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