Allegorizings by Jan Morris

Review by Liz Dexter

“If I had any moral principles to declare, I came to realize, they were extremely simplistic. First, there was the supreme importance of kindness as a universal guide to life, bypassing all the mumbo-jumbo of organized religion; secondly, the conviction that almost nothing is only what it seems – everything, in fact, is allegory.”

Jan Morris should need no introduction. With over 40 volumes of history and travel writing to her name, she’s been everywhere and witnessed everything. And now, we have her posthumous collection of essays, which I will admit I was slightly nervous of approaching. But it’s all good: from start to finish, labelled “Pre-mortem” and “Post-mortem”, it’s a beguiling and intelligent collection covering, as we shall see, all manner of things, from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. In the section quoted above she lays out her qualifications for writing this book, and at the end of this essay she notes that she asked the publishers to put out these pieces, mostly written in or just before 2009, with some submitted in 2013, posthumously. 

I will admit to having nervously flicked to the other book-end essay, “Post-mortem”. But here we find only joy, as she ends by talking of how she and her very long-term partner, Elizabeth “re-formalized matters in a legal civil union” (she was made to divorce Elizabeth in 1972, before she officially changed her gender) and the simple pleasures of that day. What a lovely way to end the book. 

And in the middle, well, we have everything from sneezing to marmalade-making to matters of nationality and nationhood. I’d say there’s something for everyone, and it’s certainly not just for dyed-in-the-wool Morris fans and completists. She’s as trenchant in her opinions as ever, discussing early on the cunning deception of children and her clear-eyed assessment of fellow travel writing Wilfred Thesiger (“I had never been his unequivocal fan …”). There’s her wit, too: here she is on devotees of James Joyce and their movements between Dublin and Paris: 

“Sometimes the passage of Joyceans between the two cities has a migratory air to it, as the flocks of devotees arrive in their thousands to roost temporarily at one or the other.” (p. 27) 

Although their author was ageing when she wrote the pieces, they retain a modern relevance: a revisit to America shows a changed nation – “The endearing youthful swagger had become a paunchy strut” (p. 50) – and in the longer piece, “Riding the Ikon” she muses on how “we eldest sons and daughters of the cyber-age” (p. 181) had at least lived in an environment of compassion and effort to make things better. 

Some of my favourite pieces were the most quirky ones, on making marmalade or punctuation marks. Although they are all supposed to be allegories, most of the pieces can be read on a simpler level, too. And the one on the hot water bottle was just lovely: 

“No other object, though, possesses the transcendental allure of the hot-water bottle, which combines within itself the primary elements of fire and water, the virtues of comradeship and the reassurance of the ages.” (p. 139)

And the piece on kindness, coming near the end of the book, is one I could read often and forever. 

The book is soaked in Wales and the Welsh, thankful for small pleasures and looking out to the world with a sometimes naughty grin. It’s a very worthy final book and memento of one of the great travel writers of our age. 

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Liz Dexter probably enjoys reading about travelling more than she likes doing it, if she’s honest. She’s been reading Jan Morris’ books all her adult life and needn’t have approached this one with trepidation. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Jan Morris, Allegorizings (Faber & Faber, 2021). ‎ 978-0571234134, 207 pp.

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