Nicholas Shakespeare   title  
photo of Nicholas Shakespeare



  A biography prompts multiple unravellings. The biographer cannot revisit the past on his own, but requires the help of his subject's family, friends and enemies to unravel their past as well.

In my grandmother's dining-room in Malvern, overlooking the Welsh mountains, Hugh Chatwin takes the scalpel one last time to the trickiest chapter of his brother's biography, an account of their early years in Birmingham after the war. Creaky at first, his memory now has the dexterity of someone who has reclaimed their childhood.

It is a bright, cloudless morning. During a peripatetic upbringing, whenever I missed England I thought of this view from my grandmother's window. Today, the landscape is visible to the horizon and to the escarpment of Hay Bluff, the location for Chatwin's novel On The Black Hill.

Suddenly connections that otherwise slip away unnoticed stand out starkly as coincidences. Not until after Chatwin died in 1989 did I learn that my grandmother had grown up with his father in Edgbaston. With his lawyer's memory, Charles Chatwin recollected her and her sister Winifred, an autocratic woman with droopy come-to-bed eyes who ran the Edgbaston School of Domestic Science. He conjured the two girls, legs dangling over the deck of their father's boat, and he told me that the Petronita was berthed on the river Hamble alongside the Chatwin's own boat, the Aireymouse.My grandmother, now aged 95, has no idea of the Petronita's origins, but she produces for Hugh a framed photograph. He inspects the straight stem and bowsprit, the squared-off deck, the white hull tilting under full sail, and smiles. "Ah, she has the lines of a Brixham trawler."

Hugh's childhood chapter is the culimation of a process which has lasted, off and on, eight years, and a scenario that his elder brother spent his life trying to escape. Once on his sickbed he told me: "Biography is the English menace."

In 1974, while Bruce Chatwin was travelling through Argentina to research his first book, In Patagonia, I was working as cowhand in the Buenos Aires province. I met him seven years later. I was 23, recently returned from the southern tip of South America, where I had read his book. Back in London, I sought him out, not least to track down the Frenchman who would be King of Patagonia.

Chatwin had a talent for making others see the world through his eyes. Within minutes of entering his tiny attic flat in Eaton Place, he had provided telephone numbers for Philippe Boiry (le Prince d'Araucanie), the King of Crete and the heir to the Aztec throne. In return he wanted to know about Argentina. I told him a story I had picked up in Salta, about a figure called Guemes, a hero of Argentina's independence who had lent his colours to the famous gaucho poncho: black for the death of Guemes, red for the blood of his soliders. Guemes, I had learnt, was an hispanicization of the Scottish Wemyss: the colours were those of a Wemyss tartan. Chatwin's eyes bulged and speaking in italics he explained how he was at that moment at work on a theory about the colour red. Did I know that Garibaldi, while fighting for neighbouring Uruguay's indepence, had seized a consignment of these ponchos from a warehouse in Montevideo and on the ship back to Italy had tailored them into the uniforms for his "red-shirts" -- and so inspired the red flags flying over the barricades of revolutionary Europe and ultimately the Kremlin? That day I left his flat taking seriously the link between a Scots tartan and the red flag of Socialism. As his first editor, Susannah Clapp, says: "He made people look at things differently and he made them look at different things."

In 1991, I was appointed Chatwin's biographer. Susannah Clapp, one of the literary executors involved, wanted first to publish a short memoir: it was understood the biography would appear two years after that. Where she would concentrate on her relationship with the writer, my interest lay in Chatwin the traveller. I was grateful for the extra time to follow in his steps. It was a gamble, and it might not turn out to be true, but I had a suspicion that Chatwin was as mysterious as anything he ever wrote. Because he was so elusive about his life -- "hate confessional mode" is an entry from one of his notebooks -- his own story might just prove to be the best of the lot.

The literal journey would take me twice round the world. Under the desert sky near Alice Springs I camped with Arkady, the central character in The Songlines. I walked with Bob Brain to the Swartkrans cave near Johannesburg, where on February 1, 1984, Chatwin had been party to the discovery of the earliest use of fire. And most memorably I travelled to the mud-walled town of Ouidah in West Africa, to look for traces of Chatwin's Brazilian slaver, Francisco da Silva.

