Australasia Archive

Chatwin, in Patagonia and down under

Susannah Clapp is currently theatre critic of The Observer. Forty years ago, she was Bruce Chatwin’s editor, so, with an anniversary edition of In Patagonia on the way, she can offer a singular perspective on the man and the work:

I had written the reader’s report on the book. It had dazzled and worried me. It was exceptional – but it was enormous and it didn’t flow. I became his editor, with the task of making the book speed along. Over the next few weeks, we went through every line of the manuscript, reading it aloud in the Regent’s Park flat of the art dealer John Kasmin. Every night, the author went home merrily to hack away his stuff: he loved chucking out adjectives and anything that looked like a moody reaction shot. Every morning, he arrived having cut – but often having also added another episode; stories kept spilling out of him. 

In Australia, the 30th anniversary of Chatwin’s The Songlines — inspired by the way in which Indigenous Australians map geography and preserve history and culture — is of greater interest. In a fascinating piece in the Monthly, Richard Cooke writes: 

It is an imperfect book, and the fete surrounding its publication has moved on, but The Songlines did force the white world to gauge the depth of Indigenous culture. And it is partly imperfect because Chatwin too was overwhelmed by his subject. As he tried to make sense of what he had seen in Alice Springs and its surrounds over a total of nine weeks in the early 1980s, he wrote that songlines were on “such a colossal scale, intellectually, that they make the Pyramids seem like sand castles. But how to write about them – without spending 20 years here?”

Scaling these intellectual monuments, even tracing their outlines, is almost impossible. Songlines are not just sung poems. They are also legal documents, genealogical records, maps and the legends of maps, documentations of flora and fauna, systems of navigation, religious rites, spells, history books, memory palaces, and endless other combinations of ceremony, knowledge and philosophy that cannot be readily analogised into another culture. Anthropologists have dedicated their lives to obtaining only the most peripheral glimpses of them. Some have resisted further insights, knowing they are bought through a system of law, obligation and initiation that is not entered into lightly. Compared to the accumulation and expanse of millennia of living traditions, writing itself can seem like an almost futile explanatory tool. And Chatwin had only a few weeks.

Winton’s ‘Island Home’

One of my favourite books of last year was Island Home: A Landscape Memoir by Tim Wintonwhich is both a celebration of Australia’s wild places and an impassioned argument for their preservation

As I said in a review for The Daily Telegraph, it’s shy of 200 pages, yet airy with the space of the great southern land.

It’s now out in paperback from Picador and, courtesy of the author, you can read an extract from it on Deskbound Traveller.

Making Tracks with Robyn Davidson

When Robyn Davidson made her 2,000-mile walk across Australia in 1977 from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, Rick Smolan was commissioned by National Geographic to catch up with her (and her camels and dog) five times during the trip to take photographs.

That was in an age without GPS,  satellites and mobile phones. There was no way for Davidson to call for help, no way for her to be found. And Smolan was shipping film back to Washington and having no idea whether his pictures had worked.

Smolan’s Ted Talk about the assignment, published earlier this month, is both frank and fond. He discloses that he and Davidson got off to a really bad start…

Tim Winton’s Australia

I’ve just finished reading a wonderful new book from Tim Winton, Island Home (Picador), which is both a celebration of Australia’s wild places and an impassioned argument for their preservation. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any of Winton’s novels — ashamed because his preoccupations are so much in tune with those of Deskbound Traveller: in Island Home, he writes that “the effect of the power of place on the behaviour and aspirations of the people around me has been my underlying and ongoing concern”. So I’ve just ordered Cloudstreet, which I see Philip Hensher has described in the introduction to the Picador edition as “the great Australian novel”.

Winton says in Island Home that the greatest influence on his own writing was the novelist Randolph Stow  (1935-2010), who was born in Geraldton, Winton’s mother’s home town, and died in Essex. He was a writer “who seemed to feel the country of his birth as if he wore it”.  The same might be said of Winton himself.

At the end of the new book, there’s a note saying that Island Home had its beginnings in a collaboration with the photographer Richard Woldendorp, and that an essay, “The Island Seen and Felt”, was first given as a talk at the Royal Academy in London in 2013. You can still listen to that talk on the Royal Academy’s website.

On Soundcloud (see below) there’s also a good ABC radio interview with Winton about Island Home, recorded when the book came out in Australia seven months ago.

Making ‘Tracks’ in Australia

Tracks, a film based on Robyn Davidson’s 2,000-mile walk in 1977 from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, with four camels and a dog, is already being screened in cinemas throughout Australia and is due to open shortly in Britain. It’s that rare thing: a film of a book of which the book’s author heartily approves. That may be partly because the film-makers make no attempt to clear up a mystery that remained at the end of Davidson’s own account: what prompted her to embark on such a trek in the first place.

The Griffith Review, an Australian quarterly I’ve only just discovered online, has been prompted by the film’s release to direct its readers to its archive, and a moving piece Davidson wrote in 2006 on her return to Darwin. It runs to nearly 6,000 words, so print out the PDF and enjoy it away from the screen.

In the same edition of the Griffith Review, David Malouf tells how his novella Fly Away Peter was inspired by his finding an “exotic” landscape close to home.

Eleanor Catton’s New Zealand

This is going to be a celebrity-free site, lacking in what editors call “big names” — unless renown has been won by proficiency with pen, camera and paint. Eleanor Catton, winner of the Booker Prize for The Luminaries, is now a much bigger name than she was at the start of this week. As anyone who saw her take the Booker stage will have noticed immediately, however, her favourite light is not lime. In The Guardian Review today, she writes fondly about her native New Zealand. It’s a piece in which she laments the inadequacy of language to describe the natural world, so it’s a shame that the editor failed to notice that Catton herself had earlier twice fallen back on the word “stunning”. Put it down to the rush for topicality.