A postcard from Jan Morris 1926-2020Remembering the last surviving foreign member of the first expedition to climb Mt Everest in 1953
The last surviving foreign member of the first victorious Everest expedition died at the ripe age of 94 just prior to midday on 20 November 2020 at her home in North Wales.
Jan Morris was unrecognisable from the heavily bearded, Oxford educated, ex-army journalist who strode across Advanced Base Camp for a congratulatory handshake in a typically British fashion with the triumphant Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa. Now, only Kancha Sherpa from Namche is still with us from the historic 1953 British team.
With an exclusive commission from The Times of London, James Morris was embedded as a member of the John Hunt-led expedition, but never ventured far up the mountain on his arduous assignment.
‘I was no climber, was not particularly interested in mountaineering. I was there merely as a reporter.’ Terrified that someone might leak the glorious news of the first ascent, his Base Camp message was concealed in a pre-arranged code carried by Sherpa runners then telegraphed from the British Embassy in Kathmandu: ‘Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement.’
Back in The Times’ newsroom, they knew what he meant and the glad tidings ricocheted around the globe on the auspicious morning of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. The world's highest mountain had been conquered, Sir Ed was knighted and Tenzing Norgay put Nepal firmly on the map. For the first time the Sherpa name resonated worldwide, just as the hidden kingdom of Nepal was unlocking its secrets and beginning to allow foreign visitors.
At the time of his Sagarmatha scoop, James Morris was already happily married to Elizabeth Tuckniss, daughter of a tea planter who both confirmed mutual love at first sight. Their 70-year love story would produce five children, including their son the poet musician Twm Morys, and the partnership survived the death of an infant and James’ transition into a woman.
Elizabeth said: ‘I never stopped loving James or Jan. It did not make any difference to me. We still had our family. We just carried on.’ Forced to divorce, they remained together in a ‘civil union’.
Author of over fifty books including British histories, an empire trilogy, travelogues and personal reminiscences, the irrepressible and articulate Jan Morris transitioned from James during the unsympathetic 1970s.
An ostensibly highly successful man’s man, he had in fact felt all his conscious life that at heart he was female. Her ground-breaking memoir Conundrum, written 46 years ago about risky and experimental surgery, is an elegant classic of the gender genre and still in print, a slender volume that poetically and comprehensively addresses today’s transsexuality debate.
Reflecting on her transition, Jan said: ‘I would never use the word change, as in “sex change” for what happened to me. I did not change sex, I really absorbed one into the other. I’m a bit of each now. I freely admit it.’
I was delighted to be introduced by London publishing connections to this highly accomplished, cerebral and exciting writer during our 1973 research on Marco Polo -- I had wangled my way as the only female member of a British film team driving overland from Venice to Central Asia.
A daring reporter and tireless traveller who had crossed deserts and scaled mountains, her gender transition the previous year was not our focus. We consulted Jan Morris about our route and particularly the intricate details of ancient Venice, one of her most popular books and home to Marco Polo, the peripatetic 13th century trader whose travels about journeys to China had first revealed the orient to avid European readers. I remember Jan as strong, straightforward, enthusiastic and helpful, lots of hair and heavy jewellery.
Baring her soul, Conundrum was published the following year in 1974. In response to my no doubt naïve gushing fan letter about the book’s profound effect, admiration of her bravery and reminder of our Marco Polo meeting, Jan’s hand-written postcard to me arrived dated 30 October 1974 from their home in Bath.
Recently I retrieved her card during a Covid clear out, a precious reminder of a long-gone encounter, although the casual multiplicity of our respective travels struck me as completely extraordinary in these static times. Despite the sentiments in her card, Jan and I did not meet up on her return from ‘S Africa and Australia in the New Year’. I had already returned to Nepal, and stayed.
The next and last time that I would meet Jan Morris was at Sir Edmund Hillary’s funeral in 2008. In the well-kept hallowed grounds of Auckland’s Government House, the great and the good of New Zealand and world mountaineering were gathered to mourn the national hero’s passing.
Under the spreading trees of the gently sloping garden, the sun shone weakly on the Governor General’s reception that followed a rare state funeral in the cathedral, led by Prime Minister Helen Clark. Jan attended as a government guest along with the bare handful of surviving 1953 members.
I was there with Elizabeth Hawley and the five officiating Sherpa leaders, although by the time we arrived from the crematorium the shadows were lengthening and the crowd was thinning. The day before we had been sitting with the family around Lady June’s Remuera kitchen table when Jan arrived down the carpeted staircase directly from her London flight, a booming presence bearing flowers, slightly awkward and wonderfully untidy with wild white hair and another chunky necklace.
Jan Morris, legendary travel writer, met in conversation with Recce editor Don George on May 8, 2013, at the New York Times Center in Manhattan.
A prolific and eclectic writer, in her 2018 ‘thought diary’ In My Mind’s Eye, Jan explained that her daily exercise was a thousand steps a day down the narrow green Welsh lanes lined with stone walls with distant views of the sea. ‘The thousand paces is my self-imposed basic discipline, rain, shine or earthquake,’ she wrote. As I trudged in dutiful circles during the worst of the lockdown, I remembered her regimen.
Jan Morris has reached the end of her ‘tangled life’ and set off on her greatest journey. But even in death she plans never to be separated from Elizabeth, the love of her life. When buried together on a small island on the River Dwyfor, their headstone will read: 'Here are two friends, at the end of one life.'