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Authors: Jan Morris


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A Book of Encounters


W. W. Norton & Company

New York • London

Copyright © 2009 by Jan Morris

First American Edition 2010

First published in Great Britain under the title

Contact! A Book of Glimpses

All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this
book, write to Permissions, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.,
500 Fift h Avenue, New York, NY 10110

Manufacturing by Courier Westford
Production manager: Anna Oler

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Morris, Jan, 1926–

Contact!: a book of encounters / Jan Morris.

p. cm.

ISBN: 978-0-393-07640-0

1. Morris, Jan, 1926–—Travel. 2. Voyages and travels. I. Title.

G465M658 2009

910.4092—dc22               2009052193

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fift h Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110

W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.
Castle House, 75/76 Wells Street, London W1T 3QT

Dedicated to the whole lot of them


‘Contact' is a noun of varied nuances, not all to my taste. Ambitious businessmen make useful contacts at golf clubs or race meetings. Diplomats and journalists are urged to cultivate their contacts. Spies have contacts and so do publicity executives, and people with poor eyesight. On the other hand contacts turn the lights on, start the engine, send the rocket off, launch the movie Spitfires into glory, and it is this meaning of the word that gives me the title of this album.

In a lifetime of travel and literature I have written relatively little about people. Places, atmospheres, histories have figured far more in my all too often purple prose. But people everywhere, nevertheless, have been sparks of my work, if often only in glimpses–a sighting through a window, a gentle snatch of sound, the touch of a hand–and it is mostly such fugitive moments and observations, scattered across half a century and forty-odd books, that I have here gratefully plucked out of their literary obscurity.

Often I have given them only a few lines, or a paragraph; occasionally the people have known me as James rather than Jan, because until 1972 I wrote in the persona of James Morris; but my fleeting contacts with them have fuelled my travels down the years, generated my motors, excited my
laughter and summoned my sympathies. I write of them here more or less as I wrote of them at the time, and I recall them not in any chronological or geographical order, but jumbled. Their locations will generally be self-evident, and I have included dates only when they seem essential to the historical sense of the piece. Otherwise all these encounters simply occurred between Here and There, to Him or Her, after Then and before Now.

Rich and poor people are remembered here, young and old, grand and humble, primitive and exquisitely civilized, named and anonymous, in the particular and in the general. Every one of them, of course, deserves more than the handful of words I have resurrected in these pages: but there it is, they are seldom friends or even acquaintances, only contacts.

Trefan Morys, 2009

A sighting in Texas

On my fourth day in the city

I looked through the window

and saw a dreamlike figure sauntering by.

He had a sack over his arm, and a stick over his


and he wore a high-crowned hat and a cloak, I think,

and he strolled past easy, insolent and amused.

My heart leapt to see him.

‘Who was that?' I cried, rushing to the window,

‘that man with the stick, and the high-crowned hat,

and the sack on his arm?'

My hostess returned me reprovingly to our


‘I saw nobody,' she sweetly and carefully said.

‘But tell me, have you had time to see our new Picasso

in the Fine Arts Museum?

And will you have an opportunity to meet with

Mrs Oveta Culp Hobby?'


Manhattan dialogue

I chanced one day, off the joggers' circuit in Central Park, to come across a young black man fast asleep upon a bench below the lake. His overcoat was thrown over him, his books were placed neatly side by side upon the ground. His head upon his clasped hands, as in kindergarten plays, he was breathing regularly and gently, as though bewitched. Even as I watched, a grey squirrel, skipping across the green, leapt across his legs to the back of the bench, where it sat tremulously chewing, and almost at the same time there arose a brisk gust of wind, tangy with salt.

A scatter of leaves and fallen blossoms came with it, flicked and eddied around the bench. The squirrel paused, twitched and vanished. The black man opened his eyes, as the breeze dusted his face, and, seeing me standing there bemused, smiled me a slow sleepy smile. ‘Be not afeared,' I said ridiculously, on the spur of the moment, ‘the isle is full of noises.'

‘Yeah,' the man replied, stretching and scratching mightily in the morning. ‘Bugs, too.'

At the hotel door

I was going out through the door of the Albergo Savoia Excelsior in Trieste when a man simultaneously entered. We bumped into one another, our bags and luggage got mixed up, and we both apologized. He was a theatrical-looking character, with a camel coat slung over his shoulders–perhaps one of the opera singers from the Teatro Verdi. When we had disentangled ourselves he stood there for a moment, motionless.

‘Where are you from?' he said.


‘Wales! How

Oh you splendid liar, I said to myself, you've never heard of the place. There was a pause. I laughed, and so did he. He shook my hand in both of his. We lingered for a moment and parted. When I think of Trieste, lust and love I often think of him.


At Kanpur, in India, I came across a man with whom I felt an instant affinity. That he was deeply unhappy was obvious, but he numbed his misery by touching things. Day and night he wandered the streets of the city, earnestly and methodically touching windows, doorposts, lamp standards, apparently to strict unwritten rules. Sometimes he appeared to feel that he had neglected his task, and did a street all over again, paying a still more diligent attention to the doorknobs. I spoke to him one morning, but he responded only with an
engaging preoccupied smile, as if to say that, although some other time it would be delightful to have a chat, that day he simply hadn't a moment to spare.


