ADVENTURE

Life of grand adventure was a cheap fable | Comment

Perhaps the lesson is never to trust anyone who claims to believe in “the religion of kindness”. Apparently this was the travel writer Jan Morris’s professed creed. In fact, as her daughter Suki Morys wrote in The Sunday Times last weekend, Morris was a narcissistic bully whose parenting style alternated between neglect and abuse.

Jan told Suki she felt “utter contempt” for her and would often ask her to look over the will she had written — a will from which Suki was conspicuously excluded. Maybe we should put Morris down as “religion of kindness (non-practising)”.

Suki concedes that Morris was “a wonderful writer”. To this I feel compelled to reply: no she wasn’t. Morris will be remembered as the great Times journalist who scooped the news of Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Everest. She will be remembered as a transgender pioneer. Her reputation as the greatest travel writer of her time cannot last. Her books are entertaining but they are also over-written, dense with cliché and filled with a pervading atmosphere of falsity.

Travel writers must tell the truth about the world. Especially when that truth is ugly or difficult. Morris did not. Her books repackage tourist fantasies: Venice is romantic and fading, Oxford is romantic and scholarly, Trieste is romantic and melancholy. Etc.

In great writers the coexistence of personal cruelty and artistic genius is confounding. How could Philip Larkin write such sensitive poems yet treat women so abysmally? With mediocre writers the connections between personal and literary failing are all too evident.

In Suki’s account, Morris was a self-mythologist interested not in the unhappy realities of family life but in a twee make-believe in which her daughter was not a depressed and insecure teenager but a picturesque person “as merry as a dancing star”. This, by

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