A Writer's World: 1950-2000 By Jan Morris

A spry and worldly-wise aunt
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The Independent Culture

Revisiting Hungary for a "hedonistic" Christmas in the 1990s, Jan Morris settles contentedly into one of Budapest's coffee shops, snug against the snowy boulevards, "where the coffee goes in the first five minutes, with the sticky cakes, and the rest is a happy aftertaste of observation, jejune philosophising and making conversation with the people at the next spindly table." This is Morris at her best: whiling through cities, noting quirk and foible with an amplitude of historical learning in which to bed her impressions.

A Writer's World starts with a bang: reporting from Nepal in 1953 as Sherpa Tenzing ushered his famous mountaineers on to Everest's peak. Young James Morris's copy ran in the same edition of The Times that covered Queen Elizabeth's coronation. This is a powerful reminder of the longevity of this writer: Morris arrived in Baghdad days after the coup that saw off Iraq's Hashemite monarchy in 1958. He filed copy from Suez, where he found a mêlée of officers, journalists and "people you were at school with", which reminds this reader that Morris emerged from a now altogether distant era of travellers who used terms such as "bailiwick" and "gallimaufry" in precise, if slightly starchy, prose. This early journalism has some of the patrician loftiness of gentleman travellers like Patrick Leigh Fermor, but Morris found his own high moral tone to report on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, in 1961.

In collecting these essays together, Morris has been honest enough to include mistakes and extracts that may jar with the more politically correct sensibility of modern readers. His summary of fledgeling politics in post-colonial Ghana, for example, that Africa "feels so often like a continent playing at history", now seems condescending and rather meaningless; and the high moral tone went completely overboard when he attacked Sydney as a city "founded by the scum of England only six generations ago". The hate mail continued for over five years.

Five decades have yielded some auspicious moments, which punctuate A Writer's World with humour and incident. My favourite is an early anecdote told in one of Morris's pithy reports from the Middle East in the 1950s. His Imperial Majesty Reza, the Shah of Iran, was on an inspection tour of his new trans-Iranian railway, and workers were frantically trying to prevent him from noticing a de-railed locomotive. In the nick of time they settled on "a spaciously Persian solution" worthy of Potemkin: they buried it.

Further afield, Morris reports with energy and exhilaration his sortie to Muscat in the Sultan of Oman's caravan of trucks. During the course of his adventures in highly unstable Bolivia he discovers the Syndicate of Frontier Merchants, a smugglers' trade union, in the rarefied atmosphere of La Paz. In pungent Shanghai Morris muses on evasions and half-truths about China's new permissiveness. Canada proves over time to be a favourite destination: Morris writes engagingly about the eclectic isolation of St John's on the tip of Newfoundland, and creates a memorable image of the writer swaggering around Ottawa in four sweaters and defiantly using a bright yellow hotel flannel for a handkerchief. An essay on re-visiting Leipzig after the fall of communism, where Morris's mother had friendships which survived the war, gives a sense of purpose too often lacking from these vignettes.

Perhaps the most interesting story glanced upon here is about Morris's sex change. In 1972, James Morris went to a clinic in Casablanca and emerged as Jan, fulfilling a "lifelong conviction that I had been born into the wrong sex". Other than detailing regrets that the clinic was posh and unwelcoming rather than shrouded in the mystery of the smoky bazaar, this courageous piece tells us very little about Morris's surrounding identity. She detects her style becoming more impressionistic, perhaps because of a sense that nothing is clear-cut; but she maintains the distance that James Morris put between him and his subject. Only in the mid-1980s does she really begin to enter her own writing, with occasional gusto but more generally with the jollying warmth of a spry and worldly-wise maiden aunt.

Jan Morris's private life is clearly off-limits but, while guarding her own privacy - consciously or otherwise - she has allowed a lack of intimacy to pervade her work. In the 1980s, she modestly reports a suspicion "that I had never scratched below the surface of places that I had written about", which has some truth to it. I think this is a function of a rather masculine and British ingrained reserve that Morris has gradually been shrugging off, and which manifests as a disinclination to celebrate any place with enthusiasm greater than mild disparagement. The exuberant crowning of Everest and the "fizz" of Rio de Janeiro are notable exceptions in Morris's early work.

What Jan tells us of herself is also enigmatic. She describes herself variously as "a true blue British traditionalist" (1960s) and "a Welsh Republican" (1983), to which she adds "a European Federalist" in the 1990s and, in the face of American militarism, "a pacifist-anarchist". Politics, however, are absent from her work beyond an occasionally implied dismay at the declining respect for traditional, perhaps aristocratic governance. "I hungered really for the hierarchical certainty of the old England," she admits in a whimsical piece in the 1980s: "that amalgam of faith, diligence, loyalty, independence and authority." Yet some of her most acerbic essays deal swiftly with the ridiculous flummery of the Upper House, the wan emptiness of Royal rituals on the Mall and the absurd Mallard ceremony of All Souls College, Oxford.

Morris described her previous work, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, as "civic impressions". This is her great strength; despite its subtitle of "Travels 1950-2000", A Writer's World offers few journeys and many overwhelmingly static urban cameos. The short extracts make for good bedtime reading, moving from mid-century hauteur to a kindly impressionism, sometimes sharp, sometimes indulgent. "There need be only one commandment to help us cope: Be Kind," she concludes from a rather dispiriting, whistle-stop final circuit of the globe, as she lands back in Wales on 10 September 2001.