Jan Morris is a traveler whose journeys have been both physical and philosophical, a writer who has written of the clash of armies and the history of empires, a former soldier and foreign correspondent. Just the sort of person, it seems, who would have seen it all by now, and would find it hardly worth the effort to cast about for new perspectives. But Morris widens her eyes most readily in surprise, as if she ware seeing it all for the very first time. Which is no small feat in a city such as Washington, where delight in the day-to-day is in as much demand as sonnets in a Senate debate.
Washington, in fact, is a city she has written perceptively about in a piece which first appeared in Roling Stone and which now has been collected, along with the profiles of nine other cities, in a book called "Destinations." a
The cities she describes range from Istanbul to Trieste, from Cario to Los Angeles, but, she writes, "nowhere in the world do people take themselves more seriously than they do in Washington, or seem so indifferent to other perceptions than their own. Whether they are granite reactionaries or raging revolutionaries, they find it hard to see beyond. . . The most fascinating aspect of this capital, the fire of it, is the fusion between what is true and what is false, what is all too real and what is hallucinatory. Balance is the point of Washington -- between the rulers and the ruled, between the three branches of government, between war in the Middle East and the death of Local Resident, 90, between what is magnificent in the American idea, and what is despicable in the American practice."
The writer's face is carved in fine-honed planes and angles and her blue eyes are disconcertingly clear. Her sense of self seems solid, her sexuality somewhat restless, poised between the man she was for most of her life and the woman she has been since her sex change operation in 1972.
As James Morris, she had written the first two volumes of "Pax Britannica," a massive trillogy on England and her empire, while Jan Morris saw the publication of the third. She knows a thing or two about the destinies of great nations.
"A lot of things seem to be creeping out of the mud these days," Morris says, when she is asked to look about her. "Chauvinism and a suspicion of foreigners, a use of the word 'aggressive' in a laudatory sense. We in fact have the most macho prime minister in the world," and people, Morris says, are describing Margaret Thatcher as "Churchillian." Oh well, she sighs, "yi always see signs of hope in France, although they let us down badly in 1402."
There are less hopeful signs in her piece in Washington. In one passage, Morris imagines the city "frayed in decline: the gleaming white of the Capitol gray and fretted, the pool blotched with scum, the cherry trees dead in their two's and three's, litter blowing across the grass and slogans scrawled on the statues' plinths. Then I saw the remaining spaces of the Washington plan filled in not with ostentatious halls and galleries, but with the jerry-buildings of an impoverished bureacracy, and I saw potholes in those ceremonial boulevards, and beggars sleeping disregard in the shade of the Washington Monument, and two or three mangy dogs nosing about the rubbish outside the Federal Courthouse."
"Like most people of my background and generation," she says, "history from me has been one of consistent decline. All great empires reach a peak and then decline, and this is an empire that interfered in the affairs of other countries as mine did in different ways. This is no longer a time where a country can do that without paying price."
Jan Morris lives in Wales now and travels half the year, often with "my partner, Elizabeth," who was once James' wife and who is the mother of their four children. Elizabeth lives 125 miles to the south these days, but when the time comes, there will be less distance between them. Their gravestone sits in Jan Morris' library, and the inscription is written in both Welsh and English: "Here are two friends, Jan and Elizabeth, at the end of one life."
She carries with her a color picture of her Abssinian cat, Solomon, looking sutiably noble and courageous, although he is currently being driven to distraction by a starling that has learned to imitate Morris' own whistle. The only problem with traveling so much of the time, she says, is that Solomon can't come with her, particularly to Venice -- "the only place I feel I got right" of all the cities Morris has written about. It is still a city to which she returns every year. To sit in St. Marks Square with a drawing pad, she says, is "very near like Paradise."
