Friday, December 16, 2011

The World: Travels 1950-2000 by Jan Morris

Jan Morris was a reporter, working for the Times of London, who wrote a huge number of travel essays on assignment for that paper and other publications. He began his career as a man, but after a sex change operation in Casablanca (who goes to Casablanca for a sex change?), finished her career as a woman.

Morris had a couple of tendencies that show up in this book. First, she used a ton of obscure vocabulary. Quick! Define, without googling the terms, "gallimaufry", "prolixity", and "quiddity." This book will challenge you, certainly, even if you consider yourself well-versed in word lore. Second, she tended to long, flowery descriptions of the places she visited, with very little concrete information about realities "on the ground", and lots of talk about the atmosphere and attitude of those far-off lands.

A humorous aside:
"...long after Ernesto (Guevara) had matured into Che and had become a world-celebrated icon of the youth culture, I gave a lift in England to a hitch-hiker whose T-shirt bore a familiar picture of him - by then one of the best-known photographs on earth. 'I bet I'm the onlhy person you've ever got a lift from who actually met Che Guevara.' 'Oh yeah,' was the reply. 'Who was Che Guevara?'"

On the dreariness of the Soviet Union:

"Moscow in winter is hardly a dream, and not exactly a nightmare, but has more the quality of a hangover: blurred, dry-mouthed and baleful, but pierced by moments of almost painful clarity, in which words, ideas, or recollections roll about in the mind metallically, like balls on a pin-table."

On the job of travel writing/reporting:

"In Khartoum...I was interviewing the Minister of National Guidance (later executed for misguiding the nation) and he told me that my duties should be to report 'thrilling, attractive and good news, coinciding where possible with the truth.' I have followed his advice ever since."

Some things never change, and Morris remarks on Kashmir in the 70s:

"Kashmir is one of those places, deposited here and there in awkward corners of the earth, that never seem quite settled; a bazaar rumour kind of place, a UN resolution place, a plae that nags the lesser headlines down the years, like a family argument never finally resolved."

When I worked in the semiconductor industry a while back, Singapore was well on its way to world dominance in the field. Morris seems to anticipate this, also written in the 70s:

"Lee Kuan Yew (a Chinese politician) believes that the whole state must be resolutely directed towards a kind of communal expertise. There is no time for argument. There is no room for dilettantism, nostalgia or party politics. Prosperity is the single aim of the state, and it can be retained only by rigorous discipline and specialization, under the unchallenged authority of an intelligent despotism. Political stability, reasons Lee Kuan Yew, equals foreign confidence, equals investment, equals money for all, which is all the average citizen wants of life and statesmanship."

Might be some words for our own politicians to heed, there.

Morris seemed also to enjoy the big cities of the U.S.:

"New a city of dedicated poets, earnest actors and endlessly rehearsing musicians. Draft after draft its writers are rejecting, and there are more good pianists playing in New York every evening than in the whole of Europe - smouldering jazz pianists in the downtown clubs, crazy punk pianists on Bleecker Street, stuff-shirt romantic pianists in the Midtown tourist spots, smashing student pianists practising for next year's Tchaikovsky competition, jolly young pianists accompnaying off Broadway musicals, drop-out pianists, drunk ruined pianists, mendicant pianists with instruments on trolley wheels, Steinway pianists flown by Concorde that afternoon for their concerti at Lincoln Center."

Armchair travelers should really have fun with Morris' book.

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