In breadth and depth of work, literary quality and intellectual savoir faire, Jan Morris is THE travel writer of the 20th century. She is what the Japanese call a Living Treasure. The World: Life and Travel 1950 – 2000 is a compilation of Morris’s essays about her 50 years of globetrotting, beginning with the conquest of Mt. Everest, an event he (at the time) covered as a reporter, the only one with the expedition, on behalf of The Times of London.
“As fledgling and as veteran, as man and as woman,* as journalist and as aspirant littérateur, throughout a half-century” Jan Morris took a long, winding, elaborate, Byzantine journey – one of the last century’s great peregrinations – and wrote about it. She wrote magnificent travelogues. She wrote masterful social commentary about an old, enduring theme running through travel literature from its inception: “the other,” “otherness,” the difference between home and abroad. In World, Morris writes about a destination’s character, its collective composure, its “defining spirit or mood” – Germans call it zeitgeist – its culture, attitudes and aspirations (its ethos) and occasionally, its suffering. Heady stuff indeed, but written with vigor, enthusiasm, spontaneity, a good, healthy dose of humor and literary artistry of the highest order: enjoyable, exciting prose.
She either begins or ends each decade with a visit to New York.
Of Manhattan in the 1950s she says,
Boundless vivacity and verve are the inspiration of this city.
Of the 60s, a difficult period, she writes,
The harbor is the most beautiful of New York’s possessions, and nowadays it is one of the last refuges in an unhappy metropolis of that fizz and crackle, that sense of lovers’ release, which once used to be synonymous with Manhattan.
Of the 70’s:
All crammed in [to such a small area] it is no wonder that the inhabitants of Manhattan sway to and fro, as though with minds linked, to the shifting tunes of fashion. No city in the world, I think, is so subject to the diktats of critics, snobs and arbiters of taste. Manhattan feeds upon itself – intravenously perhaps. A very public elite dominates its gossip columns and decors, the same faces over and over, seen at the same currently fashionable clubs and restaurants, Stork Club in one generation, Studio 54 in another, drinking statutory drinks, kir yesterday, Perrier today, using the same ephemeral ‘in words’ – when I was here last, for example, ‘schlep,’ ‘supportive,’ ‘copacetic,’ ‘significant others.’
She glosses over the 80s. Of the 90s:
Manhattan, the greatest of American cities – the only American city for me – does not need to ape any place else or reject any place either. It is altogether itself. It speaks a dozen languages, and they are all its own.
Happily skip through this book, reading of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Paris, London, Venice, a penetratingly insightful essay on Kyoto, Darjeeling, Berlin, St. Johns, Newfoundland, Kashmir, Darwin, Sydney, Ghana, Nigeria and others, all spiritedly and ebulliently described, creating, in the end, an intimate and enduring relationship with Ms. Morris.
*“Dr. B,” a surgeon in Casablanca specializing in the procedure, changed Morris from James to Jan in 1973. The following year she wrote Conundrum about her “lifelong conviction that [he] had the wrong sex and about [his] eventual change of sexual role.”
— Tucker Cox