“(Discussing in print once Sydney Smith’s conception of heaven as eating pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets, I have described my own as bowling across Castile in my Rolls-Royce of the day, with the roof open, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto on the radio, and my Abyssinian cat beside me on the front seat. A reader of different impulses wrote to say that he agreed with the car, the place, and even the music, but as a companion would want something a damned sight more interesting than a cat.)”
In the memoir Conundrum, Jan Morris, who lived the first 35 years of her life as a man before beginning a decade-long process of sex change, confesses a total disinterest in sexual particulars. She preferred ‘pleasures that were neither penile nor vaginal. Intercourse seemed to me a tool, a reproductive device, and at the same time, in its symbolical fusion of bodies, a kind of pledge or surrender, not to be given lightly, still less thrown away in masquerade.’ There is perhaps no clearer summary of the literary stance on sexuality than Morris’s: sex is too coarse and mechanistic to be worth description, and yet its symbolic value is so sacred it must stand for the interconnectednessof all beings.
—Michael Thomsen from his article titled "Great Artists Make Lousy Lovers" in the Hazlitt blog. If you’re interest in Jan Morris’s other writings may we suggest Hav, a fictive travel book that introduces you to a place where time stood still, until corporations realized its economy potential.
Simon Winchester, whose biography of the Atlantic is now out in paperback, chats here about his mentor, Jan Morris. Morris famously broke the story of Edmund Hillary’s successful ascent of Everest. The news (in the form of the coded wire below) reached England on the eve of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation—exactly 60 years ago tomorrow. Paul Clemente at the Press Gazette writes amusingly about Morris’s role in the climb.
Also amusing is Winchester’s account of finally meeting Morris—whom he’d known as James—in person after carrying on a correspondence for many years: “When he opened the door, he had changed into a woman.”
And there’s lots more here too, on friendship and writing, and choosing a career. And if you weren’t already convinced, the story confirms that Jan Morris must surely be one of the kindest writers alive.
Yesterday was Jan Morris’s birthday, and to wish her well we’re excerpting the first fews paragraphs of her book, Conundrum. We have also just released Hav, which combines for the first time two of her pieces, Last Letters from Hav and Hav of the Myrmidons.
"I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life.
I was sitting beneath my mother’s piano, and her music was falling around me like cataracts, enclosing me as in a cave. The round stumpy legs of the piano were like three black stalagmites, and the sound-box was a high dark vault above my head. My mother was probably playing Sibelius, for she was enjoying a Finnish period then, and Sibelius from underneath a piano can be a very noisy composer; but I always like it down there, sometimes drawing pictures on the piles of music stacked around me, or clutching my unfortunate cat for company.
What triggered so bizarre a thought I have long forgotten, but the conviction was unfaltering from the start. On the face of things it was pure nonsense. I seemed to most people a very straightforward child, enjoying a happy childhood. I was loved and I was loving, brought up kindly and sensibly, spoiled to a comfortable degree, weaned at an early age of Huck Finn and Alice in Wonderland, taught to cherish my animals, say grace, think well of myself, and wash my hands before tea. I was always sure of an audience. My security was absolute. Looking back at my infancy, as one might look back through a windswept avenue of trees, I see only a cheerful glimpse of sunshine—for of course the weather was much better in those days, summers were really summers, and I seldom seem to remember it actually raining at all.
More to my point, by every standard of logic I was patently a boy. I was James Humphry Morris, male child. I had a boy’s body. I wore boy’s clothes. It is true that my mother had wished me to be a daughter, but I was never treated as one. It is true that gushing visitors sometimes assembled me into their fox furs and lavender sachets to murmur that, with curly hair like mine, I should have been born a girl. As the youngest of three brothers, in a family soon to be fatherless, I was doubtless indulged. I was not, however, generally thought effeminate. At kindergarten I was not derided. In the street I was not stared at. If I had announced my self-discovery beneath the piano, my family might not have been shocked (Virginia Woolf’s androgynous Orlando was already in the house) but would certainly have been astonished.”