Thursday, June 16, 2016

Pride Month Profile: The biographer of great cities


James Humphrey Morris (1926-72)/Jan Morris (1972-   )

Probably few remember the stunning news, 44 years ago, when author James Morris announced he had undergone a sex change operation, as it was called in those days, and would continue her writing career as Jan Morris.

Born in Wales ninety years ago, Morris was a soldier in the Queen’s Lancers in World War II, attended Christ Church, Oxford, and began a successful career in journalism. He married in 1949, and had five children, although, as she recalled in her memoir, Conundrum, “I was three or four when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.”

In 1953, writing for The Times, he climbed to the 22,000 foot level of Mount Everest to cover Edmund Hillary's ascent; in 1956 he broke the story of French-Israeli collusion in the military actions of the Suez Crisis.

Having confided only in his wife, Morris began transitioning in 1964. She completed the process with surgery in Tunisia (the British government would not allow it in-country unless the Morrises divorced), and announced the change in 1972.

Such things were unheard of, nearly. The first known sec change operaiton took placein Germany in the 1930s. An American, Christine Jorgensen, had hers in Denmark in 1952; the next twenty years, during which she attempted to educate the public via television and radio interviews, turned the process- and her- into a freak show joke. The transition of Wendy Carlos, the electronic music pioneer whose Bach transcriptions made Walter Carlos famous in the late 1960s, was seven years from her announcement.

Morris published a memoir of her experience, Conundrum, in 1974.Though pestered by interviewers for the next several decades, she simply referred to her gender reassignment as “the whole conundrum thing” and referred them to the book and its sequel, 1989’s Pleasures of A Tangled Life:

The whole point of this book of essays is to try to present the sensibility that has been created or has evolved out of “the conundrum experience,” as we say in our evasive, euphemistic way. People who come to interview me at home often ask, Do you mind if we talk about the conundrum thing? The book tries to present, to readers as well as myself, what kind of a sensibility has resulted from this sort of thing. I think the conundrum aspect runs subliminally through the whole book. I recognize that the pleasures, nearly all of them, are ones that I enjoy in a particular way because of “the conundrum thing.”

More government meddling forced the Morrises to divorce; after which they carried on living together. Elizabeth Morris told The Telegraph, decades later, “After Jan had a sex change we had to divorce. So there we were. It did not make any difference to me. We still had our family. We just carried on.” When pressed by the nosy; they simply referred to each other as sisters-in law.

Morris’ most famous work remains the Pax Britannica trilogy,a history of the British Empire published between 1968 and 1978. First editions of the works are a collector’ novelty, as they appeared under both the author’s names.

The author of over fifty books, Morris’ post-transition career renown has been as an essayist and profiler of the life and history of great cities of the world. She balks, however, at being called a travel writer. In a 1997 interview, she told The Paris Review,

I’m not the sort of writer who tries to tell other people what they are going to get out of the city. I don’t consider my books travel books. I don’t like travel books, as I said before. I don’t believe in them as a genre of literature. Every city I describe is really only a description of me looking at the city or responding to it. Of course, some cities have a more brilliant image. In this case the city overtakes me so that I find I am not, after all, describing what I feel about the city but describing something very, very powerful about the city itself. For example, Beijing: I went to that city in my usual frame of mind, in which I follow two precepts. The first I draw from E. M. Forster’s advice that in order to see the city of Alexandria best one ought to wander around aimlessly. The other I take from the psalms; you might remember the line “grin like a dog and run about the city.”

Over half a century, some of her books have become period pieces, wreathed in the mists of time, past glory and a more elegant, lost, past. Her love letter to Oxford (1965) was that from the day it first appeared in bookstores; some cities are like that. Others, she says, are different:

I fall in and out of love with Venice very frequently as a matter of fact. I’ve known Venice since the end of the Second World War. For most of that time Venice has been trying to find a role for itself, to be a creative, living city, or to be a kind of museum city that we all go and look at. At one time it was intended to be a dormitory town for the big industrial complex around the lagoon and Mestre. That fell through because of pollution, so Venice was out on a limb again. The attempt to bring it into the modern world had failed. Then one day I saw that the golden horses of Saint Mark’s were no longer on the facade of the basilica. They’d taken the statues down and put them inside. Outside they’d placed some dummies . . . good replicas, but without the sheen and the scratches, the age and the magic of the old ones. I thought, This is the moment when Venice has decided. It won’t be a great diplomatic, mercantile or political city, nor will it be a great seaport of the East. Instead it will be a museum that we can all visit. Maybe that’s the right thing for it, anyway. Age has crept up on it. It can’t do it anymore. Perhaps that’s the answer. For a time I went along with that, but in the last five or ten years [as of 1997] mass tourism has taken such a turn, especially in Europe and particularly in Venice. It seems to me that the poor old place is too swamped with tourism to survive as even a viable museum unless it takes really drastic steps to keep people out.
When The Paris Review’s interviewer asked Morris, then 71, if she had any unfinished business as an author, she gave an interesting response:

There’s one particular thing I’ve failed to do. This experience of mine that every now and then crops up . . . I think I’ve failed to use it artistically in the way I might have used it. A sex change is a very extraordinary thing for someone to have gone through and particularly extraordinary for a writer, I think. But although, as I say and you recognize, the effects of it appear kind of subliminally through everything I’ve written, I don’t believe I’ve created a work of art around it.

In 2008, after fifty-nine years together, Jan and Elizabeth Morris were legally re-joined in a British civil union. "It was quite private,” Elizabeth Morris said. “It was very nice indeed. We were offered biscuits and coffee. You had to sign your name and read a thing out, and that was it. Not like marriage vows, really."

One of the articles on their 2008 ceremony ended with this:

They have specified that when they die, their headstone will say, in Welsh and English: "Here are two friends, at the end of one life.”

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