IT IS HARD to imagine these lyrical, polished essays in Rolling Stone magazine among the glitter of rock gossip and the clutter of record and receiver ads: yet that is where these city portraits by Jan Morris first appeared.
Jan Morris, who wrote the Pax Britannica trilogy, is one of those gifted observers who lend artistry to sociology, and each of the 11 international cities featured in Destinations is the riucher for the gift. The effect of these essays, written between 1974 and 1979, is that a rubbing. Under the author's judicious chafing at the surface of a city, its subtler attributes appear bit by bit: a spirit, a state of mind, a system of behavior, indeed a set of moral qualities.
London is "an aged and incorrigible deceiver . . . a calculating city . . . hard as nails . . . chockablock full, one feels, of gentlemanly cunning." Manhattan teeters on emotional collapse, "intensely clever, cynical, introspective, feverishly tireless . . . its daily life is spattered with aspects and episodes of an unhinged sensibility." In Los Angeles, "the mantra and the head knot" have succumbed to capiltalism, and there is an air "of Venetian . . . decay . . . of a failing faith . . . a philosophy with its back to the wall."
Delhi is "the capital of the losing streak . . . the metropolis of the crossed wire, the missed appointment, the puncture, the wrong number . . . not an innocent city, for on every layer it is riddled with graft and intrigue, but . . . distinctly organic, to an atavistic degree."
Johannesburg is "the richest city in Africa but altogether without responsibility"; Trieste remains "a thwarted excitement, wistful and affronted"; and Instanbul is "a traumatic kind of city . . . like a man with a squint, looking east and west at the same time."
And Washington? Ah, Washington, that most indefinable of cities, where "life so often shimmers through a gauze curtain, insubstantially . . . inorganic by origin . . . unnatural in behavior." But is it still true, as Morris observed in the aftermath of Watergate, that the District of Columbia is "hardly more than a fief of Congress -- a black plantation around the Hill"? No more so than Georgetown can be said to retain its leonine stature and vanity, or provide "a lush mirror image of the Capitol scene."
No, Washington is not even any longer "an alienating city" lacking in "the corporate gift of hospitality." Who would deny that our nation's capital has become the ultimate company town, filled with amenities, perks and political welcome wagons?
But some things remain unchanged, and surely on any given night a person could still walk into a Georgetown bar and find the same woman who said within the author's earshot, "Nothing alters life so absolutely as having your ears pierced."
Such perfect little nuggets of vernacular and vignette sparkle throughout the pages of this book. In Manhattan, Morris is transported by a lunch-time concert of baroque music echoing sweetly through the stone and steel of the Pan Am building. "'How beautifully they play,' I remarked in my delight to a man listening beside me, but in the Manhatan manner he brought me harshly down to earth. "They gotta play beautifully,' he replied. "Think of the competition.'"
In Delhi, "I was pursued . . . by a persistent and nont unattractive Rajput businessman. I thought him rather suave as I fended him off, in his well-cut check suit and his trendy ties, confident of manner, worldly of discourse: but one day I caught sight of him hors de combat, so to speak, muffled in a threadbare overcoat and riding a battered motor scooter back to his suburban home -- and suddenly saw him, far more endearing if he did not know it, as he really was, smallish, poorish, struggling but true.
"He dropped me in the end anyway, perhaps because I developed an unsightly boil in my nose -- men seldom send roses to girls with red noses. The side of my face swelled up like a huge bunion, and I was half red and half white, and sniffly and sad and sorry for myself. In this condition, self-consciously, I continued my investigations, and at first I was touched by the tact with which Indians in the streets pretended not to notice. After a day or two, though, I realized that the truth was more affecting still. They really did not notice. They thought my face quite normal. For what is a passing grotesquerie, in a land of deformities?"
Morris takes in the panorama of a place with the inclusiveness of wide-angle lens while retaining a depth-of-field sharpness of detail. And she brings to her subjects a keen sense of history, of humor, of humanity, and an equally keen sense of smell. In a hotel room in Istanbul, while lying on the floor doing yoga, she catches "the authentic fragrance of the Ottomans" that lurk underneath the bed, "dismissing the years and the vacuum cleaners alike: an antique smell of omelets and cigars, slightly sweetened with what I took to be attar of roses."
In Cairo, "where the financiers fiddle and the oil sheiks play," she finds "that sediment of the sinister . . . in the detestable folds of the Egyptian bank notes, with a smell all their own and evocations of slum and bordel."
If Morris' perceptions are heightened by a certain Proustian sense of the olfactory, they are couched in language arrestingly her own. It isn't simply the lilt of adverbial beginnings ("Diffidently between its doors we pass"; "dimly through the tangle"), or the charm of words like "skew-whiff" to describe the angle of a flag. Her language is a sprightly mix of music and metaphor, like this description of a Clockwork Orange-type group of rioters in London: "They were pure riot fodder, a demagogue's dream, thick as potatoes, gullible as infants, aching for a fight, not without courage, not without gaiety, either."
Elsewhere Morris makes the point that in Los Angeles one is "processed by the freeways." In a different way, Morris processes the cities in Destinations -- with abundant gains in flavor and texture.