A Writer's World: Travels 1950-2000
by Jan Morris
Published by Faber & Faber
457 pages, 2003
Reviewed by John Keenan
About halfway through this piquant anthology of reportage and travel writing, the author is subject to a startling transformation. One night in Casablanca in the early 1970s, James Morris, the eminent historian and essayist, became Jan.
This was the last city I would ever see as a male. The office blocks might not look much like castle walls, nor the taxis like camels or carriages, but still I sometimes heard the limpid Arab music, and smelt the pungent Arab smells, that had for so long pervaded my life, and I could suppose it to be some city of fable, of phoenix and fantasy, in which transubstantiations were regularly effected, when the omens were right and the moon in its proper phase.
It has been suggested that the writer's style underwent a metamorphosis no less dramatic, becoming baroque and prone to ornamentation. Morris lends weight to the argument when she states that her writing became more "impressionistic" from the 1970s onwards. I'm not convinced. Here is James, in 1959, describing Hong Kong:
More people live in Hong Kong that the rest of the world put together, and they make more noise than a million electric drills, and they work like automation, and their babies are beyond computation, and their machinery chitter-chatters away for twenty-five hours every day, and in their markets they sell every fish that was ever caught, and every shrimp that ever wriggled, and every crab that ever pinched, and their excellent shirts cost fourpence-ha'penny apiece, and there are five million Chinese for every European in the city, each one of them more energetic than a power station: and all these unbelievable paradoxes of prolixity and profusion are a lesson in the impermanence of power and the mutability of history.
There's magniloquence for you, as Morris might say, there's ostentation! Almost 40 years later, in June 1997, Jan Morris was on hand to witness the British surrender sovereignty over that tiny dynamo:
Car horns sounded through my windows, and a great cheering too and down below the people still meandered in their thousands here and there. And presently, out there in the night, I saw the yacht Britannia, with its guardship HMS Chatham and the last three small warships of the Royal Navy's Hong Kong flotilla, steal away from the quayside and sail slowly off to sea, slipping away below the skyscrapers with a certain glory after all.
A more measured evocation of a momentous event you could not find. In truth, a writer's tone is affected by far more subtle pressures -- whether one is starved of love or funds, the immediate prospect of employment, ill health or good fortune -- than indecorous anatomical considerations. Across the last 50 years Morris has proved an invariably benign, shrewd and sharp-eyed presence. She has observed the city of Manhattan as it changed from a city of "boundless vivacity and verve" in the late 1950s to an "unhappy metropolis" by the close of the following decade. Thirty years later, Manhattan had recovered its poise and represented a place of "fearful mystery and beauty," where the native's confidence stemmed from their lack of affectation -- the traditions and customs of the city, Morris points out, are entirely homegrown. This collection closes on a low note, however, when that ostensibly invincible buoyancy is subject to the cruelest test on September 11, 2001.
But it is not just the world-historical locations that capture Morris' scrupulous attention. Alongside bravura pieces on Venice and London, Paris and Berlin, there are equally impressive descriptions of Ottawa and Toronto (" the most interesting thing about Canada is its alliance, whether fortuitous or contrived, between the fearfully dull and the colossally romantic.") and pieces on the backwaters of the new Europe that are at once elegiac and prescient.
Morris often appears more captivated by places than the people they contain, but it's a fault (if it is a fault) that she readily acknowledges, stating that she is drawn to dramatic sites where she can indulge in her penchant for a "swanking" walk -- places, in other words, where she can feel she is the center of attention. Occasionally, other humans catch her imagination and the result is fascinating. In Tirana she is accompanied by a local man in a search for the toppled statue of the dead dictator Enver Hoxha.
There Enver was, recumbent in the shadows, just his bronze thigh to be glimpsed like something not very interesting in Tutankhamun's tomb. It was enough. My engineer positively identified the old monster and he should know. As a student he had been in the forefront of the rejoicing crowd when the statue was pulled down in Skanderberg Square. "I pissed on it," he complacently recalled, and you can't get more positive than that.
And travel writing doesn't get more lyrical, assiduous and engaging than this. | December 2003
John Keenan is a journalist, living in Brighton, England. He is editor of the business travel magazine Meetings and Incentive Travel. His work has been published in The Guardian, New Statesman, Times Literary Supplement and Literary Review, and other publications.