A preeminent reporter who specializes in terrific travel pieces (Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, 2001, etc.) reviews a half-century of literary snapshots in her considerable album and shows us the way we were—and the way we have changed around the world.
Morris presents an agreeably eclectic and untidy omnibus of articles written for The Manchester Guardian, Rolling Stone, etc. Starting with her scoop on the conquest of Everest and an early salute to Manhattan (comparable to E.B. White’s classic), the early reportage recalls the excellent WPA Travel Guides on a later, wider scale. Dispatches come from an aircraft carrier, a racetrack in Darjeeling, London of the performing arts, down under in Sydney, Ottawa in a Ruritanian mode, and a Welsh community in Patagonia. From city to savannah, Caribbean to Katmandu, Swiss chalet to West Point, the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem to the Gary Powers show trial in Moscow, she examines the values of the governments, the character of the people, the very intentions of the places themselves. If Pittsburgh is moved to Ohio or South America is demoted to a subcontinent, it matters not a whit, for impressions are better than dry fact and Morris has a canny eye for the diverting and telling detail that’s emblematic of places we may or may not know. When the early essays were written, Jan Morris, now a cosmopolitan lady of certain age, was James Morris. She challenges readers to find a difference in prose style after “what is vulgarly known as a sex change,” citing a page that marks the metamorphosis. As the decades pass, pieces tend to more length, with a vague, understandable sense of foreboding. Still, Morris maintains her ironist’s accreditations.
An acute, idiosyncratic collection, full of what the author, at home at last, always liked best: fizz.