Spellbinder lifts city spirits

A Writer's World
September 12, 2003

Pico Iyer enjoys a writer, the like of whom we shall not hear again

A Writer's World , in its very title, begs comparison with another set of pieces describing a writer's passage around and in the world over the past 50 years, which came out only a year ago, The Writer and the World by V. S. Naipaul. On the face of it, the two could hardly be more different, Naipaul carrying his sense of outsiderness everywhere he goes, whereas Jan Morris, though no less shrewd and attentive, seems always ready to give herself over to her surroundings. Naipaul, moreover, is celebrated for the astringent clarity of his prose, whereas Morris, a stylist in a major key, is one of literature's last rhapsodists, unabashed about beginning sentences with "O" and ending them with exclamation points. The critics, not surprisingly, have always been much more receptive to Naipaul's austerities than to the grand enthusiasms of Morris.

Yet, beneath the surface, both writers have been involved in much the same task, tirelessly chronicling the end of a British-ruled order and the growth of something new, mongrel and confused. Naipaul, some would say, owes his eagerness to prove himself and his undisguised ambition to found a new tradition, to being born on the wrong side of colonialism, while Morris, arguably, writes with the untroubled serenity and confidence of one of history's winners. And Naipaul seems involved in a quarrel with the world whereas Morris hardly registers a tremor even when she undergoes the most daunting journey a person can make (as "James" Morris became "Jan" in 1972). Yet, it would be risky to conclude that Naipaul's inquiries are undertaken with more intensity or acuity.

Indeed, the first thing A Writer's World reminds us is that Morris was a seasoned foreign correspondent long before she became our master impressionist. She was there for the trial of Adolf Eichmann, she interviewed Che Guevara when he was president of Cuba's national bank, she covered revolutions in Africa, South America and the Middle East. Visiting Baghdad, post-coup in 1958, she writes in terms uncannily similar to the ones we read in newspapers today; going to Cuba just after Fidel Castro's takeover, she depicts a "sugar and bikini state" that catches brilliantly the island we know 44 years on. Like Naipaul, in fact, Morris has always been so steeped in history that she has never had trouble discerning the future.

But over and above the glorious compendium of adventure and wisdom that this book contains, as invaluable for many a specialist (in empire or modern America, in the recent history of the developing world or of Europe) as for any general reader, her collection raises the question of why her despatches have so consistently been undervalued while those of Naipaul, fellow graduate of empire and Oxford University, and near-contemporary, have been given all the prizes. Her sense of fun, perhaps, is one reason, as is her ability to pass on her delight and amusement in the world (though many feel that Naipaul's greatest work is his most relaxed and sunlit, A House for Mr Biswas ). And her mellifluous sentences are so spellbinding and rich that it is easy to overlook the sheer data and perception they contain (the lean and hungry style, by comparison, advertises its own seriousness).

Often the reader is propelled through such unparalleled passages of evocation - no one can better describe the movements on a street, the rigging of a ship - that he arrives at his destination without realising how much he has taken in. Morris has the detachment that Naipaul enshrines, but it is made more complex and warm by sympathy.

Travelling around Africa, for example, in the 1960s, Morris discerns many of the same things that Naipaul does, writing of "drivel" and injustice, and noting that "the steamy coast of Guinea feels frighteningly devoid of old art, deep wisdom or towering religion". Accra is for her, post-independence, much as it might be for Naipaul, "the least adult of capital cities". Yet, unlike Naipaul, she is able to make out a confidence and cheer in the place, which gives her the sense of a "young man flourishing his door key still, long after his twenty-first birthday". She can see "fizz" (a favourite word) and spirit in a young Africa, which makes her concerns about it both more interesting and plausible. One comes away feeling that her response is less a personal projection and more a measured judgement, even if that judgement ends in a perfect single-sentence summary of much of Naipaul's anguish - "These are temporarily rootless peoples, racked by sensations of inadequacy, unfulfilment or frustration, and deprived of the often scratchy cultures that gave them pride of history."

In much the same vein, she confesses to feeling "transcendental" and mystical in Kashmir, in the late 1970s, but that does not stop her seeing it as "a bazaar rumour kind of place, a UN resolution place, a place that nags the lesser headlines down the years, like a family argument never finally resolved". Morris was, one is forcibly reminded here, a national serviceman in Palestine in the late 1940s as well as a journalist intent on accuracy, and the qualities come together in her resilient care over details - there are more federally licensed gun stores in America, we learn here, than gas stations, and the motto of one Sydney school, in Latin, is "Audio, Video, Disco". And anyone who mistakes her tolerance for indiscrimination need only turn to her account of London, which she finds "hard as nails", a city of calculations ("Tradition in front, utter pragmatism behind"). Paul Theroux may have learnt as much from her as from his well-known mentor Naipaul, if he read her on Sydney in the 1950s. "Its temper is coarse," she writes, "its organisation seems to be slipshod, its suburbs are hideous and its politics often crooked, its buildings are mostly plain, its voices rasp on the ear, its trumpeted Art Museum is, I suspect, half-spurious, its newspapers are either dull or distasteful".

