Faber & faber 14.99 (203pp) 13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Contact!, By Jan Morris
Around the world in a flurry of brief encounters
Friday 30 October 2009
In the mangrove swamps of Fiji, where cannibals once lurked, Jan Morris encounters a modern version of eating people: consuming them with curiosity. The Fijian word for curiosity is via kila, literally "knowledge want," and when meeting the great travel writer, the local women bombard her with it: "Where are you going? What is your name? Are you married? Where do you live? Have you any children? Would you like a banana? How many people live in London? Do you sleep alone?" Morris finds them a little frightening, but concludes, "I would not mind being eaten in Fiji. The pot would be spiced, the cooking gentle, and the occasion in most ways merry."
Don't you love that "in most ways"? There's the essence of Jan Morris, the most romantic and forgiving of travellers: she wouldn't mind being eaten, provided it were done with style. Her long career has been an alchemising
of her own via kila into prose that's rich, supple and full of precisely recalled details. But, as she confesses, her travel books have focused more on place, atmosphere and history than on people. She remedies that in Contact!, quarrying from her 40 books a cornucopia of glimpses of people whose presence briefly lit up a destination.
The result is less a jewellery box than a box of chocolates with some disappointing centres. We hop from Isfahan, where a pushy student of English demands to be enlightened about the gerund, to Zagreb where Morris struggles to identify the tune being played on a home-made instrument of wine and mineral-water bottles; thence to Yellowknife, Canada, where a teenage functionary subverts the gravity of the Legislature by sticking her tongue out at colleagues. These are charming moments, somewhere between vignettes and epiphanies, but, plucked from their context, their impact is dulled. Many end on a downbeat note with an aborted conversation, or a meaningful look.
Morris keeps an eye out for figures "typical" of their region ("He was the very model of a modern Montenegran") but alternates between being downcast or delighted if the "typical" ones don't conform to type. Some "brief encounters" are with famous figures, but not all are enlightening.
She watches the great Vladimir Horowitz thumping out "God Save the Queen" at the British embassy in Washington. She sees an elegant but hungover figure in a London caf, giving off "an air of unconcerned, if not actually oblivious, composure," decides he is an eccentric earl of the Irish peerage, and learns it's Peter O'Toole. She meets the spy, Guy Burgess, in Moscow and is moved by how much he misses England; then he vanishes before her eyes at the Bolshoi Theatre.
With some politicians she is frankly clairvoyant. Meeting John F Kennedy, Jan has a spooky premonition that he is in his prime and will never get older. During her conversation with Harry Truman (whose Doctrine empowered the US to intervene in world affairs), the President spins a globe on his desk, or points to sections of it, "in a way I can only describe as proprietorial." Gracie Fields serves coffee by the pool at her retirement villa in Capri, as grand as a Hollywood actress at the height of her powers.
Yves St Laurent recommends that all she needs for elegance is one dress, a pair of jeans, some blouses and a raincoat. YSL was, by the way, "the Frenchest person I ever met."
It's all slightly insubstantial especially when Morris meets some historical villains. She watches Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi architect of the Final Solution, being tried in Jerusalem, and compares him to "some elderly pinched housewife in a flowered pinafore." President Nasser of Egypt talks to her "pleasantly and intelligently," his vest poking through his shirtsleeves, and Jan is impressed, but notes with a chill that "he liked to talk about circles of power, national destinies, the interventions of fate and that sort of thing." You know - that Hitler sort of thing.
In Oxfordshire, a friend points out a four-in-hand carriage driven by Air Marshal Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, whose fleets of aircraft devastated half of Germany. Morris glares at him, "but he looked a jolly enough old fellow, up there behind the reins."
You wish at such moments her responses could be more morally emphatic. At evoking a city, a roadside local, a pretentious American, a uniformed grotesque, Morris is without peer. At offering halfway serious judgements on real people, she doesn't quite make contact.
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