ETCETERA: HOW WE MET

JAN MORRIS AND SIMON WINCHESTER
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The writer Jan Morris (formerly James Morris), 70, is Anglo-Welsh by parentage. She has been to New York every year since 1953, makes an annual visit to Venice and has spent much of her life wandering and writing for (mostly American) magazines. She has four children, and lives in Wales with her former wife Elizabeth. Simon Winchester, 52, grew up in Dorset and Oxford. He is a contributor to 'Conde Nast Traveler', the 'Daily Telegraph', the 'Spectator' and the BBC; his books include 'Prison Diary, Argentina', the story of three months spent in a Patagonian jail on spying charges. He has three sons from his first marriage, and now lives in New York with his second wife

JAN MORRIS: In the mid Sixties, when I'd been swanning around the world in rather a glamorous, romantic way for some years, I received a letter from a young geologist who was working in Uganda. He wrote that one of my books had fired his imagination, and he wanted advice about what to do in order to have the kind of life I had. I replied that if he really did want to join this happy crew of wandering writers, he should leave Uganda, come back to England and find a job on a provincial paper.

Months later a correspondence started from Newcastle, where Simon had found work as a journalist. From time to time he sent me some of his articles, and eventually (on my advice) joined the Guardian. That turned out to be the best possible move for him.

I don't have any memory of actually meeting Simon for the first time - it seems now as though he's always been part of my life. We see each other on our travels in different parts of the world, often in New York; over the years we've also met up a great deal in Hong Kong. As Simon has a way with pub- lic relations people, we tend to have dinner in the Grill Room of the Mandarin Hotel. One of the things Simon has never been short of is chutzpah.

When we meet, Simon rarely turns up on time. He is delightfully unreliable in that he'll often have something else to do first - especially when we're in Washington. I'm never surprised when he says: "Oh, you don't mind do you? We just have to pop into the PBS studio first where I have to do a broadcast."

Our writing is different because Simon tends to cover more bizarre details of a place than I do, and what he produces has a mosaic quality about it which I very much enjoy. Discussing his Prison Diary, Argentina with him, it seemed to me that in retrospect Simon enjoyed the experience of having roughed it in prison.

I've always thought that he is a writer who needs tremendous, grand themes. His book about the end of the British Empire was a grand, yet really pensive feat of writing. His new one about the Yangtze is another, but I'm not sure that either of them were quite what Simon is looking for. Not the huge subject that I think, one day, he'll put his mind to - something absolutely compelling and fulfilling. He has terrific ideas and will often discuss them with me.

Apart from the fact that I'm not that crazy about China, Simon is infinitely more intrepid than me. Writing about a journey up the Yangtze isn't something I'd ever consider. In his book there are accounts of things I would never want to do. For example, there is no way that I would walk along an appalling cliff path where I would have to brave roaring rapids below and avoid convicts tossing the odd boulder from a quarry above. Simon did all of that. Nothing on earth would induce me to crawl along a minute ledge like he did. He is, of course, much younger than I am, but I don't think that's all of it. Simon is very young at heart and, to a certain extent, he enjoys flirting with danger. Danger was never my thing.

I'm sure Simon would forgive me for saying that he's a charming rogue, who's fond of women. I know his current and his ex-wife. Although I often don't approve of the way Simon has sometimes behaved, I'm constantly amused by him and the way he always seems to get out of trouble. On my own travels, I'm forever meeting people who complain bitterly one minute about "that Simon Winchester" and then the next time I see them, ask: "And how is dear Simon?" He is, essentially, a great charmer.

It was a special pleasure for me that Simon was at both my 70th birthday parties. There was one in London and one in New York. In New York many of the guests, including my son, were passionate Welsh nationalists. Simon, being Simon, decided to play devil's advocate and started on at them about the Welsh language. All I can say is that it was most definitely not Simon's grandest moment, but despite that, meeting Simon has convinced me even more that opposites in life do tend to attract each other. It's certainly true with us.

