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An extraordinary life: Michael Palin meets Jan Morris

07 October 2016

Soldier, journalist, mountaineer, husband, father, woman, and author of 40 books. Over a long and eventful life the achievements of Jan Morris have taken on the qualities of myth. As a journalist, James Morris landed the scoop of the decade by announcing the ascent of Everest; as an author, Jan Morris earned a reputation as one of the finest travel writers to take up a pen. Now 90, Morris meets up with fellow traveller Michael Palin for BBC Artsnight to discuss a most unusual but rewarding life.

The author Jan Morris with Michael Palin.

By any measure, the story of author Jan Morris would make an extraordinary tale – a simple biographical listing of achievements, events, and dramas presents enough material for several lifetimes.

There's the brief career as a solider, witnessing the dying embers of the second world war.

I've enjoyed my life very much, and I admire it. I think it has been a very good and interesting life
Jan Morris

There’s the high profile career in journalism; famously scaling 23,000 Himalayan feet as the Times correspondent covering the summit-topping 1953 Everest expedition.

It was, in fact, Morris who broke the story, getting the coded message heralding Hillary and Tenzing's success back to Britain in time to coincide neatly with the Queen’s coronation.

There’s also the small matter of authoring over 40 books – including a celebrated history of Venice that has never been out of print.

Although famed as a travel writer, Morris has also written Booker Prize-nominated fiction as well as a respected series of factual books charting the history of the British Empire.

Then there’s the brave decision in 1972 to undergo perilous sex re-assignment surgery that changed James Morris, journalist, husband, and father of five into Jan Morris, female author and reluctant curiosity – a landmark moment written about candidly in her 1974 book, Conundrum.

Legally compelled to divorce from wife, Elizabeth, the couple quietly continued to live together for over 50 years before celebrating their union with a civil partnership in 2008.

Morris: "I've enjoyed this life very much"

Jan Morris looks back on life

Jan Morris looks back and evaluates her life with Michael Palin. Clip: BBC Two Artsnight.

The pioneering bravery and sympathetic intelligence that Morris brought to her books has served as inspiration for many other authors. In BBC Two’s Artsnight, Michael Palin, another celebrated traveller and adventurer, pays homage to Morris and attributes to her book, Venice, his love of the city.

She’s kind of a non-fiction novelist. She creates an image and a feeling of a place that stays in your mind
Michael Palin

'Jan Morris’ Venice is one of the most influential books of my life,' he says.

'Her description of the city transcended any conventional travel writing I’ve come across. Morris’ heart and soul was in the book. It was like a love affair.

'When I subsequently went to Venice I knew what she meant. Her book started my own love affair with the city, which has lasted all my life. And as a writer she taught me the importance of curiosity and observation.'

For Palin, Morris was far more than a writer of travel books. ‘She says she’s not a travel writer. I think, partly, because she sees the travel writing genre as a bit overloaded,’ he says.

‘She’s kind of a non-fiction novelist. She creates an image and a feeling of a place that stays in your mind.’

Now aged 90 and allowed the indulgence of nostalgia, it is Morris herself who sums her own incredible story.

'I've enjoyed my life very much, and I admire it. I think it has been a very good and interesting life and I've made a whole it,' she says.

'I've done all of my books to make one big autobiography. My life has been one whole self-centred exercise in self-satisfaction!"

Artsnight: Michael Palin meets Jan Morris is broadcast on BBC Two, Saturday, 08 October 2016, 21:00 and will be available on iPlayer for 30 days after transmission.

Morris on the ascent of Everest

Morris breaks the news of Everest ascent to the world

Jan Morris tells Michael Palin how she covered the story of the ascent of Mount Everest

Morris on a revolutionary meeting

Jan Morris on Che Guevara

Jan Morris talks about meeting Che Guevara

Full programme: Morris on English village life, 1960

Reflections in a Village: Kent

James Morris (now known as Jan Morris) visits the sleepy village of Ickham, Kent in 1960.

Morris on Tokyo as a modern city

Reflections on Tokyo, 1958

James Morris (now known as Jan Morris) offers thoughts on life in the city of Tokyo.

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