Chatwin Colloquium: Susannah Clapp

‘With Chatwin, Portrait of a Writer’

– Susannah Clapp (literary executor for Chatwin and author of ‘With Chatwin’, amongst many other works.

The final lecture was introduced by Lower Sixth College student Katie Boden (LI, L6). 

Susannah Clapp began with the observation that her talk would be “more of a chat” – for Chatwin himself was a great chatterbox, as well as an actor and performer.

She underlined that she had worked with Chatwin as an editor when there was room for editors to act as midwives to the birth of books. Chatwin’s ‘In Patagonia’ was a book that “needed attention”: its form was not there.

Clapp first met Chatwin when he burst into her tiny office in the Jonathan Cape premises in Bedford Square, with a volume of Blaise Cendrars in the original French, as well as one by Sidney Smith. He carried one of his trademark knapsacks, handmade for him, with a pocket for books, pens and his own moleskine notebooks. And then, of course, there was the manuscript – for which Clapp had to write a report in her capacity as publisher’s reader. She wrote in that report that the many parts of the book, a mixture of fact, fantasy and folklore, did not compel her forward, though each autonomous part was riveting.  Her role, then, became to work with Chatwin on ‘scissoring’ the manuscript into publishable shape. It came in with chapter headings and they were got rid of in favour of numbers. The book was also cut by a third. However, the absence of personal reflection was there in the manuscript and stays there in the published work.

Clapp underlined for the students present that no writer comes fully formed, and that all writers benefit from editing advice. Chatwin was very happy to strike out pieces of text that had been highlighted by his editor – although he would often come back with new ideas and even more words to include!
Susannah Clapp then said that some of Chatwin’s  College reports can still stand as useful comments on that manuscript: comments on the tangential nature of his writings, for example, and that he was “too fond of the byways of historical accident… unfortunately, the examiners require fact!”

Clapp read an excised extract from ‘In Patagonia’ which involved the “precise physical description” so characteristic of Chatwin’s style (also to be found in John Aubrey’s ‘Brief Lives’). She said that the final work “captures aspects of all his other books”: nomadism, walking, collecting… Chatwin himself possessed few objects but he had his memories of objects, their “immediate aesthetic spark” – “he gave us his eyes”.

At home in England he had a tiny white flat in Belgravia in which everything was concealed. However, there was on the wall a great Peruvian feather shawl; there was also a great round tray in various shades of red brought back from Turkey and used originally by fishermen to sieve fish. His own photos demonstrate too his interest in ordinary buildings – huts – and things; he had a passion for corrugated iron and wood, for example, and things made of them – “art without the artists.”

His own work is essentially not about himself either: “In a strange way he is invisible in his books,” even though aspects of his work are indubitably autobiographical. “He was a vivid presence but he was also an absent presence,” she said – and one we miss very much today.

The Colloquium concluded with a Vote of Thanks from its organiser, Mr Ben Giles (BWG).

As part of the celebration of Chatwin’s life and work, a Creative Writing workshop (led by Nicholas Murray), and a Soiree of Readings were also held.

Sadly, the inclement weather prevented the planned walk to Avebury from taking place. Thanks go to Mr John Carroll (HM of B House and English teacher) for hosting the Drinks Reception, Dr Michael Ponsford (Resident Tutor of B House and English Teacher) and Mrs Ponsford for hosting supper on Friday evening, The Master for presiding over the event, and Mrs Leigh for hosting lunch in the Lodge on Saturday.

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