Journeys, Jan Morris

Morris’ collection of travel essays have already entered the pantheon of travel writing classics. This one is perhaps misnamed, as it is more about cities than journeys, but the range of places certainly leaves the reader feeling like they have been on an immense journey.

These urban vignettes are ideal for Morris, long enough to get to the heart of a place, short enough to keep her concise. One or two make very interesting ‘hindsight’ reading – her take on Houston for example takes on a whole new dimension post-Enron.

The breadth of cultures drawn into this book is impressive – from the very first page: a scene setting up daily life in Sydney, to the very last: out onto the China Sea, Morris circles the globe with touching commentaries and poignant descriptions. As ever, the people she meets are an important part of her writing, and also provide an insight into the day to day life of a travel writer – even if the Chinese find such a vocation hard to comprehend.

The contrasts she throws up implicitly from one chapter to the next are both poignant and entertaining – from brash Las Vegas to prim Wells – with their very different places of worship. And then moving on to one of my favourite chapters: India. Here Morris encounters the contradictions so inherent to Indian life from the cities with exploding populations, to the old hill stations with their genteel refinement. All are tackled with an understanding of humanity that remains sympathetic but is never condescending nor uncritical.

Overall verdict: One of travel writing’s finest exponents in her element.
OUP, 1984

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