Writers we love: Jan Morris

This Welsh writer creates masterful, idiosyncratic illuminations of the world

By Don George
Published August 18, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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This week I am feeling triply blessed because three of my favorite travel writers -- Jan Morris, Pico Iyer and Tim Cahill -- are coming to town for the Book Passage Travel Writers Conference, an annual San Francisco-area gathering of veteran and aspiring writers, editors, agents and publishers.

In anticipation, I have been happily rereading
snatches of my favorite works by all three -- starting with Cahill's "Jaguars Ripped My Flesh," "Pecked to Death by Ducks" and "Pass the Butterworms," then moving on to Iyer's "Video Night in Kathmandu" and "The Lady and the Monk."

Now, on this wild, windy, sun-splattered San Francisco day, I have been sitting in a cafe rereading Jan Morris' inimitable books.

An ever moving, ever curious connoisseur of places, Morris has written a shelf-ful of exceptional literature, from the magisterial "Pax Britannica Trilogy" to the exhaustive and exhilarating "Venice," the passionately patriotic "The Matter of Wales," "Oxford," "Spain," "Hong Kong" and some two dozen more. But today I have been perusing three of her collections of essays -- "Journeys," "Destinations" and "Pleasures of a Tangled Life" -- because I think that these provide the easiest and most illuminating introduction to her work.

Just now I opened up "Journeys" at random and read the first essay in the book, "Over the Bridge: An Australian Journey," her masterful evocation of Sydney, Australia, in the early 1980s. One of the qualities I love in Morris' work is how she plays with the conventions of travel writing, how she stands these conventions on their heads -- just as travel itself so often plays with our own preconceptions. She begins her Sydney piece startlingly enough this way:

"Kev. Kev! Time you got going."

"Jeez, Sandra, it's raining out there."

"TV says it's fining up. You're not crook, are you Kev? It's all that booze, you know, Kev, you know what the doctor said, cut down on the booze, he said, no wonder you're crook in the mornings, the human body can only take so much ..."

What in the world does this have to do with Sydney, you're thinking -- but of course it has everything to do with Sydney, from Sandra's slang and inflections to the booze and the rain.

Still, this is no traditional travel story beginning, no measured account of the city's penal colony history, no soaring depiction of the Opera House at sunset. Morris starts us out "in medias res," in the middle of her own experience of the city, in the heart of the action.

"But Kev has slipped out by now," she continues, "and with his office gear slung in his backpack is away, and up the steps, and halfway along the approach to the great bridge." And so off we run, struggling to keep up with Kev.

Of course, the penal colony and the Opera House and all the other emblems of Sydney will eventually have their place in her tale, but Morris' art is to present us with an astonishingly fresh perspective on the city from the very beginning. Then she fleshes out that perspective with tidbits gleaned from her own idiosyncratic perambulations: the subterranean railway station beside the Town Hall ("a very museum of the Old Australia -- brass knobs, bakelite switches, Instructions to Employees in copper-plate script behind brass-framed glass, bare electric bulbs lighting up to announce the next train to Pymble or Hornby"); a performance of "La Traviata" inside the famed Opera House (the performers' "crinolines and Parisian whiskers delightfully failing to disguise physiques born out of Australian surf and sunshine"); a spectral Aboriginal Day celebration ("a small huddle of dark-skinned people around an open bonfire, surrounded by litter on the edge of the green"); the petty sessions court (where the magistrate "looks like a second-year law student" and the prosecuting attorney "might just have invested in his first motor-bike"); and the Stock Exchange (which "appears to be run by several hundred athletes, helped by a few go-go girls in miniskirts").

In this way, she presents an intensely personal portrait of Sydney that nevertheless manages to convey the essential qualities of the place -- its coarse edges, its comparative lack of history, its brash energy, youthfulness and optimism.

At one point she visits the Iceland skating rink and is fascinated by a young boy: "He could not, it seemed, actually skate, but he was adept at running about the rink on his blades, and his one purpose of the morning was to gather up the slush that fell off other peoples' boots, and throw it at passing skaters. This task he pursued with skillful and unflagging zeal."

Later in the essay she visits Sydney's Speakers' Corner and writes: "The arguments were bludgeonly, the humor was coarse, and all around the soapboxes there strode a horribly purposeful figure, wearing a beret tipped over his eyes, and holding a sheaf of newspaper, whose only purpose was to shout down every speaker in turn, whatever the subject or opinion, with a devastating loutishness of retort -- never silent, never still, hurling offensive gibes at speaker and audience alike with a flaming offensive energy. Now where, said I to myself, have I seen that fellow before? And with a pang I remembered: the indefatigable ice-slosher, up at the ice-rink."

Connections such as these do not just happen, of course. They are the product of diligent research -- hours and hours of wandering, of poking your nose in here and venturing eyes-wide-shut down there and wandering through that door into who-knows-what -- and of a keen and attentive eye, ear and mind. First the raw information -- the skater, the shouter -- must be gathered, then it must be processed into some overall analytical assessment of the place, then the connection between the two must be made and then that connection must be artfully inserted like a puzzle piece into the larger overall picture. Finally, all this must be conveyed in clean, vigorous, resonant prose. When all this happens, the result is travel writing at its best -- rendering two seemingly unrelated events in a way that brings them to vivid life and also brings to life their import, what they reveal about the place.

Rereading Morris' work, I am amazed too by how she moves so easily and seductively from the universal to the particular and back again. Here, for example, is how she introduces us to that almost-too-potent architectural icon, the Opera House:

The supreme Sydney experience ... is a walk on a brisk sunny morning around the headland called Mrs. Macquarie's Chair, through a complex of park and garden beside the harbor. Except only for Stanley Park in Vancouver, this seems to me the loveliest of all city parklands, but its loveliness is of a sly, deceptive kind. It is like a park in the mind. The grass is almost too vividly green, the trees look curiously artificial, parakeets squawk viciously at each other in the shrubbery. The shifting scene around you, as you walk the park's perimeter, seems more ideal than actual -- water everywhere, and those gray warships at their quays, and glimpses of Riviera-like settlements all around, and a sham castle in a garden, and the inescapable passing of the ferries.

And slyest of all is the prospect as you round the point itself, where the families are spreading their picnic on the grass, and a solitary ibis is burrowing for edibles in a rubbish can; for there suddenly like an aery fantasy the Sydney Opera House, most peculiar of architectural masterpieces, spreads its white wings in the sunshine, light as some unsuspected waterbird, with the massive old harbor bridge, a beast to its insubstantial beauty, all brutal heft above.

And here is how, later in the essay, she moves from an encounter in an elevator to the heart of the continent itself:

After lunch one day (Warm Salad, believe it or not, with Chicken Liver) I met Kev in the elevator, with three of his friends from the office. They stood there in silence, sometimes shifting on their feet. "I've just eaten," I ventured for conversation's sake, "a plate of Warm Salad," but it did not make them smile. They looked at me anxiously, trying hard to think of a reply. "Good," managed Kev at last, and with relief, murmuring polite and embarrassed excuses, they left me at the 17th floor.

Away to the west of Sydney, over a long innocuous hinterland of suburbs, neither ugly nor beautiful, neither poor nor rich, with Lebanese laundries, and pubs with names like Gladstone Arms or the Lord Nelson, and ladies in flowered housecoats exercising their dogs at lunchtime, and pizza houses with blown-up pictures of Vesuvius behind their counters, and streets called Myrtle Street and Merryland Road -- out there beyond the western suburbs you can see the outline of the Blue Mountains. Snow falls up there sometimes, and log fires burn in resort hotels: and beyond them again, beyond Orange and Dubbo, there begins the almost unimaginable emptiness of Australia, extending mile after mile after mile of scrub, waste and desert into the infinite never-never of the aborigines. Nearly all Australia is empty. Emptiness is part of the Australian state of things, and it reaches out of that wilderness deep into the heart of Sydney itself, giving a hauntingly absent sense to the city, and restraining the responses of advertising executives in elevators.

