An ostensibly highly successful man’s man, he had in fact felt all his conscious life that at heart he was female. Her ground-breaking memoir Conundrum, written 46 years ago about risky and experimental surgery, is an elegant classic of the gender genre and still in print, a slender volume that poetically and comprehensively addresses today’s transsexuality debate.
Reflecting on her transition, Jan said: ‘I would never use the word change, as in “sex change” for what happened to me. I did not change sex, I really absorbed one into the other. I’m a bit of each now. I freely admit it.’
I was delighted to be introduced by London publishing connections to this highly accomplished, cerebral and exciting writer during our 1973 research on Marco Polo — I had wangled my way as the only female member of a British film team driving overland from Venice to Central Asia.
A daring reporter and tireless traveller who had crossed deserts and scaled mountains, her gender transition the previous year was not our focus. We consulted Jan Morris about our route and particularly the intricate details of ancient Venice, one of her most popular books and home to Marco Polo, the peripatetic 13th century trader whose travels about journeys to China had first revealed the orient to avid European readers. I remember Jan as strong, straightforward, enthusiastic and helpful, lots of hair and heavy jewellery.
Baring her soul, Conundrum was published the following year in 1974. In response to my no doubt naïve gushing fan letter about the book’s profound effect, admiration of her bravery and reminder of our Marco Polo meeting, Jan’s hand-written postcard to me arrived dated 30 October 1974 from their home in Bath.