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.

The person who might well be thought to have a stake in Chatwin is Susannah Clapp. And, by all accounts, he is indebted to her for her work on his first book. In the mid-Seventies, she was an editor and reader at Cape – she later became one of the founders of this paper, where she worked for more than ten years – and reported, with some misgivings, on the manuscript that would become In Patagonia: ‘pages of outstanding prose’; ‘very much a page-by-page read’; ‘I don’t feel able to dismiss it’ but ‘I don’t think it’s on as it stands.’ She ends by recommending an ‘investigation of the author’s position’ – which is pretty much what she conducts, from the day Chatwin walked into her office at Cape in 1976 to his memorial service in 1989 at the Greek Cathedral in Moscow Road, West London. There is, of course, a long detour to browse the greater part of his life, before they met.

The story of a relationship between a successful writer and an editor can be told by either, but barring a falling out or churlishness, it will tend to favour the editor. And writers who are also editors, or vice versa, are ideally placed to become their own chaperones: whatever book they have worked on, in either capacity, is in some sense theirs to project and protect. (‘The soup kept hot. The writers wrote,’ Ford boasted of his frantic assistance with ‘The End of the Tether’ after an oil lamp burst over Conrad’s second instalment.) Susannah Clapp takes credit where it’s due and does so at length, but she stays perfectly within the bounds of propriety, and in any case, it’s not long before she and her writer are friends – which is a different relationship, requiring new sorts of delicacy. The communicating door between plain-speaking and disloyalty is ajar, but she stays firmly on one side and, after the second chapter, ‘Editing In Patagonia’, she can stand away from the story for more of the time. This gives her even greater latitude than you’d expect, for in binding Chatwin so thoroughly to a particular social world, with its fine interiors, charming people and crashing bores, she enjoys all the advantages of a retiring matchmaker; and having effected the union of the man and the milieu, she is free to observe both at her leisure, confident that her claim to either is overshadowed by the claims they now have on one another – ample claims, beside which the loyalty of a third party is neither here nor there. And so she can speak plainly, which she does, though never without affection.

When Chatwin and Clapp met to discuss the Patagonia manuscript, he was already very ‘Chatwinesque’, an adjective, she tells us, that came into existence ‘at about the time “Thatcherite” entered the English language’. It’s a term that described his work and his way of going about things, ‘what he was as well as what he wrote’. He brought her what he had written, in a haversack which also contained a copy of Blaise Cendrars and an edition of Sydney Smith’s letters. As he came into her room at Cape, ‘he was already talking.’ The manuscript was daunting.

It was huge and it didn’t have a clear sense of direction; it sprawled and on occasion it got stuck. The book, of course, was always intended to be made up of byways: it was meant to slope off, to jump backwards and forwards in time, to slip from description to speculation, from history to evocation. This was what Bruce was like in conversation – it was how his mind worked – and it also reflected some of the intricacies and peculiarities of the country he was examining.

Together, between their first and last meeting on the manuscript, they reduced it ‘by between a quarter and a third of the original’, although there was ‘very little to begin with’ that was clearly expendable (‘reaction shots of the author as sensitive traveller’; ‘mooning or moping or thrilling’). Chatwin ‘got as much pleasure from ejecting an adjective ... as he did from expelling an ornament from his flat’. What needed to be introduced were pointers, and they went in early.

The least colourful lines of the book were written at this stage: ‘I left the Río Negro and went on south to Port Madryn’; ‘Anselmo told me to go and see the poet’ ... These sentences served the purpose not only of explaining what was happening but also of pushing the story on: in a small but significant way, they helped to pace the book differently. But there was never any attempt to supply what had from the beginning been strikingly absent: a continuous commentary.

Some of the material excised from earlier versions reappeared in On the Black Hill, Chatwin’s first novel, in particular an account of two walks which drew heavily on Proust, a model that Clapp thought inappropriate. She didn’t want him quoting from the master, either: that would have been pretentious. Chatwin’s other models look very odd in the juxtaposing: he admired Hemingway and doted on Noël Coward. Clapp’s attempt to make sense of this is as forlorn as anyone’s would be: Coward’s ‘measured languour and tense, comic under-statement can be discerned in Chatwin’s prose, as, occasionally, can Hemingway’s gruffness.’

