Magazine arts show. Veteran broadcaster Michael Palin travels to north Wales to interview the legendary travel writer Jan Morris.
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"For years, I felt myself an exile from normality,
"and now I feel myself one of those exiles from time.
"The past is a foreign country,
"but so is old age.
"And as you enter it, you feel you're treading unknown territory,
"leaving your own land behind."
These are the words of one of the most extraordinary writers of the
20th century who, this year, turns 90 years old.
Jan Morris has written some of my favourite books
of the last five decades.
Her volume on Venice inspired me to write and to travel
and, even these days, when I go to a new destination,
I often pick up one of her books
just to really whet my appetite for the road.
Her life reads like a Boys' Own adventure.
After serving as a World War II intelligence officer,
Morris became one of the most celebrated journalists of the 1950s,
and witnessed many of the events that defined the century.
The Cuban Revolution, the Eichmann Trial, and the Suez Crisis.
She was part of the team that climbed Everest for the first time
in 1953 and, in the years since, she's become an acclaimed author,
described by Alistair Cooke as the Flaubert of the jet-set age.
But if you look at the spines of those early books,
or the by-lines on those newspaper reports,
you won't see the name Jan Morris.
You'll see the name James.
And that's because in 1972,
Jan Morris became one of the first public figures in this country to
undergo gender reassignment.
The publication of her account of the transition made her
one of the most controversial writers of the day.
"Jan Morris is still, to me, a man, who has eaten a great many pills."
How can I answer that? What do you expect me to say?
And now, as Jan Morris enters her tenth decade,
I've travelled north to a house in a far-flung corner of Wales
to pay homage to a remarkable woman and a remarkable life.
Having made a name for herself as a world traveller,
Jan's home is here in Llanystumdwy, north-west Wales,
snuggled away beyond Snowdonia.
I've travelled a long way to get here today.
Actually, I feel a bit nervous about just banging on the door,
but I have met Jan before, once or twice,
at sort of official functions, and actually she did contribute,
rather generously, an introduction to the American version of my book,
Around The World In 80 Days,
but this is still going to be basically a fan-and-hero situation,
so a bit of pressure.
-I know who you are.
Well, I know who you are! This is wonderful to see you!
-Yes, you too.
-Thank you very, very much for...
-For what? We haven't done anything yet.
-Well, for letting me come here.
-Oh, yes. Right.
-Yeah. Yes, you know.
-And being here!
-And thank you for coming.
and not in some far distant part of the world.
Glad to have caught you in, as they say.
-Ah, I'm usually in now. Not like you!
-Not travelling as much?
No. I've got tired of taking my shoes off at airports...
-..and all that stuff.
-So what about you?
-I love going places still, I love the new.
-You're not as old as I am.
-I've been doing it that much longer.
It's important to have a place to come back to, isn't it?
Yes, it is. I've always liked to have one foot here.
Because you've got to have that base from which you can then go...
-Yes, you've got to have one foot somewhere, I think.
'Though she's a homebird,
'her house is filled with mementos from a life of travelling.'
I like this teapot very much.
-Ah. Is that Japanese?
'And, of course, there's the thousands of books,
'many of them her own.'
When you're here now, I mean,
what do you like to do on a sort of ideal day?
-Well, my ideal day is writing a book.
-You are still writing, then?
And I read, of course.
People come, you know. Visitors come, make television films.
-We thought we were the only ones!
'And there's Elizabeth, her partner of almost 70 years,
'and mother to their four children.'
We started but we couldn't find you, my love.
I was out there!
-Do you want a cup?
-No, thank you.
-Then I'll pour it.
Jan's adventures around the world began when she landed her dream job
as a foreign correspondent for The Times.
-How old were you then?
-20-something? I don't know.
Were you very ambitious as a journalist?
Oh, I was, terribly. Yes, yes.
In 1953, the 26-year-old James got a major career break.
"The bearer of this letter, Mr James Humphrey Morris,
"is attached to the British Mount Everest expedition and an accredited
"correspondent of The Times."
-There you are, there.
-There, there, yes.
Were you full of trepidation? What did you feel at the time?
Quite a weight on your shoulders, the only journalist.
Oh, I was badly ambitious, you know.
-I was delighted.
-So there was no crisis of confidence there.
-You were the right person in the right place, yes.
"From the special correspondent."
The Times was anonymous in those days, of course.