She wrote an entire book about Venic e, one about Spain and three other volumes of travel essays. Besides the Britannica trilogy and an exploration of the world of Oxford, she has also written "Conundrum," a book about her sex change. She began her writing career, which has stretched over three decades, as a journalist for the Times of London and the Manchester Guardian. As a foreign correspondent, James Morris had the world as his beat -- its wars and wrenchings and quick moments of triumph. "But I always felt guilty that I didn't want to interview the grand people I was supposed to cover," she says now. "I wanted to write about the settings instead. It was places at a particular moment in history that interested me. Luckily people seemed to enjoy reading about that."
Free of the demands of daily deadlines and urgent dispatches, she takes her time getting to know a city, sounding its depths for weeks at a time. One of the better pieces of advice for a travel writer, she says, comes from the Psalms. "One of them has a line that says, 'Grin like a dog and wander aimlessly,'" she says. "That's what I try to do when I go to write about a place."
Her book projects stretch on into the future in happy succession, from a history of the buildings of the Indian Raj that will include photographs taken by Manchester Guardian correspont Simon Wincehster to a book about her homeland that will center on the 18th century Welsh rebel, Owen Glendower. She says it will contain, "hopefully, some universal meaning, a sense of age and orgins and people's beginnings." In the end, Morris says, it will be a story of how amazing it is that "some people have remained in the same place against all odds, for all this time."
For someone who has scaled the monuents of most of the cities of the world, not to mention Mt. Everest, and who has not even cared to remain the same person much less in the same place, the theme of the book seems somewhat paradoxical. Morris only smiles and says, "I want to do something for Wales before I die, something for which I'll be remembered in Wales for a long time afterwards."
With all the books she has in mind, it sounds as if Morris will still be at the typewriter when it comes time to haul out the gravestone in the library. a"I wouldn't mind," she says smiling. "It wouldn't be a bad exit." She knows what book she would like to have finished by then. "I want to write 'Jan Morris' Book of the World," she says. "By then I shall have seen the planet." (She has yet to go to China, but will take care of that deficiency within the year.) "No one has been able to cover the globe the way I have -- businessmen jet in and out, reporters cover a story and then leave, no one has been able to wander around the world quite the way I have."
Morris' eyes widen with the ambition of her project and the confidence with which she describes her credentials for it. And then she bursts into laughter, as if to pacify whatever baleful muses might otherwise take umbrage at her hubris. "I'm like some old aristocrat of the 18th century in the leisurely way I've been able to see the world," she says. "And I'll be looking back over a lifetime -- two lifetimes, actually."
Morris will admit to being a romantic, which she defines as someone who "sees prosaic things in an unprosaic way." But she has absolutely had it with the pigeonhole in which people try to place her reputation and talent because of the operation and the book she wrote about it. "When I hear the word sterotype, I reach for my revolver," she says. "What sex I am is immaterial to the way in which I write."
And yet, she says, "the 8-year-old side of me is still surprised by things; I probably would be much more jaded about the world otherwise." But then there is a small pause, and Jan Morris begins a bit tentatively. "In a way, I think people take me less seriously," she says quietly. "I'm 53 now, and I think if it hadn't been for the change, people would be describing me now as a 'veteran correspondent,' or something like that."
There she stops and tries to retrace. "Please cancel that," she says, as if her desire to be respected for the reputation she has earned might imply doubt about the decision she made. "I'm better now at detail than I was, and I find it much easier to get closer to people. It's easier for them to be intimate with me."
She turns the subject to Panama, talking about the time she waited in an office of a Panamanian official and how "awful the pictures on the wall were and how rotten his taste in books and how he was only concerned with bullying people," and how, as she writes in her book, "We are ruled by children, I thought, and all the agonies of state and ideology are only games for little soldiers."
Her words seem heavy with despair, but no, Morris says, the counterweight is this: "There are always free people who don't rule, there are more of them than you think really, people who, in their minds, don't feel as if they have to conform to anything." The thought brings her back to her own lack of conformity and she brightens.
"There is always," Jan Morris says, "a slight trace of fun to my situation."