I was walking up a hill in Assisi, dragging my case behind me. The rhythm of its wheels on the cobblestones seemed familiar. Da-Dah da Da-Dah da Da-Dah da Da-Dah. The wheels jolted over the ruts and set up this continual refrain which I couldn’t quite place. Then it came to me slowly: I had the couplet in my head for years, but couldn’t remember the words – only the sound and rhythm of it, and the rough English translation of what it meant. It was a description of the sacking of an ancient city by the Mongols. Where had I heard it? I thought it Persian, and very old. I walked up the hill, mentally chanting nonsense words: “The hatstand the milkman the brassband the land!” I couldn’t get it. Into the mental archives it went. Later, after we had found our accommodation, a small cavern owned by a poet, built into the hillside and beautifully furnished, I took out my notebook – a battered black moleskine – and wrote down: hatstand, milkman, brass band, land. Persian? Balkh? Bokhara?
Hoping the language hadn’t changed much since antiquity, I messaged a Persian-speaking friend. “How would you translate something like: ‘They came and they destroyed and they burned and they looted and then they vanished?’”
He came back with a line of text in which some of the words were familiar – amdand, kushtand, sokhtand – but the rhythm was missing. Round and round in my head it went. Virgil wrote a Latin equivalent in hexameter: “Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum” – “The qua-druped’s gall-oping hoof shakes the ground”. Da Dah-da-da Dah-da-da Dah-da-da Da! But what was it in Persian?
In France these notebooks are known as carnet moleskines: ‘moleskine’, in this case, being its black oilcloth binding. Each time I went to Paris, I would buy a fresh supply from a papeterie in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie. The pages were squared and the end-papers held in place with an elastic band. I had numbered them in series. I wrote my name and address on the front page, offering a reward to the finder. To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe.
In twenty odd years of travel, I lost only two. One vanished on an Afghan bus. The other was filched by the Brazilian secret police, who with a certain clairvoyance, imagined that some lines I had written – about the wounds of a Baroque Christ – were a description, in code, of their own work on political prisoners.
Some months before I left for Australia, the owner of the papeterie said that the vrai moleskine was getting harder and harder to get. There was one supplier: a small family business in Tours. They were very slow in answering letters.
“I’d like to order a hundred,” I said to Madame. “A hundred will last me a lifetime.”
She promised to telephone Tours at once, that afternoon.
At lunchtime I had a sobering experience. The headwaiter of Brasserie Lipp no longer recognised me, “Non Monsieur, il n’y a pas de place.” At five, I kept my appointment with Madame. The manufacturer had died. His heirs had sold the business. She removed her spectacles and said, almost with an air of mourning, “Le vrai moleskine n’est plus.”
My own moleskine lay open on the table before me, broken-backed, its flyleaves speckled with a kind of international grit. Unlike Chatwin, in twenty years of travel I’d never lost one yet – although I often kept several in circulation at once, rotating them. The opening lines of this one began: “New Delhi, Christmas Day 2010. Pigeons are landing on the maidan playing field in small, ochrey puffs of red dust. They are thin-looking creatures, as are the Indian crows. Call of mynah birds overhead. Faint tang of drains, incense, sandalwood soap, Wills Gold Flake cigarettes. It feels like a long time since it last rained.”
In the small pocket at the back were: a ticket to the Proms at the Albert Hall in London; a sun-faded postcard from Kyneton, Victoria, showing the bank, the old mill and the hotel known as ‘The Swinging Arms’; a pass for the Annapurna Conservation Area; an entry ticket to the Durbar Square in Bhaktapur, Nepal; ten Indian rupees, and a twenty Afghani banknote. I began to write some first impressions of Assisi:
Hollow metallic tontin of tongue-lolling churchbells. Crucifixes for sale and T-shaped Tau signs. Small religious figurines of St. Francis and enormous, head-sized meringues in the cafes. After the hordes of Gore-tex clad tourists vanish at dusk, the alleys become the preserve of huge cats in residence beneath battered Fiats – the only cars small enough to negotiate the narrow bends. The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi stands overlooking the plain below. A sense of something spiritual – a special place.
