The Best Barnet

Jeremy Harding

  • With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer by Susannah Clapp
    Cape, 246 pp, £15.99, January 1997, ISBN 0 224 03258 5

Susannah Clapp’s memoir of Bruce Chatwin has little in the way of hard-going and nothing of the comprehensive record that bloats a literary biography. It makes no claims about the relation between a writer’s life and work that weren’t already clear from Chatwin’s career, and tends to confirm that the real waywardness of this ur-traveller lay in his darting and musing and drifting intelligence: the long list of places visited, sights seen, hinterlands crossed can seem like a vulgar indiscretion by comparison – the mind, not the world, was Chatwin’s oyster. One of the strengths of this memoir is that it narrows the field: Susannah Clapp is not for traipsing round West Africa or Tibet, preferring to work the Chatwin itineraries elegantly and sparsely into what is very much a home-turf story, from Sheffield, to Birmingham, Wiltshire, London, Edinburgh, Gloucestershire, Wales and the Borders, with stints in Europe and the US thrown in.

The disadvantage, a big one, is that Chatwin at home, insofar as there was ever such a place, is a figure painfully confined by high society or, at least, by society standing on the tips of its toes: the very or the moderately eminent, the extremely rich and the rich enough, the bien and the assez bien élevé, the double-barrelled and the ex-directory; there is scarcely a crumb of drudgery, or banality, or even mere sufficiency on the floor of his cage. But an account of this handsome, clever man of solid, well-to-do middle-class provenance is also an account of the classy company he kept, and those who sought him out, and Susannah Clapp records a good deal of what they have to say.

Some of it is twaddle. Much comes in the form of little stories, vignettes like Chatwin’s, humorous and on occasion startling. The best of them are memorable. Michael Ignatieff watches Chatwin ‘like an old baboon’ under a mulberry tree in the south of France, having his hair combed by his wife. The ravenous Francis Wyndham and James Fox spoon up a pitifully notional soufflé made from wild strawberries which they have picked ‘all day’ at Chatwin’s insistence and which he has finicked down to an airy nothing. His host in Shropshire, Martin Wilkinson, recalls a local pub in which Chatwin, looking up ‘as a young farmhand came in steaming from his work in the fields, observed: “What an odalisque.” Bruce’s italics.’ George Melly is startled that Chatwin has never heard of the Muppets. Don McCullin, on a picture assignment for the Sunday Times magazine, rings at a grand house in Holland Park to find Chatwin standing behind the front door, ‘like Miss World’ – he looked, McCullin reckoned, as if he had ‘gone into a shop and said: “give me the best smile, the best eyes and the best barnet.” ’

The result of all this is some enjoyable reading and a rather stark contrast to the catalogue of remote landscapes nonchalantly acquired. On his travels, Chatwin was sometimes a chancer, sometimes a fop, so it’s not as if we didn’t know what to expect when the time came for memoirs and biographies. His travel writing, his reminiscence and his reportage are those of a brilliant boy who liked to pass the parcel, dumping exotic findings in your lap. They appeared to belong to nobody, and so did he. With Chatwin captures much of this in the man, and does so very skilfully. But it lets you know too clearly what and whose he is: a connoisseur’s connoisseur. For anyone who happened to like the books, it is not always easy to see him put in his place.

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