In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

By Billen, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), April 9, 1999 | Go to article overview

In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin


Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


Bruce Chatwin spent his short writing career wriggling free from what he called the noose of travel writing. Yet he was excited by its pressure. A journey, he knew, was a tight metaphor for a long life's trek from birth, through middle age, to death - although Chatwin, who died from Aids at the age of 48, skipped his own final section. Nicholas Shakespeare's In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (BBC2, Easter Sunday and Monday) turned the proposition around. Chatwin's literary pilgrimages became the slides illustrating an enthralling lantern lecture on his life.

Chatwin recorded so many media appearances that he practically spoke the lecture himself. Part one opened with him telling a cruelly observed, death-mocking anecdote from The Songlines about a Doncaster woman explaining how she had emigrated to Sydney to be with her sons, only for all of them to die. As he read this passage, photographs of Chatwin floated in front of us, from jeunesse doree to skeletal dying man. "Ooh, but it is a lovely day," the Yorkshire woman finished, which was how Chatwin's story ended, too, with the camera following his brother and his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor to the Greek hillside on which his widow had, first, scattered his ashes and then had a picnic.

Shakespeare insisted any travel writer changes the landscape he passes through, and his director, Paul Yule, proved the point by recolouring the Patagonian mountain grass behind him a shade of blue. We soon discovered it was not merely landscapes that Chatwin retinted but people. The aboriginal expert Bill Phillips turned out to be called David Bridges; the schoolmaster's wife in In Patagonia was married to a professor; The Songlines' "Arkady Volchok" reemerged into the light as Toly Sawenko. I bristled at each of these rechristenings, for my slavish journalist's training had it that exaggeration improves a story only by dishonouring it first.

We expect, however, travellers' tales to grow during the long passage home - even when, as in the case of the film's visit to King Behanzin of Benin, who assured us he "no longer practise[s] human sacrifice in public", there was little need. What was more worrying was to discover that Chatwin's motives could be petty. Daphne Hobbs held up a picture of her father-in-law Ernest, vilified by Chatwin as an Indian-killer, and said this was an "absolute fabrication". …

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