Jan Morris: 'We're on the brink of colossal, cataclysmic change'

The Monday Interview: The writer, pioneer, and unparalleled observer of the rise and fall of nations tells John Walsh what she has learnt about dictatorships in a career spanning 60 years
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Jan Morris is not keen on titles. When she – a passionate Welsh nationalist republican – was awarded the CBE in the 1999 Queen's Birthday Honours, she accepted it only out of "polite respect." She has accepted honorary doctorates from the University of Wales and the University of Glamorgan, and in 2008 had the honour of being named by The Times as the 15th "greatest British writer since the war" (most of the others were dead). But the title she should most obviously be given, cognate with Inspector of Schools, or Prisons, is Inspector of Civilisations.

From her first book Coast to Coast (a study of mid-Fifties America) to her 2001 study of a post-imperial orphan city in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, she's spent her life checking out what collective humanity has wrought in its cities and empires. She doesn't write about wars and battles, so much as creations and achievements: those of the British empire, the Venetian empire; of the Middle East, Hong Kong and Sydney; and of America's titanic conurbations and foreign acquisitions. "The city is the biggest thing we've made, isn't it?" she says. "The most marvellous invention of mankind."

She's travelled the globe several times in a 60-year career, inspecting the preoccupations of people in city streets, watching the crowds milling through market places, attending trials in local law courts ("I can sit and glare at pompous magistrates, and they can't do anything about it"), relying on her acutely subjective antennae to judge a city's – and by extension a civilisation's – beating heart and emotional make-up. It has made her a matchless reporter from the built-up bits of Planet Earth – less a travel writer than a psychogeographer, before the term became trendy. And it gives her unique insights into the world in 2011.

When I told her I was back from Barcelona, she said, "I don't like Barcelona – it's not a kind city." What is this civic anthropomorphism? How can she generalise about cities having human qualities? "I think of cities as people," she said. "They've developed over centuries a character which is akin to a personal character. And if it's had a reputation for cruelty or kindness, based on the way it's governed people, or dealt with religion or treated other cities, it's likely to have that character still."

The city she finds "kindest" in the world may surprise you: it's New York – or at least Manhattan, which she's visited every single year since the 1950s. "If I had to have a heart attack, the best place would be on Fifth Avenue. There'd be more good people coming to help than in any other city."

Indeed, a fair percentage of Morris's printed oeuvre could be summed up with the words, "New York, New York, It's a Wonderful Town". Her love of the place is most richly seen in Manhattan '45, first published in 1987 and just reprinted. It's a hymn to the maximum city immediately after the war, when it was at its most exuberant, cocky and confident, when Rockefellers, Stuyvesants, and Vanderbilts were the Zuckerbergs, Jobs and Gates of their day. "It was the future, about to occur," Morris wrote.

When she looks at the US in 2011, what does she see? "Well, that future – it did occur, but it just went, didn't it? At the time I was describing, the idea of America in decline seemed inconceivable. It was always going to be on the up. But the Trade Centre attack dampened that marvellous exuberance and I fear it will never come back. They'll just get deeper into the mire of great-powerdom." Has she been impressed by Barak Obama's first term? "It's been a muddle, hasn't it? Of course I was entirely on his side, as who wasn't? He's lost some of his style now, but we still think of him as a good man. He may have failed with Guantanamo Bay, but he hasn't failed with his sense of decency."

While the world pours scorn on the monstrous depredations of Wall Street, Morris still appreciates New York's role as butcher, baker and candlestick-maker to the world. "The other day I landed in Newark and took a taxi and saw lines upon lines of railway wagons waiting to load and unload, and I thought, it really is a great power, like it or not, the strength and the destiny of it is enormous. I was there to see the conjunction of three Cunard liners, the Queen Mary 2, the Queen Victoria and the Queen Elizabeth, meeting in the Bay of Manhattan for the first time. It was very touching. I was moved by the old statue there, waving her lamp. All those romantic idealistic things about America still move me. Its glory is its history – that it was there to receive the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free."

There's something girlishly romantic – swooningly, hands-claspingly thrilled by life – about this 84-year-old woman who was once a soldier in the 9th Queen's Royal Lancers. She is dressed today in jeans and a large magnolia jumper gifted to her by a High Street clothing chain in return for being allowed to use the gorgeous penultimate paragraph of her book Venice in their marketing. "They just said, 'Pick anything from our catalogue'," says Morris with delight. A chunky necklace of coloured African balls completes the ensemble, which is surmounted by a pristine cumulus of white hair. She resembles a retired public school headmistress, gone boho.

We meet in a hotel in Oxford, where she is writing a visitors' guide to Christ Church college, her prep school cradle (as James, she was in the choir school) and alma mater. "I'm an honorary fellow now," she says, "which means I've been on the college's books since 1936. I must be the senior member of the entire college."

Age has not withered her from the days, in 1972, when she was British's first high-profile gender-reassignment case and wrote about it in the best-selling Conundrum. Technically, James Morris's marriage did not survive. But as Jan, she continued to live with the woman that James had married, and now Jan and Elizabeth are in a civil partnership. "We re-hitched ourselves purely for sentimental or aesthetic reasons," Morris explains. "In any profounder sense we'd never been un-hitched anyway, having lived together for half a century."

What readers of Conundrum found hard to fathom was that a sex-change patient could be, far from an effeminate homosexual, a six-foot heterosexual cavalry officer and intrepid mountaineer. When the Queen met Morris at a Buckingham Palace event, she failed to recognise the figure in the sensible frock with a ramrod back.

"What do you do?" she asked.

"Do you remember when Hillary and Tenzing climbed Everest in 1953," asked Morris, "and the news reached England in time for your coronation?"

"Yes of course," said the Queen.

