After discovering the four sacred texts of childhood scattered around the house like magical clues, Narnia-style, a fifth text is then jammed through our letter-box over successive Sundays.
Throughout my teens we have three Sunday papers delivered. We get the Sunday Express, so my father can have his prejudices confirmed and blood pressure raised by John Junor; the Sunday Telegraph, where Peregrine Worsthorne can be found doing a similar job in a more hi-falutin’ way, and the Sunday Times, which at the time is a respectable, campaigning newspaper, with excellent arts coverage which appeals to my mother.
In 1974 I am startled when the Sunday Times prints serialized extracts from Jan Morris‘ book Conundrum. James Morris, as was, was a respected journalist who had served in the Second World War and accompanied (and reported on) the first ascent of Mount Everest. In 1972 James had surgery to become Jan, and in 1974 she publishes an autobiographical memoir. At the time she is seen as more ‘respectable’ than someone like April Ashley. She is also a fine writer who remains living with her wife and is willing to tour the interview and chat show circuit to talk about the book and her experience, all of which makes her less easy to dismiss than others. Conundrum therefore, whatever its weaknesses, is a huge step in moving on public understanding of trans simply because this woman refuses to just go away. After transitioning Morris remains a respected writer, mainly of travel books.
I devour the text furtively. Trans people are very good at the little known skill of furtive devouring. I find it exciting and challenging. Morris is the first person I read about who manages to hold on to many essential elements of her pre-transitional life, which is of course a positive message but a hard one for me to properly absorb. On the other hand, she has not transformed herself in the way April Ashley has. Interviewed on the television, it seems to me that she looks, and sounds like James, except for her clothes. In my prejudicial teens, this therefore seems to me like a less successful transition and this limits my willingness to accept some of the more positive messages from her book. Nonetheless there is her story, not sensationalized, in a national newspaper.
At the time I never own a copy of the book (too scared to be found with one) but from time to time scan it furtively in the local library. I have never read it from cover to cover, but plan to do so one day soon. So bear in mind I am writing here about my memories of the text, rather than the text itself. When I first encounter it, some elements don’t seem to ring true to me. There seems a slight fixation with girlish paraphernalia which I find a little twee, even then – although Morris’ conceptions of femaleness and femininity probably reflect her upbringing and societal views of the time (she was born in 1926).
These slightly jarring elements are another thing that make it harder for me to accept the positive aspects of her memoir. As does the challenging account of her surgery. Although surgery in the UK is, by this time, a possibility, Morris is refused it unless she agrees to divorce her wife, which she is not willing to do. As a result she is forced to go to Casablanca for her surgery, to the same pioneering surgeon who operated on April Ashley. At the time I find her account, and the notion of travelling to a strange country for such treatment, entrancing but terrifying. I have a somewhat different perspective now …
I recall a brief fragment from the Casablanca account which my younger eyes read with scepticism. I think it talks about an encounter with a woman over there who talks to Jan and squeezes her hand comfortingly. As she describes the scene she writes about this woman recognizing her female essence, that despite her physical history she is truly a woman. As a teenager I reject this positive message. I will not allow myself to believe I am a girl, only that I want to be one. My understanding of my own, and Morris’ situations is limited, and the idea that I have some authentic female essence rather than a misguided, aberrant urge is something I cannot accept, no matter how much I might want to deep down. It will be many years before I can do so, but my transitional road has now presented me with many gifts which have allowed me to understand the truth in what Jan writes. Some friends who begin walking with me at the early stages of my transition (you know who you are, you wonderful people) repeatedly see things about me before I am willing to accept them myself. And now that I have transitioned I have many friends who see, and celebrate that essence which I am increasingly and happily able to share with the world.
Back in 1974 my mum also reads Jan Morris’ account in the paper, and at one point we discuss it. I, of course, am very guarded in my responses. At the end of the discussion my mum says pointedly to me “Anyone who changes like that must be very selfish, don’t you think?”. Message received and inwardly digested. I must suppress these horrible urges. Inwardly terrified, I wonder what she knows or suspects.
A final footnote. Jan did divorce her wife later, although they have always remained together. In 2008 they entered into a civil partnership. Some bonds can remain strong despite society’s nastiest efforts to break them.