Three Lessons We Learnt From Mr Bruce Chatwin
Mr Bruce Chatwin in India, 1978. Photograph by Ms Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos
Why the pioneering travel writer is still so important today.
When Mr Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia was first published in 1977, its prosaic tone and fantastical content redefined what travel writing could be. To mark the breakthrough book’s 40th anniversary, it has been re-released this month, along with an anthology comprising three of the writer’s novels. His sense of adventure, fanciful writing style and enduring legacy make him one of the 20th century’s most fascinating figures, and although Mr Chatwin himself passed away almost 30 years ago, we think there are a few things the wanderlusty nomad can teach us that still apply today.
01. DON’T STAY IN ONE PLACE FOR TOO LONG
Mr Chatwin was famous for gadding about the globe, and an insatiable curiosity took the writer everywhere from Sudan to the Soviet Union. But as well as Mr Chatwin’s life as a traveller, his career is also characterised by his flighty tendencies; he never stayed anywhere for long. Variously an art expert at Sotheby’s, an archaeology student at Edinburgh University and then a journalist at The Sunday Times Magazine, the restive Mr Chatwin was able to successfully turn his talents to whatever took his fancy. After interviewing the architect and interior designer Ms Eileen Gray in Paris, she showed him a map she had painted of Patagonia in South America. This sparked his wanderlust, and off he went, leaving his regular post at The Sunday Times to embark on a nomadic journey that culminated in his defining work. While we’re not suggesting you bolt out of the office on your lunch break to hop on a one-way flight to Timbuktu, a sense of adventure never hurts, and variety makes for a life well lived.
02. LOOKS AREN’T EVERYTHING, BUT THEY CERTAINLY HELP
As well as the reputation that Mr Chatwin won for his pyrotechnic writing, almost as often remarked upon are his striking looks. While good looks and good writing skills aren’t mutually exclusive, Mr Chatwin was an enviable concoction of both. Ms Susannah Clapp opens her biography of Mr Chatwin by describing his appearance, writing, “If [he] had been portly, myopic, and mouse-haired, his life and reputation would have been quite different.” Mr Chatwin was known for being fastidiously well-groomed, even while travelling. So whether you’ve been hiking up the Andes, or hitting up the supermarket on a hungover Sunday, let Mr Chatwin’s patrician cheekbones haunt your thoughts, and remember there’s no excuse not to look presentable.
03. ADAPT TO YOUR ENVIRONMENT
As if being a handsome and talented writer wasn’t enough, Mr Chatwin was also known for his chameleon-like style, which changed depending on his environment but always remained appropriate. He wore suits, silk ties and spotted handkerchiefs while working at Sotheby’s, for instance, and when travelling was fond of Breton tops, khaki safari shirts and a bespoke calfskin haversack, which he had made in Cirencester, each of its pockets designed especially to carry a certain item. (He was also known for wearing short shorts, long before they took off in the 1980s, but managed to carry them off with boyish charm.) While it’s not a prerequisite for a practical outfit to be stylish, it’s a skill that Mr Chatwin nailed particularly well. It’s difficult to say what he’d be wearing if he was still around today, but we think it would be pleasantly appropriate. Better to be too well dressed than not well dressed enough, after all.