Big-headed boy

Bruce Chatwin

Nicholas Shakespeare <em>The Harvill Press, 550pp, £20</em>

There is a sequence of photographs, of the passport strip variety, in Nicholas Shakespeare's Chatwin biography, which show Bruce at various stages in his life, from babyhood until just shortly before his death at the age of 49. Observing them, the reader has the momentary, disconcerting, impression of the subject becoming younger, rather than older, over time. It is an observation Chatwin himself would have enjoyed.

Looks were important to Bruce Chatwin; pivotal, indeed, not only to Bruce Chatwin, but to "Bruce Chatwin", the myth that he spent a lifetime constructing. Almost everyone who knew him - and certainly everyone Shakespeare interviewed in the course of writing this exhaustive, not to say exhausting, biography - commented on them. At his birth the maternity nurse is alleged to have said, with eerie prescience: "He's so beautiful. He's almost too beautiful to live." In later life he became a "Golden Boy", whose good looks, despite a disproportionately large head and "strange, cold blue eyes", were equally seductive to both men and women. And he knew it, too. He was so vain, attests his close friend John Kasmin, that even when he was driving a car he would become riveted by his own image in the mirror, leaving the vehicle to wobble, terrifying his passengers. They were not the kind of looks that translate easily on to celluloid. Another photograph, taken by James Ivory in the Oregon desert in 1972, shows a gamin Bruce in shorts (there are rather a lot of photographs of Bruce in shorts), tousled hair flopping into his eyes, hips thrust forward, thumbs hooked into his waistband. He appears to look not so much at the camera as straight through it, his upper lip slightly curled: an adolescent Christopher Robin stranded on Golding's island, the Lord of the Flies himself.

I never met Bruce Chatwin, but I know many people who did. He was that kind of person - the kind of person everyone wanted to know. Like many of his ordinary readers, I first came across him when I read and admired In Patagonia. In wintry but beautiful prose he told tales of a land as strange, in Theroux's analogy, as the land where the Jumblies live. Not long afterwards I was to travel a great deal in Chile myself so I heard a lot about Chatwin. Not all of it was complimentary. In Punta Arenas, where I had friends (the Campos Menendez family, about whom he had written both inaccurately and at some length), his name was mud. Later, as a fledgling writer, I tried to write some travel articles about Patagonia myself, only to be told by almost everyone I approached that it was Bruce's "patch". No one else's views, it seemed, were admissible at that point, even if In Patagonia was highly fictionalised, a novel and not a travel book. Chatwin's "Patagonia", for all its fantastic embellishments, had become enshrined as the definitive one. For a while, his name was mud with me, too.

In Patagonia, we are told, changed the definition of modern travel writing; but this is not strictly true. Or perhaps I should say that if it is true, it should not be. That Bruce Chatwin was, at his best, a writer of exceptional gifts there is no question, and English letters will be forever enriched because of him. Travel writing, however, that much misunderstood and gloriously ragamuffin genre, will not. Chatwin, like many of the greatest exemplars of the genre, eschewed the term "travel writer", a harmless snobbery in most cases but in Chatwin's case, for once, perfectly true. He was a fabulist, in a European or even Latin American rather than a British tradition. If In Patagonia is a novel thinly disguised as a travel book, then Songlines is the reverse: a travel diary that claims to be a novel. Not surprisingly, it is his least successful book.

Chatwin spent 17 years trying to find a vehicle to express his obsession with nomadism, a body of rather vague ideas that had its roots in his own inability to settle anywhere. An early, unpublished version of it, The Nomadic Alternative, ended up so convoluted that, he wrote, "not even I could understand it, let alone the poor reader". Part of the problem was that his theory - that people moved about because movement is the natural condition of man - is simply wrong; a poetic notion, maybe, but one that remains quite unsubstantiated by any more rigorous scholarship. "I've spent lots and lots of time with lots of groups," explains the British expert on nomads, Jeremy Swift. "All say it's nice to move on . . . but it's hell on wheels doing it. I remember the Bakhtiari women on the last bit of their migration sobbing with pain: 'Why do we have to do this?' " If Bruce had offered them a lift in his Land Rover it would have delighted them, apparently.

The Songlines, as the book later became, centres on the Aboriginal idea of "tjuringa line" or "dreaming track". The term, in Shakespeare's phrase, "is not translatable in any sense", but this did not stop Chatwin. Again, despite ruthlessly exploiting his contacts in order to short-cut his way into the material, Chatwin never gleaned anything but the most superficial understanding of the sacred "songlines" (a term he coined). "You have to earn mystery," says one Australian commentator who observed him at work. "It's only lovers who get there." In The Songlines the blurring of the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction finally implodes, becomes something phoney, even dangerous, at its heart.

It was not only in his writing that Chatwin was unwilling, or unable, to distinguish between fact and fantasy. In life, too, he was a legendary mythomane. Charming and funny when he wanted to be, he was adored by his many friends. He was also a social mountaineer, possessed of a gargantuan ego, and talked so incessantly that, as one friend memorably puts it, "he murdered people with talk".

Did any of them, even his long-suffering wife, ever really know him? Continually embellishing and even re-inventing himself, by the end of his short life (he died of Aids in 1989) he had transformed himself into a creature so rare that it is tempting to think of him as a kind of human curiosity, fit for a place in his own cabinet of marvels. As a subject of a biography he is both fascinating and repulsive, in about equal measures. Nicholas Shakespeare's scrupulously impartial analysis of this most complex man is to my mind quite brilliant.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Prepare for a brave new world

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture