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Commemorating the Life of Jan Morris – Jane Lilly and Bette Baldwin

When Jan Morris died, aged 94, the Guardian obituary said the ‘greatest distance travelled by Jan’ was not across the Earth’s surface ‘but between extraordinary identities: from being the golden-boy newspaper reporter James Morris to the female voyager and historian Jan Morris. James became Jan when what was then called a sex change was unexplored territory, from which she boldly sent back an early dispatch in 1974’.  The Guardian went on to say that the reaction in the 70s was at best incomprehension, at worst hostility, especially literary hostility.  Nonetheless, Jan Morris went on to publish more than 40 books and her achievements were celebrated in June by the Clevedon Civic Society who arranged to have a Blue Plaque at 1 Herbert Road, Clevedon, Somerset, where Jan was born in 1926.[1]

Jan’s parents, Walter Morris and his wife, the concert pianist Enid Payne, lived at several Clevedon addresses, settling at 1 Herbert Gardens after their marriage in 1919.   Their oldest son, Gareth, became widely known as the finest flautist in the country, playing at Westminster Abbey on Coronation Day in 1953.  Christopher, their second son, rose within Oxford University Press to become Music Editor, as well as being a composer in his own right. It was he who developed the OUP’s record label.  Jan began her life as the third son, James Humphrey Morris. James served in the Army during the Second World War, following this with a career in journalism, meeting many fascinating figures of the time, Eisenhower, Kim Philby and Che Guevara among them. In 1953, James was reporting for The Times on the attempt on Everest and was first to get the news back to England on Coronation Day when oldest brother, Gareth, was playing his flute at Westminster Abbey.

James began to write books about the life of cities all over the world, about famous individuals and his own experience of gender reassignment in 1972.  He had to go through a nominal divorce to be able to do that, but he and his former wife remained devoted friends for the rest of their long lives. They had five children, one of whom died as an infant.  Jan spent more than half of her long life living in Wales, where her parents grew up and met, and she regarded it as her ancestral home.  Jan’s youngest son, Twm, has spent the majority of his life, too, in Wales, living close to his parents, spending a great deal of time with them and looking after them as they both entered their 90s. Jan died in 2020. Twm’s mother, Elizabeth, will be 100 this year.  Twm too, is a musician and a writer, writing in Welsh and translating Jan’s writings on the country into Welsh. His work is highly thought of and he won the chair at the 2003 National Eisteddfod for one of his poems. He was the Welsh children’s laureate 2009-2010, sings with and writes for a folk-rock group, and edits the Welsh poetry magazine Barddas.

Twm Morris, June 4th 2023

The plaque unveiling event was relaxed and friendly event.  Julia Elton, President of the Clevedon Civic Society, gave a short speech referring to Jan’s book about Venice, in which she described a tower on one of the islands rising out of the mist like the spire on Kingston Seymour church – about 5 miles distance from Clevedon.  Jan’s son Twm attended the ceremony and read some short pieces that Jan had written about her childhood in Clevedon – about travelling around the area on her oldest brother’s handlebars, walking to the sea wall and the pier and coast path with her treasured telescope.   Twm unveiled the plaque and with his partner Gwyneth Glyn, performed a musical piece he had written for Jan’s 90th birthday.  He closed the event by singing Jan’s favourite hymn, ‘The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended.’  Clevedon Civic Society Chair Mike Graham thanked everyone for their help, in particular Jane Lilly, for organising a happy, successful event to commemorate the life of Jan Morris.

 

The full list of Jan Morris’s prolific output of books can be found on Books by Jan Morris (Author of Conundrum) (goodreads.com)

Jane Lilly was born, raised and has lived her entire life in Clevedon where she is a much respected and published local historian.

Bette Baldwin recently retired as an Archivist for Clevedon Pier and Heritage Trust and has a long-standing interest in gender and women’s history.

[1] Veronica Horwell, ‘Jan Morris obituary’, 20 November 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/20/jan-morris-obituary (accessed 10 October 2023).