At the same time, though, Morris is famous, even to herself, as one who sheds tears (though never for herself), and, unlike many observers of cultures, she seems genuinely to like people, even if she cannot always summon admiration for the countries in which they live. There is an early-morning freshness to all her prose (night-time scenes are rare), and it is never hard to imagine her, as she presents herself in Sydney, taking her morning walk before breakfast and talking to everyone she passes.

Indeed, in admiring the "patient fatalism" of India, she catches something of what makes her own prose so steadying: the feeling comes, she says, from a "kindly acceptance of things as they are, supported by the sensible thesis that things are not always what they appear to be". Faced, once more, with Sydney (like Naipaul, she is rigorous enough to go back again and again to the places she is fascinated by, as if to get them right), she notes that "youth, hope and silliness go together, in cities as in people, and it is the hope that counts".

Morris grew up, like Naipaul, in an age when judgements were not verboten , and some of her saddest moments in this book come as she watches her beloved America descend into political correctness. Part of her strength, after all, is that she has never hesitated over pronouncing that Australia "has the feeling of a boom town without a boom, or perhaps an army without any officers", or that Indians "love to reduce the prosaic to the mystic".

The ultimate test of any travel writer is how well they write about the places one knows best, and no one, I would say, has ever written more acutely about the two cities around which I have spent my adult life, Los Angeles and Manhattan (in part because no one has written with more unvarnished fondness).

Moreover, unlike Among the Cities , the greatest hits album that she published in 1985, A Writer's World allows us to follow Morris' progress, and the world's, as she moves from her more extravagant earliest pieces - Dickens on the road - through a period in the late 1950s when everywhere she visited (Cuba, Kyoto, Bolivia) evinced an air of "nightmare", and then her golden years with Rolling Stone in the 1970s, to the more anxious and unsettled accounts of recent years (even close to 70, Morris was to be found driving in the dark through the snow of war-troubled Bosnia). As the years have passed, she has grown less shy about describing herself, in passing - usually as a "Welsh anarchist", a "pantheist pagan" or (in the rare phrase that occurs twice) "everybody's patriot". What most comes out, though, is a love of spirit and panache (she famously sent the news of Everest's conquest from the Himalayas in time for Queen Elizabeth's coronation with the help of Sherpa runners). It is, she says, "the flash of underlife that gives most great cities their clarity".

This soft spot for the marginal and the insouciant, this habit of observing the "purple swagger and the swank" from a little way off (one reason, perhaps, why she insists on her Welshness), is one of the things that has made her our great chronicler of empire, able at once to savour its fanfare while reserving her sympathies for its victims (or its renegades). Her writing is a near-perfect mix of ceremony and quiet subversion. Thus she extols Oxford, in part, because it "comes from the lost order of the English - essentially a patrician society, stable, tolerant, amateur, confident enough to embrace an infinite variety" (and suggestive, one might add, of the very strengths that she brings forth). Yet, confronted with the pomp and formality of Vienna, which she hates, she notes that even its Big Wheel "moves with such a genteel deliberation that I felt like kicking it, or scrawling scurrilous graffiti on its benches".

Passing on this sense of impenitent engagement, Morris makes one long to go to the places she describes, even the worst of them, and to read them, to write of them, even half as quickeningly as she does. No writer I have read has a better instinct for a place - she can sniff out its character as expertly as Don Juan can identify a perfume (and for much the same reason, one feels) - and she has an unmatched skill in seeming to evoke it from the inside out. Naipaul's great gift is for plumbing the self as unsparingly as he does the rest of the world, and his fiction is richer and deeper than his travel writing because in novels he inhabits the mixed-up and displaced characters whom in non-fiction he only observes. His travels are always about the separation of "the writer" from the world (as the title of his recent book suggests), and generally tell us more about the former than the latter. Morris, by contrast, gives the impression of objectivity, her reports from Kyoto or Cuzvo or Bolivia reflecting back to us our own intuitions, yet rendered with an elegance, a beauty and a heart that few of us could muster.

The final thing to be said about her, now in her late 70s, is that we will not hear her like again. She plays English like a great organ out of which she summons effects and sounds that are more and more the sound of something passing, and yet these stately chords are often in the service of the new. It was Morris, A Writer's World reminds us, who saw even in the 1970s that South Africa was going to stage a revolution (as soon as it could find a new leader), and Morris who noted, in the early 1980s (in a piece not included here), a "new energy of the East" in Hong Kong and Singapore that spoke for a "sort of mystic materialism, a compelling marriage between principle and technique". Years before the recent attacks on America, she was detecting the "nervous responses of hostages" in that country's jumbled philosophies. In what she calls the last, and certainly the most beautiful, of all her books of travel, on Trieste, two years ago, she brought to the quizzical place a quality of nostalgia, of late-afternoon light, that opened up a hauntedness and a sense of personal reckoning that she had never offered us before. I mentioned earlier that she writes of Oxford as if writing of herself. In describing the city of Arnold and Wilde, she notes that as you look at it, you realise you are "watching the envoi to a majestic play".

Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of The Global Soul and a novel, Abandon .

A Writer's World: Travels 1950-2000

Author - Jan Morris
ISBN - 0 571 21524 6
Publisher - Faber
Price - £25.00
Pages - 448

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