Start your review of The Songlines Write a review Shelves: favourites-adult , chcc-library , politics-culture-social , fiction-adult , indigenous 4. One by one, he had watched the young men go, or go to pieces. Soon there would be no one: either to sing the songs or to give blood for ceremonies. In aboriginal belief, an unsung land is a dead land: since, if the songs are forgotten, the land itself will die. Bruce Chatwin was a highly regarded English writer and traveller with a deep curiosity about nomadic people. He was fascinated by the idea of songlines around the world that tell the story of the 4.

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Photograph: Bettmann Archive Nevertheless, judging by the sums I scrawled in the margins, I reckon we eventually cut between a quarter and a third of the typescript. The result was a swifter and consistently sleek volume: short phrases, short chapters, short book. Not much that went was wasted.

Some of the cut material bobbed up in later work, in The Songlines , his baggiest and probably most famous book, and in On the Black Hill. Chatwin, who had married at 25, had had male lovers. For me, his great gift — on the page and in person — was visual generosity. He made you see different things and look at things differently. It was not works of art in galleries that interested him so much as objects, particularly those from which a story could be extracted.

In the small Eaton Place flat designed by John Pawson — pleated like origami to hide his books — he hung pictures he had made by cutting coloured drawings from the catalogue of a broom manufacturer: rows of pinky-red-and-white toothbrushes, elegant and comic.

He later told his wife, Elizabeth, that he had immediately thought this applied to him. In his final years, sometimes feverish, sometimes high on the drugs he was prescribed, he became an exaggerated version of his already high-velocity self. He was full of plans and wheezes. He had a scheme for an opera about Florence Gould, the grande dame from San Francisco who, during the second world war, presided over a multilingual salon in Paris, where guests included Jean Cocteau and German propaganda officers.

It was to be an English opera in which hardly a word of English would be spoken. He wanted to give all his friends presents and went on wild shopping sprees. What he spent bore little relation to what money he had. Meanwhile, Elizabeth cancelled cheques and returned objects to art dealers.

It is the tale of a secret life which I think contains a quiet tribute to his wife. It is also a wonderful evocation of austerity and calm. He asked me to edit it and I went down to his house in Oxfordshire with some small suggestions. A couple of months later, he was thin and disconsolate and in bed.

He died on 18 January ; he was It turned out to be an occasion of drama. Two hours earlier, the fatwa on Salman Rushdie had been announced. Rushdie was at the cathedral, greeted by a horde of journalists as he came out. Top 10 books about the Australian bush Read more It was also a mysterious event, unlike any other memorial service I have ever attended.

Many thought it beautiful. Others thought its theatricality camp. The actor Peter Eyre, coming from a rehearsal of King Lear in a beard and clothes that would allow him to roll around — head to toe in black — was mistaken for a priest and approached by a member of the congregation about the possibility of conversion. The real black-robed priests talked of the end of pain, but there was no encomium, no evocation of the man who had died.

The author was absent from his service — as his admired Gustave Flaubert said that the artist should be absent from his work. And yet the occasion seemed full of his qualities. It was paradoxical, bringing together spareness and metropolitan bustle. Full of stories. Capriciously elusive.


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Chatwin, who reinvented travel writing with his seminal book In Patigonia, was a restless soul. He travelled much of his life, which was sadly cut short in early middle age. In the opening pages of The Songlines he offers one plausible origin for this inveterate wanderlust in a childhood spent constantly on the move. My mother and I would shuttle back and forth, on the railways of wartime England, on visits to family and friends. He feels that the need to travel is much more deeply engrained in us than mere childhood experience.


The origins of travel: A review of The Songlines (Bruce Chatwin)

They would remain in one place until Margharita decided to move, either because of concern for their safety, or because of friction among family members. Travelling in Patagonia , Milward had discovered the remains of a giant sloth, which he later sold to the British Museum. The skin was later lost, but it inspired Chatwin decades later to visit and write about Patagonia. He was forced to consider other options.

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