The dandy goes camping

ANATOMY OF RESTLESSNESS: Uncollected Writings by Bruce Chatwin eds Jan Borm & Matthew Graves Cape pounds 15.99

Blake Morrison
Saturday 27 July 1996 23:02

Writers wishing to apply for romantic-legend status have a choice: either they start early and die young; or they must come to writing late, almost by chance, as a second career. Bruce Chatwin was unusual in choosing neither road, or rather both. He died much too soon, at 48, yet he also made a late debut, at 37, spending much of his teens and twenties as a valuer for Sotheby's before deciding that "telling stories was the only conceivable occupation for a superfluous person such as myself". The five books he published during his lifetime - works of fiction, travel writing and autobiography, sometimes all at once - were crammed into a mere decade. He was both Sonnenkind and Latecomer. He'd hardly got going and then he was gone.

The editors of Anatomy of Restlessness want to demolish some of the cultish mythology surrounding Chatwin, and present him as a Steady Developer. The pieces they have collected show, they say, that "from the late 1960s onwards, [he] was already fashioning the tools of his future trade in the columns of a variety of magazines and journals". No doubt there'll be more to discover about what, when, why and how exactly Chatwin began writing once Susannah Clapp's personal memoir of him, and Nicholas Shakespeare's comprehensive biography, see the light of day. In the meantime, we have these bits and bobs.

How rewarding are they? Not very. Much of the more interesting material - about Chatwin's childhood, for example - has already appeared, slightly reworked, in books such as The Songlines. The four stories are slight. The four book reviews, which include accounts of Stevenson, Thesiger and Konrad Lorenz, suggest Chatwin had little instinct for literary criticism. Even the travel pieces are lightweight by his standards, though some readers may appreciate the nuggets of practical advice ("Never throw stones at dogs in Timbuctoo").

But somehow, between the lines, a story develops, the story of a man having an argument with himself about the right way to live: whether to travel lightly or put down roots. Chatwin's family, he tells us, was divided between exotic adventurers and solid burghers. He identified with the former: an addict of atlases and of an anthology called The Open Road, he began his first story, at six, with the sentence: "I am a swallow." Even when he worked for Sotheby's and, later, for the Sunday Times, he had a habit of swooping off without notice. He once sent a telegram to his office: "Have gone to Patagonia."

Long before the book that came out of that trip, In Patagonia, he'd been planning a study of nomads: The Nomadic Alternative, he wanted to call it, though a Vogue article he wrote had a better title, "It's a nomad nomad nomad nomad world". His proposal for the book, in a letter to Tom Maschler of Cape, is reproduced here, and sets out the questions he wanted to ask: "Why do men wander rather than sit still? ... What is this neurotic restlessness, the gadfly that tormented the Greeks?"

The book, needless to say, wasn't completed: Chatwin wasn't able to sit still long enough to write it. Perhaps it's just as well, since the outline looks more turgid than any of the books he went on to write instead. Those books are the stronger for recognising that his fascination with nomads wasn't just academic but part of a profound trait - an horreur du domicile - in himself.

Time and again, Chatwin argues that the itinerant way of life is the natural one: that settlement and civilisation are a passing phase; that American scientists have proved, through encephalograph readings, that changes of scenery stimulate the brain, whereas routine dulls it. Political activism, he says, is a surrogate form of travel. Drugs, too, "are vehicles for people who have forgotten how to walk". Desperate for self-vindication, he pushes these arguments to sentimental extremes - claiming that, because their mothers are perpetually on the move, the "golden- brown babies of the Kalahari bushmen hunters never cry", and even suggesting, in an image that might please Eric Cantona, that footballers are pilgrims: "The ball they boot symbolises a migrant bird."

If Chatwin overstates the case for nomadism, it's because he also feels a homing instinct which he's reluctant to acknowledge. Exquisite as well as explorer, homemaker as well as iconoclast, he liked to surround himself with beautiful things. One essay dandyishly describes the "two towers in my life", both medieval, one in Wales and one in Tuscany. Another piece, "A Place to Hang Your Hat", pays tribute to the man who designed his London flat, and drools campily over a French sofa at Christie's ("Obviously such an object should be upholstered in blue silk damask with gold Napoleonic bees").

Like the eponymous hero of his novel Utz, Chatwin loves thinginess - the touch, the textures, the sheer expense: "boots of canvas and rawhide elk and a hubertsmantel of light grey loden cloth"; "a small collection of Japanese negoro lacquers, which once belonged to a German called Ernst Grosse". His prose is sometimes little more than an inventory. Even travel gear - the stuff you need to flee the world of bourgeois possessions - inspires fetishistic adoration: "the lightest imaginable rucksack, stitched from strips of seal bladder and lashed to a frame of laminated birch".

On the evidence here, Chatwin's manic collecting sprang from the same source as his restlessness: a need to escape loneliness, and himself. But whereas travel acted like adrenalin, collecting made him feel mean and guilty. His last essay here is a pained reflection on the morality, and immorality, of possessions. He analyses the psychological sources of the urge to collect: voyeurism, coldness, maternal deprivation. He describes how people give things to exert power over others. And he tells the story of an Englishman, a travelling salesman, whose only possession, kept in a safe in London, was a tin box containing photographs, trinkets and family mementoes. Four times a year he'd spend the night with his box, and each time he added something to it he'd throw something else away. Chatwin describes him as "the only man I have ever met who solved the tricky equation between things and freedom".

Chatwin himself was beginning to solve that equation when he died. He was lucky in his home, his possessions, and his friends, yet he also enjoyed the freedom - not least the intellectual freedom - without which a book like The Songlines would never have been written. To those who supported him, and the readers who turned him into a cult, he was generous in return. This book isn't much of a gift, by his standards. It's precious in bad ways as well as good. But its flashes of brilliance are a cruel reminder of how much more Chatwin, given longer, might have done.

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