The usual suspects … Jan Morris

Something we hear quite often about civilians in the Great Gender War Of 2018 is that they think all TIMs (trans identified males) are like Hayley from Coronation Street. Hayley Cropper, who started life as Harold, was a sweet, nurturing character who saw the best in everybody and would not have hurt the proverbial fly. However, the Hayley analogy is not very enlightening for those who don’t watch Coronation Street. Because every right-thinking media outlet’s remit now includes convincing everybody that TIMs are all harmless souls who just happen to have been “born in the wrong body”, the BBC have wheeled out dear old James “Jan” Morris, who is an official National Treasure and absolute Number One Transsexual for the more mature members of the chattering classes. Speaking as an MMM of the CC, I can attest that we all read Morris’s 1974 travel book Venice; we all read his memoir Conundrum, also published in 1974, about his transsexuality; some of us even ploughed through his much less digestible Pax Britannica trilogy, published in 1968, 1973 and 1978.

I’d been thinking about Morris not only because of his Queen Motherish position as The Nation’s Favourite Old Transsexual but also because of the extraordinary number of times he’s been heard on the BBC in 2018. Is it cynical of me to think this can be explained by the BBC’s desire to appear “woke” by exploiting every possibly opportunity to portray TIMs in a positive light? It’s not a Morris Anniversary; his 90th birthday was two years ago and was marked with an interview with Fellow National Treasure and All-Round Jolly Good Egg Michael Palin, broadcast on the BBC in October 2016.

In May 2018, The Verb with Ian MacMillan gave us “a special extended interview with the travel writer Jan Morris”. In June 2018, we were regaled with “A treat from the Bookclub archive celebrating our 20th anniversary, Jan Morris discusses her travel book Venice, first broadcast June 2008″; in the same month, Morris told us that the British Empire wasn’t all bad in Empire; an Equivocation. And in September 2018, In My Mind’s Eye was Book of the Week, so we’ve had five doses of Morris’s “thought diary”, read by Janet Suzman.

A couple of months ago, I found a copy of the 1986 reprint of Conundrum in my local Oxfam bookshop, shelved rather archly not with biography or memoir but with feminism. When I first read it in my impressionable late adolescence, I was full of a desire to be kind and tolerant to all rare flowers, and I enjoyed the wispy whimsy of it. Re-reading it now as a bad-tempered gender-critical crone who feels acutely that the time she has left on this planet is limited, I found it infuriating and forgivable only for its brevity. It’s intensely and self-consciously Literary, and it is absolutely riddled with the worst kind of genderist thinking. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you wanted to seek out the first intimations of the Great Gender War, you could do a lot worse than to force yourself to read Conundrum. It is only 150 pages long and you can buy a copy very cheaply on http://www.abebooks.co.uk.

So what sort of life has he had, this 92 year male National Treasure who has believed since he was a tiny child that he is in fact female? Conundrum is quite short on your actual facts (rather telling for a harbinger of the great lie, Trans Women Are Women) but with close reading and occasional references to Wikipedia, here’s what I’ve got.

Humphry Morris (that’s what he says his parents called him; who knows where James came from?) was born in Wales in 1926, the youngest of three boys. He says himself “It is true that my mother had wished me to be a daughter.” He enjoyed an astonishingly privileged upper middle class childhood. Childhood? Let’s be honest, he enjoyed an astonishingly privileged upper middle class boyhood, and a very boyish boyhood at that. His first school was Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford (a private boys’ school founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII from whose numbers the boy sopranos for the choir at Christ Church Cathedral are drawn) from where he went on to Lancing College, a private boys’ boarding school in Worthing on the Sussex coast. The sections of Conundrum that deal with Morris’s schooldays include plenty of (blessedly) rather fay musing about sex and gender, about the essentially feminine character of the city of Oxford, and a fairly mild account of the usual horrors of British public school, with a certain amount of euphemistically described boy-on-boy action. About Lancing, he says “If any institution could have persuaded me that maleness was preferable to femaleness, it was not Lancing College”. (Actually, on reflection, it’s a miracle that more men who went to these schools don’t decide they would rather be women.)

After school, Morris went back to Oxford as a student at Christ Church, which was, of course, a men’s college at the time. Christ Church is arguably the poshest of the Oxford colleges, and enjoys the distinction of having produced more British prime ministers than any other Oxbridge college. In keeping with what was a very manly young-manhood, just before the end of WWII Morris left university to join the 9th Queens Royal Lancers, a now-defunct regiment who enjoyed the gloriously camp nom de guerre “Delhi Spearmen”.  The experience of living at very close quarters with 30 officers and 700 men  “… confirmed my intuition that I was fundamentally different from my male contemporaries. Though I very much enjoyed the company of girls, I certainly had no desire to sleep with them …” and his reflections on his time as a Lancer are intensely romantic. He invites his women readers to imagine being successfully disguised as a man and admitted to a “closed and idiosyncratic male society in their late teens. For this is how I conceived my condition” and tells them that “most of all you would have felt plain pleasure at having handsome and high-spirited young men all around you … this is undeniably what I felt myself.”

