Why on earth did Jan Morris, in her long-awaited final testament, devote an entire chapter to the son of a Hungarian refugee who became the royal furrier? Over 70 incomparable years in journalism, the wide-roaming historian covered the trial of Eichmann, the first ascent of Everest, the 1956 Sinai War. So why, in the book she began preparing more than 10 years before her death, in November 2020 at 94, is she holding forth on a “modest, unassertive” man who lived happily with his wife in London for more than half a century?
Well, partly because J. G. Links was perhaps the greatest living authority on the Venetian painter Canaletto, a fashioner of detective stories (with the crime writer Dennis Wheatley), and very possibly a spy. His book Venice for Pleasure sounds like it might have been made for another writer known for her love of both Venice and pleasure. Most of all, Morris writes, her quietly debonair friend was “as kind, merry and generous a person as you could ever hope to meet.” He was, in other words, very much what Jan Morris was and hoped the rest of us might become.
Allegorizings, published earlier this year by Liveright, is an irreverent and joyful tombstone in which every piece, with careful discretion, is a portrait of its maker. The melodious craftsman who met Che Guevara, covered the construction (and the tearing down) of the Berlin Wall, and gave us our richest evocations of Manhattan, Los Angeles, and (among dozens of others) Hong Kong, here throws out larky riffs on whistling, on sneezing, on the exclamation mark.
Mixed in with them are odes to rather old-fashioned British comforts—marmalade and the hot-water bottle—that remind us that Morris was in many ways the last Victorian, even as she had no time, as she frequently reminds us, for maturity or solemnity or those who pine for “the good old days.”
Look more closely, though, and you’ll see that none of these items is so flighty as it sounds. Whistling? It’s the perfect expression of a jaunty spirit who remains buoyant regardless of what life throws at her; even when robbed, Morris ends her account with an unforced happy ending. The sound of a sneeze? It can be, observes Morris, weighing her adjectives with typical exactitude, “downright majestic.” And the exclamation mark seems tailor-made for a classic Brit who could never resist the brashness and zest of young America, and who delivers her every last judgment with impenitent authority.
Morris has always enjoyed a rare gift for mixing fact with feeling, and Allegorizings is not just what she might have called an “Apologia pro Vita Sua” (A Defense of One’s Life) but also a declaration of independence. She was by temperament drawn to the renegade, the marginal, the private.
Dwelling regularly on her Welshness—she extols every part of Britain, save England—she hymns secessionist places: New Zealand and Bolinas, in California, and the much-maligned Welsh seaside town of Llandudno, which, she shows us, has many long-standing connections with royalty. “Give me callowness every time,” she cries at one characteristic moment, “give me fizz, give me irresponsibility.” In evoking three great ocean liners, French, American and British, she confesses she’s simply describing what she longs to be—elegant and racy and strong.
For Morris really was a kind of pleasure craft, sturdy and fast-moving for all the bustle and diversion belowdecks. And the sea was the natural home of someone who was never a believer or a belonger. Her place was in the places between, off to one side, where she had room to dream while never neglecting the hard work of stoking the engine or steering the craft.
Though serving in the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers herself, she devoted whole books late in life to Admiral Lord John Fisher, of the British fleet, and the Japanese battleship Yamato. Her account of an old folks’ holiday cruise begins with her christening the ship the Geriatrica before settling on the name the S.S. Indomitable; she delights in imagining an oceangoing vessel featuring Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker in the concert hall.
Morris has long been the master impressionist among travelers, so it’s no surprise that her observations (of Manhattan, of Provence, of Dublin) are more indelible than her opinions; her talent was always for being appreciative and un-deluded all at once. She loves independent-minded Ireland, even as she does not hesitate to concede that its people might be “horribly ambitious in private, dubious of tactic and greedy.” As impatient with trendiness as she is with pomp, she is never shy of sounding politically incorrect. But what comes across, overwhelmingly, in her reflections on old age is that she’s the rare senior citizen who’s forever on the side of youth.
By the time you emerge from her gathering of regal subversions, in fact, you may register something else about this writer who calls even the Parisian taxi driver who overcharges her an “endearing old rascal.” She seldom loses a sense of warmth or delight even when sick in the Himalayas or falling on her face in L.A. Part of her enduring charm is for seeming cozy and adventurous all at once. Indeed, making adventure itself feel cozy may be just one of the reasons we’ll never see her like again.
Allegorizings, by Jan Morris, is out now
Pico Iyer is a columnist for AIR MAIL and the author of many books, including The Art of Stillness