SIMON WINCHESTER: My relationship with Jan goes back 30 years, to when I was working in Uganda as a not very good geologist. Every two or three weeks my big treat was to go to the British Council library at a place called Fort Portal. Completely at random I picked up a book by a writer called James Morris, of whom I knew nothing. The book, Coronation Everest, was about the 1953 expedition to Everest. It was full of derring-do and cunning, with enthralling descriptions of mountains. Suddenly a whole new world of journalism, a world of foreign correspondents, was opened up to me. I wanted to be one of them. I remember feeling like Paul on the road to Damascus.

All I could think of was to write to James Morris's publisher and ask them to forward my letter. Basically I wrote: "Dear Mr Morris, I'm a 22- year-old geologist working in East Africa but what I really want is to do what you do." Writing made me feel better, but I assumed I'd never get a reply. I was wrong. I received a wonderfully kind letter which said: "I was delighted to get your letter. If you honestly want to work in the best job in the world, come back to England, and find a job on a local newspaper."

Eight months after writing my letter, I was offered a job, for pounds 16 a week, on a newspaper in Newcastle. I wrote and told James, who replied that he was delighted I'd turned my back on Africa. "Well done," he wrote. "Don't learn shorthand and never lose your sense of wonder about the world. Don't get cynical and never take no for an answer."

From then on, I was guided by him. When I felt it was time to move on again, James suggested the Guardian; not long afterwards, I was sent to Northern Ireland at a time when there were a lot of killings. Suddenly I had a front-page story, was appointed Northern Ireland correspondent, became Journalist of the Year - and my career took off.

Although the letters continued, I didn't meet James until 1973, when I went climbing in North Wales with an Australian reporter. Whilst we were out climbing, my Australian companion said: "Doesn't your friend James Morris live around here?" I replied that I wrote to him in some village in North Wales so, yes, he probably wasn't very far away. I decided to phone. The voice on the other end was very surprised. "Simon! I read your reports every day from Washington. Where are you?" We discovered that I was exactly five miles away from his house. I was invited for tea - which is how I happened to turn up on his doorstep, eight years after writing that first letter.

A few weeks later, James wrote to tell me that he was going to Casablanca in January and, if all went well, after surgery he would become Jan Morris. He hoped that we would still remain friends; which of course we have done ever since. All that changed was that my hero became my heroine. As a journalist, I've always felt that it must be wonderful that Jan has had the experience of living as a man and as a woman.

As travel writers, I like much nastier places than she does. I once did a magazine feature on the nastiest country in the world, Equatorial Guinea in West Africa, which was the pits. I slept in a warehouse, lived on bananas and stewed rats and came home with malaria. That was a one- off. Mostly I go to places I know my readers will probably never get to, but would probably like to if they had the opportunity. Jan's travels and her writing beckon to her readers. The people who read Jan's books will go to Sydney, Honolulu, Trieste and Venice, and do the things she does.

I think Jan would say that I'm someone who never really grew up. I still regard her as a mentor. So much so that if she thought an idea was bad, I'd take heed of her advice. I'm very aware that she thinks I have a tendency to ride roughshod over some areas of my personal life. She's not wrong. There are things in my life that I'm not proud of - particularly the way I've treated some people who have been close to me.

I envy the way that Jan has managed - despite internal and external adventures - to remain so deeply rooted to where she comes from. All my life I feel I've been afflicted by a rootlessness. Jan so obviously belongs to that village in North Wales. I'm at home everywhere and nowhere, which makes me sad.

I greatly admire Jan's skill as a writer and incredible passion for the things she cares about - especially her passion for Wales. I know I made Jan and her son angry at her birthday party last year. I was just making mischief because they had their Welsh nationalism so emblazoned on their shoulders, but it rather misfired and I ended up well and truly hoisted by my own petard.

Because of Jan's infinite kindness when I was an unhappy geologist, I've been able to live the best kind of life anyone can have. If I get letters from young people who have a passion to write, I take care to reply and to encourage them, exactly as Jan did for me. If someone else can have this life of ours, then so much the better.

! 'The River at the Centre of the World', Simon Winchester's book about his journey up the Yangtze, is out now (Viking, pounds 18).

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