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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Leader: Brexit and the future of the UK

The UK is worth preserving, yet it must be reconfigured if its constituent nations are to be better served.

The economic consequences of the Leave vote are becoming ever more severe. Rising prices, deferred investment and reduced vacancies all threaten prosperity and growth. The Conservative government’s signal that the United Kingdom may leave the single market has had the chilling effect that many warned of.

England and Wales can at least reflect that they voted for Brexit, but Scotland and Northern Ireland did not. By 62-38 and 56-44 respectively, both nations voted to remain in the EU. Now they face the prospect of a long, painful withdrawal. After the narrow vote against independence two years ago, Holyrood is understandably assessing its options. At the Scottish National Party’s conference in Glasgow, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon vowed to publish a draft bill for a second referendum on independence. “Hear this: if you think for one single second that I’m not serious about doing what it takes to protect Scotland’s interests, then think again,” she declared.

When a majority of Scots voted to remain in the UK, David Cameron had already promised to hold a referendum on UK membership of the EU. Yet he made this pledge in the belief that the vote would be won. The ensuing result and the UK’s likely withdrawal from the single market entitle the SNP to hold a second referendum. Should Britain leave the EU without having secured a new trade agreement with its former partners, Scotland’s economy would inevitably suffer.

Senior SNP figures are considering a pre-Brexit referendum in the hope that they would inherit the UK’s vacated seat in the bloc. That might be wishful thinking. “Twenty-seven [member states] would become 28 again,” said Mike Russell, the SNP’s Europe minister. A vote could be staged in the two years between the government invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and the UK’s anticipated withdrawal.

As well as the Scottish Question, there is the Irish Question to consider. The risks posed to Northern Ireland and the republic by Brexit are greater than those facing Scotland. The UK is one of the republic’s largest export markets, with €1.5bn of transactions each week. However, it is the political fallout on the island of Ireland, rather than the economic consequences, that should trouble us most.

Although the prime ministers of both countries have ruled out the return of a hard border between the north and south, the Leave vote has undermined the peace settlement. The principle that no change should be made to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of its people has also been imperilled. In Northern Ireland as in Scotland, the problem remains a UK that exaggerates the power of an overmighty England.

For Theresa May, the disunities within the kingdom are a threat and an opportunity. We have long argued that the UK, the most centralised state in Europe, should fully embrace federalism, with far greater powers devolved from Westminster. The UK, perhaps the most successful multinational state in modern history, is worth preserving. Yet it must be reconfigured if its constituent nations are to be better served. Brexit makes this task not merely desirable, but essential. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood