"I haven't got any special religion this morning. My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don't need any other god.” The line comes from Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, something he says in reply to a Baha’i missionary who asks him what religion he is.
Do you think Chatwin really said that at the time? Or did he just think it? Or did he think it much later and insert it in the book to show how deeply wise and spiritual he was? I don’t know, but my money’s on the last of these. I know what writers are like.
I've always felt there was something a bit rum about Bruce Chatwin. One of the rummest things: he was born in my home town, Sheffield, hard, rough, working class, steel city, but he and his parents didn’t stay long, and if he’d lived there and gone around dressed the way he is in that picture above he wouldn’t have lasted thirty seconds.
When I was writing my own “sort of” travel book titled Day Trips to the Desert (a book that would never have been commissioned if Chatwin hadn’t completely revitalized the British “travel writing genre”) I read Chatwin’s The Songlines as research before I went to Australia, and in due course visited some of the same places he did. They didn’t resemble his version in any meaningful way.
Right in the opening of the book he describes Alice Springs as “a grid of scorching streets where men in long white socks were forever getting in and out of Land Cruisers.” Well OK, Toyotas were ubiquitous in Australia at the time (and I imagine still are), but there were as many pickups and “Utes” as Land Cruisers, and yes some men in the Northern Territory really did (though I can’t tell you if they still do) wear long white socks with shorts – Barry Humphries mocked them pretty thoroughly back in the day. But Alice Springs wasn’t a “grid of scorching streets,” it really wasn’t. It was a very pleasant, and surprisingly green city, looking much like this:
I didn’t feel personally affronted by Chatwin’s improvisations. It’s what writers do. It wasn’t that I thought Chatwin was a fake, but I did find him a bit of a poser. It didn’t help that wherever he went he always found some spiritual soul brother, who inevitably found his theories of nomadism (or whatever else he had on his mind at the time) far more compelling than I ever did. It was also pretty annoying that regardless of which godforsaken airport in the middle nowhere he arrived at, there always seemed to be a car waiting, sent by his friend at the embassy or some flunky from the British Council.
It seems I was ahead of the curve in being annoyed by Chatwin. Rory Stewart (that's him above) writing in the NYRB blog (the piece is actually part of his introduction to a new edition of The Songlines) says, “It is difficult to believe today, as Chatwin’s contemporaries did, that he was simply an extraordinary man to whom extraordinary things happened. Perhaps critics couldn’t detect his inventions as easily, at the time of their publication, because in the last days of hippies on the overland trail, travels like Arkady’s in Asia, or Chatwin’s with nomads, were conventions of the time, which still seemed to have depth and vitality.” Well, only up to a point Rory, only up to a point.
He goes on, “Today, however, Chatwin’s fictions seem more transparent. We may not be too surprised to discover the journeys with nomads for which he “quit his job,” and which John Lanchester admired, were brief interludes in a period more accurately described as Chatwin getting married and becoming an undergraduate at Edinburgh University. And the passages, suffused with symbolic and literary resonances, that once seemed most impressive, no longer seem the most satisfying. His personality, his learning, his myths, and even his prose, are less hypnotizing.”
Which, of course, all depends on just how hypnotized you were in the first place. Stewart himself seems to have been utterly mesmerized. He quotes from his own notebook, “Most of human history was conducted through contacts, made at walking pace…the pilgrimages to Compostela in Spain…to the source of the Ganges, and wandering dervishes, sadhus, and friars, who approached God on foot. The Buddha meditated by walking, and Wordsworth composed sonnets while striding beside the Lakes. Bruce Chatwin concluded from all these things that we would think and live better, and be closer to our purpose as humans, if we moved continually on foot across the surface of the earth.”
This would apparently have been written in 1997 or so: Stewart would have been 24. It takes a brave or foolish man to quote from the notebooks he wrote when he was 24. There seem to be rather few pictures of Chatwin walking, though quite a few of Rory Stewart.
Chatwin’s good friend Paul Theroux seems to have found Chatwin pretty annoying at times too, and has written some lacerating stuff about Chatwin holding forth, claiming to have made certain journeys and scaled certain peaks that he couldn’t possibly have done. And yet, and yet …
In The Tao of Travel, wherein Theroux has some pretty sharp things to say about travelers who “fake” (or romanticize) their journeys, he also pays Chatwin a great and perhaps surprising compliment. He writes “Chatwin could seem at times frivolous … but without question he was an imaginative writer and one of the great walkers in travel literature.
“This is not plain in the text of In Patagonia, where a typical sentence is ‘I left the Rio Negro and went on south, to Port Madryn’ – a trek of two hundred miles, but he doesn’t say how he got there … He is an insubstantial presence in his books (‘I am not interested in the traveler’) … but in his letters home he was explicit. “dying of tiredness. Have just walked 150 odd miles,’ he wrote to his wife.
Sometimes a pose requires modesty rather than self-aggrandizement. Then again, certain men have been known occasionally to lie to their wives.