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.
But Morris’s penchant for allegories means that her essays are rarely “nothing else”. Threaded through these pieces is a “dedication to the proposition that nothing is only what it seems”, and a recurring fascination with applying that principle to weighty topics that range from the difference between nations and nation states, patriotism and nationalism, the contrasts between the conception and the execution of the feminist project, the subtle changes that mark the transition between countries and cultures, the past and the present.
Prompted by a graffito in Trieste – a city of complex origins and identity about which Morris wrote a whole book – the writer ponders her response to its exhortation to “FUK NATIONS”, a sentiment that she grants the status of not only “considered historical opinion” but one with which she sympathises. “I dislike the word ‘nationalist’. I dislike the ungenerous, niggling, mean sound of it. In my mind it goes with wars and squabbles and prejudices and old historic quarrels best forgotten. But I am sick to death of nationality, too, and think it is a dying concept anyway. The earth is becoming just too small for political nationalities. To my mind they will one day seem as absurdly primitive as dynastic wars, or the divine right of kings.”
What Morris does believe in is attachment; that a commitment to an idea, whether emotional or intellectual, is itself an inalienable form of belonging. Her elaboration of that argument in terms of patriotism – including her own proud Welshness – is both stirring and moving: “I like to imagine a world,” she writes, “in which the things that are rightly Caesar’s, like war and foreign policy and higher economics, are left to Caesar, at the centre of things; but the things that are rightly God’s, the way we think, and behave, and talk, and believe, and organise our private lives, are left to the nations.” And there is a rousing sting in the tail: “As for the Nation-States, which have done so much evil in their time, and bring out the worst in us still, fuck ’em all.”
Among the several pleasures of Allegorizings are its shifts in tone and mood; alongside ideological and philosophical argument come Morris’s self-conscious indulgence of her own idiosyncrasies, and her airing of private passions (see the above marmalade, which sparks a revelation that Morris eats the stuff with apples when she is being austere, and sausages when seeking hedonism). She is, on occasion, like a faintly ironised Charles Pooter, wondering where England’s glories have been hidden as she takes a train through the industrial heartlands of the Midlands, reflecting that those glories “were almost beyond my imagination, indeed, as I masticated the Penn State Sour Cream and Chive-Flavoured Pretzels with which Virgin Rail sustains its first-class passengers”.
Naturally, given that Morris wrote these pieces towards the end of her life – she died in November last year, at the age of 94 – there is a fair amount about the challenges of ageing; the time when you might begin to keep a note of the best cities, in terms of helpful bystanders, in which to fall over. Her account of a cruise holiday is wonderfully delicate, seeing her move from a mild and comical suspicion of her fellow travellers to a whole-hearted admiration for their determination to extract maximum pleasure from their surroundings, even in the face of limitations. She begins the voyage by christening the ship the Geriatrica, but ends by renaming it the SS Indomitable, bookending her story with a woman who quotes Groucho Marx to her at the beginning of the holiday but gets it wrong: “‘It goes like this,’ said she. ‘Next to a dog, a book is a man’s best friend, but inside it’s too dark to read anyway. Isn’t that hilarious? I just love it.’” Morris is non-plussed. On the final day aboard, she pops up again, having worked out her mistake: “‘I knew I’d got that Groucho story wrong. I’ve been thinking about it all this time, and this is how it should go: Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend, but inside it’s too dark to read anyway.”’
“This time I really did laugh,” writes Morris. “I marvelled that throughout our voyage, in museum, taverna and Seafarers’ Lounge, she had been assiduously worrying out that joke; and even as she spoke my eyes strayed to the Sunshine Promenade above her head, where the passengers were seizing their last chance of seaboard exercise around the measured mile.”
Really significant writers are made so by the quality of their noticing, their attention to what happens both when they are there and when they are not. Allegorizings might be an addendum to a life that brought us so much of this kind of significant work, but it’s a welcome and delightful one.
• Allegorizings by Jan Morris is published by Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.