Writeabout

John Bayley

  • The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin
    Cape, 293 pp, £10.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 224 02452 3

The well-known speech in Dryden’s play Aurungzebe beginning, ‘When I consider life, ’tis all a cheat,’ has the emperor gloomily observing that we still expect from the last dregs of life ‘what the first sprightly running could not give’. The empress, however, takes a different line: keeping going is what matters.

Each day’s a mistress, unenjoyed before:
Like travellers, we’re pleased with seeing more.

The metaphors are instructive, contrasting as they do the disillusion of the sedentary, who wait in one place for what life may bring them, and the instinct of the migrant to get somewhere, anywhere, on his own feet.

Bruce Chatwin’s latest book is about the idea of being a nomad. From his experiences in Australia he builds a case for fairly aimless wandering about, over large distances, as the way of existing most suited to human consciousness. Travelling of this sort, once a necessity for food-gathering, can now only be done very artificially, when it constitutes a way of life summed up at the end of Philip Larkin’s sardonic poem as ‘reprehensibly perfect’. The natural thing today is to travel as if sitting in a room, an aeroplane or a car. Instant arrival leaves us sitting in another room, waiting for more drops, sprightly or otherwise, from the state’s life-expectation machine. That may be a cheat, but at least it seems to most of us the natural cheat. It takes care of our restlessness no more but no less effectively than migration on foot would do.

Although as an artist he is a black pessimist about the nature of existence, Bruce Chatwin would probably not agree. Like the Empress Nourmahal, he has always been in favour of pressing onward, even though it gives him little pleasure. Larkin himself would have approved his passively meticulous sense of place, and indeed Larkin was a passionate admirer of his three earlier books, particularly In Patagonia. It is a travel book like no other, by far the most interesting recent example of the genre. Its writing reverses our expectations, setting us down at the end of an outlandish continent in a place which seems stalely familiar, but that is no doubt the proper reward of travel, and to the true traveller – still more to his reader – it can be made a satisfying one. Just as compulsively memorable, or more so, this book takes us to the Australian Outback, the central and northern territories. They are, of course, awful – like a lay-by on Western Avenue frequented by gypsies and tinkers.

But Chatwin’s notion was to get to know the lore of the ‘songlines’ or ‘dreaming-tracks’ which run invisibly all over Australia, and which the Aborigines used and use in their endless wanderings-about. These rather sloppy-sounding phrases are presumably renderings from an Aboriginal language, which saw the recognition tracks as bound up with tribal and personal identity, a repetitiveness of the sacred, a way of feeling in past and present, of being both dead and alive. They also involved a complex system of land tenure, based, not on blocks of tribal or personal property, but on an interlocking network of ‘ways through’. What the white men saw as the meaningless habit of ‘Walkabout’ was a kind of bush-telegraph stock-exchange, spreading news of commodities and availability among peoples who never saw each other, and might even be unaware of each other’s existence. Since goods were potentially malign, they would work against their possessors unless they were kept in perpetual motion. Nor did they have to be edible, or useful: people liked to circulate useless things, like their own dried umbilical cords, or a shell that might have travelled from hand to hand from the Timor Sea to the Bight.

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