Tag Archives: Nicholas Shakespeare

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