After Chatwin, a book that in some ways could not be more different – Will Self’s new Walking to Hollywood, which I’m also reviewing. Compared to Chatwin’s self-consciously lean prose, Self is baroque, fecund and profuse – in fact, rather like that, always using three adjectives when one could do. But both share a common interest in travel writing as essentially fictive.
Walking to Hollywood is heady stuff and the book has some brilliant flashes of genius as well as of over-indulgence. One shadow looms large over it – that of WG Sebald, the German writer who lived for many years in England and died in 2001.
Reading it, I was reminded that earlier this year I went to hear Self give an intriguing lecture on Sebald – whom with the intimacy of a familiar he called Max; he also pronounced his name to rhyme with ‘pay-cult’ (rather than ‘see-bald’), thereby elevating him to the pantheon of those writers like Borges whose name can only be pronounced properly by initiates … Read more…
The British Museum richly deserves the recent donation of 25 million from Lord Sainsbury. Over the last few years it has been playing at the top of its game, with some breath-taking exhibitions and intelligent curatorship. In Neil MacGregor it has a capable and charismatic Director, whose series A History of the World in 100 Objects, now just drawing to a close, has been one of the broadcasting successes of the decade.
But – and it is a very big but – there is one stain on an otherwise exemplary stewardship. Look around the Museum and the visitor will quickly notice that an entire continent has been side-lined, excluded from what claims to be a ‘world museum’. All the ancient civilisations have a gallery devoted to their achievements except one: South America.
It is as if the achievements of the Incas and their extraordinary pre-Columbian forbears had never happened: the wonders of Machu Picchu; the gold tombs and masks of the Moche, often compared to Tutankhamen; the Nasca culture who produced the famous lines; or the many other intriguing pre-Columbian cultures of the Amazon and of Peru.
There are a few objects scattered around amidst other wider collections – but no permanent and focussed gallery; nor has there been any exhibition about the Incas or South America for many decades; nor is the Museum planning to hold one, though it is perfectly possible– as Paris and New York do frequently – or to get long-term loans for a gallery. It is just that there is no particular will to do so. The Museum actually has plenty of holdings on South America shut up in the basement, left over from the old and now closed Museum of Mankind.
The centenary of the discovery of Machu Picchu falls next year, for instance, an event that the rest of the world is already celebrating – Paris has an exhibition right now – and which we are doing absolutely nothing about.
The last time that the Museum was given money and Andeanists expected a long-standing wrong finally to be put right, the new gallery unveiled was… a Watch Gallery. Perhaps this time around the money should be used to represent a forgotten continent.
Reading Bruce Chatwin’s wonderful letters recently – see my review for the Independent – I came across a detail that brought me up short: that Chatwin, while a mature student at Edinburgh, used to go to Glen, the country house of the Tennant family near Innerleithen. He writes to the deeply eccentric recluse Stephen Tennant about it.
So what? Well I went there myself a great deal as a teenager, as the son of the household, Henry Tennant, was my closest friend. It was a special place for me, about the only place I knew in Scotland, with its crazy Victorian Gothic castle and romantic glen leading up to a loch and trout stream where we used, ineffectually, to fish.
So the discovery that Chatwin used to go there as well had a special resonance. Not least because the place has been in my thoughts as its then owner, Colin Tennant (Lord Glenconner), another eccentric member of the family, has just died – see Phillip Hoare’s obituary. As a teenage boy, I found him a frightening but fascinating mixture of playboy charm and occasional irrascability; he was a nightmare to partner at tennis.
It was not a happy time for Chatwin – he found academic archaeology stultifying, as I often do – and he left a cold Edinburgh flat prematurely, with little money left. Glen was clearly a place of refuge for him; as it was for me.
Why do we like to think of our heroes as having trodden the same ground as we have? Do they leave some footfall that we can pick up? Walking with ghosts is something I increasingly find I do on my travels.
I sometimes go back to Glen as I know the current chatelaine, Tessa Tennant; and the next time I do, I will be thinking of Chatwin as I walk up to the loch and the glen.