Contact! By Jan Morris

A collection of glances at life passing by reveals a conversational travel writer hitting top form
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The Independent Culture

What a neat idea: gather together all those apparently inconsequential conversations and meetings from your travels and offer them as a book. And with 50 years scouring the globe for stories, the travel writer Jan Morris is surely just the person to satisfy with both volume and variety of experience.

From her native Wales to the Australian bush, Morris has done the literary equivalent of retrieving the contents of the cutting-room floor. The declared aim in relaying these encounters is to "celebrate the people who helped spark [her] view of the world and mould [her] responses". The "contacts" are as diverse as they are numerous. The more obvious subjects for a professional traveller – border guards, drivers, foreign dignitaries – are present, but so are less obvious characters, such as nannies in a London park, the supervisor of a branch of McDonald's, a quarry clerk. All life is present in these pages.

Morris explains in her introduction that this is unfamiliar territory: "In a lifetime of travel and literature I have written relatively little about people." Yet through situation rather than straight description, she succeeds in providing not just intriguing vignettes but something of the spirit of the places and times in which the experiences happened.

Many of these episodes are brief, a mere few lines; others longer, but rarely stretching over more than a page. Some are overheard conversations, some contain no dialogue, some are just impressions gained from the most fleeting glimpse. But always Morris's eye is sharp, revealing the mood of the moment.

Such keen observation is often used to reveal that all is not as it seems. In "Pretty Children", for example, Morris sets up the perfect idyll of seeing three small Swiss girls returning home from school in the mountain resort of Flims. She describes their elfin looks, how they chatted away, pausing at a bench to gossip. But, "when they got up to go, one of them, meandering off by herself, chanced to leave her sunglasses on the bench. In a trice the other two, laughing and giggling, threw them on the ground and stamped them into pieces before my eyes, alternating kicks in the prettiest way."

Not all Morris's portraits have such a satisfying twist in the tail; some are more impressionistic. In "Arrival of the Tourists", she is in Capri, observing the passengers who have just disembarked the morning vaparetto: "And here flooding into the piazza, pouring out of taxis, out of buses, out of horse carriages, out of the steep funicular that runs up from the waterfront – wearing floppy straw hats and rope-soled shoes and pink jeans and multifarious bangles – festooned with cameras, inquiring the price of swim-suits, unfolding maps, touching up their lipstick beneath the campanile – talking German, English, French and every variety of Italian – young and old, blatant and demure, strait-laced and outrageous, earnest and frivolous and thrilled and sick-to-death-of-it-all – here past my café table streams the first quota of the morning's tourists."

Doubtless, readers will prefer some sketches over others. Frankly, a few left me thinking, so what? But, in a sense, that's the joy of the format of this book – it is eminently dippable. If you don't like one story, try another. Then again, the truncated structure of Contact! can make it difficult to read, because each tale deserves to be digested fully to enjoy the power of her writing.

This is a book to savour – in the best way, it's just the thing for the bookshelf in the smallest room in the house.

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