people while you’re writing. You can’t work while the television is on.  

INTERVIEWER

You could have music.  

MORRIS

Lately I bought a little electronic keyboard so that every now and then I break off and play something.  

INTERVIEWER

What do you play?  

MORRIS

Sometimes if I’ve got the score, I play the solo part of concertos. I’m very good on the Mendelssohn violin concertos.  

INTERVIEWER

How important are languages? How many languages do you speak and to what extent is that critical in investigating a place?  

MORRIS

Well, it has been crucial in a way in my choice of subjects. Because so much of my time has been spent with the British Empire and its cousinships, English was the lingua franca so that was no problem. But because I am a poor linguist I’ve done very few—no books, really, except Venice—about cities where the foreign language is essential. I speak sort of pidgin French and Italian. I learned some Arabic years ago, but that wouldn’t, for example, qualify me to write a book about Moscow or Berlin, would it? And unlike some of my colleagues, I’m not sure I’ve got the dedication to learn an entirely new language in order to write a book about that country. Colin Thubron, for example, to write a book about traveling through China actually sat down and learned Mandarin.  

INTERVIEWER

So what did you do, say, when you were investigating Venice? Did you use translators?  

MORRIS

Well, I’m not too bad on Italian. Do you know that story? Hemingway said what an easy language Italian was, and his Italian friend said, In that case, Mr. Hemingway, why not undertake the use of grammar? When I went to Spain, commissioned to do a short, sixty-thousand-word book, I bought a recorded language course. And the book’s been in print ever since.  

INTERVIEWER

Has technology, notably the advent of the word processor, changed your technique or style in any way?  

MORRIS

I do use a word processor, but it hasn’t changed my writing in any way whatever. The belief that style and mental capacity depend upon the instrument one uses is a superstition. I will write with anything at any time. I’ve used them all—the fountain pen, manual typewriter, electric typewriter—and none have made the slightest difference. But with a word processor I won’t type the first few drafts on disk because there is the temptation simply to fiddle with the text, to juggle with it. The word processor is useful to me only for the final draft of the thing. I do think that the word processor for a writer’s last draft is a wonderful thing because you can go on and on polishing the thing.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel that having been a man at one time in your life gives you more courage to make excursions on your own?  

MORRIS

Yes. There’s a hangover from the confidence I had as a man. When I started, the feminist movement hadn’t really happened, so, of course, there was more of a gulf between a male and female traveler. Now things are very, very different. Many women are unnecessarily timid about travel. I don’t believe it is so different for a woman or a man nowadays. Of course, there are actual physical dangers of a different kind. But the general run of hazard is exactly the same for men as for women, and the treatment that a woman gets when traveling is, by and large, better. People are less frightened of you. They tend to trust you more. The relationship between women, between one woman and another, is a much closer one than the relationship between men. Wherever a woman travels in the world she’s got a few million friends waiting to help her.  

INTERVIEWER

You say that you read about and study a place you’ve never been to before going there to write about it. Do you find that the place turns out to be largely what you expect it to be or exactly what you did not expect it to be?  

MORRIS

It’s a long time since I’ve had to write about a place I didn’t know. Nowadays, I generally write about places I know about already. But I think some of the great travel books have not prepared me for the place I’m going to. One of them is one of my favorite books, Doughty’s Arabia Deserta; it’s a marvelous book and a great work of art, but the image it presents of the desert and its life isn’t the image I felt. I’m not grumbling at all. He wasn’t trying to tell me what I was going to see in the desert. He was just telling me what the desert was like to him. But that’s one book that doesn’t seem to match up to my own conceptions of the desert. Sterne, for example, too. I can’t say that France seems very much like A Sentimental Journey to me. There are some other people too, like Kingslake, who wrote deliberately in an entertaining mode, consciously painting an arresting picture of life. It isn’t much like it when you get there.  

INTERVIEWER

Back to the dissolution of empires. We’ve watched the waning and extinction of another great empire, the Soviet Union.  

MORRIS

The tragedy of the Soviet Union was that it marked the decline of an ideological empire. The British Empire really had no ideology, except one that had evolved by a kind of rule of thumb, changing as it went along. There was a general rule of fair play about it. But the moral purpose behind the Soviet Empire seems to have been a different thing altogether. I’ve always been very attracted to the idea of communism. If I’d been alive in those days I probably would have been a communist. The tragedy of it was, it seems to me, that it was so soon perverted. The revolution was betrayed. It sank into the horrors of Stalinism, sliding slowly into the awful mires of inefficiency, disillusion, unhappiness and despair that we see now. The failure of it seems to be that although it set out ideologically to provide welfare for a people, it utterly lacked the idea of giving its people happiness. If political ideology doesn’t take into account the human desire for happiness, it seems to me bound to fail. Perhaps this is why your system is so successful, because it actually does talk about the pursuit of happiness, doesn’t it? That’s a different matter altogether.  

INTERVIEWER

I once met someone who had visited London and had refused to go back so as not to obliterate the memory she had of it twenty-eight years earlier. Have you ever felt that way about any place?  

MORRIS

Yes, I think I have. I’ve often had doubts about going back, but I find that often they are ill-founded. Chicago is one of them. I first went to Chicago in 1953, and I’ve been commissioned several times since then to go back. Each time I thought, This is a mistake. It’s not going to be what you thought it was; you’ll be disappointed. But it wasn’t so. Recently I wrote a very long essay about it, and it came off just as well as it had in previous times. Although in principle I agree with your friend, in practice it doesn’t seem to be true.  

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think Chicago works so well for you? Has it changed?  

MORRIS

Yes, of course, it has changed enormously since I first went there, but it’s not the change that excites me; it’s the sameness—the fact that it still feels like most of us foreigners really want America to feel. There’s a touch of an immensely urbane, sophisticated Norman Rockwell to Chicago that we innocents like.  

INTERVIEWER

You’ve called Chicago the perfect city. Is that still true?  

MORRIS

I don’t think I said perfect. What I do mean is that, among twentieth-century cities, Chicago comes nearest to the ideal of a perfect city . . . an aesthetically perfect city. The shape of it seems to me fine and logical, and the buildings are magnificent. It is the most underrated of all the metropolises of the world in my opinion. I don’t think many people say, I must go and look at that Chicago! Dickens did, though. As he drove in by train the conductor came through and said, Mr. Dickens, you’re entering the boss city of the universe.  

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written thirty-two books to date, by our count eighteen as James, fourteen as Jan. You’ve accomplished everything you set out to do?  

MORRIS

By no means. There’s one particular thing I’ve failed to do. This experience of mine that every now and then crops up . . . I think I’ve failed to use it artistically in the way I might have used it. A sex change is a very extraordinary thing for someone to have gone through and particularly extraordinary for a writer, I think. But although, as I say and you recognize, the effects of it appear kind of subliminally through everything I’ve written, I don’t believe I’ve created a work of art around it.

I think Fisher’s Face was, as some percipient critics saw, a kind of artistic product of this predicament—it is my favorite among my books—but I still haven’t devised any more explicit way of using it. Perhaps I’ve left it too late?  

Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.