AT THE END OF her latest, and final, book which she has elusively entitled Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere (Simon & Schuster, $179), Jan Morris has written a short epilogue. Its subheading is Across My Grave and its tone, like that of much of the book, is elegiac - a mixture of yearning and regret. 'For years I felt myself an exile from normality, and now I feel myself one of those exiles from time,' she writes, adding, a few sentences later, 'The books I have written are no more than smudged graffiti on a wall, and I shall write no more of them.' If that sounds cheerless - and it is impossible to read this final section without being moved - then Morris is determined to keep the pathos in check, at least in public. The week before last, she addressed the Royal Geographical Society in Hong Kong (rgshk.org.hk) with verve and somewhat arch humour. 'Get out your handkerchiefs,' she announced from the podium, waving one she'd pinched earlier from her hotel. 'It's a sombre subject, last books.' For Morris, however, there seems to be a sense of relief that Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere will bring a halt to the international kerfuffle that is present-day book-publishing - the book tour, the reviews, the interviews. 'I've publicised this book more than any I've ever done,' she says, the following day in her hotel suite, while wearing a T-shirt that announces 'So many books . . . so little time'. 'I'm not keen on book tours but this book I want to be known. I want this to go out with a bang.' Perhaps flogging it so comprehensively is an insurance policy that she won't go back on her word and do another. 'You have a point,' says Morris, with a smile. 'There can be no sequel.' Those who fancy a trip to Trieste in Italy will discover that Morris' work is not what you might expect. It is a meditation, not a travel book; Morris dislikes being called a travel writer, not from any snobbery about travel writing but from old-fashioned intellectual honesty. She has always written subjectively - usually about cities, such as Venice, Oxford, Sydney and, of course, Hong Kong - and is not the sort of scribbler who loiters in flea-ridden guest-houses in search of native colour. As she puts it: 'I've hardly ever stepped on a local bus with goats.' Her books are elegantly written, impeccably researched, often wry and wistful. Even in the history-of-empire Pax Britannica trilogy, a work of marvellous range and scholarship, she always conveys a sense of an amused, observant self lurking in the background. Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere is the apotheosis of this style: it is a small volume of history, anecdote and shadows, one of which belongs to Morris the man. For when Morris first went to Trieste in 1945 it was as a 19-year-old called James on his way to Palestine with the British Army. That lad would grow up to face the arc of fame, from adulation to notoriety - first, as The Times journalist who accompanied the first team to conquer Everest and broke the story on the morning of Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953 (thereby becoming a piece of imperial history himself); then, as a man who went to Casablanca in 1972 for sex-change surgery, became a woman and wrote a remarkable book about the experience called Conundrum. Bracketing herself with Trieste - a no-man's-land that spent much of the past century with a shifting geographical and political identity - Morris says: 'Being a permanent compromise myself, Trieste has always suited me.' That quote, oddly, makes her sound more forthcoming than she actually is, and readers who anticipate a welter of emotion and breast-beating in the book's pages will be puzzled. Morris, who has a taste for allegory, points out that Trieste is hemmed in by the flinty Karst, 'a zone of quarantine or exclusion', and you have to make your own way through this literary karst in order to find out how much of herself Morris is revealing. 'I have a neurotic interest in this book, it's the most internal one I've written,' she says. Even more than Conundrum? Morris makes a gesture, not exactly of impatience but of dismissal. 'That was only one aspect of me, and not the most important one either. And 30 years have passed . . . incidentally, Conundrum comes out again in February. It's a period piece, of course, I'm quite detached from it now.' She has written a 500-word introduction for the new edition. Was it easy to re-read that book? 'It irritates me sometimes, I get a bit tired of the style. I'm dismayed when I read some of the other books I've written - the gumption, the energy, the chutzpah, to write so easily then. I envy myself, you know.' That envy - a realisation that the flow of writing has become more difficult as the confidence and fluency of youth diminish - prompted this whole process of a final book. Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere appears to have been a labour of love, but then it has had almost half a century to marinade. 'I think the book has broken away from that style. I get a bit sort of typecast in my own mind, and the phrases become too hackneyed in my head,' she says, and leans forward to amend two sentences (the removal of 'but' and 'to') in the proof copy clutched by this interviewer. 'Am I boring you? Do you mind these details? The only quarrel I have with editors is about commas and even in this book, by darling Faber & Faber, even they put in commas. But they've gone to so much trouble I haven't the heart to take them out.' (Morris' style and punctiliousness, dating from what feels now like the Jurassic era of gracious grammar, will be missed by those who care about the English language. She speaks, too, in a manner that wonderfully evokes a lost time of Ovaltine, Empire and mountains waiting to be tamed: 'Writing books is an awful sweat, you know.') So all the personal details have been stitched, between commas and prepositions, into Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere, but unpicking them in public or mulling over them in interviews is not something Morris is eager to do. At the Royal Geographical Society lecture, she described a point in her life when it seemed she belonged to two clubs - one for men and one for women - and 'changing persona absolutely' in the course of driving down the Balkan coast from Trieste, into another world. Making that direct connection was unusual (it's not mentioned in the book), which is why you have to be the traveller in this non-travel book, pass through the Morris hinterland yourself and draw your own conclusions. For instance, the book's dedication reads: 'For ELIZABETH and in memory of OTTO 9th Queen's Royal Lancers.' Who is Otto (mentioned on the final page as 'my natural Triestine . . . stabbed to death in Arabia long ago')? 'I don't think I want to talk about Otto,' says Morris, politely. 'He's in Conundrum . . . you have to read between the lines.' Elizabeth, however, is Morris' wife, mother of their five children, and the woman with whom she still lives in Wales. The very oddity of that last sentence testifies to the extraordinary resilience of their relationship. In Conundrum, Morris writes it was a marriage 'that had no right to work yet it worked like a dream, living testimony, I might say, to the power of mind over matter - or love in its purest sense over everything else'. Of what Elizabeth might think of this dedication, Morris simply says: 'You'd have to ask her. I think these dedications pass over her, I'm much more moved by them. I'm very easily moved by my own writing.' She pauses, briefly, then adds, 'I find there's a piece in Conundrum that's the most moving thing I ever wrote. It's about the death of a child.' Her child? (One of those five children of James and Elizabeth Morris died, suddenly, as an infant.) Morris nods. 'There was a nightingale singing one evening, I'd never heard a nightingale in England and it sang, so beautifully, all night . . . and we woke up in the morning and found the child had died.' It's difficult to convey on the page the singular emotion evoked by that tiny anecdote, spoken in a hotel room, a flicker of pure grief amid a life of much colourful, indeed sensational, event. Suffice it to say that if you read Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere - including between the lines - you might note that there is a reference to nightingales in the final sentence. Morris turns 75 on October 2. There are many asides about ageing in the book, and if the past is another country then the future is a new landscape towards which she is gazing with some apprehension. She gets tired in the evenings, hates going out to dinner (and hasn't eaten an evening meal in anyone's house 'for 20 years'), and finds herself 'a wreck' after book signings. Hong Kong, about which she has written so stylishly, now tires her; she had little opinion to offer on any changes here, apart from observing the clutter on the Kowloon skyline. Some of what she writes in Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere breathes disillusion; it is, perhaps, no coincidence that Trieste sounds like that evocative word for melancholy - tristesse. Does she really think, however, that her life's work is simply 'smudged graffiti'? 'I would exempt from that dismissal the Pax Britannica trilogy. As I told the Foreign Correspondents' Club, they are absolutely perfect. The others won't last. Maybe some will live on, like a scrawl in the pyramids. Oh, there's another book which will always be read with wistful pleasure and that's Venice. When I wrote it [in 1960], I was young, strong, happy and hadn't a worry in the world. I was so happy and that went into the book and people felt it. That sounds awfully conceited, doesn't it?' And she adds, pleased, 'We're going to Venice for Christmas.' 'We' is Elizabeth and she. On her hotel desk is a print-out of an e-mail from one of her children, who writes (half in Welsh, half in English) with brief news of home and cats, including Morris' beloved two-year-old Ibsen. Her family is possibly the most remarkable aspect of her remarkable life, and she says she suffers dreadful homesickness when she's away from them. Why did she start wandering in the first place? 'I had to travel because of the war. I do these things intuitively. I suppose I found travel was one medium I could make literature out of and use as art. If I'd been stuck in an office in London, maybe I'd have gone into fiction.' So that, too, has been part of the permanent compromise. 'I like life to be a balance between the strange and the harsh, and the homely and the gentle, don't you?' she says. 'I like compromise. Americans sneer at it, don't they? But it's a blessing, it's part of reconciliation. I believe very strongly in reconciliation.'