Jan Morris, the historian and travel writer who evoked time and place with the flair of a novelist, has died aged 94.
As a journalist Morris broke monumental news, including Hillary and Norgay’s ascent of Everest, and the French involvement in the Israeli attack on Egypt in the Suez war. As a bestselling author of more than 30 books, she was equally lauded for histories including Pax Britannica, her monumental account of the British Empire, and for her colourful accounts of places from Venice to Oxford, Hong Kong to Trieste. But she was also well-known as a transgender pioneer, with Conundrum, her account of the journey from man to woman, an international sensation when it was published in 1974.
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Her son Twm announced her death on Friday. “This morning at 11.40 at Ysbyty Bryn Beryl, on the Llyn, the author and traveller Jan Morris began her greatest journey. She leaves behind on the shore her life-long partner, Elizabeth,” he wrote.
Born James Morris in Somerset in 1926, Morris traced the roots of her transition back to childhood. In Conundrum, she recalled realising, aged three or four, that “I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl”. At first she “cherished it as a secret”, the “conviction of mistaken sex … no more than a blur, tucked away at the back of my mind”. But all through her childhood she felt “a yearning for I knew not what, as though there were a piece missing from my pattern, or some element in me that should be hard and permanent, but was instead soluble and diffuse.”
Morris joined the army in 1943, and served as an intelligence officer in Palestine before returning to study English at Oxford and working as a journalist. When the Times sent her on the 1953 expedition to climb Everest, Morris preserved the scoop by racing down the mountain and wiring a coded message: “Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement.” The story appeared on the morning Elizabeth II was crowned.
The star correspondent spent the next year travelling from New York to Los Angeles, a journey at the heart of Morris’s first book, Coast to Coast, in 1956. The Guardian called it “admirably evocative”, at its best “where he has drunk deeply of American life”.
A disagreement with the Times over its stance on Anthony Eden’s adventure in Suez saw Morris join the Guardian, heading for Egypt when Israel launched an invasion. Returning through the Sinai desert with Israeli forces, Morris noticed Egyptian lorries and tanks which had