Allegorizings by Jan Morris review – delightful musings

These posthumous essays reveal a dedication to the proposition that ‘almost nothing in life is only what it seems’

There’s much to be said for idle thoughts in the right minds, and Jan Morris was particularly good at giving whimsy free rein. A writer of places and their people, she didn’t much care for the label “travel writer”, presumably because of its trivial and transactional connotations, and I doubt she would have been so grandiose as to style herself an “adventurer”. This book of brief essays, written in the last decade or so of her life and always designed to be published posthumously – “by the time you read it I shall be gone!” she writes cheerfully in her “pre-mortem” introduction – is filled with whimsy and, aside from decidedly light musings on matters such as sneezing, marmalade and hot-water bottles, she proves that being fanciful is not the enemy of seriousness.

Take her jeu d’esprit in the matter of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, that “burr in the heart of the monarchy, lovely but sly”. In Morris’s view, her death was marked in precisely, diametrically, the wrong way: “The nation mourned a martyr when it should have been celebrating a miscreant.” It would have been far better, the writer suggests, had Britain embraced her true nature while she was alive, given her the royal yacht Britannia, repainted it in bright colours and instructed her to tour the world’s ports, spreading glamour and cheer on behalf of the nation. Imagine, Morris asks us, Diana and hunky entourage arriving at some dusty and remote Mediterranean island at dawn, blasting rock’n’roll by way of reveille, and leading its bemused and bewitched inhabitants in a merry dance around the harbour until wine flows from the fountains and flowers rain down on the streets. It is, if nothing else, a rather more enticing vision of noblesse oblige than those to which we have become wearily accustomed.

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