"I was the journalist who brought the news back from Everest."

"Oh...?" said the Queen, perhaps wishing there was an equerry around to explain things to her.

In her travels, Morris has met kings, queens, presidents and potentates, legendary villains and stars, from JFK and Harry Truman, to Guy Burgess and Laurence Olivier. It's given her an unusual perspective on autocrats – especially the Middle Eastern kind. "Years ago, I took a journey across Oman, along the edge of the Empty Quarter, with the present Sultan's father, whom I rather liked, and a few slaves." Slaves? "Oh yes, he was a tyrant," said Morris breezily, "but a benevolent dictator, an old-fashioned, old-style Islamic ruler. There was a legal dispute with Muscat, so the old boy wanted to show he was boss of the whole country. The Foreign Office objected when I talked about his slaves, but that's certainly what they were. Though it was an extremely benevolent form of slavery – they wouldn't have left, because it was a frightfully good job."

She's also ambiguous about Colonel Nasser, the Egyptian president. "His chief motive was nationalistic. He wanted to make Egypt a great power, which it deserves to be. He wanted to make people richer, and thereby contribute to a more formidable national estate. He did a lot for the people. He was immensely popular. But he went in for torture," said Morris matter-of-factly. "I didn't believe it until I went to Kharga, an oasis south of Cairo, and in a hospital beside a prison camp I found them. They'd been beaten up, terribly. Sometimes you can spend ages in a country without realising the nature of a dictatorship."

Had her old friend's son, the new Sultan of Oman, been shocked by demonstrations against the regime? How bizarre is it for Arab kings to be confronted by demands for democratic reform? "As far as I know, the young Sultan is a good man, but he must be terribly taken aback by the demonstrations. Oman is a very settled, pretty liberal kingdom – unlike, say, Saudi Arabia, a notoriously wicked regime. When he sees some of his subjects rise up against him, it must be a psychological blow. Mind you," Morris concluded drily, "you must remember he got rid of his own dad by a coup d'etat, with the help of the British..."

Morris has written a lot about "swagger," meaning military style, dressing-up and derring-do. Did she admire Colonel Gaddafi's confident cheek with European leaders, the Desert Song robes and female bodyguards? "Oh yeah," said Morris sarcastically, "We just can't help liking him a bit, can we?"

She admires Dubai as the most exuberant and buoyant place in the world. "Everything is the biggest, newest, brightest, richest – and worst. It has a terrific sense of gusto. It shows the Arabs can do anything if they're really organised." She is, by contrast, unimpressed by China, despite its imminent eclipsing of the US as the world's No 1 economy. "You can't be a great power when you have a terrible weakness at the centre, and there's no great patriotic unanimity there, only a million different loyalties. They're turning themselves into a capitalist state and throwing themselves around the world to a disconcerting degree, but I don't believe it's backed by the necessary cohesion and strength of purpose."

What, while we're at it, did she make of Britain's coalition government? "I think the Liberals have disgraced themselves and the party and the nation, by their bickering and reluctance to put their views aside and help the predominant power, which is Cameron – who seems to be a decent man, doesn't he?" She's keen on the concepts of decency, virtue, goodness and kindness – the last word reverberates through her conversation like a Buddhist mantra. "Kindness is the ultimate path, the one thing that can stand up against all the shit, the ghastliness. It's the ultimate human quality. I've often thought of starting a political party of Kindness, which would estimate the proportion of kindness there is in any policy. It would be the criterion for a whole system of government."

There's always been a mystical streak about the very English Morris, (for all her born-again Welsh convictions). Ten years ago, she told me how she'd gone in search of the Zeitgeist and found, in Australia, an atmosphere of terrible things "boiling up and about to crack". Then 9/11 happened. How did the Zeitgeist seem to her in 2011? She sat forward. "I have this strong feeling that we're on the brink of some colossal change, some cataclysmic, indeed cosmic change. Look at the world in the last five years, the pace of change at every level. The technology, Twitter, Facebook, the internet, is so astonishing, it's unlike anything we've ever experienced before. I have reached the conclusion that what's going to happen is..."

A silence hung in the air. It was like the last moments of the X Factor only more, you know, open-ended.

What? "We're going to discover, very soon, that we're not alone in this universe."

Holy mackerel. You believe there's life on another planet? "We're going to discover there are sentient beings in the galaxy. When it happens, the psychological effects will be phenomenal. We'll have to start again. Forget Libya. Forget Cameron. This is really big stuff. And it's going to happen, not in my lifetime, but in yours."

Can she be serious?

"Of course, if you articulate this view, as I've discovered," she said equably, "you're called a Millennialist. 'Oh,' they say. 'She's bonkers, she's gone off her head.' But I haven't. I believe in the sentient beings. But who they are, or where they are, that's not my business."

Oh come now. If ever a global civilisation needed a representative to talk to an alien race about its urban triumphs, and about the need for kindness at a cosmic, intergalactic level, it's Jan Morris. But judging by her present form, the civilisation inspector (OfCiv?) will certainly be around long enough to see the invaders arrive and depart.

'Manhattan '45' is published by Faber

Jan Morris: a life in brief

* Born James Humphrey Morris on 2 October 1926 in Clevedon, Somerset, he studied English at Oxford, and served in Italy and Palestine during the war.

* In 1953, he reported on the first scaling of Mount Everest, and in 1968 published the first of the Pax Britannica trilogy, a history of the British Empire.

* He married Elizabeth Tuckniss in 1949, and the couple had five children.

* James became Jan in 1972, after gender reassignment surgery. Morris and Tuckniss divorced amicably. Jan chronicled her sex change in Conundrum, the best-known of her 50 or so books.

* Jan Morris and Elizabeth Tuckniss remarried in 2008 in a civil partnership. They live in Wales.