Morris travelled with the Lancers from Venice to Egypt, and on to Palestine where he became the regimental intelligence officer; in other words, a spy. After leaving the army and returning to London, he joined the Arab News Agency which posted him to Cairo where he worked until returning to Oxford to finish his degree. The experience of journalism in Cairo was formative, and he went back to that trade after graduating from Oxford. In keeping with his Boys’ Own boyhood, he seems to have been irresistibly drawn to journalism’s most macho incarnation. In 1953, writing for The Times, he accompanied Hillary and Tenzing’s team on their successful ascent of Everest, securing a scoop which allowed the news of Everest’s conquest to be reported on the morning of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. In 1956, he reported on the Suez Crisis for the Manchester Guardian. About his life in journalism, he says “… as a wandering foreign correspondent … I was effectively my own master, I travelled how I pleased, and I wandered the world from Fiji to Dawson City.”

Somewhere between his tour with the Delhi Spearmen (is it just me or do they sound like a troupe of male strippers?) and climbing Everest, Morris married Elizabeth Tuckniss. Because Conundrum is so vague about dates, I’ve been forced to refer to Wikipedia; Morris’s wiki entry says they married in 1949. They met in London while they were both living in rented rooms in a house “almost opposite Madame Tussaud’s”, Morris taking an Arabic course in Bloomsbury and Tuckniss working as secretary to an architect. In common with anyone who feels they have found their soulmate, Morris marvels that “of all the thousands of people who might have lodged in Nottingham Place that summer, the two who found themselves next door to each other two floors up were so instantly, utterly, improbably and permanently attuned to one another …” so far, so uxorious, but wait and see how he ends the sentence; “… that we might have been brother and sister.”

My irritation with Morris’s simultaneously incredibly fay but very masculine self-obsession reached a crescendo in the sections about his marriage. How he can have had the sheer brass neck to write “… in our house there could be no dominant male or female place. If we divided our responsibilities, we did it along no lines of sex, but simply according to need or capacity” when Elizabeth bore him five children (tragically, one of their daughters died in early infancy) and, presumably, stayed at home to rear the children while he was busy being effectively his own master, travelling how he pleased and wandering the world? “We were never dependent on each other. For months at a time I would wander off across the world …” he says, conveniently airbrushing out the fact that wandering the world safe in the knowledge that a woman is keeping the home fires burning is a quintessentially male luxury. He ends that sentence with the preposterous “… and sometimes Elizabeth would travel in a different way, into preoccupations that were all her own”. But fair play to Elizabeth for having time for “preoccupations” of any sort, with four children to look after.

So how did Morris’s conviction that he was actually a woman feel, to him? He’s a far more elegant prose stylist than Shon Faye (another of my Usual Suspects) but he’s no more able than Faye to define how or why he is actually a woman, resorting to a more literary version of Faye’s “looseish constellation” formula.  Conundrum is simply stuffed with essences, with souls, with spirits; it seems to have been written in collaboration with a 1970s version of the Gender Fairy who sprinkles Gender Glitter all over some lucky children in our current decade. Morris recalls realising, aged three or four, that he “had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl” while sitting under his mother’s grand piano while she played Sibelius. During his time as a Christ Church chorister, he “inserted silently every night, year after year throughout my boyhood, an appeal … ‘And please God let me be a girl. Amen‘ after the Grace.

Morris includes, in Chapter 5 of Conundrum, what has become a very familiar element of the transgender script; the list of historical and exotic cultures which are, apparently, much more accepting of what we now call “gender fluidity”. “It was, I think, the 18th century which first imposed upon western civilisation rigid conceptions of maleness and femaleness, and made the idea of sexual fluidity in some way horrific.” I am pretty sure that even before the 18th century, people were pretty clear about where babies came from. Then Morris gives us his list of gender benders from exotic cultures; being a man with a good classical education, he starts with the Phrygians of Anatolia who “castrated men who felt themselves to be female” and mentions that Hippocrates “reported the existence of ‘un-men’ among the Scythians”. He then dips into Frazer’s The Golden Bough to find the Sarombavy of Madagascar, the soft-men of the Chukchee Eskimo, and Mohave Indian boys publicly initiated into girlhood. “If to modern westerners the idea of changing sex has seemed, at least until recently, monstrous, absurd or un-Godly, among simpler peoples it has more often been regarded as a process of divine omniscience, a mark of specialness. To stand astride the sexes was not a disgrace but a privilege, and it went often with supernatural powers and priestly functions.” Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. A less glittery reading of those “un-men” would be that in all cases, they are ways for very patriarchal cultures to deal with the existence of unacceptably feminine males.

One of the ways in which Morris perceived himself to be (unacceptably?) feminine was the way in which his sexual appetites were at odds with his body. He says that his  “libidinous fantasies … were concerned more with caress than with copulation” and that “though my body often yearned to give, to yield, to open itself, the machine was wrong.” But as a young man, he doesn’t hate his body; quite the reverse. The chapter of Conundrum that describes the Everest expedition is also about how much he loved being a fit healthy young man. His body was “lean and sinewy … and worked like a machine of quality …” and he compares the male physique favourable with the female. “Women, I think, never have quite this feeling about their bodies … It is a male prerogative, and contributes no doubt to the male arrogance.” But his feelings about his body change as he ages, and by his mid-thirties he begins “to detest the physique that had served me so loyally.”

The body-hatred seems to coincide with Morris starting to see Harry Benjamin at his clinic on Park Avenue whenever he went to New York. Benjamin, with Alfred Kinsey and John Money, were the founders of “transgender” medicine. He seems to have been something of a guru for Morris, who writes enthusiastically about his regular encounters with him. “Dr Benjamin, an endocrinologist … first formally recognised the existence, within the inner keep of sex, of people like me – people whose problems lay deeper than physical medicine, deeper even than curative psychiatry, and seemed beyond diagnosis or treatment.” How could anyone resist being told in “a scholarly Viennese accent” that you’re that special by a high-end doctor, in his clinic on Park Avenue? Morris certainly couldn’t. “I told him everything, and it was from him that I learnt what my future would be.”

Morris’s future was hormone treatment, which he didn’t start until 1964 because of concerns about depleting his fertility. “I honoured … an unspoken obligation to our marriage; that until my family was safely in the world, and Elizabeth fulfilled as a mother if not as a wife, I would bide my time”. During the hormone treatment period, Morris lived part-time in Oxford where he lived openly in the role of a woman” and continued to be “supposedly male” at home with Elizabeth in Wales. Living “in the role of a woman” means wearing skirts, and he “soon discovered that only the smallest display of overt femininity, a touch of make-up, a couple of bracelets, was enough to tip me over the social line, and establish me as female.” He did, however, go on using the Travellers’ Club in London, where “women were only allowed on the premises at all during a few hours of the day, and even then were hidden away as far as possible in lesser rooms or alcoves.” Remarkable, isn’t it, how even once men have decided they are women, and want to be acknowledged as women, they are unwilling to give up their male privileges?

In 1972, Morris underwent surgery in Casablanca with “Dr B”, Dr Georges Burou, a French doctor who “did not bother himself much with diagnosis or pre-treatment, and expected handsome payment in advance”. I’m afraid this episode reminded me irresistibly of the Absolutely Fabulous flashbacks in which it’s revealed that Patsy had sex change surgery in the 1960s and spent a year as a man, “until it fell off”. Wikipedia tells me that Dr B  is “widely credited with innovating modern sex reassignment surgery for trans women” but Morris, to his credit, says that “nobody in the history of human kind has changed from a true man to a true woman” even if he does then spoil it rather by adding “if we class a man or a woman purely by physical concepts.” If you want to know what Dr B’s methods of turning a penis and testicles into some sort of surgical facsimile of a vulva and vagina were, Wiki goes into plenty of detail.

Chapter 14 of Conundrum is called Concerning surgery and is worth quoting at length. “The operation called ‘sex-change’ had lately become relatively respectable. Until a few years before it had been disreputable indeed, considered by most surgeons to be a cross between a racket, an obscenity and a very expensive placebo. It was, wrote one London practitioner in the 1950s, as though when a man said he was Nelson, you were to cut his arm off to satisfy his illusion. For thirty years after the Lili Elbe case, there were few attempts to change a person’s sex, and surgeons in most countries would not contemplate such an operation. By 1951 the American George Jorgensen managed to achieve surgery in Denmark, and fellow-sufferers everywhere tried to emulate him, but the doctors reacted more forbiddingly still. They were frightened by the threat of publicity. They were repelled by the weird gallimaufry that that pestered them, along with the true trans-sexuals – exhibitionists in search of new themes, homosexuals wishing to legalise themselves, female impersonators and miscellaneous paranoiacs.”

Does that sound at all familiar?

“By 1972, when my time came, the climate of medical opinion had shifted. Thanks largely to the persuasion of Dr Benjamin in New York City, many more doctors now conceded that surgery might after all be the right approach to a problem which seemed to be becoming more common, and was plainly insoluble in absolute terms … The usual formulae of sex determination, acceptable though they might be to judges or Olympic referees, were increasingly recognised as inadequate, as the complexities of gender and identity became each year more apparent but more baffling.”

So, Humphry, or James, or Jan, or whoever you actually are, even though you are The Nation’s Favourite Transsexual, and a dear harmless old thing who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and who loves cats and babies, I’m afraid you do qualify as one of my Usual Suspects and I think you bear considerable responsibility for the Great Gender Wars of 2018.

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3 Responses to The usual suspects … Jan Morris

  1. Julia Gallacher says:

    What an amazingly brilliant expose! Men who want to be women but don’t want to give up their male privileges – that sums it up very neatly!

  2. Quinn says:

    That’s a great read, herriotts; I found it interesting and informative. Will check out some of your other posts too (I like how you write).

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