A little tribute to a brilliant, prolific writer who loved and wrote eloquently about Venice. And some photographs of same.
Although by and large the obits about Jan Morris, who died November 20 at age 94, described her as a travel writer, she didn’t consider herself one; in fact, in a 2015 interview, she told The Guardian:
“I hate being called a travel writer. I have written only one book about travel, concerning a journey across the Oman desert. I have written many books about place, which are nothing to do with movement, but many more about people and about history. In fact, though, they are one and all about the effects of everything upon me–my books amount to one enormously self-centred autobiographical exposure! So I prefer to be described as simply–a writer …”
That’s how I enjoyed her: as a writer, of tremendous style, perception, curiosity, and joie de vivre. When I was learning about writing and about the world, reading her accounts of places, in particular, Venice, gave me great pleasure and taught me about how to look, how to live, how to think, how to write (all interconnected).
And revisiting Venice to write this post, I was impressed all over again by how much research Morris had done into the city’s history, by her powers of observation, how skillfully she drew connections between past and present, how generous, receptive, how willing she was to meet the Venetians on their own terms. Hardly “self-centred” (or self-centered).
During an extraordinary career as a journalist and the author of “fortyish” books (the Times of London described her as “a bit hazy on the exact number”), Morris covered a variety of subjects over a range of genres. She was also notable as a “transgender pioneer,” in the words of the Los Angeles Times; about half her life she was James Morris.
Her career got a jump-start in 1953 when she sent a coded scoop to The Times of London reporting Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s successful ascent of Mount Everest, dispatched via messengers from an expedition camp at 20,000 feet. She went on from there to, you might say, even greater heights, capturing the Zeitgeist covering Adolph Eichmann’s trial, interviewing Che Guevara.
Her trilogy Pax Brittanica is an acclaimed history of the British Empire. There were essay collections, novels, and memoirs, including Conundrum, published in 1974, about her 10-year transition from man to woman.
And the “non-travel writing” writing, including that book about La Serenissima.
In a 2015 Vanity Fair essay, Morris wrote about how she got into the Floating City for the first time in a back-door kind of way, at the end of World War II. At that time, she was still James, “an officer of the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers (founded 1715), […] my menial job would be helping to run the motorboats of Venice, almost one and all requisitioned by the army.”
Here’s her description of the first time she went to the legendary Harry’s Bar during that original visit:
“I paused on the doorstep there, but as I did so I caught the eyes of the Venetians behind the bar, one at the cash desk, two others busy with trays and glasses. They all looked up, too, but their expressions were different. Their look seemed at once speculative, interested, amused, kind, and collusive. I loved that look, and it was, I came to think, a true look of Venice. It put me both at ease and on my guard, and it has kept me going back to Harry’s Bar, with more or less the same sensations, from that day to this.”
And to give you just a taste, here’s an excerpt from Venice, written in 1960:
“It is very old, and very grand, and bent-backed. Its towers survey the lagoon in crotchety splendour, some leaning one way, some another. Its skyline is elaborate with campaniles, domes, pinnacles, cranes, riggings, television aerials, crenellations, eccentric chimneys, and a big red grain elevator.
“There are glimpses of flags and fretted rooftops, marble pillars, cavernous canals. An incessant bustle of boats passes before the quays of the place, a great white liner slips toward its port; a multitude of tottering palaces, brooding and monstrous, presses toward its waterfront like so many invalid aristocrats jostling for fresh air. It is a gnarled but gorgeous city […] the whole scene seems to shimmer–with pinkness, with age, with self-satisfaction, with sadness, with delight.”
In that Guardian article, Sam Jordison ended the interview with a great question, “Is there a question you haven’t had before that you’d like to be asked?” Morris’s reply was equally good:
“Yes, I would like to have been asked if there was any moral purpose emerging from my 40-odd books, and I would answer yes, my gradually growing conviction that simple kindness should be the governing factor of human conduct.”
I took these photographs of Venice in 2008. Morris’s book helped set me up to fall in love with the city on my first visit years before, and I was not disappointed my next two, either.
I was entranced each time by all its magical elements: the architecture, the art, the votive shrines, the vaporetti, the traghetti, the piazzas, the vivid, tingling presence of the sea and the evidence everywhere you look of the city’s long, glorious, and inglorious history. By its elegance, its dog-eared corners, the thrill of hearing music at La Fenice, the shopkeepers’ curious but charming custom of propping open their doors to let in the sea air, even when it was wet and cold as a dog’s nose…
As a tourist, you hope that by being courteous, open, and appreciative, the locals will cut you some slack, but on each of my stays in Venice, I met people who went beyond, who extended courtesy to me, who were interested in finding common ground, even if it was just for a few minutes. Simple kindness.