Books: The Birmingham ghost

Duncan Fallowell goes in search of a traveller who covered his tracks
With Chatwin: portrait of a writer

by Susannah Clapp, Cape, pounds 15.99

This memoir of the legendary travel writer Bruce Chatwin, who died in 1989, is cleverly organised by theme ("Objects", "Exotica", "Nomads") , and yet a broad chronology is helpfully preserved. The first thing one notices is that the author is in love with her subject - physically in love. The opening pages drool and flutter in an extended description of Chatwin's body and clothes. This fetishism continues at various levels throughout the book, which is more about things than ideas, feelings or relationships. The life is displaced into an externalisation of febrile materialism: shopping, eating, interior decoration, locations, and Chatwin's face.

In this, Susannah Clapp is only following the man for whom every object had to be a statement, every person useful for myth-making. "The meals that he arranged himself were minutely considered," she writes; and "In the flesh he could seem reticent, and people found him awkward to hug". The resulting story has something cold, humourless and creepily unhealthy about it, which is its essential fascination.

Not unexpectedly, Chatwin's first career was with Sotheby's, the greatest river of "things" on the planet. In his books, too, he was a collector, of honed impressions and observations. He was bad at structure and his books were put together with considerable help from other people. Susannah Clapp was the best of his editors, but he could be passive and accommodating even with informal companions. Thus Kevin Volans, a South African musician, commented that in one piece "there was altogether too much about haemorrhoids, and Bruce immediately took out a sentence or two."

Though Chatwin travelled a great deal, his life is thin on incident for the biographer. It was conducted more or less at one level, that of the swish English bourgeoisie. He lived in Belgravia, Mayfair, Oxfordshire; he stayed with the Mellys or Leigh Fermors or Conrans; he wrote with a Mont Blanc pen in moleskin notebooks.

Surprisingly, there are almost no significant associations with foreigners. Chatwin was a voyeur in foreign parts, never involved. Clapp evokes well the lifestyle of his circle, though it degenerates here and there into copy for glossy magazines. The over-extended digressions on Francis Wyndham, the 17th-century poet Henry Vaughan, and other ancillary characters are a more blatant form of padding, given the concise nature of the book.

To the lack of any muscular drama in his life (except at the end), Clapp adds her own refusal. There seem to be many people she doesn't wish to offend. The central fact of Chatwin's life - which explains almost everything about him - was his homosexuality. She refers to it on numerous occasions and cites his two most important lovers (Teddy Millington-Drake and Jasper Conran), but never takes on the psychological implications.

In this context, his life's key relationship is not with either of his male lovers or with his wife but with his parents, and this she doesn't mention. They occur, as they must, at his birth, then disappear altogether. Because of their psychological control - of which they may have been unaware - Chatwin remained painfully maladjusted to his inner self, secretive and forever indulging in decoy manoeuvres which included marriage to a "sister" figure called Elizabeth and later, of course, his travelling.

Clapp presents Chatwin as a sort of free-wheeling, mischievous bisexual. Probably that is what he would have loved to have been, but he strikes me as absolutely not of this warm, cavalier Neal Cassady type. He comes across as far more anxious and effeminate. As a schoolboy he enjoyed embroidery and won a prize for flower arranging. He was fastidious and took good taste to a degree at which it became another form of vulgarity.

The escape was not only from the parents, but from Birmingham where they lived. Because this escape was a matter of geography, not confrontation, he remained always in thrall to his parents, while Birmingham, the citadel of naff, was ever waiting to re-engulf him.

Like Tennessee Williams, Chatwin was famous for his abrupt disappearances. Clapp writes that "He hated being shut in". Claustrophobia and agoraphobia are complementary states from which many writers suffer. The solution is often to become a traveller or a recluse, and to travel where you are not known combines both. This was Chatwin's strategy for survival; for fear of being shut in was fear of scrutiny, which was fear of exposure.

He often wrote beautifully, rarely deeply. His horror of self-revelation prevented that. Apparently, he could converse with animation, but the few quotations here are not more than amusing camp. On his status as a writer Clapp floats dangerously close to fag-hagiography. She is hyping from the first page, on which she asserts that the word "Chatwinesque" entered the language at the same time as "Thatcherite". Have you seen the word Chatwinesque before? I haven't. In fact, he reads not so much like a modern writer as a talented throwback to the early postwar world of Denton Welch and J R Ackerley, life-loving but careful and tortured in a very English way.

With Aids, Chatwin's life becomes tragic and contemporary. And no man did Aids suit less - not only was it seen as a grotesque badge of homosexuality, it was somehow "Birmingham" too. He never publicly admitted his condition, concocting a more exotic disease instead. But after his death a number of friends who thought they were close were upset to discover that he felt he couldn't trust even them with the truth. Shame over what one is, especially when sustained to the grave, produces a curious depression in others.

Chatwin was served well by his friends. He clearly had great charisma. As a writer, his effortless glide to centre-stage was adorable, as it always is in art. But in life, it is less so, and Chatwin may well have been among those who saw in Aids a humiliating nemesis for the golden boy. For the first time, he was a loser.

The memoir, like the life, mounts well, then suddenly fades to nothing and dies. The last chapter is weird rather than poignant, with a vivid evocation of Chatwin's residence at the Ritz, from which he went on wild shopping sprees round the West End by wheelchair.

But at the end, so many questions have been avoided. He died in the South of France. I know that his parents lived part of every year in a caravan down there - why are they not present at this climax? He is dying, of course, at Shirley Conran's house, not far from where they lived. And what did the wife think of her gay and posturing husband? Why did she marry him? Why does she say nothing? Why does Jasper Conran say nothing? Why do so few people want to stand up and be counted? Why are his papers at the Bodleian embargoed until 2010? How for that matter did he contract HIV?

In 1938 Cyril Connolly wrote that "It is no exaggeration to say that every English writer since Byron and Shelley has been hamstrung by respectability and been prevented by snobbery and moral cowardice from attaining his full dimensions...it is the difference between being a good fellow and growing up".

Hardy, Lawrence and Auden prove Connolly wrong. He nonetheless identified a huge problem area for English writers, which the life of Chatwin - and Susannah Clapp's rendition of it - prove is still with us.

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