Jan Morris explains the title by saying that she likes seeing allegories in things Image Credit: Reuters

Allegorizings is a collection of short pieces Jan Morris wrote before 2013 and told Faber to publish after her death. She had announced that she planned to stop writing when she turned 80 in 2006, so maybe she felt she had to stick to her word, but in fact she published two more books before dying in 2020.

She explains the title by saying that she likes seeing allegories in things but she also quotes Robert Musil’s comment that writers who use allegories "suppose everything to mean more than it has any honest claim to mean". I’m rather with Musil on this one, but Morris is such an exhilarating writer I will forgive her the title! (note to subs and punctuation snobs alike – one of her essays is in praise of exclamation marks, which she uses freely, so this one is allowed.) Here she is railing in old age against "the joylessness of the word ‘maturity’":

"Maturity! Did ever a heart thrill to the sound of it, still less the meaning? There was a time when I actually congratulated myself on becoming mature, earning the respect of my experience, and throwing off the callowness of youth. No longer! Give me callowness every time, give me fizz, give me irresponsibility, and if ever I feel maturity creeping in, crack a bottle, put out more flags and ring the bells!"

Many of the essays remind us of Jan’s peerless strength as a travel writer Image Credit: Supplied

Many of the essays remind us of her peerless strength as a travel writer. Of course she is best known for her books on cities like Venice, Trieste and Oxford, but she likes obscure places, too. She heard of a village called Bolinas in northern California that, back in the hippie days, decided to remove all road signs and cut itself off from the world. She went to see it in the 1970s and found "It was all there – the idealism and the nonsense, the mystic cults and the junkies, organic turnips and aromatherapy, bold feminism, socialist slogans, strumming Dylanesque guitars, all enveloped within what was, for my tastes, an exhilarating sense of live-and-let-live." She revisited it 30 years later and found that it was all still going on, complete with a shrine at the centre called Spirit in the Physical Realm, though the residents were older and house prices higher.

Previous life

She says she was always irritated by journalists asking her about her gender change, but the book is dedicated to her wife, Elizabeth, whom she married in 1949, "nominally divorced" in 1972 when she became a woman, and then remarried as civil partners in 2008. And just occasionally, in these essays, she refers to her previous life as a man. She mentions a disfigured middle finger from when she once let the steel hatch of a Sherman tank fall on it, and a toenail that falls off every few years because she stubbed it on an ice block on Mount Everest in 1953. That was when, as James Morris, she reported Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Everest for The Times, and in a later essay she attends Sir Edmund Hillary’s funeral in Auckland.

I love her sharp, throwaway judgements – James Joyce’s Ulysses, she opines, is "unnecessarily obscure" and Princess Diana was "reassuringly common". And her various eccentricities. She mentions that on one visit to Provence she bought a sunhat embroidered with the letters OM because she thought it stood for the Buddhist mantra "om mane padme hum" meaning "hail to the jewel in the lotus". In fact it stood for Olympique Marseille and drew puzzled glances from football fans in the street. But the great joy of Jan Morris is that she never minded puzzled glances – "Put out more flags and ring the bells!"

The Daily Telegraph

Read more