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.

9 comments on “War And Pax”

  1. Brooke says:

    Hmmm … At one time I enjoyed Morris’ writing but there was an undercurrent bothering me. Then I heard Morris on BBC and realized her views of empire revolve around whether one has good manners or not in dealing with the “natives.” Her elegance and effortlessness mask a lack of complex thinking…anecdote without analysis.

  2. snowy says:

    The ‘British Empire’ is very difficult to get a grip on, for anybody.

    It is possible to find writings to support any point of view, [or personal/political agenda], depending very much on which period you select a source from, broadly: early accounts will say it was universally a good thing, [it wasn’t], moving through the middle period, where most writing is either functional or anecdotal, into the post-colonial where it is described as a universally bad thing, [it wasn’t].

    Most modern descriptions of the ‘British Empire’ are utterly hopeless. They are shot through with generalisations, conjecture, fallacious arguments, selection bias and half-truths. Things that only ever existed as a privately voiced opinion are treated as if they were state policy. There is never any attempt to place any action in its political, economic or historical context. There is no distiction made between state and non-state actors, be it private companies, religious zealots or vassel princes going off on private vendettas.

    And the British are rubbish at being Evil*, really, if releasing millions of people from a state of life-long feudal servitude wouldn’t have got them thrown out of of the ‘League of Evil’, then ending the burning of widows, stopping mass infanticide and ending centuries old internicine conflict probably would. [Best not to mention the 150,000 African slaves rescued from foreign vessels and returned to a free colony in Africa by the Royal Navy, because that really, really confuses people.]

    “All right… all right… but apart from improved access to clean drinking water, better sanitation, more effective medical care, universal access to education, improved irrigation, public health, public order and roads… what have the British done for us?”

    Built Railways?

    “What!? Oh… Railways…. yes… shut up!

    [ * Apart from in films obviously! If you need a ‘Baddy’ with impeccable style, British is the way to go.]

    [PS. Lady B, are/did your friends having/have a nice time in London?]

  3. Peter Tromans says:

    I don’t appreciate travel writers and their work. What is it about and what is their objective? I can happily dispense with them, which means not talk about them.

    History is another matter, provided that it is used for a good purpose, which is to learn and understand rather than to judge or find mud to sling. The human tendency to cruelty and the most evil stupidity is limited by capability more than morality. Swap around the the power and the wealth and and you swap the abusers and their victims. Criticise the present and learn from the past to avoid repetition of the worst of it. A great error in historical study is to speak of a country as if it is a single, sentient being. Great Britain and its empire have never had an intelligent, good or evil thought or committed any good or evil act. Some of its people might have, but they are just people who happen to sit under a particular identity. So we should feel neither shame nor pride in the acts of our ancestors, but be thankful for the good they created, railways, the postal system and the Royal Navy, to name but three. We could have included sewerage, but it’s better not to get into that.

  4. Rachel Green says:

    As a transwoman myself I read ‘Conundrum’ at a very early age and was disappointed in the extreme. All the wordy rubbish about sitting under the piano and no nitty gritty of how to manage the transition.

  5. admin says:

    I don’t agree at all that Jan was about ‘good manners’ – what you hear there is the styling of the times. For a book about the broad sweep of history it is teeming with separate incident, and I have a feeling this is the only way of tackling a subject that would not survive forensic examination. I know of no other single volume (well, tripartite) that encapsulates the British Empire and yet remains so readily graspable. If anyone does, do let me know.

  6. Brooke says:

    Because the “British Empire” encompasses much (home and several continents, religion, politics, economics and so forth), and resulting complexity, there shouldn’t be a single volume. To Peter T’s point–learning and understanding– there are any number of readable, exciting forensic examinations…. many that include indigenous peoples points of view.

    “…the styling of the times…” yes, I think you’ve made my point.

  7. snowy says:

    We have always to take care to remember that different people are interested in History in their own different ways.

    Some are very content to sit on a ‘hillside’ and just watch the ‘river’ of events as they flow before them. Absolutely fascinated by the mind-bogglingly vast sweep of the thing. [Naming nobody in particular, As Description Might Imply Negativity.]

    And others who are having absolutely none of that, the moment they spot something of particular interest they are off down the ‘hill’ at full pelt, dressed in full diving kit to launch themselves into the ‘river’ and will not stop until they find out everything there is to know about whatever it was that caught their eye. [Naming nobody in particular, Because Relativistic Observation Often Kills Enthusiasm.]

    * Summons mahout and runs away, [just as fast as three and a half tons of anything balanced on a set of umbrella stands will take me]. *

  8. Jo W says:

    Snowy! I bow to you, you are priceless! Only sorry that ‘he who shall be nameless’ except in abbreviation,doesn’t allow emojis on this blog. I will have to do the best I can to show my appreciation….. 😉

  9. Ian Luck says:

    The only emoji characters I like and use frequently, are the one rubbing it’s chin in puzzlement, and the skull. The Devils used to be good, but now they look far too chummy for my liking.

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