We walked along the dark and winding streets in search of dinner. Down towards the Piazza Communale we found a small restaurant which was almost deserted, but seemed nice. It was run by two brothers, and had only recently opened. They specialised in local cuisine; very local – they could tell you the provenance of just about everything on the menu. For antipasti we selected a cheese platter, which came on a long, olivewood board. There were four kinds of pecorino, all at different stages of maturity.
“I suggest,” said the owner, “you begin at this end, with the mildest, and try it with some honey. Then progress towards the more mature ones, which you should try with either the fig jam or the chilli preserve.” He was right – it was a delicious combination. Then, another Umbrian speciality: Papardelle con Ragu Cinghiale – wide pasta like tagliatelle with a wild boar sauce. The sun was dipping behind the distant hills in shades of vermillion and purple, silhouetting the poplar trees. Lights began springing up across the darkening plain, and in the distance a lone church bell began tolling, melancholic and solitary in the evening chill.
It was a wild November night on the Suffolk Coast – a gale in the autumn of 1989. Rain spattered the windows and the TV aerial on the tiled roof of the Red Lion pub across the road was swaying back and forth in the wind. The pub sign squeaked on its hinges. On the wall by the yard was a sign that said: “Private Property – No Access. Rights of Way Act 1942”. The sign looked like it had been there since the war. And in the distance, out in the blackness, the sea boiled and roared, the crests of the waves whisked into sprays of silver in the light of the moon. It was easy to imagine a U-boat in 1942 waiting for clearer weather just offshore, lying calmly just beneath the surface, and the captain peering through the periscope at the shimmering lights of the town as the waves washed over the lens intermittently in their remorseless progression towards the land.
In the tall, thin house that smelt of wood polish and echoed to the slow tick of the grandfather clock in the hall, we sat in a small pool of golden light on the second floor, my grandfather in his armchair doing The Times crossword, my father sitting on the sofa nearby, reading another section of the paper, and myself, aged 16, listening to the storm outside and half-watching the TV that was on in the corner. It was an arts review programme, I remember, and the presenter was talking about a new book – a novel about Meissen porcelain – “Utz”, by Bruce Chatwin. It was the last interview he ever gave, explained the presenter, before his death from AIDS at the age of 48.
On the screen a gaunt figure, skeletally thin, sat with staring, bright blue eyes. He never blinked. His hair had almost gone. In an eerie, high-pitched voice, plummy as an old lady, he spoke about Meissen, and a man he had come across in Czechoslovakia who couldn’t bring himself to flee the Communist regime because it would mean abandoning the art collection which he loved – a man who was also in love with his maid, who looked after the small porcelain figurines. “And the maid wins!” he cackled. His nose was running, and he sniffed repeatedly. It was pitiful to see, and utterly haunting.
I’ve almost finished my big book – there’s a terrible old character with a twisted gut called Hanlon – and now I have a whole novel growing in the notebooks too. I can see almost all of it. It’s set in Prague and I shall call it “Utz” – “Utz!” Anyway, one day you must tell people Redders, but not now. It’s a fable. It’s all there, ready-made. And the moral is simple: never kill yourself. Not under any circumstances. Not even when you’re told you have AIDS.
Redmond O’Hanlon – Congo Journey
Chatwin had considered taking a trip to Switzerland, to the top of the Jungfraujoch, and jumping off. Or of going back to Mauritania, to the nomads there, and just taking off all his clothes and walking off into the desert. But he couldn’t do it. As Hermann Hesse says in Steppenwolf: “Suicide cases… are those individuals who no longer see self-development and fulfilment as their life’s aim, but rather the dissolution of self, a return to the womb, to God, to the cosmos… They see death as their saviour, not life, and they are prepared to jettison, abandon and extinguish themselves in order to return to their origins.” Chatwin, though, knew deep down that he wasn’t prepared to give up like that. That self-development and fulfilment was something to follow to the end, to be “defeated and laid low by life itself, rather than by one’s own hand”.
Dad looked up from his paper and frowned. “Poor chap. He really does look ill.” Grandpa’s paper came down and he peered at the screen. There was something mesmerising in this ghoulish spectacle – Chatwin’s passion for his subject, his enthusiasm and the fire in him despite his failing body. He spoke, in that strange, slightly querulous voice, of art, and Patagonia, of Aborigines going Walkabout, and nomadism, and the aesthetic imperative that leads to the mania for collecting, possessing that which cannot be possessed. “Of course, art always lets you down.”
Chatwin died soon after that interview. I didn’t know who he was at the time, and hadn’t read any of his books, but I have never forgotten it. In the writing of this piece, to try to confirm the accuracy of my own memory of the event, I searched for the interview online, and found a clip of it. I wondered whether to include it; people should remember him as he was when he was well, remember him for his writing, his beauty, his manic intelligence, his adventurous spirit and his extraordinary journeys. Not as a gaunt and haunted figure with so much still to say in the few remaining moments of lucidity left to him. His mind was going. But it was him, unquestionably, and still there, and still bursting with ideas and enthusiasm.
Though he was very weak and so thin you could see the white bones in his arms, his telephone was still plugged in to its socket. He was making and receiving calls, talking to his friends all over the world.
Redmond O’Hanlon – Congo Journey
Assisi was all about Saint Francis, and in numerous shops small plasterwork figures of him stood in rows in cabinets, styled in various poses. One of seven children born to a prosperous cloth merchant, he had a fairly wild youth, and had gone off to war against Perugia in 1201, when he was taken prisoner and held in captivity for a year. On his return to Assisi a serious illness led to what has been described as a spiritual crisis, but the following year he joined another military expedition to Apulia. On the way a strange vision convinced him of the need to return to Assisi at once and devote his life to God. He took a vow of poverty and spent the next years living essentially as a beggar in the surrounding countryside, wandering.
Reading the account of the saint’s life, I was put in mind of another soldier called Francis who had experienced a revelatory vision, but one who couldn’t have been more different. Sir Francis Younghusband, imperial soldier, diplomat and explorer, pioneered a route into Tibet on an espionage mission, and became the British resident in Kashmir in 1906. He became increasingly absorbed in mystical religion after an experience in Lhasa which he described as “a curious sense of being literally in love with the world”. He published a number of New Age books on his return to Britain, and became a proponent of free love, “the freedom to unite when and how a man and woman please,” as he put it, and wrote to his friend and lover Lady Lees saying: “I have made the discovery that bodily union does not impair soul union but heightens and tightens it”.
The Basilica of St. Francis was perched on a hill at the far western edge of Assisi – a site that used to be known as the Hill of Hell, as criminals were put to death there by being flung off it. Now it is known as the Hill of Paradise. The basilica itself consists of two churches, one on top of the other. The Upper Church was Gothic, the interior decorated with frescoes thought to be by Giotto. Overhead a cross-vaulted ceiling was decorated with golden stars on a deep blue background, and induced a light and airy sensation of soaring aspirations. Below, the Lower Church was an enormous crypt, entirely in the Romanesque style. It was dark and lit with the flickering flames of long, tapering candles. The atmosphere was one of introspection, contemplation.
In a nave off to one side there was a small chapel to St. Mary Magdalen, and at a bench before the altar a priest was praying with his eyes shut – a man in his 50s, with tight-curled iron-grey hair – his hands clasped before him, lips moving silently. As I entered the nave soundlessly on my rubber-soled shoes he suddenly looked up, startled, and saw me. I wondered what psychic field I had brought into the church to interrupt him so. What was the state of my soul, to have this effect? It meant no harm. We held each other’s gaze, deeply and questioningly, wide-eyed as if seeing something in each other for the first time. Then, embarrassed at disturbing him, I dipped my head, placed my hand over my heart in apology in the Islamic manner – a gesture I have always found touchingly respectful, however automatically ingrained it may become – and retreated. He closed his eyes and resumed his prayer once more. Perhaps I could have gone and prayed next to him. But I didn’t have his faith, and felt no urge to – no Franciscan revelation impelling me to do so.
I’ve always been interested in accounts of life-changing revelations. As humans we walk along our familiar pathways too often with eyes half-shut, and have at times to make a deliberate effort of will to notice things. Travel can introduce a kind of artificial jolt to the system, where you are physically transported to a different environment which sends you into a kind of sensory overload, where everything is unfamiliar so you are forced to see with new eyes; not just physically transported but also spiritually. And yet you can’t induce the pliant and open state of mind that is necessary to achieve this artificially – merely travelling somewhere different is not enough; one has to endeavour to see differently too. A concert can do it, music transporting you, manifesting itself in great emotion – your hair stands on end, your eyes fill with tears and you feel unable to breathe, filled with love. It leaves you changed somehow. Art can do it – I remember standing before a Caravaggio and having that same sensation, of a great pressure building up within me, right in the centre of my forehead, and I felt deeply moved and filled with tenderness. It transports us in time and space and we are not the same afterwards; we have altered our gaze and induced a new perspective, become beautifully broken.
I read a review the other day of an art exhibition in Goa: Julian Opie’s landscape prints titled “Winter”. Reviewer Madhavi Gore described the artist using satellite imagery and Google mapping to convey the wintry French landscape, there in steamy, tropical Goa, and spoke of the tradition of landscape painting as being rooted in the desire to possess, to inhabit those landscapes, in a claim of ownership: “Opie’s installation reminds us of humankind’s constant and consistent need to plot and map our footprint or location, and acquire a position of perspective – visual, aural, existential.”
It made me think about that action of plotting and mapping. What was the one group of people who did this to a greater extent than anyone else? People who actually described their world as it occured, footstep by footstep, mapping its features and by doing so, bringing it into being, constructing their own creation mythology in the process? It was the Australian Aborigines. The Songlines.
In the early 1980s Bruce Chatwin travelled to Australia, inspired by a book he had read, Theodor Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia. Chatwin had been trying to write a book on nomads for years, but had got bogged down in the weight of research and had to abandon it. Now, Strehlow’s account of Aborigine traditions and mythology suddenly shone a new light on the subject. For Chatwin it was the missing piece in the jigsaw, or rather several missing pieces. He couldn’t quite see how it was going to fit together, but knew that this was an important area that was little understood, and felt “it might answer for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness”. The book he ended up writing, The Songlines, described how the Aborigines, despite belonging to many different tribal groups, dispersed across vast distances and with often no language in common, nevertheless had a similar series of creation myths or ‘songs’, which connected together. In their songs they had created not just a physical map of their immediate surroundings, but also a moral universe, and these formed a network that spread out across the continent of Australia:
Every song cycle went leap-frogging through language barriers, regardless of tribe or frontier. A Dreaming-track might start in the west, near Broome; thread its way through twenty languages or more; and go on to hit the sea near Adelaide.
“And yet,” I said, “It’s still the same song.”
“Our people,” Flynn said, “say they recognise a song by it’s ‘taste’ or ‘smell’… by which of course they mean the ‘tune’. The tune always stays the same, from the opening bars to the finale.”
“Words may change,” Arkady interrupted, “but the melody lingers on.”
“Does that mean,” I asked, “that a young man on Walkabout could sing his way across Australia provided he could hum the right tune?”
“In theory, yes,” Flynn agreed.
Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines
“Walkabout.” As a term it is still little understood. Merriam-Webster traces it back to 1908, making reference to “a short period of wandering bush life engaged in by an Australian Aborigine as an occasional interruption of regular work”. Wikipedia adds that “the only mention of ‘spiritual journey’ comes in a usage example from a latter-day travel writer” – that travel writer being none other than Bruce Chatwin. But The Songlines was published in 1987. Was it really possible that there had been no deeper understanding of the term in all that time?
A film called Walkabout [spoiler alert] was directed by Nicolas Roeg in 1971, which was the story of two white children – a teenage girl and her younger brother – who become lost in the Australian desert where they are rescued by an Aborigine boy. Together they travel through the Outback, in a landscape which author Louis Nowra described as being: “of an almost hallucinogenic intensity. Instead of the desert and bush being infused with a dull monotony, everything seemed acute, shrill, and incandescent. The Outback was beautiful and haunting.” But it’s also a film about the mysteries of communication and cultural incomprehension. The Aborigine boy, increasingly drawn to the girl, paints his body with white clay in ritual and performs a courtship dance outside the hut where she is. He dances all day, and then all night, but she ignores him. That is to say, she cannot bring herself to look; we get the clear impression she knows what is going on, but lacks the equivalent language to be able to process it and respond. In the morning the body of the Aborigine boy is hanging from a tree outside. Rejected, he has taken his own life. And, years later, in an apartment block overlooking Sydney harbour, the girl stands in the kitchen as her tired husband comes home from work, loosening his tie, complaining about his boss, and her eyes over his shoulder seek out the distant horizons of the Outback again, and a memory of her and her brother swimming in a billabong together with the Aborigine boy, laughing and naked:
For we never hold hands, nor kiss,
Nor were we ever more than children.
Ricardo Reis – Come sit by my side, Lydia
In a caravan somewhere near Cullen, Australia, trapped by a storm that had turned the roads to mud, Chatwin settled down to write. He describes having a presentiment that the travelling phase of his life might be passing – a tragically accurate prediction, as it turned out – and wanted to reopen his old moleskine notebooks before the malaise of settlement crept over him. Twenty years of travel, questions, quotations and encounters, with the theme of restlessness and nomadism running through it all. Pascal, he remembered, opined that all of man’s miseries stemmed from his inability to remain quietly in a room.
“Could it be,” Chatwin mused, “that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?” (O’Hanlon recalled Chatwin telling him a story about a female southern albatross that wandered into the wrong hemisphere and built a nest in Shetland, waiting for the mate who never came.) The notebooks ranged far and wide, both geographically and metaphysically. And then, reading The Songlines again, in the section where he is leafing through the notebooks, one entry leapt out at me off the page:
Amdand u khandand u sokhtand u kushtand u burdand u raftand
They came and they sapped and they burned and they slew and they trussed up their loot and were gone.
A survivor’s account of the sacking of Bokhara by the Mongol cavalry in the 12th century. The rhythm of the Persian words describes the thud of horse hooves over the plain.
Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines
There it was. I had read The Songlines years earlier, and the line had embedded itself in my consciousness, the rhythm of it thrumming away until suddenly it surfaced again in the rumble of wheels over cobblestones in a small Italian hilltown, rather than hoofbeats across the great plains of Asia. The contempt of the nomadic Mongol horde for the settlers of Bokhara, undone by a sedentary life. A similar divide occurs amongst African tribes between the hunter-gatherers and the farmers, the cattle-herders who go in search of fresh pasture and the cultivators across whose lands they pass. Here, in these pages, was the book on nomadism he never wrote. And at the end of the book, in another eerie presentiment, which I find haunting and yet strangely beautiful at the same time, he describes being led to an ancestral site by his guide Limpy and coming across three Aboriginal men:
In a clearing there were three ‘hospital’ bedsteads, with mesh springs and no mattresses, and on them lay the three dying men. They were almost skeletons. Their beards and hair had gone. One was strong enough to lift an arm, another to say something. When they heard who Limpy was, all three smiled, spontanously, the same toothless grin.
Arkady folded his arms, and watched.
“Aren’t they wonderful?” Marian whispered, putting her hand in mine and giving it a squeeze.
Yes. They were all right. They knew where they were going, smiling at death in the shade of a ghost-gum.
Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines
Bruce Chatwin died in Nice on the 18th January 1989. In the last months of his life he had astonished friends by converting to the Greek Orthodox faith, and his ashes were scattered near a Byzantine chapel above Kardamyli, in the Greek Peloponnese. The chapel was near the home of his friend and mentor, the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, with whom Chatwin had stayed for several months while working on The Songlines. “There was never, not a word about God,” said Leigh Fermor reflecting on their conversations. But the notebooks told another story. “The search for nomads is a search for God”, read one entry. Another: “Religion is a technique for arriving at the moment of death at the right time”. Writing of a journey to Stavronokita on Mount Athos, he wrote: “The most beautiful sight of all was an iron cross on a rock by the sea. Just below the monastery the dark cross appeared to be striving up against the white foam of the sea.” And finally, one last entry: “There must be a god.”