Of the two, the earlier affection was perhaps the greater. At Marlborough, Chatwin ‘took to crooning Noël Coward melodies and swathing himself in a silk dressing-gown’; at the age of 14, he played Mrs Candour in The School for Scandal. It was a success that any bona fide, no-quiche devotee of Hemingway could not have pulled off – ‘Chatwin’s Mrs Candour a personal triumph,’ ran the headline in the Wiltshire Herald and Advertiser. His school reports are amusing: ‘frank and responsive, full of good will’; ‘a little unpopular with the other boys, who regard him as rather boastful and self-important’; ‘I much admired his fighting spirit in the boxing’ (here too, perhaps, the dandy’s liking for a dressing-gown); ‘splendid work’ with the Combined Cadet Force. Chatwin may have been a butterfly but he was also something of a trooper, soldiering on towards the day he would make a name for himself. ‘It was his audacity that endeared him to those people,’ he wrote in a school essay on the Dutch painter, Kees Van Dongen and the celebrity-subjects of his portraits. Van Dongen, he wrote with admiration, ‘became richer and richer, and moved from studio to studio; everyone flocked to his parties.’

In Chatwin’s writing, landscape composition matters more than portraiture – a view is surprised, dressed and disposed, and set away again brusquely, or with a flourish, to give the impression of a place that was only ever itself, which is how he leaves it, as though nothing had stirred. It’s a handy skill for a travel writer, but there aren’t many who do it as well as Chatwin on a good day. In two superb chapters – both set in and around Sotheby’s – Clapp shows how the canvases were primed for these virtuoso studies. Chatwin joined the auction house in 1958 and in a very short time his schoolboy’s eye for a pretty antique had developed into a passable education in art history, a nose for a bargain and, apparently, a flair for Post-Impressionist and classical Modernist paintings. He went on to become the house’s first full-time Impressionist cataloguer. He was a charmer, who could be sent off to flatter wealthy owners – ‘You’d flirt with man, woman or dog,’ Howard Hodgkin told him – and he was thought to ‘have the eye’. At the newly-created Impressionist Department, he became what he called ‘an instant expert’, ‘flying here and there to pronounce, with unbelievable arrogance, on the value or authenticity of works of art. I particularly enjoyed telling people that their paintings were fake.’

Jostling 20th-century European works of a high standard may also have fired his interest in other kinds of composition, which have nothing to do with the naturalisation of artifice. His best moments at Sotheby’s, he recalled, were ‘1. A conversation with André Breton about the fruit machines in Reno. 2. The discovery of a wonderful Tahiti Gauguin in a crumbling Scottish castle. 3. An afternoon with Georges Braque, who, in a white leather jacket, a white tweed cap and a lilac chiffon scarf, allowed me to sit in his studio while he painted a flying bird.’ That self-conscious reduction to a few dazzling elements is typical of Chatwin’s affectation, and it was certainly a mannerism in the books, but only a fool or a hostile witness – Craig Raine appears to be one or the other – would preen himself for spotting the device and then go on to deny the purposes it served so well.

In Edinburgh, where Chatwin attempted a degree in archaeology after leaving Sotheby’s, the ‘metropolitan bustle’ that usually attends him, even in the shires, drops away a little. His professor, Stuart Piggott, became a friend and the pair set off on a morose excursion.

After years of teaching the archaeology of the North European Plain, Piggott had decided he should go there ... ‘I discovered that you can take a train from Ostend which will take you to Moscow. In fact, we didn’t go further than Warsaw on that train, but that was enough. We saw the North European Plain. I never want to see it again. Nor did Bruce.’

Piggott refused to let Chatwin shorten his course by a year; he left without a degree and turned away from ‘the dismal science’: ‘Archaeology is for the depressed.’

