‘I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized I had been born into the wrong body and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life.’
In 1972 the man who wrote those words booked himself a return ticket to Casablanca, where he underwent what would now be called gender reassignment surgery. Soon afterwards he wrote a book about what it had felt like to live – or try to live – for forty odd years with the absolute conviction that he was a woman trapped in a man’s body, and how this agony had finally been resolved. That book was Conundrum and when it was published in 1974 it caused a sensation.
Anyone, however, who expects the book to be in any way sensational will soon discover otherwise. ‘Conundrum’ is a moving and often humorous dispatch from an inner world of which the great majority of us will have no experience. It is not, as its author emphasizes, about sex, but about soul.
Although James was not the first person to undergo this operation, he was probably the best known and apparently the least likely. After Oxford, and service in intelligence during the Second World War, he made his name as a daring foreign reporter who scooped news of the first ascent of Everest in 1953. During the 1950s and ’60s he also produced a succession of brilliant travel books, the most famous of which capture the spirit of ancient cities such as Venice and Oxford, as well as his great trilogy on the history of the British Empire, Pax Britannica. And he was married with four children – a partnership of complete trust and openness which still survives.
Yet his conviction never wavered. It was a situation which drove him almost to suicide. How James Morris finally became Jan is an extraordinary story, and her memoir ‘Conundrum’ is a gripping and thought-provoking read which casts fascinating light on the fevered debates of today.