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Jan Morris: A Profile

WEDNESDAY 20th March 2002

Few have enjoyed a life as full or as colourful as Jan Morris.

Born a man, he fathered five children before having a sex-change operation in 1972.

But, besides such headline-grabbing details, she has been at one time or another, an Oxford chorister, Welsh bard, military intelligence officer, newspaper journalist and critically-acclaimed author.

Born James Humphrey Morris in Somerset in 1926, he was educated at Lancing College in Sussex.

He knew from his earliest years that he should have been born a girl: not homosexual but simply "wrongly equipped".


A teenage stint as a journalist for Bristol's Western Daily News ended when he became an officer cadet at Sandhurst Military College.

He spent the final years of World War Two in Palestine and Italy as an intelligence officer with the 9th Queen's Royal Lancers, an experience which he greatly enjoyed.

Following demob in 1949 he went to Oxford University, where he combined his English studies with editing the student magazine, Cherwell.

1949 also saw his marriage to Elizabeth Tuckniss, the daughter of a tea planter.

She knew, and understood, his belief that he was a woman and the couple had five children together, one of whom died aged two months.

Despite his sex change, the couple still live together extremely harmoniously.

James Morris moved seamlessly from Oxford to the Times where, as a staff reporter seconded to John Hunt's 1953 Everest expedition, he claimed one of the century's greatest scoops, announcing that the mountain had finally been conquered on Coronation Day 1953.


But journalism lost its grip and, following a period on the Guardian, he became a full-time writer.

His Pax Britannica trilogy, which he began as a man and finished as a woman, is a Gibbonesque look at the rise and fall of the British Empire.

James's transformation into Jan, covered in her book Conundrum, took many years, beginning with taking female hormones during the early 1960s and culminating in the final operation in 1972.

Initially old friends found the prospect of meeting Jan Morris a daunting one. Alan Whicker said he didn't know whether to shake her hand or kiss her cheek, former Oxford contemporary Robin Day's attempt to quiz her on television, about her sex life, was met with great anger.

But Jan Morris is just as accepted as James ever was. Sir Patrick Nairne, a former civil service mandarin and colleague on the Everest expedition, says that Morris' conduct during the dangerous descent of the mountain "led Jan Morris to face the dangers of fulfilling what she had always felt... and then to go through with it alone in north Africa."


And the books flowed: profiles of Manhattan and Hong Kong taking their place beside novels, like the satirical Our First Leader, a wry fictional look at an "independent" Wales, established after a Nazi invasion of Britain.

And Wales, the birthplace of her father, has provided a happy home.

Though a CBE, Jan Morris's proudest achievement has been her election as a member of the Gorsedd of bards, Wales's cultural elite.

She is an avowed, yet polite, republican and Welsh nationalist and, though Conundrum is just about to be republished, she says that her latest work, a reflection on the ancient Adriatic city of Trieste, will be her last.

Caroline Frost