34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
A retrospective on a long and distinguished career,
This review is from: A Writer's World: Travels 1950-2000 (Paperback)
Jan (formerly James) Morris is a writer mainly about places. This is a book that takes selections of her writings from the five decades from the 1950s to the 1990s. Although it's a book mainly about places there is also some reportage from a long, exciting and courageous life. The first selection is from her book Coronation Everest and provides some details of her adventures with Sir James Hunt's Everest expedition in 1953 when Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzig Norkay became the first people to successfully climb the summit. This is seen as an imperial adventure and it is apt that the final extract is about the effective end of an empire with a piece about the British handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese government in 1997. The book contains little that hasn't already appeared elsewhere but there are new reflections at the start and finish of the book and also at the start and finish of most extracts which put them into an historical context. The book caused a little controversy on its release as it appeared after Jan's book Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere which she had declared to be her final book. However, as A Writer's World is meant to be a retrospective Jan's publishers have argued that it does not breach her own self imposed no more books rule. To Jan's devoted fans such as myself any new writing by her is most welcome and to hell with any rules! In addition, to the first successful ascent of Everest other events described include a trial in apartheid South Africa in the 1950s, as well as the Eichmann and the Gary Powers trials. There's also an extract from Conundrum her autobiographical book on her change of sexual role in the 1970s. This has been accorded a proper place, as it appears approximately in the middle of the book, but, as Jan has never let her transexualism define her, it does not dominate the text. But it is pieces about places that Jan is best known for and most of the extracts reflect this. Nearly all the major cities of the world have are included. In some cases, there are essays written about the same place at different times such as Sydney where there are three taken from the 1960s, 1980s and 19990s and you can trace Jan's changing attitudes towards the city. I think it is essential to read one of Jan's essays about a place before visiting it. Not because it will provide you with factual information. It will be quite short on that but for the vivid portrait that she paints of everywhere she goes. In particular, she's an historian and always on the lookout for "evocations of the past in the present". This leads to some distinctly romantic impressions which may be fanciful to some tastes but not to mine. However, sometimes as in her reflections on Berlin in 1989 a city triumphantly sloughs off its past.
I found being able to trace her writings by each decade gave a good insight into changing times. For example, there are expressions used in the 1950s which we do not use today and although she protests that Wales is present throughout the book, I personally did not find this, as there were references early on to England when she clearly meant Britain. I detected a coming to Wales and a Welsh identity as the book progressed which is more moving.
Her view of places is always sympathetic but also critical and it is unfailingly incisive. I felt that the book would have benefited from extracts of her imagined places such as Hav and an independent Wales as then we would have had a proper context as we would have seen the world Jan would like to achieve. However, that's a small criticism as the quality of writing is enthralling throughout and this is a wonderful postscript to an outstanding career.