My editors at National Geographic made it clear to me that they did not want a personal reminiscence about Jan Morris after she died on November 20, 2020. They wanted a piece about Jan’s deep and abiding connection to her adopted home, Wales. She was half Welsh and half English but she consciously chose Wales, the place to which she always returns after her journeys through the Middle East, to the slopes of the Everest base camp, to Venice, to Sydney, to Hong Kong and so many other places.
So the National Geographic story is not about our personal connection. Yet Jan Morris has a tremendous effect on my life, first as a mentor, then as a friend. I had the good fortune to meet her in 1992 at the inaugural Book Passage Travel Writers Conference. A decade later she instantly and graciously accepted my invitation to be interviewed for my book, A Sense of Place, a collection of conversations with 18 of the world’s top travel writers. I’m not sure I could have done the book without her participation, as it would have been incomplete.
Taking slow trains to Wales in 2003 for the interview felt like making a pilgrimage. Jan and her partner Elizabeth could not have been more welcoming, putting on a pot of tea as promised and taking me to the mountain lodge where the Everest climbers trained in 1953. Other assignments, including a 2006 cover story for National Geographic Traveler, brought me back to Wales. Jan and Elizabeth and their Norwegian Forest cat, Ibsen, were always there to welcome me.
When I returned with my wife in 2012, we celebrated our first anniversary with Jan and Elizabeth at Portmeirion, a whimsical Italianate village near their home in northwest Wales. I last heard from Jan after writing to her on the occasion of her 92nd birthday:
“Michael! 1000 thanks for remembering me and my birthday and lots more for the pleasures of what is now becoming a long friendship! No, we didn’t lunch at Portmeirion, but with Twm [Jan’s son] and his girl at Trefan, and a lovely lunch they gave us. I envy you your Nepal trek. I don’t believe I ever met Jamling, but pay him my respects anyway in lieu of his magnificent dad – and while I’m about it, pay my fond respects to your own magnificent Mum!
Elizabeth sends her love, and so of course, dear Michael, does your most affectionate Jan.”