There is good material on his stint at the Sunday Times magazine under Francis Wyndham and an excavatory reading of On the Black Hill for its doublings, ‘twinnings and splittings’ – a theme taken up from an earlier passage on Chatwin’s troubled and condescending essay about Robert Louis Stevenson in the TLS, which Susannah Clapp calls ‘a complicated piece of self-examination and self-dislike’. Identification was a dangerous area for Chatwin. It became disastrous when he thought he saw a tendency which, whether he had it or not, he would rather people didn’t ascribe to him and which he then set out to attack in others: the tone becomes sour and reproachful, and the openness, the flirting and endless bricolage, the democratic enthusiasm for the half-baked are lost: Susannah Clapp records Alan Bennett’s difficulty with the not-quite-Mrs Candour mode in Chatwin, and it is evidently one she shares. On the Black Hill allowed for a more thoughtful investigation of likeness and distinction – and it was kinder than the TLS essay on hippies, freaks and longhairs.

Chatwin’s big subject was nomadism – big in itself and further monumentalised, in his mind, by his having conceived it as a writing project. The risks were enormous and the book he was commissioned to produce in the Seventies never came to anything. What we have instead is The Songlines, the last perambulation in remote places, in the hope of establishing ‘that nomads had been the crankhandle of history’. The failure of The Songlines to be most of the things that a conscientious editor would want is also a failure to foreclose the big project – the nomad business. When it tries to think about nomadism, less often than it promises, The Songlines does so in a fugitive way, coming at the subject on the run but peeling off before contact can be properly established. The kinship of the approach and the character, as Chatwin saw it, of the thing approached is clear: nomadism is a sublime form of elusiveness. It is also envisaged as a way of having everything by owning nothing. The superstition here is that ‘all “goods” ... would work against their possessors unless they were forever in motion’ and there is no doubt that a respectable book about nomadism would have involved Chatwin taking possession of this ideal good which he cherished at arm’s length, but never seemed to covet. That, however, is unthinkable. The result is that everything in the book starts to move. It becomes a work not about nomadism but about migration: objects migrate, people migrate, archaeology and origin begin to shift uneasily as strange ideas about man’s ancestry are floated. The book itself circles back to its accumulated sources, in the form of the author’s notebooks, from which extracts are pillaged, juxtaposed and rearranged in the manner of a collage or a long Modernist poem. The Songlines will not and cannot settle its materials.

In Susannah Clapp’s view, which is widely shared, this is the poorest of the books. Her arguments are persuasive. The expository sections, advancing one or another eccentric view, ‘are scattered with baggy expressions – “it can be argued”, “I have sometimes thought it possible to advance a theory”, “it would seem there exists” ’. The excerpts from the notebooks contain paragraphs ‘with more flab than he would have allowed in a finished piece of work’. The line ‘between Bruce being brilliant and Bruce being batty’ is thin, as he tries to argue that ‘the birthplace and true home of the human race is the savannah; that man’s repertoire of fighting skills arose ... to protect him from a giant cat who specialised in eating primates’.

The book is at times quite crazy, but it is mercifully unslick in the amount of baggage it carries and magnificent in its falling apart. Susannah Clapp is rightly suspicious of magnificence and she prefers to get Bruce Chatwin out of the mind, into the open, ‘doing what he did best – describing what he saw and heard about him, without feeling the need to summon a higher seriousness’. But Chatwin was forever in the mind. Even the greater part of The Songlines, where everything just about coheres, is strewn with notions, associations, fancies of the kind that could never lead from A to B and which make it hard to tell the physical itineraries from the imaginary ones.

Here, more than anywhere, With Chatwin points up the difference between the temperament of a professional editor and that of an engaged reader. It is the difference between In Patagonia and The Songlines, the first with its pert presentability (‘his showcase and his début’), the second with its ungainly character, its silly politics, its fabulous incapacity to stage-manage itself or to perform like a nice instance of a nice genre, as structure and narrative go to pieces (‘never put together again in an entirely satisfactory way’). In Patagonia is a bit of a Miss World; The Songlines is a book you can love. As time goes on, both will need defending, although the grander and more ravaged of the two will not need a lesson in growing old gracefully.