VINTAGE GEMS Nicholas Murray

NWR Issue 40

Trouble in Chatwin Country

Perhaps we can date it to the afternoon of 14 February 1989. Most of London's prominent literati had arrived at the Greek Cathedral of Saint Sophia in Moscow Road in West London for the memorial service of Bruce Chatwin who had died the previous month at the height of his fame. Amongst the audience was Salman Rushdie, who less than two hours earlier had learned of the Iranian fatwa pronounced upon him. Like everything else in Chatwin's life the service was not ordinary. There were even those who thought it a little camp. Martin Amis called the bafflingly arcane rite "Bruce's last joke on his friends". Describing the occasion in her lively and engaging memoir, With Chatwin, his friend and first editor Susannah Clapp wrote sagely about the various things that were not said on this occasion: "no-one warned that the praise he was lucky enough to get in his lifetime would be paid for later in years of journalistic cutting-down-to-size".

Notoriously, writers' reputations plunge in the immediate aftermath of their death. Cult status might come later but the knowledge that nothing new is going to come (though the posthumous canon-making of Chatwin has been diligently pursued by Jonathan Cape) begins a process of slow marginalisation as today's literary star becomes yesterday's news. In the case of Chatwin, the glamour and the mystery of his personal life meant that his reputation was always riding for a fall. The spectacle of those metropolitan literary journalists who once praised Chatwin to the skies turning on him to sneer at his pretension, his preciousness, his mannered pose, is not an attractive one.

That Chatwin was considered in his lifetime as rather special is clear enough. I live in the Welsh border country that formed the background to his 1981 novel On the Black Hill. I still meet people here who marvel at the impact of that book, which became something of an instant cult both with the 1970s wave of middle-class, faintly arty, faintly sixties, in-migrants to the cottages and barns of Mid Wales and with the indigenous population. A former Builth Wells bookseller recalled for me his astonishment at the flow into his shop of farmers who had never bought a hardback novel in their lives but who were keen to buy this fabled work. Sightings of Chatwin are claimed by dozens, at candlelit dinner parties under the exposed beams, but, as I found out when I wrote my little book on Chatwin in 1993, reliable and concrete accounts of what Chatwin might have done or said are remarkably hard to come by in the Welsh Marches.

Why, therefore, has there been, throughout the nineties, such a passion for denigrating Chatwin? In part it is no more than an inevitable reaction to the excess of praise, a coming down to earth. But there are other elements. When my book was published in March 1993 a small item appeared in the Evening Standard's "Londoner's Diary" suggesting that I had written the book in defiance of the London literary mafia ("Chatwin book trumps the fashion set"). But it was a very special sort of mafia that the right-wing Standard had in its sights. The paper had worked out that Chatwin was not a fan of Mrs Thatcher (he claimed, with whatever degree of plausibility, to have voted Labour) and some of his chums in the literary world, like George Melly, were on the left. The anti-intellectualism that is never far from the surface in British culture often consorts with a hatred of lefties and this was just the sort of brew that this witless newspaper loves to serve up.

There was a small grain of truth to the allegation that I had been snubbed. The rather haughty agent to the Chatwin estate had been rather rude to me and several of Chatwin's friends had been instructed not to speak to "the unknown Welshman" [who in fact was an unknown Scouser]. I had a long handwritten letter from George Melly explaining reluctantly that he had promised his thoughts to the official biographer Nicholas Shakespeare (whose life will not appear for at least another year or two) and to Susannah Clapp. In the event, Chatwin's widow read my book in proof, approved it and later told the Standard: "I was a little wary at first. But it is quite a nice book and he appears to have done his homework". The so-called "Chatwin mafia" – such as Clapp and Redmond O'Hanlon, both literary executors – have been very amiable and kind to me ever since and that really should have been the end of it.

But a week later, the Standard returned to battle. In what purported to be a review of my book, Rory Knight Bruce (the anonymous author of the diary piece) launched into another attack on the Chatwin set under the headline "Mincing with the Mafia". It was an unpleasant, spiteful piece that accused the fashionable literati of protecting the writer by hiding the harsh truth that he was "a casual cottager who died at 48 of Aids". A couple of my discoveries about the shaky basis in fact of one or two famous Chatwin stories (ironically the result of an attempt – I was a professional journalist after all – to make them stand up) were roped in to boost the argument against "the polo-necked thinkers of Notting Hill, who browse through the Welsh antique shops on their way to spend the weekend in Chatwinshire with the Mellys, or look for Salman Rushdie". Where the Standard first treads, The Sunday Times follows and not long after this I was rung up by a young Murdoch journalist who spent a very long time indeed on the phone with me trying to ferret out more dirt on this pale pink mafia. In a revealing clue to the agenda-driven news values of The Sunday Times he said that he was sure that there was "more to come out" (an unfortunate locution in the circumstances). He never succeeded in exposing this left-wing arty conspiracy but soon the sniping against Chatwin would start to come from another quarter.

At that stage the New Statesman could primly censure me for "peevishness" in questioning in passing one or two Chatwin myths and gush embarrassingly about this "rare and wonderful" being who was praised as offering deliverance from the non-metropolitan literature of social or political realism. "A myth is unfolding before our eyes," wrote the Statesman reviewer solemnly, "a Byronic, Rimbaudian myth whose final significance we can only guess at". This may be seen as the last gasp of innocent Chatwinmania, for, elsewhere, the knives were being sharpened.

First off the starting blocks was Paul Theroux who wrote about his old friend in Granta in the summer of 1993 as "never more Chatwinesque than when he was yielding to his conceit". Here was someone who made false claims (about having been a mountaineer), who was a “part-time bore” who couldn't listen to anything except the sound of his own voice, and who was secretive and aloof. The envy of a fellow travel writer who hadn't managed to achieve the literary glamour of his dazzling pal? Possibly, but the publication of a collection of Chatwin's photographs and selections from his notebooks in that same summer gave further opportunity to reviewers like John Ryle in the Independent on Sunday to start to chip away at the Chatwin legend. Ryle recently told me that he has lost patience with what he alls "the nay-sayers" and truly values Chatwin as a writer but he was one of the first to complain of Chatwin's "mannered style...self-conscious, precise to the point of preciosity".

The very fact that Chatwin took photographs at all became another Chatwinian marvel. In a hilarious moment at the Hay on Wye Festival in 1993 the matter came up and all the literati present, including his publisher Tom Maschler and Redmond O'Hanlon, murmured their awed surprise at this latest manifestation of Bruce's multifaceted genius. Colin Thubron's tentative observation that Chatwin had always taken photographs and had once talked to him about taking it up professionally was passed over quickly in silence. Had these people not read In Patagonia fifteen years earlier with its memorable photographic plates?

It was now open season on Chatwin and in Planet the following year Bruce Clunies-Ross characterised the books as "largely made up of flashy exaggerations, misconceptions, half-truths (if not actual lies) and idle speculations". There was to be a lot more of this and as new books of Chatwin's miscellanea began to appear – the photographs followed by The Anatomy of Restlessness in 1996 – the familiar litany of complaints was chanted. Chatwin was precious, phoney, self-aggrandising, camp, a snob. Most if not all the reviews were variations on this theme. But very few of them were genuinely critical in an analytical sense. Nearly ten years after Chatwin's death all we have, mostly, is gossip and personalised evaluation. Nothing like a critical tradition has emerged although, four years after my own, the appearance of a new book by Patrick Meaner of the State University of New York at Oneonta, and the first international conference on Chatwin in Turin in December 1997 where I was invited to give a paper, may mark the beginnings of a more serious, more thoughtful, less partial way of looking at Chatwin.

The publication of Susannah Clapp's With Chatwin last year was the occasion of another outburst. I contacted two London literary editors I know, offering to review it, but was turned down because they both had already lined up people to do demolition jobs. The "peevish" puncturer of some early Chatwin myths was now unforgivably partial. The reviews of With Chatwin were entirely predictable. The New Statesman had now joined the passionate detractors and its reviewer inveighed against a writer "obsessed with surface and effect; a creature of artifice embodying the auction-house-and-magazine 'culture' of consumption, possession and, above all, artistic imperialism". Sounds like a description of what most British "quality" newspapers and magazines now serve up as a matter of course to their readers. A lone voice in the Observer, that of Fiona McCarthy, wailed: "Susannah Clapp's brief memoir of Bruce Chatwin was published last week, and the knives are out already. What is it about Bruce Chatwin that arouses such hostility?"

The next Chatwin publishing event (unless Cape has found some more bits at the bottom of the barrel) will be Nicholas Shakespeare's biography. In a sense it will appear about five years too late, at a time when the Chatwin bandwagon has run into the sand. But one compensation for the fickle abandonment of their former darling by the metropolitan set who crowded into Saint Sophia a decade ago is that he may become disentangled from all that fashionable pother and be seen again for what he is: one of the most original and distinctive figures to have emerged in British writing in the 1970s and 1980s. My colleagues on the panel at Turin were rightly sceptical about Chatwin's ability to sound sufficient depths to create the big "Russian novel" he said he was contemplating at his death. Charming as On the Black Hill is, he was not, I think, a great novelist (though Utz is an exquisite miniature). But what Colin Thubron at Hay called his "quick-silver mind", his bright seductive prose and his passionate interest in ideas and art and the brilliant surfaces of the world will always find him genuine readers.


previous vintage gems: A Turbulent Priest
next vintage gems: Black Welsh Identity: The Unspeakable Speaks


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