Notes from the Field: looking for Bruce Chatwin in an Oxford archive

When I’m working in an archive, I naturally type up serious notes in a Word document. But I usually also keep a sort of running journal in my notebook as I go – not the stuff of serious, formal research, but just the images and thoughts that distract me, as well as any random ideas and emotions that the materials prompt.

In December I spent three days in Oxford, in the reading room of the Weston Library where Bruce Chatwin’s papers are held. This was for my Midlands3Cites-funded PhD research, and it followed on from similar trips to look at Wilfred Thesiger’s papers in the Eton College Archives, and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s records in the National Library of Scotland.

Today I found myself reading back through the notes. I’ve typed them up here, just for fun – a glimpse of a not-entirely-focussed researcher at work, recorded in real time during a very cold week. It ends rather abruptly, as these things do…


img_1408Monday 3 December

To Oxford by train on a wet dark morning. I’d slept badly, and dozed to Birmingham. Manic rush-hour change, then into wet country. At Oxford, the light clearing. Bicycles, menacingly silent.

I had a coffee and a pork and apple pie in a hipsterish café which revived me somewhat. Then on. Mud-coloured canals. A sinking city. The stone less honeyed in this wet dark part of the year.

Registration at the library was like a grand old bank. You sit waiting as if to discuss your current account. A nice woman registered me. She said I was lucky to be from Cornwall. There’s a declaration to read in which you promise to “kindle no fires” in the library.

Upstairs to the reading room. A long room with books around the walls to halfway up to the ceiling – “Old Maps in Japan”; “The World of Aldus Manutius”. A strange wooden ceiling like a damascene box, long study benches cross-wise, marbled wood. I sat by a window, high with square panes, giving out onto trees, a tall blueish conifer, and a thin rain now falling.

The poses of the researchers – fingers under noses, or across mouths or on chins. The involved stare at a laptop screen, the angled head in a pool of warm light from a desk lamp.

My place, a leather bucket chair with copper studs.


I’m here for Chatwin, but not quite sure what to feel or expect.

I have called up the MS of “The Nomadic Alternative” first. It sits to my right, MS.Eng.e.7838, in a grey box, date debossed 1998, acid free, lignin free.

It seemed the place to start. There’s a flatness. None of the apprehension of Thesiger or simple pleasure of PLF [Patrick Leigh Fermor]. Just a flatness, perhaps because Chatwin is so diminished as a man for me now. Am I simply going to find more objectionable idiocy here? Well, here goes, at a quarter past midday…


A neat grey folder within, a note on the cover, “lacking pp145–6”. And the first line:

“The best travellers are illiterate. Narratives of travel are pale compensations for the journey itself, and merely proclaim the traveller’s inadequacy as a traveller.”

Well fuck you, then, Bruce…

As I read on – only four pages in – it strikes me that had he been writing in French perhaps he might have gotten away with this…

This is cod-philosophy mostly, an erudite undergrad’s essay run wild.


Late lunch, sitting on the pitted steps of the Bodleian, cold, damp. I wandered a little – a flash of recognition, I’d been here before. The same bicycles by the fence around the R.Camera. Small tour groups, students in polo necks. There must have been – must still be – an incredible sense of possibility coming up here, one you certainly don’t get at Gloucestershire or Leicester.


I plodded my way to the end of the MS. It was pretty much unreadable – though here and there a fragment – on the Nemadi, on the nomad movement in Persia. Yet at the same time the ideas in The Songlines are all in place. It’s a strange thing – his writing had moved on massively, but his ideas really hadn’t.


It was cold after dark. I walked south to the room I’d got for the stay. An old terraced house, tidied up for guests. A poster for The Master and Margarita on the wall, Dostoyevsky and Dalrymple’s The Age of Kali in a cabinet. Thin wooden doors, stripped of paint at some stage. Quiet. I slept hard.

Tuesday 4 Dec, Oxford

Cold and bright, and a thin glitter of frost on the roofs. Liquid mist over the river. The Thames again – and rowers on the water in that stalled state before they start. Breakfast in a café, cobbles and bikes outside.


Back in the library now, preparing to look at notebooks.

I’ve called up two to start, in different sized grey folders. There’s something here of the old thrill of getting vinyl records in the post.

The first, 3742, is billed as notes from the journey with Toly Sawenko. The box is the size of an average envelope.

On the windows of the reading room, condensation melting to tops and bottoms of the panes.


A sinking feeling – his handwriting is just awful, the worst I’ve seen, indecipherable. Perhaps I’ll be able to tune in later. The notebook here is just a bog-standard reporter’s pad.

The next pad – a WHSmith spiral pad. I simply can’t read his handwriting. It’s like a language you only know a bit of. Every so often a line comes clear, you understand, snatch at it, then the next moment you’ve lost the thread again. Perhaps I’ll be able to tune in if I keep at it, but it’s not looking good.

Of everyone I’ve encountered in archives – Hayward, Raffles, Thesiger, PLF – Chatwin is certainly the most obviously daunting at first encounter.


Hadn’t entirely struck me clearly, but I’ve just realised that these exercises – with Thesiger, PLF and Chatwin – have all been based on the method I came to through my own Ghost Islands exercise.


img_1334Another two up now – 3700 and 3709 – billed in the catalogue as containing Songlines notes. These look from the packaging like they might be proper notebooks. Neat little grey packages.

A moleskine! Bigger than the commercial reinvention, the cover shiny, black, endpapers blue sugar paper, corners rounded off, squared paper inside, elastic to hold in place.

Inside he writes his address and phone number and offers a reward of £25 for recovery.

I start to spy some fragments of The Songlines here – and feel like I’m at something at last. This, always, is what fascinates me – the emergence of the book itself, not the journey.


MS.Eng.e.3709 was mostly a journal of the trip in China in 1985. There’s a strong sense here of the traveller’s working document – though desperately hard to read.

I think I knew, really, that Chatwin would be far less accessible through the archive than either Thesiger or PLF.


At lunchtime, wandered a little, cold and grey now.

Walking around the colleges – honey and charcoal – is like walking through a petrified pineapple field. Gothic and neoclassical – these are borrowed styles.


Afterwards, back to the library. More notebooks.

These earlier, from Africa, and here a few fragments of the writer at work, all in a tiny blue-inked hand. Journey in Niger – Barmou.


Evening, back to guesthouse, ate a ready-meal (lamb curry) and sat on my bed reading The Songlines.

Wednesday 5 December Oxford

Damp, mild morning. Walked up to the library with my suitcase.


This morning there was more of a sense of the process, though still opaque.

When will I learn? The immediate attraction is to the notes made on a journey – Thesiger’s journals, the Green Diary, the moleskines. But always the real fascination is in the production of the book itself, which may be rather far removed from any such notes.


Intriguing sort of note-form draft of TSL [The Songlines] – he did a lot of note-typing.


At lunchtime – a sandwich from the “tuck shop” across the way, then ate while walking on wet pavements to the Pitt Rivers – glorious mash of cabinets, a wayang puppet, a Kalasha effigy.

This is, of course, a problematic museum. But if some impressionable youth thrills to a label mentioning “Naga Hills” or “Java” or “Shan State” can that actually be a bad thing – especially if he or she actually goes there? Same goes for travel books, of course.

Walked back, a lowering light. Coffee in the tearoom. School tables.


After lunch, to look at later drafts. First up MS.Eng.d.3996, tagged “Final draft for copy setters”.

[And that evening I caught a very crowded train back to Leicester.]

© Tim Hannigan 2018

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