Jan Morris (1926-2020)

In the obituaries published since the death of irreplaceable Jan Morris last month, it is noticeable how many of them concentrated on comparatively inconsequential events in her extraordinary life (the change of gender, the 1953 Mount Everest expedition, etc) while glossing over, or just totally ignoring, what was arguably the single most important thing of all: her Welsh identity. Yes, even before her funeral was held British nationalists and Cymruphobes were already attempting to erase this inconvenient truth about one of the world’s greatest-ever English language prose writers. Morris, a passionate, unswerving, fiercely eloquent Welsh republican, would understand this process; she knew only too well how the propaganda departments of the enemies of Welsh actualisation operate.    

For someone born and raised in Somerset, England, her passionate affinity with Wales was in many ways as hard-won, courageous, radical and profound as her transition in 1972 at age 46 from male to female. Morris always thought that far too much emphasis was placed on that metamorphosis (brilliantly explored in her 1974 memoir Conundrum). She sometimes joked semi-ruefully that her obituaries would probably read “Sex change author dies” – and her tongue-in-cheek prediction wasn’t far wrong. Her attitude to sexual identity was that it was no big deal – the polar opposite of the bigotry and prurience of the gutter press or the self-obsession of the hyper-individualised. With characteristic panache, dignity, intelligence and the minimum of fuss, she set the template and wrote the user guide for the very concept of gender fluidity and then proceeded to be living proof that ‘man’ plus ‘woman’ simply adds up to ‘fully rounded human being’. Sadly, 48 years later that luminous, liberating perception is still beyond the capacity of most people.

Also beyond the grasp of most is the notion of Wales as an entity in its own right with its own trajectory, needs and place in the world. Jan Morris lived for over 50 years at Llanystumdwy on the Llŷn peninsula in Gwynedd, the ancestral home of her father’s side of the family, having made the conscious, counter-intuitive, noble decision to identify as Welsh. By rejecting the xenophobia, provincialism and excluding, belligerent nationalism of Britishness in favour of the welcoming, inclusive, internationalism of Cymru she vividly illustrated how Welshness is a choice available to anyone with the boldness and wisdom to embrace it. Amongst the very best works in her prolific and rich back catalogue – works more than equal to her acclaimed portraits of Hong Kong, New York, Oxford, Trieste and Venice – are her powerfully persuasive, lyrical books about Wales such as Wales, The First Place (1982), A Writer’s House in Wales (2002) and the stupendously marvellous hymn to our ancient land, past, present and future, The Matter of Wales (1984). The latter in particular should be compulsory reading in schools and have pride of place in every Welsh home where books are still read. It is a book that will transform anyone who dares read it. 

When her family is ready, the ashes of Jan Morris will be scattered on a small island in the River Dwyfor, Ynys Llyn Allt y Widdan (Island of the Hillside Lake of the Sorceress). May this become the shining, inspiring shrine to the bewitching wordsmith who was the heart, mind and spirit of her beloved Wales.