Taxi drivers only want to talk to me about footballers – David Beckham if I am lucky, Nobby Stiles if I am not. For Jan Morris, taxi conversations are evidently exotic, comic and football-free. ‘Are you a man or a woman?’, a Fijian taxi driver asked her as they drove from an airport. ‘I am a respectable, rich, middle-aged English widow,’ she replied. ‘Good,’ he said, as he put his hand on her knee, ‘that’s just what I want.’ A Beirut cab driver chatters away like the Fonz in American prime time’s Happy Days: ‘Say, what you say we stop for a sundae?’, ‘How d’ya feel like a Coke, baby?’, ‘Dig those crazy guys!’. These are just two episodes from a book peppered with mild jolts, gentle quirks and agreeable cultural disjunctions.
Unlike most of Morris’s books, Contact! focuses on people rather than landscape, history, climate or architecture. Its organisation resembles a seventeenth-century ‘book of characters’ by Sir Thomas Overbury or La Bruyère, providing trenchant character portraits of recognisable human types under headings like ‘The Sot’ or ‘The Traitor’. Paragraphs