Jan Morris's Travels Round My House on Radio 3: Unbotheredly contemplating death

Anthony Sattin went through scrapbooks and photo albums picking things out for comment. There hung over the whole interview the discomfiting threat that any mention of gender reassignment would be considered not just prurient and vulgar, but (worse) borin

Jan Morris: Travels Round My House
Radio 3

A long interview with the 86-year-old Jan Morris at her home in Wales found her unbotheredly contemplating death. She keeps a gravestone already inscribed by a local stonemason (“at the end of one life”) under the stairs. Morris has long talked about her belief that the soul inhabits the body for a brief time only to move on – this is no development arising from recent ill health. A fall down the stairs resulted in a brain operation that Morris mentions as though it were a mere verucca. “What I had in the end was trepanning,”’ she says, vaguely, “like the Incas.”

The interviewer, Anthony Sattin, went through scrapbooks and photo albums picking things out for comment, and Morris was particularly charming and casual on the whole Everest incident. Morris, reporting for the Times and the first to break the news of Edmund Hillary’s ascent just as the country prepared for the coronation, used runners to sprint the 180 miles back to Kathmandu to deliver despatches in code. “Had you ever been up a mountain before?” asked Sattin. “Not a big mountain, no,” replied Morris, as though big were neither here nor there. There was a potent implacability in her voice that came and went, a continual opening and closing – but ultimately a flat determination not to mention her gender reassignment or any of the anguish and ambiguity that surely came with it. There hung over the whole interview the discomfiting threat that any mention of it would be considered not just prurient and vulgar but (worse) boring, and the admittedly “awed” Sattin did not push. At no point did you urge him to keep trying his luck.       

As a child I lived in a house in Oxford next door to Morris when she was still male but living as a woman, preparing to travel to Morocco for her operation in 1972. My father says that the issue was never discussed – whole evenings spent around the table without reference, just a sense that something massive was afoot. My mother remembers seeing Morris’s obvious five o’clock shadow and thinking it unusual but since nobody else was talking about it, then why should she? Which all sounds terribly civilised but it’s worth pointing out that it is no small feat to refuse to mention one’s central controlling obsession – and to remain silent while others wonder. That is power. Dimly, the rest of us spoon our spaghetti, and keep schtum.

The 86-year-old Jan Morris.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era