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Jan Morris, the Welsh journalist and travel writer who died Friday at the age of 94, is perhaps best known for her 1974 memoir, Conundrum, which recorded her decision to have sex reassignment surgery. For me, the author, who was born and spent the first 46 years of her life as James Morris, should also be reminded that she wrote one of the best essays on Los Angeles.
Morris’ “Los Angeles: The Know-How City” was published in Rolling Stone in 1976 and collected in her travel book “Destinations” in 1980. (I reprinted it in Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology.) It is insightful and concise, and leads to some fundamental, if often overlooked, truths about the place.
“[T]His city, she writes, really springs from its own soil, has a true genius loci, and forms a kind of irreplaceable focal point: the point on the map where the intellectual, physical, and historical forces of American history met to produce – well , Burn, what else? “
When Morris uses the word “combustion” it is of course referring to the automobile. But she has no interest in the tired tropics through which car culture has become a symbol of our superficiality. Instead, Morris reflects the authenticity of a city that knows itself. Such a sensitivity is at the center of “The Know-How City”: Los Angeles as unpretentious, defined by “solid, old-fashioned, simple hard work”.
That’s how I’ve been thinking about Los Angeles for a long time.
Our city is on a shell of sand and tar littered with fault lines in a drought-affected forest fire ecology. We remain here as an act of will. Just think of the highways or the aqueduct – massive infrastructure projects that require expertise and foresight – or the handles and carpenters and electricians on a film set, without which the so-called dream factory could not exist.
“All the mechanisms of Los Angeles,” enthuses Morris, “are like apprentices in these matters: the robotic lights and the television cameras, the flying helicopters, the working oil pumps that bow like slaves through the city, or the great telescopes of the mountain.” Wilson was breeding under its conifers high above the city, which in the years leading up to World War II more than doubled human knowledge of our physical universe. “
In other words, Los Angeles is the product of intent. Los Angeles is a great achievement. The irony is that a visitor of all people should notice this; It’s a quality that outsiders generally miss. But that’s exactly what we want from a travel writer – the sharpness of the fresh eye – and Morris had it in glorious abundance. In “The Know-How City” she describes the city as it is, not as it is often misperceived: a landscape of invention as opposed to reinvention, in which we can work to grow into ourselves.
Something similar could be said of Morris, whose life and career were evidence of this idea. She served as an intelligence officer during World War II and reported for the Times of London on Edmund Hilary’s ascent of the mountain. Everest in 1953. During all this, she confided in her wife her gender dysphoria, which she had experienced at a young age. “I was three or maybe four years old,” she writes in the amazing first paragraph of “Conundrum”, “when I realized that I was born into the wrong body and that I was supposed to be a girl. I remember the moment well and it is the earliest memory of my life. “
“Riddle” was how I learned about Morris; It was the first transgender story I read. It was a revolutionary statement in the early 1970s, although, as she readily acknowledged, Morris was not a revolutionary herself. “My love remains the same love,” she wrote in the foreword to a new edition of her 2001 memoir, “my family, my work, one or two friends, my books and my animals, my house between the mountains and the sea. ” What it describes is a continuity of spirit, the persistence of humanity.
I would suggest that this is what made Morris such a remarkable writer – not just her powers of observation, but also her empathy. She was drawn to both people and places, or perhaps it is most accurate to say that she understood the place through the filter of identity. “I am not the first to connect the city with the afterlife,” she once wrote about Trieste. “… Those who know it better often seem to see it figuratively, not just as a city but as an idea of a city, and it seems to have a particular impact on those of us who have a thing for allegory . “
This is a wonderful piece of prose that skilfully moves from the metaphorical to the personal. The key to this is the phrase, “ours,” which Morris uses to both express her own loyalties and encourage the reader to join her. Something similar can be found in “The Know-How City”, which moves from appreciation to something more complex on its last pages.
“And unexpectedly,” she tells us, “when I examine my feelings for this vast and amazing city, I find it inseparable from regret. I think this is not a common response to Los Angeles, and I am moved to do so in part because I come from a temporarily uncomfortable civilization myself. “
Morris was right. Los Angeles is temporarily uncomfortable. However, she understood that this also applies to any place. Every place, yes, and every person, we are all in a constant process of becoming. This was the state that Morris lived from and wrote: “[t]through obvious chaos to unmistakable authority. “
Ulin is a former book editor and book critic for the Times.