Jan Morris was surprised when hip US magazine Rolling Stone asked her to write for it in the mid-1970s. She felt that the avant garde brand of journalism was perhaps at odds with her own style and approach to writing – and accepted immediately.
The results are collected in this anthology, and they are excellent. Morris travels the world to cities that are either in the aftermath, or on the brink, of change. Thus we are treated to Washington just after Watergate, Delhi in a state of emergency, Istanbul at a time when the Iranian revolution was affecting all the Middle East, and many others.
Morris’ style of reportage is for me more successful than the sometimes over-descriptive prose she employs in Journeys – another collection of essays. She is forced to be tighter in her style, and she has a journalistic approach that any reporter would be proud of.
At times you can be lulled by a certain graciousness that pervades this book. Morris almost belongs to an earlier era of genteel teas in colonial hotels. But don’t be fooled. Beneath this lies an astute observer and one that is not afraid to call it as she sees it. Much is left unsaid, especially when it comes to some of the people Morris encounters.
The chapter on Panama is particularly interesting, especially if you have read Paul Theroux’s section on the Canal Zone in The Old Patagonian Express. Morris is there in 1975 as the treaty is being negotiated to give control of the Canal to the Panamanians. She takes an interesting imperial historical perspective to the situation, all the while revealing some of the strange anomalies of this state within a state.
Perhaps the most relevant chapter today is that on Southern Africa. Morris finds herself in South Africa and Rhodesia at times of great change. Sadly, it was still a long time before true change would occur in the former, but the seeds were already being planted. Rhodesia however, was ripe for revolution and Morris captures the latent energy of a populace ready to take control. Read in the context of Zimbabwe today I was left with the feeling that these people really deserve a leader who will do them justice.
Overall verdict: More journalism than ‘travel writing’ – and better for it.