Tag Archives: Bruce Chatwin

On the trail of Patrick Leigh Fermor in Greece

This is a little bit toe-curling but as I always say we place all things Paddy related here …  for the record!

Ahead of a new Patrick Leigh Fermor biography, Kevin Rushby visits the Mani peninsula, home of the great man and unsung resting place of another British travel writing giant, Bruce Chatwin.

By Kevin Rushby

First published in the Guardian 28 September 2012.

Kardamyli, on Greece’s Mani peninsula, was home to Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Old Mr Fotis turned my question over in his mind while sipping his morning coffee. Below the veranda some youths had been playing noisily on the harbour wall, but now they all dived into the turquoise sea and set off on the long swim to the rocky island in the bay. It had a fragment of crenellated wall on top of it, the ruins of a Venetian fortress. Fotis watched them go, half-smiling.

“We do seem to attract a lot of writers,” said the old man eventually. “But that’s a name I don’t remember.”

“Bruce Chatwin, Baroose Chit-win, Chaatwing.” I tried a few variations but none struck a chord. “His ashes are scattered somewhere in the hills.”

“No, I never heard of him.”

“What about Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor? You must know about him.”

I’d first heard of Kardamyli because of Leigh Fermor, who had made the place his home. I’d always hoped we might meet, but then the grand old man of British travel writing had died in June 2011 (leaving the literary world praying that he had finished the final volume of his Time of Gifts trilogy). I’d come to the Mani on a sort of literary homage, hoping to find a little of the magic that had attracted first Leigh Fermor and later Chatwin.

The old man shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. There was a writer called Robert. Now he was famous – cured himself of cancer by walking around Crete. [Former South Africa cricketer Bob Crisp wrote of his walk around Crete in the 1970s.] He was very famous.”

This felt all wrong. Was I in the right place? How annoying that the locals should raise this unknown above the two giants of travel literature.

Fotis leaned back and shouted in Greek to his wife in the kitchen. She came through, cloth in hand. “Robert Crisp,” she said, smiling. “What a wonderful man! So handsome! I remember him sitting up at Dioskouri’s taverna drinking and talking with Paddy. They were always laughing.”

My ears pricked up. Fotis’s face underwent a transformation. “Ah Paddy! That is him – your English writer. Of course, Paddy – or Michali we called him. Yes, Paddy was here for years and years. When I was young we used to say he was a British spy and had a tunnel going out to sea where submarines would come.”

It didn’t surprise me. Leigh Fermor had been, by all accounts, extremely old school, endlessly curious and an accomplished linguist – all well-known attributes of British spies. He produced a clutch of good books and two classics of the genre, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, detailing his journey as an 18-year-old on foot to Constantinople.

“Did you see a lot of him?” I asked.

Fotis shrugged. “Sometimes. He liked to walk a lot. Now Robert Crisp – I used to see him. What a character!”

“Is Paddy’s house still empty?” I persisted. “I heard it was now a museum.”

Fotis shook his head. “No, no. He left it to the Benaki Museum in Athens (benaki.gr) and they’re supposed to turn it into a writers’ centre. My guess is nothing will happen for a while.”

I could hardly complain about Greek tardiness: Leigh Fermor himself had taken 78 years over his trilogy, and even then no one seemed very sure if he had completed the task. There was, I decided, only one way to get close to the spirit of these colossi of travel-writing: to walk.

“Which paths did Paddy like best?”

Fotis fetched a map and gave me directions. It was already hot when I left him on his veranda. I could see the youths lazing on the harbour wall again, tired by their long swim. Was this really the time of year for walking?

I headed through the ruined village, as instructed, and found a narrow steep path rising up the hillside. Before too long I came across the stone tomb that locals say is the grave of Castor and Pollux, heavenly twins and brothers to Helen of Troy. Kardamyli is mentioned in Homer’s Iliad as one of the seven towns that Agamemnon gave to Achilles.

Sweat was pouring off me now, but I kept going. Scents of thyme and sage rose from the undergrowth. Fotis had said there were lots of snakes up here, but I didn’t see any. The views of the bay below, however, were becoming more and more magnificent.

The Mani is the middle finger of the three-pronged southern Peloponnese, a 40-mile long skeletal digit that was almost inaccessible, except by sea, until recently. When Leigh Fermor first came here in 1951, it was by a marathon mountain hike across the Taygetus range, whose slopes seem always to be either burned dry by summer sun, or weighted with winter snow.

Tower in the Taygetus mountains. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

The people here were different. For a start they had turned vengeance into a lifelong passion, building war towers to threaten their neighbours and generally making life on a stony mountain even grimmer than it needed to be and clinging to weird atavistic beliefs. No wonder that in the 1950s most of the younger people abandoned it for places not as badly infested with saltwater ghouls and blood-sucking phantoms – Melbourne and Tottenham were particularly popular.

Fotis himself had been one of them, settling in Australia for many years before coming home and opening a hotel. Nowadays some parts of the Mani are thick with holiday homes and development, but Kardamyli remains delightfully quiet and understated, the sort of Greek village where old widows in black sit out every morning watching the world go by.

Having reached a good height on the mountain I started to follow the contours, dipping in and out of the shade of walnut trees and cypress, drinking clear cold water from a spring. Further on I came to the village of Proastio, where Fotis had told me there was a church for every family, the ancestors having been sailors, and very superstitious. At the gorgeous little basilica of Agios Nikolaos in the main street I got the priest to come and unlock the door, revealing a gallery of perfect 17th-century Byzantine murals.

Byzantine murals in Proastio church. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

I tried the name Chatwin on him, and wondered how to mime death, cremation and scattering of ashes. But the Orthodox Church does not approve of cremation and his face told me I would not get far.

Returning to Kardamyli by a steep cobbled donkey trail, a kalderimi, I passed Fotis’s veranda once again.

“Who was that writer?” he called. “My wife thinks she knows.”

Anna came out. “Paddy himself scattered the ashes of a writer friend of his, up in Exochori.”

That was where I had just been walking, only higher. Next morning I started much earlier and with a water bottle. Fotis was already up and about when I passed his house.

“Exochori is my home village,” he said. “But what you see now is just old people up there. The old Maniati culture is gone. We used to grow silkworms and our mothers made all our underclothes from it. Can you believe it? We were peasants in the most remote part of Europe, but we wore silk.”

He tried to give me directions to the church, but it got so confusing that I just pretended to understand and resolved to ask along the way. As it happened, this was a useless strategy since the few old people I bumped into spoke no English, and my phrasebook was inexplicably silent on the important line, “Where are scattered the remains of the travel writer?”

In the end I came across a small white-washed shrine with a view of the sea. There was just room to enter, and inside a votive candle burned on a tray with some fresh flowers. A white dog appeared. I elected to call it the Chatwin Church. After a few minutes of contemplation I set off again, southwards past one of the war towers, a gorgeous forest monastery and finally the unspoilt hamlet of Castania, where the taverna owner marched me into the kitchen, pointed out the various dishes and then served a vast quantity of delicious food with a jug of rough wine. It took several strong coffees to get me moving again for the long tramp home.

Back in Kardamyli late that afternoon, Fotis was keen to hear of my walk, but he scoffed at my description of the Chatwin Church. “No, no! That is not it. Come on – I’ll take you there.”

“I’m a bit tired.”

“Good God, we’re not walking! In my car.”

Soon we were on a longer, twisting route. Fotis pointed out landmarks and patches of land that his family owned. I asked about his ancestors.

“The Mani was always where people came to hide,” he said. “Our family are said to have arrived when Byzantium fell to the Ottomans in 1453.”

“They came from Constantinople?”

He nodded. “Our family tradition is that we were clowns for the Byzantine emperor.” He smiled. “But I’ve no idea if that is true.”

He slowed the car down. “Look. This is where you turn off the main road, between the school and the cemetery.”

We pulled up in the shade of two pine trees then set off walking. We picked our way through some old stone houses, their walls overgrown with vines, their shutters closed.

“Holiday homes now,” said Fotis. “Exochori people working in Athens.”

Sunset above Kardamyli. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

Then we were on a grassy rill of land and I could see the church, a tiny Byzantine basilica, its rough stone walls and ancient pantiles crusted with lichens. Laid out before it was a wonderful tranquil panorama of the sea, its surface smooth as a sheet of silk. It was obvious why a traveller would want to come to rest here, overlooking the sea Homer’s heroes had sailed.

I stood there for a long time. Fotis was searching for the key to the church, normally left in a crack or niche, but there was no sign of it and we gave up. Back in the car, I asked Fotis to point out the house of Paddy Leigh Fermor and glimpsed a low pantiled roof almost submerged in trees on a crag next to the sea.

“Is there no way to see it?”

He shrugged. “It’s all shut up.”

“Is there a beach?”

“Yes – a tiny one.”

I memorised the spot. When Leigh Fermor came to the Mani he did some impressive wild swimming. To honour his adventurous spirit I felt I should swim around to his house and take a look. So next morning, before the heat of day, I entered the sea by the harbour and swam south down the rocky coast hunting for that tiny beach. I swam for what seemed a long time and had given up and turned back when I saw it: a little shingly beach with a single-storey house above. I swam closer until I could stand in the water.

It was a lovely place: deep verandas and stone walls under a pantile roof. Mosaics of pebbles had been made on a flight of steps. I called out but got no answer. The house was shuttered and quiet as though still in mourning. I waded up the beach and sat at the foot of the pebble path. I could see a colonnade with rooms off it, then a larger living room.

I thought of the years that Leigh Fermor had spent here: by all accounts he was a great host and storyteller. When I’d asked one old lady in the village if she had read any of his books, she’d laughed, “Why would any of us read his books? He told us all the stories himself!”

The last story had been that third volume of his epic walk across Europe, but he had never finished it, perhaps never would have. And now a great peace had descended on the place, a peace I didn’t want to disturb. I walked back down to the water and swam out into the bay. Without thinking, I found myself heading for the island of Meropi, the one that those youths had swum to. I would explore the ruins of that Venetian castle.

Order Paddy’s biographyPatrick Leigh Fermor:An Adventure by Artemis Cooper here.

Related article:

Chatwin and Paddy: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

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John Chapman at Kardamyli

 

John Chapman is a regular contributor of material to the blog – you are all welcome to do so at any time; see Contact. Most notably John’s photographs of a visit to Kardamyli to meet Paddy in 2005 have been very popular with you all.

A while back he sent me some more photographs with some comments about the state of the villa at Kardamyli, and John’s personal thoughts about one of Paddy’s friends who died in May 2012.

 

Hi Tom

In May this year I made a return trip to Kardamili and Mani. I hadn’t been there for four years and this was just a week long catch up. Mani is still as effortlessly beautiful and tantalisingly fascinating as ever. One location I always visit is the church of St. Nicholas in Chora, where Paddy scattered Bruce Chatwin’s ashes in 1989. Still a remarkably special place.

At Paddy’s Memorial service in December I’d been sitting quietly in a pew as I could recognise some of the great and good but was not expecting anyone I knew to be there. I was suddenly clapped on the shoulder by a firm hand and an American accent bellowed ‘Well how you doing buddy?’ It was my old friend and correspondent Jon van Leuven. We had started writing to one another some 12 years earlier as we both were fascinated by the conundrum of the location of the Frankish castle of Grand Magne and various other puzzles in Mani’s medieval history. We’d since met on a number of occasions exploring cave churches near Langada and getting hideously lost in the Sangias Mountains in Mesa Mani.

With Jon was another Englishman, we were introduced but, I apologise, I’m useless with names. He had been attempting to catalogue Paddy’s books and papers. I asked if he knew what the Benaki Foundation intended to do with the house at Kalamitsi. “I’ve no idea”, was the reply,”…and I doubt if they do either”.

