War And Pax
Jan Morris’s prose changed my life, probably because I read her at just the right moment. This retired author’s most powerful work is still not easily available, although it exists in a magnificent Folio Society set and is now online.
Let’s dispense with the most sensational aspect of her life first. A gender change, from James, born 1926, serving as a young man in the 9thQueen’s Royal Lancers, to Jan in 1972, the reassignment surgery performed in Morocco because of a complication; Morris was happily married to Elizabeth Tuckniss, the daughter of a tea-planter, and under arcane British law they would have had to divorce.
It was Morris who accompanied the British Mount Everest Expedition, and who transmitted news of its success to The Times on the morning of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, Morris who reported on the Suez Crisis from Cyprus, and who produced proof of the collusion between France and Israel in the invasion of Egyptian territory.
Today she’s best known for superlative travel writing, including ‘Sultan In Oman’ (1957), ‘The Venetian Empire’ (1980) and many volumes of perfectly judged essays. One tends to suspect that travel writers are restlessly searching for the perfect destination. In Morris’s case, two novels about the fictional country of Hav offer clues; could this fantastical land be the haven most sought by the restless Welsh historian? Another unusual voyage, across the borders of gender and identity, was sensitively explored in ‘Conundrum’. Clearly there are many kinds of journeys to be undertaken. Morris is incapable of writing a dull sentence; there are few writers whose first page leads inexorably to the last.
Which brings us to the gargantuan undertaking of the ‘Pax Britannica’ trilogy, a popular history of the world map’s pink bits. At its peak the British Empire (a phantom title without constitutional meaning) was four times larger than the Roman Empire, and the volumes are densely packed with elegant true stories that make the jaw drop. Morris elegantly confronts the greatest problem, that of the revisionist historian who must toe an ideological line to condemn every colonisation without considering the complex web of circumstantial evidence surrounding it. Her elegant solution is to evoke (seemingly without effort) the spirit of the time and place, thereby providing you with the mindset needed to unravel the conundrum of those who seek to ‘civilise’ the world.
In the ‘Pax Britannica’ trilogy, empire is seen in its greatest finery and worst shame, full of processional pomp and unthinking cruelty. The greatest tales involve its forgotten heroes and villains, a self-declared ‘master race’ caught between duty and decency: ‘How to induce your coloured labour to work for you, but not live among you; spend money, but not earn profits; mend the public highway, but not vote in the public elections.’ It’s a unique, enthralling achievement, an immense repository for some of the world’s greatest stories, and is finally back in print.