Here was a real coincidence. Many of the slaves from Ouidah had ended up in Bahia, where my sister then lived with her musician boyfriend, himself a da Silva. Rasbutta da Silva was either descended from Chatwin's slaver -- or else from his slaves. He did not know which. By taking him to Africa I hoped to find out.

It was a traumatic rite of passage. Rasbutta, an unselfreflective Rastafarian, had never delved in his past and was delighted simply to be visiting "mama Africa", the source of his music. Everything changed once we arrived at the da Silva family home in Porto Novo. In a decrepit compound in the Maison Familiale, he was assaulted by awe-struck men, women and children who stroked his dreadlocks and asked eager questions about Brazil. They assumed him to be a rich relative of their Brazilian ancestor, one of the wealthiest men on the slave coast.

More astonishing, they still considered themselves white.

Unable to communicate in French, a dazed Rasbutta started playing a Brazilian bouryem. Instantly, the babble ceased. All the da Silvas started singing -- but in Portuguese. The words had been handed down by the slaver and they sang this song every year on his anniversary. They felt no revulsion about his trade. "Then slaves were the fashion," said one of them. "Today it's rice."

Rasbutta spent the next three days in tears, facing up to the fact that the da Silvas who had welcomed him as their long lost cousin were in all probability descended from the men who had sent his family into slavery. The tears cleared his mind. As we walked the three-mile Slave Route to the beach where da Silva's ships had anchored, Rasbutta remembered a simple detail which it seemed incredible that he could have forgotten. He remembered his grandmother in Bahia describing the marks on her grandfather's ankles. Marks left by a chain.

We stood on the empty shoreline and I asked Rasbutta what he felt to discover the truth of the African da Silvas. He said: "It is not for me to feel something. It is for them."

The literal journey forced me on a separate, disjointed journey. I wrote the introduction in Fargo; in Toronto, the account of Chatwin's Afghan travels; in Hamburg, the chapter on his Sotheby's years. Along the way I experienced the standard excitements of every biographer. In Geneseo, New York State, I asked Chatwin's mother-in-law, Gertude Chanler, if she had kept any letters from her daughter Elizabeth. "There may be some upstairs," she said. And sure enough there were: three boxes of the correspondence which Elizabeth Chatwin had sent every week since 1959, detailing her husband's movements.

Chatwin burned many of his papers in the summer of 1986 ("I turned arsonist and destroyed heaps of old notebooks, card indexes, correspondence..."). Others I saved from the flames. In pursuit of diaries belonging to Stuart Piggott, Chatwin's professor at Edinburgh, I contacted Piggott's executor, who was planning to destroy them that weekend. I pleaded with him not to: otherwise I would have to accept Chatwin's version of their relationship, portrayed by him as the suffocating obsession of an older man for a younger. "That," said the excecutor crisply, "could not be further from the truth." He stayed execution long enough for me to read the extracts, which indeed revealed that Piggott found Chatwin to be an odd, interesting and extraordinary young man unlike the normal run of student, but that he felt apprehensive for Bruce rather than attracted to him.

There were the usual horror stories. One afternoon in the Luberon, gyspy cherry-pickers stole a suitcase from my car, along with the notebook containing two fullscap notebooks of untranscribed interviews with Chatwins' friends in Malibu, Ireland and Paris.

What I was unprepared for were the challenges issued by those who heard I was writing a biography of Chatwin. Because of his gift for instant intimacy, many people not only felt they knew him, but they had strong views on the way he dealt with his homosexuality, his marriage and his AIDS, and some were often quite confrontational. Chatwin, I soon discovered, provoked not only feelings of jealousy, but he activated a righteousness in people and a fear. "Something about Bruce infuriates other writers," says his mentor Francis Wyndham, who first encouraged him to write. "It's as if he's getting away with something and never did the things he said. But Bruce wasn't a mythomane. Why shouldn't he turn something that does happen into something with shape and story? It's not as if he had a tremendously successful and happy life. He wasn't a darling of the gods. His life wasn't particularly enviable." If Chatwin's life, as I suspected, proved to be more interesting than any of his stories, it was also sadder. What impressed the Australian poet Les Murray was not his dazzle, but the aloneness it concealed. "He was lonely and he wanted to be. He had those blue, implacable eyes that said: 'I will reject you, I will forget you, because neither you nor any other human being can give me what I want.'"
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Copyright © 2000 Nicholas Shakespeare.

Photo credit © Jerry Bauer