Sometimes Sydney seems to be inhabited chiefly by school-children, children kicking pebbles across bridges, children racing fig leaves down the channels of ornamental fountains, children clambering like invading armies all over the Opera House, or mustered in their thousands in the New South Wales Art Gallery. They seem to me a stalwart crew. ‘Now this is a Picasso,' I heard a teacher say in the gallery one day. ‘I'm sure you all know who Picasso was.' ‘I don't,' piped up a solitary small Australian at the back, and I bowed to him as the only absolutely honest soul in sight.

Not Chopin

When communism failed in Poland, materialism took over. There were bright new shops, posh hotels, plenty of cars, all the usual paraphernalia of capitalism. ‘Nice car,' I remarked one day to the man who drove me to the airport in his big new Volvo. He shrugged his shoulders and looked at me with a dry smile. I knew what he meant. ‘Well, no,' I added in afterthought, ‘I suppose it's not Chopin' and he knew what I meant, too.

After the ball was over

Not so long ago the chief celebrants of the legendary Venetian carnival were the children of Venice, who bought their funny faces and moustaches from the chain stores and emerged to saunter self-consciously through the city in fancy dress.

On the final evening of the festivities I was walking home when I saw before me, in a hurried glimpse, three small figures crossing a square from one lane to another. In the middle walked a thin little man, his overcoat rather too long for him and buttoned down the front, his gloves very neat, his hat very precise, his shoes very polished. Clutching his right hand was a tiny Pierrot, his orange pom-pom waggling in the half-light. Clutching his left hand was a minuscule fairy, her legs wobbly in white cotton, her skirt infinitesimal, her wand warped a little with the excitement and labour of the day. Quickly, silently and carefully they crossed the square and disappeared from view; the fairy had to skip a bit to keep up, the Pierrot cherished a sudden determination to walk only on the lines between the paving stones, and the man trod a precarious tightrope between the indulgent and the conventional.

How small they looked, and respectable, I thought to myself! How carefully their mother had prepared them, all three, to survive the scrutiny of their neighbours! How thin a reflection they offered of Venice's rumbustious carnivals of old, her Doges and masked patriciate, her grand lovers, her tall warships and her princely artists! How touching the little Venetians, tight buttoned in their alleyways!

The student's request

In the shadowy underneath of a bridge in Isfahan a student sits, dangling his feet over a sluice and reading a book. His face is dark and meditative, and his air of poetic concentration is all one asks of a Persian student. He has caught sight of us, in a dreamy sort of way, and as he buttons his jacket, gathers his notebooks and moves sidelong in our direction, we recognize one of the more endearing hazards of modern travel, the Student of English. We are too late to escape. ‘Sir!' he cries. ‘Madam!' fluttering his notes and bearing down on us. ‘Allow me please to ask you one question, before you leave the bridge: is it permissible or not, in the English language, to pursue a gerund with a participle? And would you be kind enough to comment on my pronunciation in the following passage, Exercise 12? Sit down, sir; sit down, madam! Be comfortable!'

Déjà entendu!

On a winter day in Zagreb a man bundled in a greatcoat is playing an instrument of his own invention, consisting of rows of wine and mineral-water bottles strung on a contraption rather like a washing line and tuned by their varying contents of liquid. He is playing with great delicacy a piece I know well, but can't for the life of me place, and around him a smiling crowd has gathered, amused by the instrument, touched by the tune. In the front row of the audience a small child of two or three in a woolly blue and white jumper suit, with hat to match, is performing a shuffly sort of dance to
the music. I am curiously affected, partly because of the endearing busker, partly because of the sweetly familiar music–oh, and hang on, I think I remember what that tune is. Isn't it one of those charming Fritz Kreisler fripperies they used to play at palm-court cafes, with a lady violinist in a satin blouse, and the grammar-school music master moonlighting at the piano? ‘Schön Rosmarin'–isn't that it?

Breath of the woods

A junior functionary all but monopolized my attention during my visit to the Legislature of the Canadian North West Territories at Yellowknife. She was about fifteen years old, I would guess, indeterminately Caucasian, Indian, Inuit or Métis, and tremendous fun. Busy as she was taking perpetual missives from one member to another, bobbing incessantly to the chair en route, she managed to elevate the whole session to a jollier and more sensible level. She laughed to herself and to others, she did her bows with a wonderfully comic jerkiness, she stuck her tongue out at her colleagues, she yawned, she hitched her tights up, she cheerfully swung her legs when she was sitting down and walked in a delightfully insouciant way when she was on her feet. I loved this irrepressible child of the north: the legislators droned on as legislators will, but she brought a breath of the woods inside.