Yes, but, I mean, an enormous amount of
long, complex dispatches.
-They were big stuff, weren't they?
And every single aspect of the journey,
from the use of open circuit oxygen, and then little-known
passes explored and all that.
In this riveting documentary of the expedition,
we get a first-hand glimpse of the challenge Morris faced as part of
the first successful team to climb Everest.
This party includes the special correspondent of The Times.
This is the first time he has ever been up a mountain.
He will tell you how all this struck him.
Yes, struck him is the right phrase.
The whole thing, you see, is just like a squashed meringue,
only, of course, rather bigger, and men are just insects in it,
very small insects lost in the cream and the crumble.
A very dangerous meringue, too, full of crevasses.
Look at that. That's rather nice.
-"It's a boy."
During their weather broadcast, from the Everest expedition,
"a message for Mr James Morris telling him that his wife gave birth
-"to a son last night." That's wonderful, isn't it?
There was more joy to come.
On the 29th of May, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
became the first to successfully summit Mount Everest,
all 29,000 feet.
How high did you actually reach yourself?
It gets higher every year.
Really? Well, Everest does, we know that.
-Oh, well, it does do, yes!
Well, what is your current...? HE LAUGHS
-Sort of 23,000.
It fell to Jan to make the hazardous descent
to break the story to the rest of the world.
It was getting dark,
and we had to go down through the ice fall,
which is still the most dangerous part of Everest, really.
We stumbled down through the night.
I was hopeless, I lost everything, I tripped over,
I got tangled up in ropes and things.
Did you ever fear that you might not get the story out,
-or someone else would pick it up?
-Yes, of course, yes. Oh, absolutely.
-So you were driven by a sort of slight panic.
Oh, certainly, yes. All the same, there were moments on the journey
down which really was rather exciting,
though I say it myself, it really was.
As it got dark, there was a moment when I said,
"Well, to hell with this, I can't do this."
I said, "You go on, I'm going to stay here."
In which case, I would certainly have died, as a matter of fact.
-And all he said was, "Don't be ridiculous."
Really?! So you were on the verge of really giving up, almost, were you?
-Yes, I...I was, really.
-You must have been exhausted, overwhelmed.
But I had a tug on the rope and I went on.
I discovered that quite near Everest,
there was an Indian army radio post,
but I knew that if I allowed them to know what the message meant,
-either we'd climbed Everest or we'd failed to climb Everest...
-..it would get around the world in no time...
-Leak out before...
-..and my scoop would be lost.
And so the message that I did send was that.
"Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop
"awaiting improvements stop all well."
Oh, this is your code, meaning:
Everest climbed, May 29, by Hillary and Tenzing.
And did you...you devised the code?
-Very satisfying, very satisfying.
-Yes. Everest conquered, in fact.
The news reached London on Queen Elizabeth's Coronation Day,
compounding the sense of national euphoria.
Before the age of space travel,
Everest was the Earth's final frontier of human endeavour.
As the only remaining participant in the expedition,
Jan has a uniquely personal record of the feat -
a book that she brought to Everest and back.
This was a history of the various attempts on Everest.
-The story of Everest, yes.
-And they all signed it, you see.
-Is it all the expeditions?
-That's right, Tenzing.
-"James Morris of The Times, who owns the book."
20 years later, we had a reunion.
-"Jan Morris, who still owns the book."
-Who still owns the book!
Yes, afterwards, when everybody had died except me, in actual fact.
-We still had a sort of reunion.
This was attended chiefly by widows.
-Right, OK. Yeah.
-It was the 60th anniversary.
And here we are: "Jan Morris, who still owns the book."
The next time, it'll be their sort of great-grandchildren
and Jan Morris, who's still, still writing in the book!
Everest opened all sorts of doors for me, and one of the big doors
it opened was that I got a fellowship in America.
And I'm sure I wouldn't have got that if I hadn't been on Everest,
-which made me well-known.
-It's hard to keep up with you, really...
-..because you were racing through life then.
You also were a presenter for BBC programmes like Panorama.
You were one of their reporters.
-Yes, odd things I did for them.
And I went to Hiroshima to see what that was like after the bombing.
13 years ago, on just such a morning as this,
at just about this time in the morning,
there occurred the first atomic bombing raid in the history of war
and this bridge behind me in Hiroshima was its target.
One gaunt ruin, only one,
is deliberately left standing as a memorial to that moment.
