Experience Everything

How a letter from one great writer changed the life of another

Setsuko Winchester
Setsuko Winchester

It was just the kind of synchronic moment she would have loved, maybe as material for one of her most perfect footnotes. She would have positively guffawed, her head thrown back, flashing her famously great wide-eyed mischievous grin.

Late on a Wednesday night in mid-November, my wife and I were moving clutches of papers out of the attic, when we came across one nondescript box that said “SW—personal.” Inside were bundles of clippings from newspapers I had worked for, and an old tin box, which, according to a fading label, once held 18 mallow biscuits.

Inside that biscuit tin were dozens of letters, and on the very top, one that I recognized in an instant, even though I’d not seen it for more than half a century—a single sheet of dove-gray writing paper, typewritten on both sides beneath an embossed vermilion letterhead: Trefan Hall, Llanystumdwy, Criccieth. It was from James Morris, at the time still somewhat famous in England for having been the Times correspondent on the 1953 Mount Everest expedition, from which he relayed news of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s final triumph on the day of the Queen’s coronation.

The letter, the first of many I was to receive from Morris through the years, utterly changed my life.

In August 1966, I was in Uganda, working as a geologist in the mountains on the Congo border, employed to look for deposits of copper. Nighttime reading in my tent was an essential, so I had picked up two books at the nearest library, in the small town of Fort Portal. Both, by happenstance, were by Morris, of whom, I have little shame in confessing, I had never heard.

The first, Coronation Everest (1958), told the ripping tale of his great Himalayan adventure. The second, Oxford (1965), was more measured and lyrical, and was about the university from which I had just graduated Reading the latter, and in a moment that can only be described as true Damascene conversion, I decided there and then that I wanted to switch careers from rocks to writing. And so, by hand and by the light of a guttering candle, I wrote a letter to this faraway great man, telling him how much I liked his books and pleading, in what must have seemed an embarrassingly juvenile tone, for him to tell me just how I might become a writer.

I stuck a cluster of polychrome Ugandan airmail stamps onto an envelope addressed to him in care of Faber & Faber, his publisher in London, and dropped it into the one mailbox outside the Kyenjojo Post Office. For two weeks, nothing. I supposed he’d either never received my note, or would be simply far too grand to reply.

But Morris, as I was to find out time and again over the succeeding decades, was the kindest of human beings. And he did eventually reply—and so here I was 54 years later, on my knees in my attic, reading the very letter, dated “7 September 66,” parsing the words that had altered the trajectory of my life:

… so glad you enjoyed Oxford … fear I can’t be of much help … no way to learn how to write … but if you don’t wish to aim higher than my own level of craftsmanship, then perhaps journalism … great fun … don’t worry about rejection slips, everyone gets them … if you can write then I’m sure no number of wives, babies or doubts will stop you!

I packed up my tent and fled Uganda later that same week. Ten months after that, I was employed as a reporter (at 19 pounds, five shillings a week) on The Journal in Newcastle upon Tyne, and promptly wrote a letter to James. The tone of his reply—now occupying fully two pages of dove-gray writing paper—was positively exultant:

You took my advice! Now here is more. Don’t learn shorthand. Don’t become cynical. Experience everything. Eventually try for The Guardian, a paper that gives writers their head.

And so I was off and running. I duly joined The Guardian and wandered the world for 30 years. I wrote books. If my life had changed, then so in due course did James change his, becoming Jan a decade later. She and I wrote a book together, about India. We spoke at least once a month. Every time I went to Wales, I would pop in to Llanystumdwy, where she and her partner Elizabeth would offer me tea and cakes, and we would sit outside in the clear Welsh air and talk of how grateful we felt for the rich abundance of all our lives.

I had found the old letters in the mallow tin late on that November Wednesday evening—too late to call her over in Wales, but I vowed I would ring her the next day. I wanted to hear her roaring with laughter at the news of the find.

Early the following morning, Thursday, November 19th, I dialed her oh-so-familiar number, but there was no answer. Nor was the answering machine working. I called again at her usual tea-time, then once more shortly before her supper.

Still, there was no answer. Just a strange, ominous, buzzing silence.

The next morning one of my children called from London, having had heard the news on the wireless. I searched Wikipedia—wiki being the Hawaiian word for quick—for Jan Morris, writer.

Born October 2, 1926.

Died November 20, 2020.

The phone then never stopped ringing for the rest of the day. What a life she had, they all said. What a life she gave to you.

One might think that, having not heard the news of my rediscovery of her letters, she never realized just how much she had helped me. But she knew. She knew only too well. It was something, she told her friends, of which she was very proud. But if I had ever suggested such a thing to her, she would have laughed. She would have guffawed, at the perfectly preposterous idea that she could ever have taught anyone how to write.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Simon Winchester is the author of Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World, to be published early next year, and the best-selling book The Professor and the Madman.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up