Costa del Sol, 1960s

Sometimes I went out on the beach at Fuengirola to watch
the fishermen at work. It could be heartbreaking to see. They worked like slaves, wading into the sea with their huge heavy net and laboriously hauling it in, inch by inch, hour by hour up the sands: so much depended on the catch, so much labour and good humour had been expended, so many children were waiting to be fed, so many anxious mothers hoping–and when at last the haul appeared, often enough only a dozen small sardines in the mesh of the net, the fishermen carefully cleared up their tackle and dispersed to their homes in weary silence.

Caravan of martyrs

In the summer of 1958 the young King Feisal of Iraq was assassinated, leaving his contemporary and close relative King Hussein of Jordan isolated upon his own threatened throne. I was in Jordan when, a few days later, Hussein made a public declaration about the tragedy. His face was lined and tired, and moisture glistened in the corners of his eyes. Ministers, officials, officers and security guards were grouped behind his chair. Clearing his throat huskily, the King said slowly: ‘I have now had confirmation of the murder of my cousin, brother and childhood playmate, King Feisal of Iraq, and all his royal family.' He paused, his eyes filling, his lip trembling, a muscle working rhythmically in the side of his jaw, and then he said it again, in identical words, but in a voice that was awkwardly thickening. ‘I have now received confirmation of the murder of my cousin, brother and childhood playmate, King Feisal of Iraq, and all his royal family.' And raising his head from his notes,
Hussein added in his strange formal English: ‘They are only the last in a caravan of martyrs.'

Trial of an alleged spy

The court sat on a kind of stage against a background of opaque white curtains. In the centre were the military judge and his two assessors, generals all, immaculate in dove grey and sitting in their tall wooden chairs like bulky Buddhas. To the left sat the prosecutor, the procurator-general of the Soviet Union, a heavy and formidable lawyer in a sombre blue uniform. The lights were blinding–chandeliers, strings of bulbs, floodlight, cameramen's flashlights, bathing the whole scene in chill brilliance and giving the members of the court a waxen cosmetic look. Punctually at ten Gary Powers was led in with an escort of two young soldiers in olive-green jackets and blue trousers. He wore a blue Russian suit too large for him, so that he had to hitch up his sleeves now and then, and they put him in the wooden dock, like a big child's playpen beneath the floodlights, and the sentries stood at attention beside it as beside a catafalque. Powers was obviously frightened, and so was I.

The one left behind

Through the windows of a lakeside restaurant at Mölln I watch four German children playing. Their families are lunching inside, and I would judge the children to be between six and ten years old. The two boys are always in the
lead, dashing about the lake, the girls follow enthusiastically behind. One is slim, blonde and pretty, and wears a floral dress she likes to flounce about. The other is plain and plump, and wears a blue anorak, with sleeves too long for her, over a short tartan skirt. The plain girl is always last. She can never quite keep up. When they run out to the end of the jetty, she is always left behind. When they rush helter-skelter into the restaurant to speak to their families, the door closes behind the other three and there is a long pause before, panting heavily, the short fat girl opens it again with difficulty and stumbles in. I like her best of the quartet–she tries so hard, laughs so gamely, struggles so constantly to tuck up the sleeves of her anorak. I feel for her, too. However when they all scamper out of the restaurant again, and I offer her a smile as she passes my table, she returns a most malevolent glare.

Haute couture

I was invited to write about one of the Paris summer collections for an American magazine, and sat incongruously in the front row among the condescending New York buyers and unbelievably ugly princesses of American fashion journalism. How awful they looked, draped in their furs, red taloned, emaciated to the point of grotesqueness, while all about them graceful exponents of the art of French allure glided silkily around the room and along the catwalk. The audience otherwise seemed to be composed chiefly of characters from Proust.

Dialogues on the Orient Express

‘I've always said,' observed one American matron to another, ‘I'm not going to be a possessive mother, because
was'–and she jerked her head in the direction of her husband in the next seat. The two ladies eyed him speculatively. ‘He'll be no good to us in Venice,' said the other. ‘He'll be lost with those gondolier people.'


Young English wife, on her honeymoon, I guessed: ‘Oh, look at the castle. Isn't that a lovely castle?' Young English husband: ‘It's a castle. A castle is a castle. You've seen castles before.' She relapsed into thoughtful silence. He returned to his thriller.


Said an American man, to me: ‘You gotta read this book. I've been reading it all the way since London. It's called
God Owns My Business
God Owns My Business
, that's the title. The guy who wrote it, he's a very low-key man, but he's got a sign above his store, “Christ Is My Manager”. When do we get to Innsbruck? We might get a hamburger there.'

If you prick us?

I shared a taxi one day with a lady in a blue silk turban, who was visiting Washington and was about to meet her daughter for lunch at a Hot Shoppe. Down the great thoroughfares we drove, and all the memorials of the American splendour passed us one by one, granite and concrete, obelisk and colonnade. My companion drew my attention now and then to a White House or a Treasury, but it was as we passed the
Capitol itself, and were deploring the state of the world in general, that she spoke the words I best remember: ‘I sometimes wonder, oh, what kind of a world are we bringing our children into, when you have to pay a quarter for a doughnut?'

BOOK: Contact!
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