In 1961, as one of the most eminent journalists in the world,
Jan was sent to Jerusalem to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann,
the man responsible for Hitler's extermination camps.
It was broadcast around the world.
"There he sits, between his policeman, unchanging, impassive,
"characterless but unforgettable.
"He never looks afraid, he never looks despairing,
"he never gives the impression that he may throw himself screaming
"against the glass walls of his cage or burst into tears
"or even pluck our hearts
"with the agonising old dilemmas of patriotism and loyalty."
You met some...pretty extraordinary people.
great names like Kim Philby, Eisenhower, Che Guevara.
I mean, what were your impressions of these people?
Were you starstruck?
No, I wasn't really, I can't say I was.
Che Guevara, let's...
Che was a different matter because he wasn't a star then.
-It was soon after the revolution.
Jan was dispatched to Cuba to cover the aftermath of the Communist
uprising in the late 1950s.
She found herself face-to-face with the leader of the rebels.
-And he was, I think, the head of a bank, the local bank.
-The Bank of Cuba.
-And I interviewed him there.
-And it was only later
that I came to know that he was such a figure.
Young people used to... Do you remember?
-They carried bags with Che Guevara on them.
And I used to say, "Do you know, I've met Che Guevara",
and they couldn't believe it!
-But he was a bank manager.
-Bad for his image.
-Yes, bad for his image!
Through the places she travelled to and the people she met,
Jan developed her own distinctive outlook on the world.
She brought these insights not just to far-flung corners of the globe,
but also much closer to home.
Why Ickham? Well, why not?
It's a good place.
We dedicate this little film,
with affection but not, I hope, with slush,
to all the inhabitants of the village,
young and old, nice and nasty.
And you also got to do some fairly wacky things.
I've seen a little programme you did on a village in Kent.
-Oh, yeah, I remember.
-You interviewed the local people...
..about their, you know, beliefs and their morals and all that.
-It was rather bizarre.
-It was rather revolutionary, as a matter of fact.
It was quite a small village called Ickham,
and we decided we'd build a sort of tower of ladders and things,
and we invited the entire population of the village
to come to this place,
and we filmed them at the foot of the tower,
and then we could divide them. We'd take people who,
I don't know, had origins in France and moved there,
and people who had origins in Ireland, that sort of thing,
instead of statistics.
And at least one, like Mrs Holliday, has never been to London.
I've never been to London and I don't want to,
and I don't like Ickham either.
-It's very...extremely inventive.
-A sort of mixture of It's A Knockout and Panorama.
Vivian, can I ask a question?
Tell me, do you think there's any point in trying to keep Britain
as a first-class power in the world?
Yes, I do. I think that Britain has fought
for her place in the world, and I think she should keep it
so enemies don't take it away from her.
How would you feel if your daughter married a black man?
I would feel very annoyed.
-I should say, "You married a black man?"
"If you can't find an Englishman,
"a nice Englishman to marry, stay single."
Jan's journalistic career had taken her all over the world.
At the start of the 1960s,
she turned her attention to writing books
about the cities she was visiting.
These volumes of discovery were soon to eclipse her journalism,
and were later complimented by acclaimed works of memoir,
history and fiction.
And what I like about your books, particularly,
is that you tend to fall in love with places,
you fall in love with cities like New York or...
-Yes, I do.
-..Istanbul or Cairo.
-..and I feel I possess them, too.
I feel I've grabbed them for myself, awful cheek!
Well, you know, your most notorious love affair and probably most
successful was with Venice.
-I mean, how did that come about?
-I have a melancholic streak in me, I like melancholy.
-Ah, yes. Yes.
And the first appeal of Venice to me was a melancholy one.
And much of my book is, as a matter of fact, melancholy.
At that time, of course, it was a dead city, really.
It had been defeated in war, everything was closed,
there was nothing much to do.
-And it was half empty and dispirited.
And I liked it, I enjoyed that.
I admired it, too.
They were very nice people, the Venetians, you know,
-even in sadness.
And that struck me greatly and has stayed with me ever since.
I still think of Venice as a place of melancholy,
when it is anything but now, isn't it?
It's a place of constant joy.
Well, you seem to be rather suspicious of constant joy.
"It's very old, very grand and bent-backed.
"Its towers survey the lagoon in crotchety splendour,
"some leaning one way, some another.
"There are glimpses of flags and fretted rooftops, marble pillars,
"And incessant bustles of boats pass before the quays of the place.
"A great white liner slips towards its port,
"a multitude of tottering palaces, brooding and monstrous,
"press towards the waterfront like so many invalid aristocrats
"jostling for fresh air.
"It's a nulled but gorgeous city, and as the boat approaches the last
"church-crowned islands and a jet fighter screams splendidly
"out of the sun, so the whole scene seems to shimmer
"with pinkness, with age,
"with self-satisfaction, with sadness, with delight.
"The navigator stows away his charts and puts on a gay straw hat.
"For he has reached that paragon among landfalls, Venice."
It's one of those difficult things now that constantly comes up
between tourism and travellers and all of that.
I mean, you have written most beautifully and exquisitely
about places and cities and all that.
-Do you see yourself as a travel writer or is that...?
No, I've never thought of myself...
I hate being thought a travel writer or called a travel writer at all
because I don't write about journeys, you know. I never have.
But do you think that travel writing itself is rather prescriptive,
it's saying I'm just writing about travel, whereas, in fact,
you're just writing about life and people and feelings...
-Yes, it's the word...
-..wherever they are in the world?
It's the phrase that I dislike, of course - the travel writers.
It implies that you're writing about movement and about travel.
And I never have been, I'm not a great mover.
Perhaps the most well-known journey Jan has made is a metaphorical one,
the transition from male to female.
Though she's often reluctant to dwell too long on this topic,
she chronicled it with searing honesty in her 1974 autobiography,
Although all your books are sort of about yourself,
autobiographical, in a way,
-the one classic acknowledged autobiography is Conundrum.
..tell me the story behind Conundrum
and why you decided to write the book?
Good lord. That's very hard to say.
-The story behind it...
-..the story behind it is
-untellable, it seems to me.
And I've never pretended to understand it.
I've always said that it was something
sort of spiritual and metaphysical in the feelings I had,
that I had been born into the wrong body.
That was it. I still don't know what it meant,
why it happened to me,
but I felt it so powerfully that I felt I had to do something about it.
And you felt, because you're a writer,
that you should write an account,
your own view of it, because it's very clearly written and expressed -
all your doubts, all your feelings are in there.
Did you ever worry about writing an account of it?
Well, I thought you were either keeping something secret
which couldn't be kept secret anyway, you know,
which was gradually seeping out into odd newspapers and stuff,
I thought it was better to come out into the open and say what I felt
-about it all.
On the book's release, the public was shocked that such
a well-known figure could undergo such a process.
Jan was attacked in television shows of the day for revealing the truth.
Don't you think that it's extraordinarily arrogant to assume
that merely by taking off your penis and having your external genitalia
now similar to a woman,
isn't it an extraordinary assumption that you really can say,
"I am now a woman"?
I haven't said that.
What I've said is, I was a person who was born a male
who felt herself to be of the feminine gender
and who has so adjusted the body
as to fit, as far as possible, with my inner spirit.
You said, I think, at one point, you know,
that during the transition period, that it was 50% miracle
and 50%...um, a freak show.
-What were you meaning there?
Was that just the way people saw what you were doing?
Yes, yes, of course.
It was a sort of... Well, it's different now, isn't it,
it's so common nowadays, but in those days, it was sort of freakish,
such a thing to happen all of a sudden, wasn't it?
Are you ever able sufficiently to stand back and see yourself
and see a tiny element of absurdity in it?
No, I think it's beautiful.
I can't think it's funny because I think it's a truth that has been
revealed, and I think it's a magical thing that's happened to me, and to
have such a happiness and fulfilment given to one halfway through life
seems to be very unabsurd.
And did that make you feel bitter at the time?
No, no, I didn't, because nearly everybody I knew
-was very kind about it, you know.
I mean nowadays people are talking about transsexuals...
-Now you can't get away from it!
Well, they've made a film recently, The Danish Girl.
-Have you seen it?
-I haven't, no,
but the director said he'd been greatly influenced by
"I got out of bed rather shakily, for the drug was beginning to work
"and I went to say goodbye to myself in the mirror.
"We would never meet again.
"And I wanted to give that other self a long,
"last look in the eye and a wink for luck.
"As I did so, a street vendor outside played a delicate arpeggio
"upon his flute, a very merry, gentle sound,
"which he repeated over and over again in sweet diminuendo
"down the street.
" 'Flights of angels', I said to myself,
"and so staggered back to my bed and oblivion."
-That's me in Budapest.
-You're looking very bonny.
-Yes, I was.
And Elizabeth, I mean, you've known Elizabeth both as a man and a woman,
-you know, in your case.
And she was happy to be with all that?
Yes, she just thought it was me.
-She took it on board because it was you, it was all you.
-Quite. I didn't think it was very important.
-And she obviously felt...
-Well, I'd done my duties anyway!
Yes, you'd had your children.
But she obviously felt you hadn't changed as much as people might
-think you'd changed.
I feel exactly the same.
Yes. Yeah. Was there ever a moment when Elizabeth thought,
"Oh, well, you know, this is not going to work"?
I wonder, I don't know.
-She never said it to me.
-She's never said it!
-In all those years!
-She never actually talked about that.
You've had such an extraordinary life, Jan.
I mean, some of it seems like a medieval morality play
or a myth or whatever.
-Myth more than morality.
Well, that's for you to tell!
How do you, how do you sum it up in your own mind, if you like,
when you look back on your life?
-Or do you?
-Yes, I do, as a matter of fact,
because I've enjoyed this life very much,
and I admire it as a matter of fact.
I think it's been a very good and interesting life.
And I've made a whole of it quite deliberately,
and I've done all the books to be, all my books
to make one big, long autobiography.
So the whole thing, my life has been one whole self-centred
exercise in self-satisfaction.
-At least that's honest.
-It is, isn't it?
-So you have a sense of...
-..this is what you wanted to do,
-..mainly done it or you're still doing it.
It happened beyond my control, so to speak,
but I have tried to mould it into one whole.
Nowhere has made its mark on Jan like the Italian city of Trieste,
once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire,
which she first visited at the end of World War II.
Her 2001 meditation on the city is a masterpiece.
I think you said at the time, and I wonder why,
that Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere
-was going to be your last book.
-That was it. What made you...
decide it should be your last book?
Well, partly because I, forgive me, but I think it's a very good book.
-I think it's the best book I wrote.
-I thoroughly agree.
And I don't believe that I could do it as well again,
and so I thought it was really time to stop doing it.
"As for me, when my clock moves on for the last time,
"the angel having returned to heaven,
"the angler having packed it in for the night and gone to the pub,
"I shall happily haunt the two places
"that have most happily haunted me.
"Most of the after time, I shall be wandering with my beloved along the
"banks of the Dwyfor River in Wales,
"but now and then you may find me
"in a boat beneath the walls of Miramare,
"watching the nightingales swarm."
Come, I'll show you something interesting.
It's all interesting.
'Even as she approaches 90,
'Jan isn't fazed by thoughts of the grave.
'In fact, she's more prepared than most.'
Well, how about that.
"Here are two friends, Jan and Elizabeth Morris."
Oh, that's beautiful.
-Isn't that touching?
-I've got a little island in the river down here...
-..where my ashes, I suppose,
-and Elizabeth's, too, are going to be scattered.
And this will be on top of that.
Ah. But you've got to wait till you both go, really.
On the whole, I think you should, don't you?!
You have meant so much to each other.
Before I go, I have to ask Jan if there's any one thing she's learned
from her incredible life.
So what's the secret to having one life together?
Kindness. Kindness, in my opinion.
-It's the secret to all life's problems.
To be kind. It's much easier to be kind than to be not kind.
Yes. Why do people find it so difficult?
I don't know. For one thing, they think
-love is more important than kindness.
-And love implies all sorts of demands.
Kindness isn't demanding at all.
-There we are.
-Yeah. There we are.
-Kindness is inclusive and love is exclusive.
And here endeth the first and last lesson.
-..of the Book Of Jan!
-Of the Book Of Jan!
Veteran broadcaster Michael Palin travels to north Wales to interview the legendary travel writer Jan Morris. Originally born as James Morris, Jan shot to fame as part of the team that successfully climbed Mount Everest in 1953. She spent the rest of the decade as a journalist travelling the world, interviewing figures such as Che Guevara, and producing reports for BBC Panorama from Hong Kong and Japan. In the 1960s, she turned her attention to writing books about cities and countries, before undergoing gender reassignment in 1972, a process chronicled in her autobiography Conundrum. Now in her 90th year, Michael Palin meets Jan and finds out the secret to her long and happy life.