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

BBC
Show Hide image

Was this Apple Tree Yard sex scene written by a sexually frustrated politician?

No mortal can resist the Chapel in the Crypt.

After much anticipation, the BBC’s Apple Tree Yard, an adaptation of Louise Doughty’s novel, aired last night. Newspapers had whispered excitedly over its opening sex scenes – the Sun exclaimed that this would be “the most explicit bonkbuster yet” (whatever that means), as the first episode would have more than five minutes of graphic sex throughout, in locations as varied as a toilet and an alleyway.

But the most toe-curling scenes of all occurred in a grander location – Westminster Palace. Dr Yvonne Carmichael (Emily Watson) meets a tall, dark and handsome stranger after giving evidence on genomes to the government (as all politics nerds know, there is nothing sexier than a select committee meeting.) What follows feels like the erotic fanfiction of a political hack who has spent far too much time at the Houses of Parliament.

They “run into each other” in the canteen, and flirt in Westminster Hall. Yvonne is about to leave - then our politico stranger brings out the big guns. Yep, the alpha move of all Westminster workers and tour guides. Here it comes.

Pow. No mortal can resist the Chapel in the Crypt. As he runs off to get the keys, Yvonne’s loser husband Gary texts her.

Ugh, boring Gary, sat at home sniffling. You can just tell from a text like that that Gary has never been to the Houses of Parliament. Gary refers to the whole palace as “Big Ben”. Gary’s never even heard of the Chapel in the Crypt.

Not like this bloody Keeper of the Keys.

So in they go to the chapel, handsome stranger smoothly remarking that you can get married in here, because, as he knows, weddings are basically porn to women (seeing as they don’t watch actual porn). The sexual tension is palpable as he deploys facts about royal peculiars, Oliver Cromwell’s horses and Lord Chamberlain.

Yvonne gets dust on her coat, and our man hands her a handkerchief, because he really knows what he’s doing.

If you’ve ever been to the Chapel in the Crypt, you know what’s coming next. “That’s not the best bit,” says the stranger, walking over to a cupboard at the back. Yes, here comes the pièce de résistance, the sexual cherry on top of this weird fucking cake. “You’ve come this far,” he says lightly, but he knows this is the point of no return: if Yvonne sees this next reveal she will surely be a lost woman.

They creep into the cupboard, where he shows here the back of the door. YES, IT’S THE TONY BENN EMILY WILDING DAVISON PLAQUE!!!!!!!!!!!!

In one fell swoop, this complete stranger has persuaded a beautiful woman to climb into a dark and secret broom cupboard with him, whilst he simultaneously shows off his feminist credentials. He even explains who this iconic feminist was to Yvonne. A man showing off a plaque, made by another man to commemorate a dead Suffragette, to a woman. I have literally never seen anything more feminist in my fucking life.

And then, of course, they bang, right in front of the plaque. Did Emily Wilding Davison die for this? Probably.

It brings a tear to one’s eye. Undoubtedly this is the perfect British politics geek’s sex scene, and I, for one, applaud the BBC for this brave and stunning work.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.