Jan Morris was a dazzling historian who was constantly fascinated by the new. She could throw off precise and stunningly compact reports – on the trial of Eichmann or her interview with Che Guevara, for this paper and many others – and then compose 30-page master portraits of cities for Rolling Stone. She was mellifluous and mischievous at once, and perhaps an ideal chronicler of the 20th century, as a classical Brit who nonetheless sustained an undeluded love for brash and forward-looking America. Thousands of us recognised the beauty of her watercolour prose, but what gave it fibre was its unsurpassable acuity. London for her was “hard as nails,” Kyoto a city of ghosts.
Her command of the past was compendious enough to disclose the future. By the 1970s she was detecting a slightly disquieting global tomorrow in Singapore; in 1984, she saw how Toronto was offering a fresh kind of multiculturalism. She never stooped to the prosaic diary entries of travel writers, but urged us rather towards impressionist canvasses worthy of Hazlitt or Virginia Woolf. While closely perusing the phone directories of a city, she somehow gave us its soul.
As a teenager coming of age near London, I schooled myself on her sentences, not only because she offered a vision of living an unaffiliated, roaming life, but also because she kept herself out of the picture, yet infused every intricate clause with a sense of fun, of rigour, of independent-mindedness. Her Pax Britannica trilogy endures because Jan embodied much of the curiosity and erudition, the sympathy towards other cultures, that was the best part of Britain abroad; yet she never hesitated to expose empire’s cruelties and hypocrisies. Her meditation on Trieste pierces because in this haunted, wistful place that doesn’t quite belong anywhere, she seemed to be giving us a glimpse of herself, a solitary “Welsh republican” who could feel equally at home almost everywhere.
Anyone who wrote on place soon found that Jan exemplified the kindness she extolled, training her gift for enthusiasm and affection on every last upstart who approached her. I can still see her zipping around California in a blue Mustang convertible – to seek out some old dogs of empire – and investigating a Palm Pilot with a genuine excitement that showed me why she would never become stodgy. The last time I wrote to her was for her 94th birthday this October. As every year, I reminded her, mistress of the telling detail, that she shared her special day with (could it be more fitting?) Graham Greene and Mohandas Gandhi.
• Pico Iyer’s two new books on Japan, Autumn Light (£14.99) and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan (£8.99), are out in paperback (published by Bloomsbury).