Jan Morris Talks Travel, Dictionaries, and Other People’s Diaries
Paul Clements in Conversation with the Late, Great Travel Writer
When I interviewed Jan Morris about her extensive book collection running to more than 8,000 titles, I had known her personally for seven years, had been familiar with her writing for more than two decades, and written a monograph on her in the “Writers of Wales” series. She agreed to what turned out to be a lengthy interview about the books that inspired her and those that she often re-visited and cherished or were in some way special.
The interview ran in The Book and Magazine Collector (issue No. 200, November 2000), a monthly magazine published in London from 1984-2010. It was carried out at Morris’s house, Trefan Morys, in the northwest corner of Wales where the family had moved to live in 1965. After the interview, in her usual generous manner, Morris’s wife Elizabeth served bara brith fruit loaf, Welsh cheese and coffee.
For agreeing to be interviewed and giving off her time, I brought Jan a bottle of red Barolo wine, and told her it was known as the “Wine of Kings and the King of Wines.” She telephoned me later to thank me and said that they enjoyed the full-bodied Barolo and now felt “quite noble.” It was an important interview to carry out for the historical and literary record, and I later drew on material from it for my biography: Jan Morris, Life from Both Sides, published by Scribe in 2022.
Which books did you read as a child?
The first book which I consciously remember reading was the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I like water, and the book had a great sense of adventure. The language was strange to me as it was American, so it was very exotic. It was my grandfather’s Chatto & Windus edition, which I still have. It wasn’t the first book I read because it was quite difficult to read, but it was the first I remember.
What other children’s books did you read?
I also read Alice in Wonderland, which is a great book. I didn’t really like children’s books, but I enjoyed what you might call “grown-up” children’s books like Alice.
Were there always books in your house when you were growing up?
My mother read a lot and there were always books lying around the house, so they played an extremely important part in my early life.
You have a huge collection. Could we begin with your travel books, which seem to form a large section?
To tell you the truth, I don’t believe in travel books as such, because I feel they all blur into each other. I call them “place books”, because they are books about places. The biggest segment is probably my guidebooks which I use chiefly for reference, although one or two are obviously works of art in their own right. I especially like Murray’s Handbook for Spain by Richard Ford, which is the best book about the country. My copy is a reprint of the original edition, which came out in 1845. He was a racy, exuberant and uninhibited traveler who was often rude because he didn’t care for anybody’s opinion.
What else do you like about old guidebooks—is it the atmosphere they conjure up?
Partly that, but I also like the look of them as objects. They are nice to hold and to own, and as they get older, for me, they get quainter and more interesting. They also take you to another time, another place and back into the company of something long gone.
I notice you have a run of the legendary Baedeker guides?
I use the Baedekers constantly and especially when I am traveling, even if they are out of date. At the moment, I am writing about Trieste and one of the most useful books to me has been the Austria-Hungary Baedeker of 1905. It includes Dalmatia and Bosnia and describes the whole of Austria-Hungary at the turn of the century. So I would never get rid of my Baedekers for anything.
You have a big collection of new guidebooks as well. Which do you like best?
I find the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides very useful. I have some of the colorful Insight guides, as well as Michelin, Blue Guides, Pallas Guides, and the rather posher ones like Everyman Guides to cities, which are lavishly illustrated. I also have a lovely collection of the Companion Guides to countries and cities which were published by Collins in the seventies and eighties.
What is the rarest item amongst your travel books?
It would probably be some of my old books of Arabian travel. I have a copy of Sir Richard Burton’s Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah. It’s a first edition in three volumes, published in 1855. It’s a beautifully produced book, with colored endpapers, and was presented to me by a friend, which was rather rash of him. I suppose it is a rare and valuable book, although I have no idea how much it is worth. Apart from that it is a very good book which you could read equally well in paperback.
Which book has meant most to you during your writing and traveling life?
Travels in Arabia Deserts by Charles Doughty. It is a magical book and I have several copies of it. The first one is an American one-volume edition which I bought from Steimatsky’s in Jerusalem in 1947. I love the smell of it, and the feel of it, and the book for itself. I also bought the 1936 Jonathan Cape edition in two volumes and a condensed two-volume edition called Wanderings in Arabia which is inscribed by Doughty.
You’ve just sniffed that book—what do you get from that?
Yes, I am a book-sniffer, although I don’t know where the habit came from. Even after these years, I can still smell the Random House ink off the pages. The smell is only now fading. Some people sniff drugs and glue, but I sniff books—it’s just something I’ve always done.
Do you always write your name in every book you buy?
All my life I’ve written my name and the date and place of purchase in non-fiction books, and I have generally preserved the bookseller’s penciled price. I sometimes write other comments about the book on the title-page.
Which book has been your happiest find or the one that you were most pleased to get?
I don’t regard myself as a book collector as such, although I have bought books all over the world. When I was in Cairo in the 1950s, I found a copy of E.M. Forester’s Alexandria in a bookshop. Almost the entire original 1922 edition was destroyed in a warehouse fire, but I managed to get a copy of the replacement edition published by the Royal Archaeological Society of Alexandria in 1932 and signed by Forester. I have always admired and followed his advice about seeing the city: “the best way is to wander aimlessly about.”
Which travel book means the most to you?
Eothen by Alexander Kinglake, which was given to me as a present many years ago and which I cherish more than any other book. I have several copies, including the first edition published in 1844 and the sumptuous edition which Frank Brangwyn illustrated.
What’s so special about Eothen?
It suits me, that’s what’s so special about it. It is detached, wry, ironical, charming and quite frankly, elitist, and in every way I’m fond of it and I like him. It is one of the most original and creative of all travel books. It has had long innings—the first edition was published anonymously and it has been reprinted many times since then. In 1982, I wrote the introduction to the Oxford University Press paperback edition.
What about books on specific countries and cities?
The writer, Gerald Brenan, who wrote books about Spain, once gave me some books as a souvenir of my visit to the country, so I built up a good library of Spanish books. I wrote a book about Spain in the sixties but I haven’t kept up with buying books about it. Brenan also gave me some Arabian books of travel, including the eighteenth century topographical account of the region, Neibuhr’s Travels Through Arabia.
Why did he give them to you?
I think he thought he was getting old and was going to die and he wanted them to go to someone who would appreciate them, which I certainly have.
I see that you have a large section on the United States.
I’m fascinated by the United States and have visited every year since my first trip in 1953. I have written several books about America, including two about New York, so I have a good collection of books about the city. One of my favorites came out just last year—Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, written by Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace. Others look at specific areas such as the port of New York and the harbor.
As regards to other books about the U.S., I have a good selection of Works Projects Guides which were published between the wars, and a selection of guide books covering most of the different states of the Union. In 1999, I published a book about Abraham Lincoln. I wanted to read as much about him as I could find and ended up with a large collection of books about his life—apparently thre are ten thousand biographies of Lincoln.
What other countries are represented in your collection?
I once bought a lot of books about Afghanistan because I was going to write about the first Afghan War—the retreat from Kabul—and I invested in a lot of books. I bought all I could find, but in the end it boiled down to a chapter in my book, Pax Britannica, the trilogy about the rise and decline of the British Empire. But I have kept those books as I’m very fond of them. They are quite rare and I suppose quite valuable.
You have written your own account of the 1953 Everest expedition, and you have a veritable mountain of books, if you’ll pardon the pun, about Everest.
As the Times correspondent, I accompanied the British expedition party led by Sir John Hunt that conquered Everest in 1953. The expedition spawned a large number of books. But prior to that, many accounts were written of individual expeditions by climbers. There are more than forty works in total from the official Everest expeditions between 1921 and 1953, and I have them all.
Do you have a favorite?
I’ve got a copy of W.H. Murray’s book The Story of Everest, which is a general history of the climbs published in 1953. It was signed on the spot by all the climbers in the party. It was a proof copy that I brought with me, and everybody naturally was interested in it because it hadn’t been published. So they all read it while we were on the mountain and I got all the members of the expedition, including Sherpa Tenzing who could hardly write, to sign it.
You can see that it comes complete with tea-stains and grubby finger-prints, which give it authenticity. After 1953, I lost interest in Everest, although I have written articles about it and recently reviewed for The Spectator Sir Edmund Hillary’s book, View from the Summit, and a new book on George Mallory.
You have an interest in architecture and were recently appointed an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects?
I have quite a large number of books on Islamic architecture, which has been a particular interest of mine. There’s also a complete run of the Nikolaus Pevsner “Building of England and Wales” architectural guides, of which I am rather proud. The trouble is that, along with the large-format art books, they do take up a large amount of shelf space.
I see that you have removed the dust jackets from your Pevsners. Why is that?
It all goes back to my Oxford days when I was an undergraduate at Christ Church. My tutor there was J.I.M. Stewert, who was the author of donnish detective stories under the pseudonym “Michael Innes.” When a new book arrived, he immediately threw away the jacket and I thought this was rather stylish so for a time I did the same, but I don’t do it now and I wish I’d kept them.
Could you tell me about your reference books and dictionaries?
I do love dictionaries. I have a fairly big section of reference books, which includes a whole batch of foreign-language dictionaries. I like words very much and I like to be able to look up what people have said about language. One special item is the two-volume edition of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. One of my children picked off some bits of the binding but it’s still in remarkably good condition considering that this edition, which is the fifth, was published in 1784.
It is superbly produced with gilt edging, and was given to me by one of my brothers in 1953 as a souvenir of climbing Everest. I have used it widely over the years and often use it still. Now, thanks to CD-Rom, I have some of these reference books on disc rather than in book-form, and sometimes both.
I see some atlases in this part of your library, too.
There are quite a few new atlases and some historical atlases. I have every edition of the Times Atlas of the World since it was first published, including the grand five-volume set which is called the mid-century edition—a name, incidentally, which I gave it.
Do you like reading other people’s diaries?
I’ve got all sorts of diaries and journals. Some are literary and theatrical—Alec Guinness, Harold Nicolson, Virginia Woolf, Noel Coward, which I thought was very contrived but they certainly give the impression of having been jotted down, and I like that. I do like the immediacy of people’s diaries.
What about general English and European literature?
I keep the fiction side in a separate area. It covers a wide spectrum of nineteenth and twentieth-century authors. Some, like Kipling, I’ve got in pretty well complete editions. Other authors include Trollope, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, plus many European writers. I have quite a lot of Balzac, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Proust.
I have always loved Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and have my grandfather’s copy in the old Constance Garnett edition, which is quaint and which I like very much. Recently in the United States, I bought the Everyman edition, which was published by Knopf. It is a nice copy, but I don’t like it as much as the old Constance Garnett one!
Moving to another section of your library, there is a collection of books about Wales. You have written widely about Wales and you are passionate about it. What’s in your Welsh collection?
It’s quite a ragbag collection. It’s mostly made up of history, literature, travel, topography, art and architecture—everything from the standard History of Wales by John Davies to the Shell Guide to Wales with a gazetteer by Alun Llewellyn and a splendid historical introduction by Wynford Vaughan-Thomas. The literature section includes some classic works by the medieval poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym, the great Welsh storyteller, Kate Roberts, and the poet, R.S. Thomas. I also try to read most of the present-day novelists like Robin Llewellyn.
I also see a collection of slim books with white covers about Welsh writers. What are they?
They are the “Writers of Wales” series of monographs which feature Welsh and Anglo-Welsh poets, novelists and writers. It’s a very worthwhile series published by the University of Wales Press in Cardiff and provides a critical introduction to Welsh writers. In fact, the series is the longest in the history of Welsh publishing and has been in existence for nearly thirty years. I like supporting Welsh publishers such as Seren and Gomer who are doing a very good job with their books. I review their books whenever I can, but they rarely get the recognition of the London papers.
What is the stack of magazines on the window ledge beside the Welsh books?
That’s a large run of Planet: The Welsh Internationalist, which is a bimontly magazine. It covers all sorts of topics, including politics, art, music, literature, and the environment, and has a good review section. I’ve also got an almost complete collection of the Transactions of the Society of Cymmrodorion—a cultural and patriotic society founded in 1751—which still appear annually. There are so many of them that I have to store half of them at my son’s house.
Staying with the Welsh theme, do you ever visit Hay-on-Wye to buy books?
I have bought books there but I don’t like it, although some of the shops are good. I don’t like seeing an old country town turned into a place for one type of shopping only. Having said that, I am a great supporter and advocate of the Hay Festival and have spoken at it on occasions.
Elsewhere in the world do you have any favorite bookshops that you always revisit?
Unfortunately, many of my favorite bookshops have closed. I used to go to the Tillman Place Bookstore in San Francisco, which had a mix of secondhand and new books, but has recently closed. There were also some in New York, although I can’t remember their names. They were single-owner bookshops with very good selections.
Are there any other subject areas in which you have become interested?
Lately, I’ve been buying more and more books by continental authors. For example, I have tried to get all Joseph Roth’s books. He wrote about the Austrian Empire and there’s presently a major republication of his work. Some of his books are only being published for the first time now, even though he died in 1939.
Are there any major gaps in your collection?
I am weak on science fiction. I never got into it and I regret it in a way because I realize that there is more to it than I used to think. I have got a few War of the Worlds-type books, but I have never really explored the field thoroughly enough.
If there was a fire in your house and you could rescue only one book, which one would it be?
After the cat—of course—I’d go for him first—it would be Eothen, largely for sentimental reasons.
Finally, which three books would you take with you to a desert island?
Firstly, Doughty’s Arabia Deserts. Then War and Peace and I think, a P.G. Wodehouse—perhaps a “Jeeves” book for the charm of the writing.
Jan Morris: Life from Both Sides by Paul Clements is available via Scribe.