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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own