Travel Writer, Novelist & Journalist
Charles Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989) was a successful British travel writer who became an early victim of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
Chatwin was born into a successful professional family based in Birmingham, where his father worked as a solicitor, although Bruce was personally born in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, the home of his maternal grandparents, since his mother had briefly retreated there for safety during the Blitz.
For much of the rest of the war, the infant boy stayed instead with his paternal grandparents, whose home displayed a piece of mylodon skin that had been discovered by a cousin of his paternal grandmother in the Patagonia region of Argentina. This exhibit awakened in Chatwin a lifelong fascination with archaeology and foreign travel and directly influenced his own future travel to Patagonia.
To lose a passport was the least of one's worries. To lose a notebook was a catastrophe.
Although his family remained in Birmingham when World War II ended, Chatwin was sent away to boarding school at Old Hall, Wellington, Shropshire and Marlborough College, Wiltshire, instilling in him the discipline of self-sufficiency away from home. After developing a love of classical studies, Chatwin passed A-levels in Ancient History, Latin and Greek, and applied to study classics at Oxford University but was rejected.
Chatwin was instead offered a job as a lowly porter at London auction house Sotheby’s as a fresh school-leaver in 1958, after an interview was set up following a letter of introduction from one of his father’s legal clients. During his eight-year career at Sotheby’s, he progressed via cataloguing roles to ultimately take charge of whole departments specialising in impressionist art and antiquities. During this time, he became a frequent international traveller, visiting countries as remote as Afghanistan and Sudan to purchase antiques for private resale in the UK in order to supplement his income from his job.
Chatwin was bisexual and promiscuous during his time at Sotheby’s, but having become romantically involved with an American working as a secretary there called Elizabeth Chanler, he married her in August 1965. During their marriage, however, he continued to have multiple affairs with both men and women. During the 1970s, he frequented gay nightclubs in New York; and in 1980, he was separated from his wife at her request, but they did not divorce and were reconciled in the mid-1980s. Throughout his life, he kept his homosexual affairs secret from his parents, fearing their disapproval.
If this were so; if the desert were 'home'; if our instincts were forged in the desert; to survive the rigours of the desert - then it is easier to understand why greener pastures pall on us; why possessions exhaust us, and why Pascal's imaginary man found his comfortable lodgings a prison.
In 1966, he was offered a position of junior director on the board of Sotheby’s, but denied voting rights and disenchanted with some shady practices he had witnessed at the auction house, he left his job to study archaeology at the University of Edinburgh for two years, but dropped out after his second year and instead moved into writing.
From 1972 to 1974, Chatwin was employed as an advisor and feature editor by The Sunday Times Magazine, in which role he combined travel reporting with interviews. He took a hiatus from this role to undertake a six-month visit to Patagonia, having been inspired by a map of the region he had seen on the wall of a 93-year-old architect based in Paris whom he had been sent to interview for the Sunday Times Magazine, which had reactivated the curiosity he had felt regarding the region ever since his deeply affecting early experience of the mylodon skin on display at his grandparents’ home. A semi-fictionalised narrative account of his travels there was worked into an award-winning illustrated book called In Patagonia, which was eventually published in 1977 and spawned a whole genre of travelogue writing that flourished during the 1980s.
Upon his return to London, Chatwin was fired from the Sunday Times Magazine after a change of editorship in his absence, and moved into writing travel-related books as a full-time occupation. While researching in Bénin towards a biography of 19th-century Brazilian slave trader Francisco Félix de Sousa, Chatwin was caught up in an attempted coup d’état and arrested on suspicion of being a hired mercenary for the orchestrators of the coup. After being released, he completed his biography of de Sousa, which in the absence of adequate documentary evidence he chose to embroider with fictionalisation, and it was published in 1980 as The Viceroy of Quidah and adapted into a film called Cobra Verde seven years later.
His next project, On the Black Hill, a novel set in a Welsh farmhouse, was published in 1982, and won two awards, before also being adapted into a film released in 1987.
In 1983, Chatwin travelled to Australia to research Aboriginal songlines, leading to the publication of his 1987 book The Songlines, which sold strongly both in the UK and in the USA, although it is not considered to be a scholarly or authoritative account of the Aboriginal tradition it describes.
In 1988, he had published a novel set in Prague about a man obsessed with collecting Meissen porcelain called Utz.
In 1986, Chatwin was diagnosed with HIV, but chose to keep this secret until four months before his eventual death from AIDS at the age of just 48, which took place in a hospital in France in January 1989.