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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis