"Bruce Chatwin’s memorial service was held on the same day that the fatwa was announced on Salman Rushdie. The moment I read this, I thought there might be a story in it. I liked the idea of one writer’s travels coming to an end just as another was being forced out on the road.
Nicholas Shakespeare’s wonderful biography and the documentary, In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, provided me with some of the details, but I would have to make up the rest. I hoped the tension that would arise between fact and fiction would prove to be an apt means of representing a writer whose books were always difficult to categorise in terms of fiction or travel literature.
The story, Blessed Is The Road On Which You Are Travelling Today, was first published in The London Magazine. I’m delighted that it has now been reproduced here on the Bruce Chatwin website."
'Blessed Is the Road On Which You Are Travelling Today' by Neil Herrington
Tuesday, 14 February 1989
You had never heard of the word until an hour ago, but already your designers are as familiar with the concept as they are with their own mannequins. To your ear, it sounds like the name of a Hong Kong Triad or a term from Jamaican quilting. Not a fat quarter, but a fat-wah.
Since learning the word, you have been unable to get the line of these legs right. Every time you’ve put pen to paper, the pleated skirt in your mind’s eye appears before you on the drawing board like a pair of khaki shorts. Your feet are surrounded by scrunched up sheets of paper. The studio floor looks like the bottom of a hamster’s cage. You rotate the wheel at the side of your drawing board to flatten the angle. Your mind is spinning.
When you started on this outfit, you had imagined it in powder blue, but now you can see that you’re going to have to make it navy. There are two foes doing constant battle within you and, despite your wild flourishes, the businessman in the dark suit usually triumphs over the popinjay in the turquoise cravat. You and your team would not be sitting here today, still hard at work after the events of Black Monday, if navy were not dominant.
Bruce was much the same, except that he claimed it was Cain and Abel who were fighting for dominion over him rather than turquoise and navy: Cain, with the farmhouse in Gloucestershire full of Polynesian spears and fish hooks, lacquerware from Japan and medieval wall-hangings, verses Abel the shepherd, free of possessions, migrating between the plains and high pastures. Bruce was never afraid to alter the facts if they didn’t support the story he wanted to tell. And in the story of his life – perhaps the greatest story he ever created - it was Abel who slew Cain, not the other way around.
Martin brings you your coffee at ten thirty.
‘So what would you do if someone put a fatwa on you?’ he says, settling the cafetiere on the table next to your drawing board.
‘You make it sound like a magic spell, darling.’
Martin has wrapped a blue keffiyeh around his neck. It drapes all of the way to his navel. Lapis lazuli, if not turquoise, is definitely dominant in Martin.
‘I don’t know why we have to honour these people by using their language as if it was our own?’ you say. ‘As if we understand them?’
‘Okay,’ says Martin. ‘So what would you do if someone sentenced you to death?’
‘Yes, you know, like Rushdie.’
‘Well, then I guess I’d become a nomad.’
You last saw Bruce in July, when his brother wheeled him in here, past your design team, right up to your drawing board. All of the boyish mirth had been sucked from his cheeks. He had been in mid-monologue as he trundled through the door, a Bedouin riding a metal camel, his bemused brother, a younger member of the caravan leading him out to his journey into the desert. That irrepressible energy, once transplanted into a sack of bones, made for a deeply disturbing sight - a revolting one, even. You were dubious when you heard at a party during London Fashion Week last year that our eyeballs never grow, that they remain the same size from birth throughout the journey of our lives, right up to the end. But it was so obviously true when you saw Bruce that day. His body was regressing toward the grave and those bulging eyeballs were broadcasting the full horror of the passage: the prospect of his final destination and the despair at all the work he would leave undone.
At first, you didn’t notice the Fortuny dresses he was clutching. You were too busy trying to keep your discomfort at the sight of his emaciation well buried within your own face. That had always been your problem with Bruce - the things he kept buried, the manner in which he curtained off the inhabitants of his various chambers like people inside the changing rooms of a high street store. You were only ever afforded passing glimpses of each other.
He tried to thrust the dresses into your hands, insisting they would help you with the collection you were working on. You were only able to keep from bursting into tears by remaining silent. You took a hold of the handles of his wheelchair, spun him around and pushed him out of the studio, leaving him on the pavement for his brother to collect. That evening, when you were back within the privacy of your own home – a home you had refurbished with him very much in mind, with its bare floorboards, white walls and a framed map of Patagonia in the hall – and had released all of the tears you needed to shed, you wrote him a letter.
You had acted like Cain, you said, wanting to possess him within the confines of that house in Regent’s Park. In time – time he spent wandering without you in Australia – you had learnt to accept that he could only ever live like Abel. It had been a difficult epiphany, but you had reached it and moved on. You didn’t want to see him again.
‘Did you hear me?’ says Martin. ‘Kensington Palace rang earlier. It turns out she’d like to see you at three this afternoon.’
The service starts at half past two.
‘I don’t think that’s going to be possible, I’m afraid.’
‘Oh,’ says Martin. ‘I’ve already confirmed the appointment. There was nothing in the diary.’
‘I’m thinking of maybe going somewhere this afternoon.’
‘Well, can’t it wait?’
You place your pen on your drawing board’s parallel motion rule - rather more firmly than you intend - and swivel around to face him.
‘No, Martin, it cannot.’
‘But, how can I…’
‘Just tell Her Highness I’m ill or something. For God’s sake, darling, that’s what I pay you for.’
Martin throws his keffiyeh over his shoulder, turns and walks away.
‘And anyway, Martin, how on earth could you possibly greet the Princess of Wales dressed like that?’ you shout after him.
You head into Soho for lunch and push penne around your bowl in Da Aldo. You cannot imagine creating anything of worth if you return to work. Without thoughts of food or fashion filling your mind, you start to feel as if one of your seamstresses is unstitching the very fabric of your being.
When you return to Great Marlborough Street, your legs take you straight past the studio and on past Liberty. You forget to inspect their new window display and find yourself ensnared by the torrent of shoppers gushing down Regent Street. You thrash your way across like a man lost overboard trying to swim to the riverbank. You wash up in Mayfair and head down Maddox Street in a daze. You usually feel a tug of curiosity when you peer down Mill Street at the entrance to Savile Row, but today it’s not even strong enough to make you contemplate your own suit in the window of The Mason’s Arms. It’s only when you reach New Bond Street that you start to think about your immediate surroundings. You can see the awning protruding from the front of Sotheby’s. You did not know him when he worked there, but you’ve seen the photos. He was always a boy to you, despite being twenty years your senior, but he really looked like a boy in those pictures, standing among the elderly men of the antiquities department. You often wonder how someone like you could have fallen in love with a man who, in his forties, still dressed like a cub scout.
Maddox Street becomes Grosvenor Street and you realise you’re approaching the American Embassy. His wife is American. She will be there of course. You don’t know why you’re still walking. Why do you keep forgetting that you don’t owe him anything? You should just hail a cab. He may have liked to claim that he walked everywhere – you know that he didn’t, because you paid for the taxis - but that doesn’t mean you have to walk towards him this final time. Long before today, you figured out that his wanderlust was nothing more profound than a means of staying beyond the confines of your house in Regent’s Park or his marital home in Gloucestershire. You wonder where all the damn taxis are. Maybe that was unfair. Perhaps his life was a quest to try and understand the peculiar and the extraordinary – nomads, Patagonia, Songlines. But if it was, then it was only as a means of contextualising his own extremes. If he could prove that the world was full of exceptions, then maybe he might be able to normalise his sexuality. Why are you going over all of this again? You thought it was all dead and buried. You don’t know why you are doing this, but here comes a cab.
‘So what do you make of all this nonsense about salmon rösti?’ says the cab driver as you head up Park Lane.
‘Does salmon rösti actually exist?’ you say. ‘I didn’t think the Swiss liked mixing cheese and fish’.
Your mind immediately travels to Oxford and to Bruce holed up in The Churchill Hospital, not long after his collapse in Zurich. That was when he told you he thought you ought to have a blood test.
‘I’ve just bought a copy of the book,’ says the cabby, holding up a hardback edition of The Satanic Verses. ‘Can’t make head nor tail of even the first page. It seems like two blokes are falling out of the sky, but I’m not sure. God knows what all the fuss is about.’
‘Ah, yes, of course,’ you say, leaning back in your seat. You try to think instead of Bruce in Bali and Venice: flashes of revelation; snatches of contentment. But both trips ended with him boarding a plane somewhere by himself, off on another quest; one that ultimately led back to his wife.
A couple of photographers are loitering on the steps as you pull up outside the church. You wonder if the books or the disease have brought them here. You fear it may be the latter and have no desire to be associated with it any more than Bruce did.
‘Do you mind going round the block?’ you say to the cabby. ‘I’m a bit early.’
By the time he has driven to the end of Moscow Road, down to Notting Hill Gate and back up again, you are running late and the photographers are still there. You consider pulling up your collar and ducking through the doors, but don’t wish to appear in tomorrow’s papers looking ashamed. You could of course ask the cabby to drive on, but instead you pay him and step out of the taxi with your head held high. Neither photographer bothers to look at you, let alone take your picture, as you step into the church.
An enormous cross dangles from the apex of the dome above the altar. As you make your way through thick incense smoke towards an empty pew, another dimension comes into view and you realise the cross is in fact a giant jack. You appreciate the designer’s intentions, but the overall effect rather infantilises the symbolism.
The church is small and the turn out strong. You can discern clear groups: the old effeminates of Sotheby’s; booze-blemished hacks; writers and travellers. Your mother is sitting with Bruce’s widow in the family section. You remember a friend’s mother once telling her boyfriend that she’d destroy him if he ever broke her daughter’s heart. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, apparently. But your mother invited the man who broke your heart to go and die in her house in the South of France. She didn’t tell him to fuck off and die. No, she turned her house into a hospice for him. She said he was irresistible, as if you were unaware of that fact. She said his suffering released a flood of compassion within her. You have no reason to disbelieve her, but it surprised you that his suffering was powerful enough to blind her to yours. Perhaps the bond between writers is greater than that between mothers and sons. Maybe it was easier for her to relate to Bruce - furiously scribbling his way unto the end, fighting the same impotent battle against the long night that all writers fight - than to you. It doesn’t upset you. You’re just curious, because you weren’t drawn to fashion in order to try and outlive your mortal bones. The odd silken robe is unearthed from ancient Chinese tombs from time to time; you and Bruce both considered the toga to be an elegant and relevant garment for the modern day as well as ancient Rome; but no one should go into fashion in a bid to cheat death. No, nobody should go into fashion for any reason other than the damn frocks. It’s transitory, fickle and more than anything, it’s a bloody business.
You take a seat at the back, among the writers. You know they are writers because some of them are trying not to laugh. They spend their days alone at their desks, creating imaginary universes and living as gods within them. You suppose they are unable to countenance the fact that today they are guests within the house of another deity. That or they are just glad the competition has receded a little. God, you can see the urn from here, resting on a little wooden table in front of the altar. You’d heard he’d been cremated in France last month, but had no idea that Elizabeth would bring the bloody ashes with her.
An Indian man rushes in with a woman and they sit in the pew in front. He looks as if he left the house with a full head of hair, neatly parted at the side, and it has moulted on his journey here until only a threadbare gauze remains coaxed across his scalp. If you were him, you would crop it much shorter. The snarly-faced writer sitting next to him leans over, places a hand on his shoulder and whispers something earnestly, but the Indian man is elsewhere, oblivious. You too feel unsettled. You thought you had been close to Bruce not so long ago, but the only people you really know here are his widow and your mother. It’s as if not only the changing room curtains have been drawn back but the walls to the store knocked down as well. Suddenly, you the people in Bruce’s life, the people whom he fought so hard to keep apart, are all confronted with one another. You wonder who here even knew he’d been in the process of converting to Greek Orthodoxy on his deathbed. You certainly didn’t.
After the priest has intoned the words ‘blessed is the road on which you are travelling today,’ he doesn’t speak another word of English, save for Bruce’s name. You doubt that anyone else here speaks or understands Greek - not even the man inside the urn. The writers snigger every time the sound Bruuuce emerges from the Hellenic incantations, all except the Indian man who is anywhere but here. Words are important to them and they don’t know how to behave when the tools of their trade are rendered meaningless. If only they opened their eyes, they’d see the elegant simplicity of the priest’s black cassock and the ornate extravagance of the cross that hangs around his neck. You could gaze at this old man’s celestial beard for hours and feel content to follow him as he leads you in standing, sitting, kneeling then sitting again. You’re very thankful that the ceremony is being conducted in Greek. You don’t want to be told who Bruce the public writer was or what you should think of him. You know what you think of him, although you could never express it in words any more comprehensible than the sounds emanating from this priest’s mouth. The main part of Bruce’s magnetism lay in trying to figure out who the hell he was. You don’t want any help with that.
You first met in Greece and are surprised that he is destined to return there to rest. There was nothing restful about that evening at the restaurant by the port. You were with a girlfriend and he with a group of men. It was loud and boozy and, as much as you hope Bruce finds peace overlooking the Messenian Gulf, it is eerie to think that his excitable voice will never again grace a gathering of friends at an al fresco supper. You spoke a bit that night, but it wasn’t until you had both returned to London and he called you up to invite you to lunch at his flat that you really started talking. You knew you were beyond help even before you rang the buzzer to his building that first afternoon - he had certainly deduced it. There were moments when you wished he would stop talking, when you’d had enough of being entertained, but they only lasted for a few minutes. Now, five books are all you have to fill the silence he leaves behind. He did have a tendency to repeat himself, but still, the prospect of re-reading those five books over and over again seems rather pathetic, especially when you consider the length of the ensuing silence.
Some latecomers have arrived and are shuffling closer to your pew. Although there is space beside you, they make no effort to sit down. One of the latecomers – a woman with what appears to be a dictaphone in her hand – is wearing the most beautiful pair of tailored trousers, with thick turn-ups and chunky belt loops. You realise this is exactly what you were trying to draw this morning. You remove a sketchbook from your inside pocket in order to capture these particular features. You don’t want to impose khaki shorts upon the high street, but you do want to reinvigorate the turn-up. When you finish the sketch, you flick through the other pages and look at ideas for necklines and some earlier drawings you made during a New Year’s party in Tuscany. Beneath some studies of renaissance doorways, you discover four lines of verse you have no memory of writing, although the hand is definitely yours:
You’re not a nomad but a rover,
Unwritten book upon your shoulder,
Where are you really going? Always home,
What other reason’s there to roam?
The writer next to you begins to chuckle harder and you snap shut your sketchbook. He is wearing big round glasses. As the service draws to an end, he leans forward and taps the balding Indian man on the shoulder.
‘Well, Salman, I suppose we’ll all be back here for you next week,’ he says and you finally realise who the balding Indian man is. Bruce had mentioned his plans to meet Rushdie in Australia when he was researching The Songlines, but you never got to hear whether they came to pass.
The latecomers begin to congregate more closely at the end of Rushdie’s pew, as if they were only able to acknowledge his presence upon hearing someone speak his name, despite the fact that they could all have seen him from where they were standing. For he spoke and it came to be. You notice they are all holding dictaphones or notebooks. The snarly-faced writer and Rushdie’s female companion try to lean over and push them back and it looks as if things are about to unravel.
Rushdie stands to leave, but he is not very tall and is soon swallowed up by the burgeoning press pack, who assault him with questions. You hear his plea that today is about Bruce, not him, but he must sense this is no longer true. As his threadbare crown is obscured by the journalists, you wonder who is more dangerous: they or the Islamists. The thought occurs to you that an Islamist could very easily be hidden among their number and you wonder if all of you in the congregation are perhaps in danger. You consider making an undignified dash for the exit, then remember how some people would fear catching Bruce’s illness just from being in his presence. You don’t really understand what Rushdie has done, but you’re sure he doesn’t deserve to be treated in the same manner that Bruce was. Ever since the news broke, you have worried that the word AIDS will obliterate Bruce’s books; Rushdie’s work must also face a similar threat from this new word, fatwa. You wonder if Bruce would be pleased or insulted that his memorial is turning into an international media event stretching from Bayswater to Tehran and beyond. Your guess is that he would dine out on the story for weeks if only he were able. When artists die young, it often seems like a drink or drug-fuelled inevitability - a merciful blessing in many cases - but Bruce had only just got started, really. There was so much about which he was still curious.
You manage to inch past the press pack and back down the aisle of this magnificent church, glad that Bruce is still trying to impose his style and substance upon you right until the bitter end. The sky is overcast, yet you are blinded by a murky light when you leave the church. Photographers are lining the steps, ready to snap you as you leave, although you now understand that they have no idea who you are. Were an Asian man other than Rushdie to leave the memorial before him, you sense the photographers would unknowingly expend their reels of film on the poor chap.
‘I’m glad you decided to come,’ says a croaky East Coast voice.
You turn around and gaze into the open eyes of Elizabeth. She is clutching the urn. It occurs to you that this is the only time she has ever truly possessed him and you’re relieved to discover you don’t resent her for it.
‘I wasn’t sure I wanted to,’ you say. ‘But I’ve been thinking about nothing else today. I figured I may as well be here.’
‘I’m pleased. And so would he be,’ she says, tapping the urn.
She has never carried any malice for you. She is unflappable, which you now realise makes her far better placed to have been Bruce’s companion than you.
Rushdie emerges from the church to an explosion of camera flashbulbs. The press pack chase him and his pathetic literary bodyguards down the steps and along the pavement, the sheep, the shepherds and the predator seemingly moving as one. He is not yet a man on the run, but he shall have to get going if he wants to survive the day.
‘We should be good at this,’ says Elizabeth, when the Rushdie entourage has disappeared from sight. ‘I mean, if loving Bruce taught us anything, it was how to say goodbye.’
You were feeling better, but are on the verge again.
‘I hear you’re taking him to Greece,’ you say, regaining control.
‘There’s this ruined Byzantine church he liked to visit when he was finishing The Songlines. We fly tomorrow.’
‘His final journey,’ you say and think how appropriate it is that the end of Bruce’s travels has coincided with the beginning of Rushdie’s inevitable flight into exile, as if Bruce has passed on an invisible baton. ‘I like what the priest said at the start.’
‘Blessed is the road on which you are travelling today.’
‘Exactly,’ you say, wrapping your hands around hers, still clutching the urn. You try to think of something else to say and are sure she understands this as you turn and walk away.
In the last twelve years of his life, he produced five astonishing and original works which continue to resonate with readers today, as this weekend's commemoration at Chatwin's alma mater, Marlborough College, proved. Sixth Form students had been reading and discussing his work in the preceding weeks, and were articulate and interested in the responses to talks by myself, Susannah Clapp and Nicholas Murray. One, in response to my query as to whether she believed literally in Chatwin's theory that humans are predisposed to a life of travel, told me: 'No. But I'd like to.'