Skip to content

To the beat of her own conundrum

by Jan Morris
Ukemi Audiobooks
read by Roy McMillan

Born in 1926, into Anglo-Welsh upper-middle comfort, James Humphry Morris was educated at Christ Church, Lancing, and Christ Church again, served in the dashing 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers during WWII, climbed much of Everest and broke the news of Hillary and Tenzing’s successful 1953 ascent, uncovered Franco-Israeli collusion at Suez, and reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Not interested in public life, or really any steady form of employment, he became one of Britain’s greatest writers (of travel, journalism, history, and eventually a novel). And then, in 1972, he went to Morocco, emerging from the Casablanca surgery as ‘Jan’. Conundrum was published only two years later (the first under Morris’s new name), reissued several times, and subsequently hailed as one of the ‘100 Key Books of Our Time’.

In a memoir that’s somehow barely five hours long, she relates the realisation, aged three (under the piano), that she’d been born into the wrong body; summarises the long human fascination with (and indulgence of) the blurry boundaries of sex and gender; mentions suicide as almost a purely-factual alternative; and is disarmingly frank about her sexual reaction to architecture, being kissed by a cabbie, becoming her wife’s ‘sister-in-law’, and a hundred and one other extraordinary situations.

‘Few people understood it’, Morris admits (the Olympics gets a mention, NB), and she’s at pains to note those whose lives have been wrecked by such decisions. But by and large she says she had quite positive reactions. It’s hard not to suspect these findings must be cushioned by class and other kinds of self-sufficiency. A born free-thinker (though not a mere contrarian), it’s fairly clear that Morris keenly maintained, on several levels, her outsider status… and also that she could afford to.

During her lifetime, transsexualism has gone, practically speaking, from ‘virtual inconceivable’ to ‘nearly a commonplace’, and today’s gender activists will no doubt have views on her attitude towards the ‘trendy’ word ‘identity’, statements about the ‘androgenous condition’ disqualifying her from writing fiction, and views on men and women (‘I did not want to be good at reversing cars…’, e.g.) now – in her updated introduction – acknowledged as ‘preposterously obsolete’.

At her death last year, aged 94, Jan Morris had been a woman for more of her life than she was not. It took a while for me to twig Conundrum was read – quite unobtrusively, but still from start to finish – by a man.

For Perspective magazine

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *