As goes blogging, so goes literature … or, … Bruce Chatwin, blogging pioneer

Used with the permission of the artist:

Bruce Chatwin by Shawn Yu:

Mary Roach on Bill Streever‘s Cold in last Sunday’s lead review in The New York Times:

Streever himself is a scientist, both by degree and paycheck, but writing for journals hasn’t muddied his style. Phalaropes, he writes, “swim in tight circles, their heads bobbing as if connected to their feet.” […] He sculptures lucid explanations and fires them with fine writing.

A warning: This is a book only in that it has a cover. It’s structured more like a blog. There are chapters, but they aren’t united by easily discerned themes. One begins with a few pages about El Niño, followed by a section break and then “The moose is so well insulated that. . . .” I fought it for a chapter or two, and then I gave in. The book is so interesting it doesn’t matter.

Portraiture in the form of cheap snapshots became as blah-unremarkable as sneezing in the second half of the 20th century — at least for westerners –- and must have struck many an old-fashioned portrait painter in exactly the way blogs do serious writers today.

Old ideas about both the purpose of — and frame for — art have been smashed beyond repair. It isn’t just that artists are free to make art entirely on their own terms. Our uses for it are getting steadily more idiosyncratic.

Consider this:

We say that we take pictures of each other to make records of passages in our insignificant lives. But when I want to reconstitute the feelings, sensations and state of mind I link to living in a particular place – say, wordnerd7 in wc1e-7au — photographs of me outlined against Bloomsbury’s Georgian façades are next to useless. After all, I hardly ever saw myself like that – or indeed see myself anywhere I come and go at all. Nor does looking at anyone I was close to in those years against once-familiar backdrops work anything like the time machine I long for: instead, I instantly begin to think of all those people as they are today. Stupidly, it never occurred to me to create a pictorial archive of what I saw walking to work or the food shops or the newsagent’s or the Goodge Street or Russell Square tube stations.

But my lust for time travel means I’ve discovered a use for the sculptor Anthony Gormley’s prosaically wacky One & Other public art project being staged round the clock in Trafalgar Square.

In spite of my slightly slighting mention of it in my last post, I’ve found myself returning to its web site – an obsessiveness that puzzled me until I registered that my heart was skipping beats with every panning shot of the sky, or seeing the sheen of moisture on streets surrounding the plinth, or observing figures wreathed in silvery mist scurrying under umbrellas to get somewhere dry – or sunlight glinting off plane tree leaves. I remembered how intently and with what keen yearning to be out at sea or in the country I used to gaze beyond London rooftops. The webcam pointed skywards restores my own inimate, personal London to me more munificently than any device, including a passage in an A. S. Byatt novel set in the building where I, too, once occupied a rent-controlled flat.

In other words, for me, One & Other has simply been enabling a superior form of London-watching. Unlike the single fixed webcam trained on Trafalgar Square that I bookmarked in my browser two years ago, the ever-mutating Gormley installation has given me a focal point – if only rarely a wow! experience with a participant like LilacBonzai, the People’s Plinthess, a marvel of protean playfulness.

Gormley understands. Art is about audience participation, now. It’s about expertise going to bed with amateurism and staying there, not bothering to wash the sheets. Experts, whether they make a bow to classical conventions and standards or ignore them altogether, are inspired by what used to be called outsider-art, or merge their own ideas with those of outsider-artists who once had no audience not made up exclusively of family and friends. We, the audience, make what we choose to of the results — which can bear no resemblance to the artist’s stated intentions.

Digital media and digital networking on the internet have been hogging most of the credit for these changes but in fact, have only sped up the pace of the democratisation of the arts. In every branch, the direct pre-figuring of what we see and read today began more than a hundred years ago.

Henry Moore, who made Britain a power if not the ranking world power in modernist sculpture, was originally inspired in his choice of profession by Michelangelo. Later, as a quick Wikipedia check confirmed for me, it was primitive art like Mayan-Toltec carvings that helped him find his distinctive style – after he ‘became uncomfortable with classically derived ideals,’ and was also influenced by the work of Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) and Frank Dobson (1888-1963).

In fiction, experimentation began early in the 20th century – unless you agree with those who think that Cervantes, who wrote the first novel, was also the first modernist. In non-fiction, I myself first admired Bruce Chatwin’s subversion of conventional structures for the contrast that this made with the elegant, sentence-by-sentence classicism of his prose.

Others will have their own candidates, but I was ready to nominate him the First Haut-Literary Blogger after I read the original memo on the manuscript of his first book, In Patagonia, by Susannah Clapp — the exemplary editor at Jonathan Cape whose help became indispensable to his work. She has described In Patagonia as ‘an attempt to give a “cubist” picture of that country.’ Her 1976 report on the manuscript said in part:

This is very extraordinary – and a possible problem. Basically, it’s a collage-like collection of impressions, memories, histories and stories about Patagonia loosely bound together by an intermittent first-person narrative, but mostly functioning more or less autonomously … I was impressed by each bit as I read, but didn’t feel impelled forward throughout the whole 350-odd pages. . . [I]f I weren’t so impressed by the matching of informativeness with intelligent description, I would say a sad no.

Her rare literary perspicacity can be deduced from her having discerned this author’s intentions so perfectly that his scribbling equivalent of cubism became even more so in the editing of his pages. She describes the book’s

angularity, its many small scenes and surfaces – one tilting away from another. The earliest manuscript was organised in this way; and in the process of editing – during which some sections went through as many as four versions – the book became still more angular.

I’ll know more when I have actually read it, but judging from the quotation with which I began this entry, I’m guessing that the reviewer, Mary Roach, is referring to a book written in the Chatwin mould.

In arts audiences everywhere, Chatwinesque fragmentariness and the Gormley style — which I nearly described as gormless, wondering whether One & Other is more an example of creative passivity or inclusiveness — have formalists and classicists tearing their hair out in disgust and despair. Against their insistence that ‘the rot’s set in well and truly, now’ – as one friend of mine put it grimly only last week, I’d suggest that it’s too soon to be pessimistic about artistic evolution in our time.

It’s a time of creative ferment. ‘To obtain perfection’ in growing a certain white wine in the district of Saumur, Isak Dinesen writes in one of her gem-like Seven Gothic Tales, the local inhabitants put off picking grapes until they ‘develop a peculiar condition which is called in the French pourriture noble, or in German, Edelfaule.’ That, she says, flavours the wine with what could turn out to be ‘the true odour of sanctity, or it may be the noble putrefaction, the royal corrodent rust of a strong and rare wine … or … both. . . ’.

That is what fermentation is. You cannot know which of its results are going to be bad or good – until you do.

Onward! the blogging revolution.


1. Only @exitbarnadine, posting until recently under the screen name @BaronCharlus, has so far come up with anything resembling a precedent for Harold Francis Bell’s sculpture of a woman in deep thought, Paulinewhich looks more and more as if it might be unique in the known history of western art. I recently encountered another self-portrait by a woman painter – the 17th-century Dutchwoman, Judith Leyster. Not as striking as @eb’s find, Artimesia Gentileschi, and not a patch on Bell’s thinker. In both self-portraits, self-consciousness unfortunately gets in the way of insight.

2. I sorted through all the choices Google Images offers for a portrait of Bruce Chatwin. Nothing appealed until I found the strikingly intelligent picture I’ve pasted in today. Quick sleuthing led me to the site of Shawn Yu –- who I was surprised to discover is only twenty-four years old. He’s a freelance artist.

Unlike all the other portraits of Chatwin I’ve seen, which celebrate his blond-god looks, Shawn’s drawing stresses his keen powers of observation and analytical turn of mind. I also seem to remember being told about Chatwin’s diminutive size, something that has somehow never been clear in other images of him.

I zapped the artist a note and was thrilled to receive permission to put his drawing here:

sure man, thank you for featuring my work.


Many thanks, Shawn, and best of luck with placing your work.



Filed under Book publishing, Editors and editing, Social trends, The blogosphere, Visual art & artists

9 responses to “As goes blogging, so goes literature … or, … Bruce Chatwin, blogging pioneer

  1. I meant to add to my footnote about Shawn Yu, the artist whose work I’m so pleased to be displaying here, that I wish it were always as easy to contact copyright owners as it was to find him — through one of his screen names, @gumkid.

    This has been my first successful attempt to make such a connection with a graphic artist and experience the generosity of ’sharing’ on the net.

  2. ISA

    Shawn Yu’s picture is brilliant Wordy. I mentioned I saw Chatwin once – at a TV studio and I was in the audience and he was with Borges. Someone took the piss out of me. Was it Billy Mills. I think it was. Or perhaps it was @cynicalsteve because I pretentiously applauded a metaphor.

    I studied Chatwin carefully because my mother said “He writes like an angel.”

    Didn’t quite remind me of the picture though. He was more boyish. Listened more. He was in awe of Borges, of course.

    It was a brusque – rather unsympathetic Basque teacher who took us there, called Ana de Ataola.

    I read, “On The Black Hill.” Did you Wordy? The description of the twins life. The hook was so strong – the house, the pillows where they slept – side by side.

    The twins go for a joyride round the farm in a light aircraft.

    My brother Chris gave Bobby, Andy’s father-in-law, just such a trip in a Piper over his dairy farm before he died. The farm is in Devon, in Hemyock.

  3. Glad that you agree with my choice, @ISA. ‘Brilliant’ is also the word I’d have chosen — if I hadn’t been going out of my way to avoid the merest taint of hyperbole. . . Every other portrait of Chatwin I’ve seen looks so bland and inscrutable by comparison with Shawn Yu’s.

    … About the discussion you’re in the midst of elsewhere — if I had children I’d want them to read both Pullman and Rand. Funnily enough, my parents also disagreed about A. J. Cronin. I don’t think that the more intellectual parent would say today that reading him rotted my brain — at least not irredeemably, since I think I still have the use of a small part of it . . . Then, surely everyone has to read Rand to understand the opposition to liberalism — and marvel at the idea of Greenspan as one of her most ardent disciples, for a while.

    On the Black Hill is a subtle and magnificent book. . . I think brusque describes the style of most of the Basques I’ve met, even those who have lived abroad for generations but kept in close touch with each other and the mother-culture.

  4. ISA

    What a great reader you are Wordy. How well you read what people write. I shall follow your example.

  5. Not shore wot u mene @ISA. I am hard prest to sie how I rede difrently from enny wun elz. Enny wae I prifir ryteing to redeing lyke enny uther bloggre. All so I enjoye lynking and joyneing eyedears and tecksts. Maykyng cuhnexions not imedeyetly ovvyus. Must not hav red the ryte bukes as a teene-ayger I susspecked. . . But u r all wiz so kynde. Thank u.

  6. ISA

    Wordy reading what you have written is like having a friend lean over and straighten your collar and smooth your lapel – you can feel the warmth of hir fingers through the cotton.

  7. Pingback: A serendipitous postscript to: Bruce Chatwin, blogging pioneer « acciaccature

  8. Generous as ever … but people read wonderfully elsewhere, @ISA … better than I do …

    I never fail to find tasty thoughts on this site, The Reading Experience.

    … where in yet another instance of serendipity astonishing (see latest post) I found someone thinking on nearly the identical, somewhat lonely track.

  9. Dear @Suzan,

    I’ll look forward to your report, if you have a chance to write before you rush off to stroke hippopotami . . I’d like to ask a favour. Would you please tell @Des that I have a message for him and it’s … &@+==)(*&^%$$#@@)((*&%%% ……! (he’s to fill in all the vilest and most ‘orrible words he knows there.)

    Why such a friendly salutation? Well, one of you – I’d guess you, because you’re so loyal – surely saw at least one of my two posts mentioning the Gormley One&Other plinth, and perhaps that I also came close to using the word ‘gormless’ … without any idea that your poet had gone all the way with that adjective … had written, in fact, the funniest and most informative critique on the subject I’ve seen anywhere without bothering to send me a trackback ping or put a brief invitation to visit his site, over here.

    . . . He allows whole geological eras to pass between blog entries, so can hardly blame _me_ for my failure to see it. . . Let me be clear: if, like @Sean Murray, he’s more or less given up blogging to devote time to serious old-fashioned ‘ritin’, all strength to his arm … But when he does return to the Blogosphere, couldn’t he do the decent thing and let a nerd know – when he knows he’s posted on something that interests me?

    For anyone else who missed @Des on Gormley, here’s the beginning of it … and don’t blame me if you shake your bones to jelly laughing at the end:

    Sunday, July 12, 2009
    Gormless Gurning
    Conceptualist Tony Gormley, a substantially subsidised intellectual ex-public schoolboy and deep thinking sculptor whose rusty works supply a metaphor for all that is (not) new, exciting, shared, (or) inclusive in Britain, and whose conceptually common experience of Britain mediated through the mind of an artist who can empathise with the average Briton so much they attract £140,000 of gambling tax to elevate pedestrians seven meters above Trafalqar Square for the incredibly creative removal from the common ground, (so) the body becomes a metaphor – has today been honoured for his contribution to the Culture of Foetry and Flarf, with an audience of compliant participants in stationary behaviour his genius has contextualized into generating Art whose Conceptual gravity and merit is wholly spurious, it has been alleged by Allegro Cortina, the grand-daughter of Conceptual Art founder Marcel Duchamp.

    [ continues … ]

    … I’ll have a bit more to say to him, after this post … What particularly exercises me about 1&other is that Gormley gets the credit merely for having the ghost of an idea for a project in which the participants do ALL the work of actual conception and filling in substance. It’s something like saying, ah … I propose a Volume E-H for the Encyclopaedia Britannica! … treating all the people who research and write the entries like dumbkopf apprentices. . . and then being fêted as the actual — indeed sole –author. Since when did merely having an idea mean hogging the credit – and being paid for it … though not, I think, the GBP140,000 @Des mentioned – perhaps more than that, much more … I don’t know what his take is.

    … One of the ironies of this glorification of the common man is that the most entertaining plinthers so far have been professional artists/entertainers … such a surprise, that … d’oh! … When a plinther fails to show up, the organisers put someone on their standby list on the stand at the nth hour – there was a frowsy-haired film director the other day, and yesterday a young woman who could easily have been a dancer with the Royal Ballet in mufti. They were both wonderful to listen to and watch, respectively – he ad-libbing about his life and political beliefs, and she executing a modernist ballet and demonstrating yoga poses — without any musical accompaniment.

    Mostly I watch the sky above the plinth – as I’ve said – but sometimes a performer draws my eye downwards.

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