After the service Jon and I said our farewells. Jon was a long time friend of Paddy’s. He long had a house at the hamlet of Gournitsa (a Slavic name, lit. ‘the place above’) though nowadays often referred to as Agia Sofia, after the pepper-pot domed church which perches over Kardamili. The house itself had few comforts, Jon was adamant that he wasn’t go to pay any ‘damned taxes’ for electricity. But it was comfortable and clinging to the cliff top edge of the Viros Gorge it was a precious eyrie where Jon would stay from June to September, although his family and home were now in Gothenburg, Sweden.

I told Jon I was going to Mani and he asked me to give his house a quick look to see if all was OK. I replied I would. He emailed me on the 8 April.

‘Glad to hear you can get get up to Gour and give the hacienda a glance. Also in town I hope you hear what’s going on at Paddy’s villa these days – if you know Elpida the housekeeper she’d know better than anybody’.

I don’t know Elpida and anyway by the time I got to his Hacienda in Gournitsa I’d been given the sad news that Jon had died of complications of leukaemia. I’d known he was ill but had presumed he was indestructible. He could certainly outpace me on expeditions in Mani and was at least ten years my senior – I guess in his early seventies. On the 17 April he’d sent me his last of hundreds of emails. I might just publish them sometime…I’d asked if he’d ever met Bruce Chatwin, I was reading Chatwin’s letters.

The email was entitled ‘Drip Feeding’

“Hi John,

Just a note between hospital visits…but thanks for your epistles as ever. No, I never met Chatwin, but I once met Elizabeth at Paddy’s, and of course again in London in Dec tho she didn’t recognize me (nor I her but for Olivia’s tipoff)…Now I am taking a long pause from the airwaves to suck my thumb and medicine.

Best, Jon”

He died on the 2 May 2012

Jon was very wary of telling much about Paddy, he was a very private man and felt that there were too many people trying to grab a bit of Paddy’s aura. I was undoubtedly one of them in his judgement, so I didn’t pry and he didn’t tell., and frankly we had enough Mani stuff to keep us going for years. I did learn that Jon had first met Paddy as he was interested in ancient shrines to Artemis in the area, and had hoped (vainly) that Paddy could assist his researches. Jon helped Paddy construct the bookshelves in ‘that room’. He located picnics he had shared with Paddy and Joan, and, on very rare occasions, entrusted me with Paddy’s opinions on other ‘travel writers’. On one occasion when I briefly met Paddy striding towards Lela’s Taverna I mentioned Jon was a friend of mine. Paddy beamed and confirmed he was a very old and trusted friend, but Joan was very ill at the time and Paddy hurried on.

One evening this May we wandered down to Kalamitsi. It’s still filling up with more villas and concrete but somehow manages to remain beautiful. And on the cliffs stretching along the road to Proastio high above Kalamitsi more excrescences of domestic concrete demonstrated more concern for their owners’ views of the Gulf of Messenia than those below looking up. I delight in a domed church on a promontory (and Kardamili has three), but hate to imagine John Betjeman’s reaction to these lumpen edifices.

However Paddy’s villa is still a discrete surprise when you do chance upon it. The north wall of the garden has fallen down and we could have wandered the gardens, but resisted, though we’d been before and had had Paddy as a guide. A peer through the small window in the gates of the villa show that someone is tending the garden. Though there is a sad lack of flasks of retsina in the vestibule. The ‘Private Property’ sign has gone, maybe from neglect. Above the gateway there is a small stone hut. It was unlocked, so we guiltily crept in. A broken armchair, an old bed and some damp volumes which had obviously over spilt from the villa were on some shelves and in boxes. Hungarian Studies magazines, a history of Canterbury Cathedral, and a few gems. An offprint from a dictionary. In pencil at the top ‘In great appreciation Christmas 1958, New Year 1959 Eric Partridge.’ Naturally they were left there.

In the village no one I talked to had very much more knowledge of what was going to happen to the house than I did. And as one said – the Benaki are not as rich as they may appear. The house needs a fair bit of repair. After all it is, now, over fifty years old and shutters are beginning to disintegrate. If they want a librarian who’s soon to retire to look after the place, well, I might just volunteer.

 

Chatwin and Paddy: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

The link between Bruce Chatwin and Paddy is very strong. They were good friends and Chatwin’s writing has often been compared favourabley with Paddy’s. When Chatwin stayed at Kadamyli he and Paddy often went for long afternoon walks in the Taygetos. This BBC Four programme about Bruce Chatwin’s life includes some significant sections with Paddy:

1. Talking about Bruce generally – programme 2 at around 2 minute 20 seconds.

2. Walking with Bruce’s brother and the scattering of the ashes near Kardamyli – programme 2 at around56 minutes 50 seconds.


My thanks to Thos Henley for sending this to me.

Related article:

Bruce Chatwin’s Journey to Mount Athos

Travel writing: Lost art in search of a lost world

Few authors have been able to equal Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ability to dissolve into the places described in his books.

Editorial, first published in The Guardian 18 June 2011

“I hate the French cookery, and abominate garlick,” Tobias Smollett told his readers 245 years ago, with a snooty disregard for foreigners that runs through too much travel writing today. Describing distant places fairly, curiously and entertainingly has never been easy. Few authors, in any century, have been able to equal Patrick Leigh Fermor’s liquid ability to dissolve into the places described in his books, so that he seemed to be less reporting on than living in them. His death this month, at 96, with the third of his great trilogy of prewar European exploration still unpublished, is a moment to ask what travel writing can still achieve.

Leigh Fermor was lucky, in that he walked through an archaic and aristocratic eastern Europe soon to be obliterated by the second world war. His two greatest books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, take readers into a time and place that can never exist again, and that, as much as his pitch-perfect writing, is why they are among those few books worth reading many times.

Few of today’s writers have this advantage. They must describe a world in which it is easier to communicate, and travel, than ever before. No teenager setting off from Tower Bridge now would find themselves amid ballgowns, hunting parties and lonely mountaintop shepherds. Facebook and text messaging have brought Bucharest and Birmingham closer. Describing difference has been made harder.

Leigh Fermor was one of the last of the great travel writers whose experience spanned the previous century. A varied assortment, mostly men, wrote books that still stand as classics today: among them Eric Newby, Norman Lewis and Wilfred Thesiger. Jan Morris, still writing, deserves to be among them. Two decades ago, a fresh crop of authors revived the art but then fell victim to their own celebrity, Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux included.

Where does travel writing stand now? There are fewer famous authors and fewer sales. Some of the best books involve almost no travel at all: Roger Deakin’s account of wild swimming in Britain, Waterlog, or Neil Ansell’s lovely Deep Country, about the birds and landscape of mid-Wales. William Dalrymple remains an explorer in the classical sense: in From the Holy Mountain he shows Byzantium is not quite destroyed. William Blacker’s Along the Enchanted Way, about eight years living in rural Romania, is the closest modern writing has come to Leigh-Fermor, and not only because the Gypsy and Saxon life he shares is almost gone.

Always, the attraction is the slow pace. There is no need for hurry, no requirement for horror, just immersion in a place and time that is different, even when it is not far from our own.

Home truths on abroad – where now for travel writing?

William Dalrymple recalls an encounter with Paddy in the Mani in 2008, discusses the impact of Bruce Chatwin, and asks where next for travel writing.

First published in The Guardian, 19 Sep 2009

William Dalrymple

What is to become of travel writing now that the world is smaller? Who are the successors to Chatwin, Lewis and Thesiger? William Dalrymple names a new generation of stars and sees a sparkling future for the genre – one less to do with posturing and heroic adventures than an intimate knowledge of people and places

Last year, on a visit to the Mani in the Peloponnese, I went to visit the headland where Bruce Chatwin had asked for his ashes to be scattered.

The hillside chapel where Chatwin’s widow, Elizabeth, brought his urn lies in rocky fields near the village of Exchori, high above the bay of Kardamyli. It has a domed, red-tiled roof and round arcaded windows built from stone the colour of haloumi cheese. Inside are faded and flaking Byzantine frescoes of mounted warrior saints, lances held aloft.

The sun was sinking over the Taygetus, and there was a warm smell of wild rosemary and cypress resin in the air. It was, I thought, a perfect place for anyone to rest at the end of their travels.

My companion for the visit was Chatwin’s great friend and sometime mentor, Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was Chatwin’s only real rival as the greatest prose stylist of modern travel writing. Leigh Fermor’s two sublime masterpieces, A Time to Keep Silence and A Time of Gifts, are among the most beautifully written books of travel of any period, and it was really he who created the persona of the bookish wanderer, later adopted by Chatwin: the footloose scholar in the wilds, scrambling through remote mountains, a knapsack full of good books on his shoulder.

Bruce Chatwin, 1940-1989

Inevitably, it was a melancholy visit. Not only were we there to honour the memory of the dead friend who had introduced us, but Leigh Fermor himself was not in great shape. At dinner that night, it was clear that the great writer and war hero, now in his mid-90s, was in very poor health. Over dinner we talked about how travel writing seemed to have faded from view since its great moment of acclaim in the late 1970s and 80s, when both Leigh Fermor and Chatwin had made their names and their reputations. It wasn’t just that publishers were not as receptive as they had once been to the genre, nor that the big bookshops had contracted their literary travel writing sections from prominent shelves at the front to little annexes at the back, usually lost under a great phalanx of Lonely Planet guidebooks. More seriously, and certainly more irreversibly, most of the great travel writers were either dead or dying.

Wilfred Thesiger (1909-2003), who was in many ways the last of the great Victorian explorers, produced no less than four exemplary books in his final decade. More remarkable still, Norman Lewis was heading for his centenary when he published The Happy Ant-Heap in 1998, a characteristically bleak collection of pieces about trips to places so obscure, so uncomfortable and often so horrible, that they would tax anyone, never mind a man in his early 90s who should by rights have been shuffling around in carpet slippers, not planning trips to visit the smoked ancestral corpses of the highlands of Irian Jaya, or the torture chambers of Nicaragua, or any other of the grisly diversions Lewis settles on to bring “some stimulation and variety” to his old age.

One typical adventure of the nonagenarian Lewis took place on a trip to Kos. On reading a story in the local paper about a police investigation into rumours that “women on the small island of Anirini were disposing of unwanted husbands by throwing them down dry wells”, he merrily set off on a boat with three sponge fishermen and a prostitute they had picked up on the Piraeus waterfront (“they spent the crossing sleeping, eating and making love – the last on a strict rota”) in search of this barren island populated by homicidal widows. Before long Lewis, then aged 92, had hopped ashore, rented a room from one of the chief suspects, and was soon cheerfully peering down well-heads in search of rotting cadavers. Continue reading

Bruce Chatwin: letters from a fallen angel (or, A Woman Scorned)

I had no great intention to continue delving into the life and work of Bruce Chatwin, but I found the following article in this week’s London Evening Standard absolutely fascinating. The forthcoming book of letters edited by his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, with commentary by his long suffering wife is sure to prove quite explosive.

As I have said before I don’t know much about the man, but to be frank, from what I have read I don’t see him as much of a hero as some others clearly do. However good he may have been as a writer, he was clearly incapable of any form of loyalty, and seemingly indulged himself in fulfilling his bi-sexual fantasies during his extended journeys, where he clearly had many opportunities.  As Miranda Rothschild, told his biographer: “Sexually, Bruce was a polymorphous pervert … He’s out to seduce everybody, it doesn’t matter if you are male, female, an ocelot or a tea cosy.”

He seems to have carried over this trait into his writing; he does not appear to have been particularly honest with his readers, and in the forthcoming book of letters his wife demolishes many of the myths that have grown up around Chatwin. Elizabeth Chatwin has waited a long time to put over her own point of view and it seems that she has not held back. Beware a woman scorned.

Bruce Chatwin: letters from a fallen angel

by David Sexton

First published in The Evening Standard 25.08.10

Bruce Chatwin died in hospital in Nice in January 1989, suffering from Aids, aged just 48. His last days were all the more terrible for the fact that he had never been able to admit to himself or to others the nature of his illness or his sexuality.

Creator of his own myth: Bruce Chatwin died of Aids in 1989, aged 48. He had never been able to admit to himself or to others the nature of his illness or his sexuality

For Chatwin had spent his entire life turning himself into a fantastic story, a prize rarity, a human anecdote, and it continued right until the end. He gave various delusive accounts of his illness to his friends. He told Loulou de la Falaise that he had eaten a rotten thousand-year-old egg. He told George Ortiz it had come from bat’s faeces. To his mother-in-law he wrote, on first becoming ill: “Trust me to pick up a disease never recorded among Europeans. The fungus that has attacked my bone marrow has been recorded among 10 Chinese peasants (China is presumably where I got it), a few Thais and a killer whale cast up on the shores of Arabia.”

Among those who bought in to the Chatwin myth most eagerly during his lifetime was his friend, the novelist and literary journalist Nicholas Shakespeare, who loved to repeat such exotic stories about Chatwin as that “he once wore a live python as a bow-tie” or that “he once sold all he had, including a collection of 6th-century BC marble buttocks, and painted his flat the colour of a Nubian hut”. In a tribute published the week of Chatwin’s death, Shakespeare sentimentally proclaimed: “He was so inquisitive about all aspects of life, it is easy to believe he might have stumbled on its secret. That’s probably why the gods took him early.”

It is greatly to Shakespeare’s credit that, when he came to write the authorised biography of Bruce Chatwin, published in 1999, he steadily faced up to the often disappointing truth about his hero and produced such an excellent book. He researched deeply and he did not censor what he discovered, filling in the humdrum facts that Chatwin had excluded to make a more dashing effect. Famously, Chatwin once told Paul Theroux: “I don’t believe in coming clean.” Shakespeare did it for him, posthumously. Perhaps this very truthfulness has damaged Chatwin’s mystique and standing as a writer, which depended so much upon not being thus exposed.

Introducing Under The Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin, shortly to be published, Shakespeare admits that Chatwin’s reputation is not what it was and that many — such as Barry Humphries — who used to admire him, no longer do. But he defends Chatwin nonetheless, hopefully maintaining that he was “less economical with the truth than spendthrift. He tells not a half-truth but a truth and a half”.

Chatwin’s biographer and editor of his letters, Nicholas Shakespeare was a lifelong friend

Salman Rushdie, Chatwin’s most perceptive critic, puts it differently. He has argued that Chatwin’s whole style as a writer resulted from the way he so persistently avoided the truth about himself and in particular his sexuality. “That’s the creature at the perimeter prowling around. All this fantastic entertainment and language and originality and erudition and display is a kind of hedge against letting in the truth.”

The great diarist James Lees-Milne, a Gloucestershire neighbour, was clear-headed and sceptical about Chatwin too. “I have seldom met a human being who exudes so much sex appeal with so comparatively little niceness.” He called him a “fallen angel” and, after his death, remembered himself nearly going to bed with him one night. “He admitted that he would never decline to sleep with any male or female if pressed, but only once. Nonce with me.”

In his memoir City Boy, published last year, Edmund White described his turn with Chatwin, which happened the moment they met. “Bruce … instantly groped me while we were still standing just inside the door, and a few minutes later we’d shed our clothes and were still standing. We had sex in the most efficient way, we put our clothes back on, and we never repeated the experience …”

Another of Chatwin’s once-and-once-only lovers, Miranda Rothschild, told his biographer: “Sexually, Bruce was a polymorphous pervert … He’s out to seduce everybody, it doesn’t matter if you are male, female, an ocelot or a tea cosy.” The act itself distressed her. “He was lust personified. It had nothing to do with anything else … I was lacerated as if by a Bengal tiger.” Continue reading

Bruce Chatwin’s Journey to Mount Athos

I will readily admit to knowing next to nothing about Bruce Chatwin. However, he seems to have a loyal following, has been flatteringly compared with Paddy as a writer, and of course Paddy was a friend and mentor to him. Chatwin’s ashes are scattered around a Byzantine church near to Paddy’s home in the Peloponnese.

This feature from the Telegraph last Sunday is very interesting. It focuses on Chatwin’s journey to find God and the path he was taking towards Orthodoxy  just prior to his death. Apparently he had made arrangements for his baptism on the Holy Mountain of Athos. Paddy would have been a good person to talk to about this but according to Paddy “There was never, not a word talked about God,” during his five month stay.

Paddy is mentioned a couple of times and I recommend this article to you all (note we have a blog link to a Chatwin website – see links).

Nicholas Shakespeare, the acclaimed biographer of Bruce Chatwin, follows the great travel writer on his final mysterious journey – to Mount Athos, a monastery overlooking the Aegean Sea

By Nicholas Shakespeare

First published in The Telegraph 16 Aug 2010

Bruce Chatwin

A strange osmosis takes place when you write the life of another person. After Bruce Chatwin died, his widow Elizabeth gave me the maté gourd that he had taken with him on his travels, together with its silver bombilla – the metal straw through which he sucked his addictive tea, like any Argentine farmhand. At times over the next seven years, I had the sudden deep conviction that I was absorbing the world through his perforated silver straw.

In the course of following Chatwin’s songline, I met his family and friends – some of whom became my friends. In Birmingham, I had tea with the charlady responsible for dusting the contents of his grandmother’s cabinet, including the scrap of giant sloth that had formed the genesis for In Patagonia. “It used to put the creeps up on me, an old bit of blacky, browny bristly stuff as didn’t look very nice at all… I thought it was only monkey fur.” In 1991, I drove with Elizabeth from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego, to the cave on Last Hope Sound from where Chatwin’s cousin had salvaged the original hide – believed by the infant Chatwin to be a piece of brontosaurus.

In Sydney, I poked my nose into Ken’s Karate Club, a “sex on premises” venue designed in imitation of a fantasy Roman baths, with horned satyrs and concrete putti (from a garden supply shop). Near Alice Springs, I camped under the stars with the man on whom Chatwin had modelled Arkady, the protagonist of The Songlines. And so on, through 27 countries.

My biography of Chatwin was published in 1999, 10 years after he died of Aids. But in all the travels I had undertaken, there was one significant journey I overlooked.

In 1985, following his second visit to Australia, where he had picked up a mysterious illness, Chatwin was in Greece, grinding out another draft of The Songlines, when he interrupted his work to make a pilgrimage to Mount Athos. Before leaving, he wrote breezily to the Australian novelist Murray Bail: “Athos is obviously another atavistic wonder.”

Up until that moment Chatwin had not impressed friends as religious. “There was never, not a word talked about God,” says Patrick Leigh Fermor, his host in Greece, reflecting on their conversations over five months. Elizabeth was, and remains, a practising Catholic. In preparation for their wedding, Chatwin had taken religious instruction from a Jesuit in London. “Nearly became a Catholic,” he wrote in his notebook. Then, just before they were married, Elizabeth’s parish priest in New York State gave her a leaflet explaining why she should not marry a non-Catholic. “That put Bruce off forever,” says Elizabeth. Thereafter, his religious faith became subsumed in his nomadic theory: he believed that movement made religion redundant and only when people settled did they need it.

Since his illness, there were signs of a sea change. One entry in his notebooks reads: “The search for nomads is a search for God.” Another: “Religion is a technique for arriving at the moment of death at the right time.” While recuperating with Elizabeth in Nepal, his thoughts had turned to a man’s athos “in the Greek sense of abode or dwelling place – the root of all his behaviour for good or bad, his character, everything that pertained to him.” Continue reading