Michael Palin Chats With a Transgender Trailblazer

For the latest episode of the BBC-TV series Artsnight.

There are many different ways to describe Jan Morris. The short-form chosen for our headline is not meant to be sensational but rather is designed to emphasize an aspect of her remarkable life that seems worth re-emphasizing in this day and age.

Morris, who turned 90 on Oct. 2, recently sat down with Michael Palin at her home in Wales. The highlights of that conversation will premiere this weekend in the U.K. as part of the BBC-TV series Artsnight. From the episode notes:

Originally born as James Morris, Jan shot to fame as part of the team that successfully climbed Mount Everest in 1953. She spent the rest of the decade as a journalist travelling the world, interviewing figures such as Che Guevara and producing reports for BBC Panorama from Hong Kong and Japan. In the 1960s, she turned her attention to writing books about cities and countries, before undergoing gender reassignment in 1972, a process chronicled in her autobiography Conundrum.

The Palin episode was directed by Dublin-based filmmaker John O’Rourke. When O’Rourke spoke recently with the Irish Times, he said his biggest challenge was ensuring that all the main highlights of Morris’ life were touched on:

The high point of O’Rourke’s film finds 26-year-old James merrily tackling the world’s highest peak in May 1953, dressed in short sleeves and a rakish hat, as if he were strolling up a Welsh valley. At 23,000 feet he learned that [Sir Edmund] Hillary and [Tenzing] Norgay had reached the summit, which meant a hair-raising dash back down the mountain to file his copy.

“It was getting dark, and we had to go down through the icefall,” Morris tells Palin. “I was hopeless – kept getting tangled up in ropes and things.”

Although she makes it sound like a trip to the garden shed on a winter’s night it’s clear that Morris enjoys retelling the Everest story. Her lengthy, detailed reports in the Times were read by millions, and eventually enabled her to take a step away from journalism and start writing books, of which she would eventually publish more than 40 – including studies of cities, essays and several further volumes of biography.

Alongside the Palin conversation, a new appreciation of Morris was published this week in the U.K. Titled Ariel: A Literary Life of Jan Morris, it was written by her literary agent of 25 years, Derek Johns.

Previously on FishbowlNY:
Before Bruce Jenner, There Was Renee Richards

Photo courtesy: BBC-TV