The story of how Jan Morris wrong-footed rival reporters, and scooped the story of Mount Everest being climbed for the first time, fascinated me when I was very young.
Jan - then still called James - had to descend from a high encampment, send runners with a scrap of paper to a local radio link, then trust that this message would be telegraphed from Katmandu to London.
It arrived on the eve of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation day, 1953.
The message was in code, actually reading : “Snow conditions bad. Advance base abandoned yesterday. Awaiting improvement. All well!”.
Deciphering the code gave the story exclusively to his newspaper, The Times. (Although in those days the front page only displayed advertisements, so the story was reduced to “Everest Conquered” in a small box in the top right corner!)
Jan was a prolific author and traveller - a pioneer in many ways. Not least in having a gender-reassignment operation and transitioning from James to Jan - a long time before such things were part of any mainstream discussion, much less acceptance.
Paul has been a fan and friend to Jan for decades. He had access to volumes of her work, notes and correspondence - and has created a magisterial work.
It’s the fruit of nearly 40 years of engagement with his subject - and a seven-days a week writing schedule during the Covid lockdowns.
I doubt there’ll be anything better on Jan Morris…
It’s not an authorised biography as we define them - a son of Jan is the literary executor of her estate, and says there’ll be an official book in due course. It has been suggested that it will contain excerpts from Jan’s diaries. Which would be news to many : it’s been thought that Jan didn’t keep diaries! She probably didn’t waste writing-time and writing-material for a private diary. For her journals - look to her books.
Paul has always admired Jan’s life and her writing. But his book doesn’t flinch from telling uncomfortable truths about her. Jan was single-minded. Self-centred. A precious quote from one of her sons is “I was introduced to Jan Morris, but I didn’t know her.” Cold, eh?
Paul remembers Elizabeth fondly too. On his visits to their home in Llanystumdwy, North Wales, she made marvellous “bara brith” fruit loaf and Welsh Cakes for tea. A kindly and welcoming woman.
Elizabeth stayed faithfully married to Jan Morris, and seems the sole source of love for their children.
While Jan broke free from James, Elizabeth lost James and gained a sister who called the shots.
I felt there was a sadness at that book launch at Daunts in London, where I chatted merrily to Jan.
By her side Elizabeth remained silent.