Finally, to frame the piece and give it a fulfilling circularity, this is how she ends her Sydney portrait:

I have been at pains to draw the warts of Sydney in, but on the whole, I have to say, few cities on earth have arrived at so agreeable a fulfillment. Those old Hungarians are right -- they are very lucky people, whose fates have washed them up upon this brave and generally decent shore. But just as no man is a hero to his valet, so no city is a paragon to its inhabitants, especially at the end of a hard day in the office, and by 5:30 Kev's morning euphoria has long worn off. The ferries down there are jammed to the gunwales with commuters. The bridge looks solid with traffic. It is drizzling again. Bugger it, Kev remembers, tonight's the night for Andrew and Marge -- avocados again, you can bet your life, and they'll probably bring that snotty brat Dominic to crawl around the table. "Night, Mr. Evans." Night Avrie, silly cow. "Night Kev." Night Jim, you pot-bellied Ocker. "Just before you go, Kev, heard this one? There's this New Zealander...."

Jeez this rain is miserable. Get out of the road, you silly sod. Christ, who dreamed up that Opera House? (We all know who paid for it, don't we.) Avocado and prawns, you can bet your life. What was that woman on about in the elevator? Warm Salad! Shit! Look at that traffic! Look at that madman in the Fairmont! Who'd live in a town like this, I ask you. Warm Salad! We must all be bloody loonies ...

"Kev, Kev, is that you? Marge and Andrew are here, dear, and they've brought little Dominic with them."

Another quality I admire tremendously in Morris' work is the sheer musicality and modulation of her sentences. Consider these lines from the wonderful essay "Chaunrikharka," about a Sherpa home where she was nursed back to health when she fell sick in Nepal, from "Pleasures of a Tangled Life":

Outside the house everything steamed. The monsoon was upon us. The rains fell heavily for several hours each day, and the gardens that surrounded Chaunrikharka's six or seven houses were all lush and vaporous. My room had no window, but the open door looked out upon the Sonam family plot, and from it there came a fragrance so profoundly blended of the fertile and the rotten, the sweet and the bitter, the emanations of riotous growth and the intimations of inevitable decay, that still, if ever my mind wanders to more sententious subjects, I tend to smell the vegetable gardens of Chaunrikharka.

The taste of the potatoes, too, roasted at the family hearth, seemed to me almost philosophically nourishing, while the comfort of the powerful white liquor, rakshi, with which the Sonams now and then dosed me, and the merry voices of the children, frequently hushed lest they disturb my convalescence, and the kind wondering faces of the neighbors who occasionally looked through the open door, and the clatter of the rain on the roof and the hiss of it in the leaves outside, and the enigmatic smiles of those small golden figures in their half light at the end of the room -- all built up in my mind an impression not just of peace and piquancy, but of holiness.

Those last two sentences are doozies -- and yet you never lose your place in them. Morris builds them phrase by phrase, detail by detail, until a sturdy sensual/spiritual edifice is complete.

Rereading her works, I remember how much I love her attention to offbeat details, her eye for emblematic characters, her gentle humor and pointed wit, her encyclopedic knowledge of history and art and the ongoing dance of research and apprehension, description and analysis that whirls through her writing.

And, too, I love the way she approaches the world with a genuine sympathy, with an openness of mind and heart that allows her to penetrate past prejudices and preconceptions, to see the soul and spirit of a place.

If there were a Nobel Prize for travel writing, I would nominate her for it. And if she were awarded it, she would no doubt gratefully and gracefully decline -- reminding the judges, as she has often reminded me, that there is no such thing as travel writing: There is only writing, and it just happens that she chooses to write about place, and about the experience of being a traveler.

So I will just feel blessed by this serendipity -- that Jan Morris brings singular passion and art, intelligence and heart, to the world I love.

Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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