Nicholas Shakespeare, the acclaimed biographer of Bruce Chatwin, follows the great travel writer on his final mysterious journey – to Mount Athos, a monastery overlooking the Aegean Sea.
By Nicholas Shakespeare
16 August 2010
A strange osmosis takes place when you write the life of another person. After Bruce Chatwin died, his widow Elizabeth gave me the maté gourd that he had taken with him on his travels, together with its silver bombilla – the metal straw through which he sucked his addictive tea, like any Argentine farmhand. At times over the next seven years, I had the sudden deep conviction that I was absorbing the world through his perforated silver straw.
In the course of following Chatwin’s songline, I met his family and friends – some of whom became my friends. In Birmingham, I had tea with the charlady responsible for dusting the contents of his grandmother’s cabinet, including the scrap of giant sloth that had formed the genesis for In Patagonia. “It used to put the creeps up on me, an old bit of blacky, browny bristly stuff as didn’t look very nice at all… I thought it was only monkey fur.” In 1991, I drove with Elizabeth from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego, to the cave on Last Hope Sound from where Chatwin’s cousin had salvaged the original hide – believed by the infant Chatwin to be a piece of brontosaurus.
In Sydney, I poked my nose into Ken’s Karate Club, a “sex on premises” venue designed in imitation of a fantasy Roman baths, with horned satyrs and concrete putti (from a garden supply shop). Near Alice Springs, I camped under the stars with the man on whom Chatwin had modelled Arkady, the protagonist of The Songlines. And so on, through 27 countries.
My biography of Chatwin was published in 1999, 10 years after he died of AIDS. But in all the travels I had undertaken, there was one significant journey I overlooked.
In 1985, following his second visit to Australia, where he had picked up a mysterious illness, Chatwin was in Greece, grinding out another draft of The Songlines, when he interrupted his work to make a pilgrimage to Mount Athos. Before leaving, he wrote breezily to the Australian novelist Murray Bail: “Athos is obviously another atavistic wonder.”
Up until that moment Chatwin had not impressed friends as religious. “There was never, not a word talked about God,” says Patrick Leigh Fermor, his host in Greece, reflecting on their conversations over five months. Elizabeth was, and remains, a practicing Catholic. In preparation for their wedding, Chatwin had taken religious instruction from a Jesuit in London. “Nearly became a Catholic,” he wrote in his notebook. Then, just before they were married, Elizabeth’s parish priest in New York State gave her a leaflet explaining why she should not marry a non-Catholic. “That put Bruce off forever,” says Elizabeth. Thereafter, his religious faith became subsumed in his nomadic theory: he believed that movement made religion redundant and only when people settled did they need it.
Since his illness, there were signs of a sea change. One entry in his notebooks reads: “The search for nomads is a search for God.” Another: “Religion is a technique for arriving at the moment of death at the right time.” While recuperating with Elizabeth in Nepal, his thoughts had turned to a man’s athos “in the Greek sense of abode or dwelling place – the root of all his behaviour for good or bad, his character, everything that pertained to him.”
Of Chatwin’s friends, the diarist James Lees-Milne and the artist Derek Hill were regular visitors to the sacred, all-male enclave of Mount Athos. He importuned both to take him. Lees-Milne recorded in August 1980: “No, Bruce, I said, ‘you can't’. I was, I fear, rather bossy.” Next, Chatwin asked Hill, who had visited 15 times. Hill was a friend of the Abbot of Chilandari Monastery, who could facilitate their permits. Finally, in May 1985, Hill agreed to accompany Chatwin. He told me: “I was slightly apprehensive because he was a great complainer. I thought he’d find the monks smelly or the beds hard or that the loos stank. But it was a revelation to him.”
One afternoon after his usual maté (mistaken by the cook for hashish), Chatwin walked to the monastery of Stavronikita, once painted by Edward Lear. He puffed towards it with his heavy rucksack. “The most beautiful sight of all was an iron cross on a rock by the sea,” he wrote. From where he stood – just below the monastery – the black cross appeared to be striving up against the white foam.
Then these words: “There must be a God.”
Beyond this entry in his notebook, Chatwin was uncharacteristically silent. “He didn’t talk about it, but I knew by his whole bearing that it had affected him,” said Hill. The artist had known Chatwin for 20 years and had no doubt that as Bruce gazed down on that iron cross he was ambushed by a spiritual experience that unfroze something in him. “I think it hit him like a bomb.”
Elizabeth says: “When he came back, he said to me, ‘I had no idea it could be like that.’ It wasn’t like his other voyages of discovery. It was completely internal.”
The memory of that moment returned to Chatwin a year later when he collapsed, hallucinating, in Zurich. One of his hallucinations was of a fresco of Christ on Mount Athos. Back in England, during a brief period of remission, he went several times to see Kallistos Ware, a Bishop of the Greek Orthodox faith living in Oxford, to discuss the possibility of becoming Orthodox. “What he wanted was to be received by baptism on the Holy Mountain since the Holy Mountain had played such a decisive part in his conversion,” Ware tells me.
Unknown virtually to anyone, Chatwin planned a second trip to Athos in which, as part of the baptism ceremony, he would renounce the devil, breathe and spit on him and return to Christ. “I offered to receive him myself,” Ware says, “but we were overtaken by events.” On January 19 1989, Chatwin died in Nice. At his memorial service in the Greek Orthodox Church in Bayswater, Ware relayed his wishes to a frankly astonished congregation: “Bruce was always a traveller and he died before all his journeys could be completed and his journey into Orthodoxy was one of his unfinished voyages.”
Last September, after finishing with Elizabeth the editing of Chatwin’s letters, I decided to visit Mount Athos. My aim was simple: to find that simple metal cross. But an English priest warned me on the eve of my departure: “Nobody goes to Athos by accident. Whatever you think you are going for is not the reason.”
Mount Athos is actually a finger of steep wooded land that extends 37 miles into the Aegean, culminating in a 9,842ft peak of crystalline limestone. The peninsula is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who stopped off here on her way to Cyprus and jealously forbade any subsequent woman to set foot. This rule, enshrined in AD970 in the charter of the Grand Lavra, the first of Athos’s 20 monasteries, stated that monks “may not defile their eyes with the sight of anything female”, a stricture not relaxed even in favour of chickens. Under Greek law, a woman caught on Athos today faces an automatic prison sentence of up to 12 months.
“With no one to nag them, the monks often live to a hundred,” says a stout pilgrim whose whiskers sprout at a brigandish angle from his chin. We are on board the ferry from Ouranoupolis, the only way to reach Athos.
It’s a bright, hot day. I elect to walk to the Monastery of Vatopedi where I am staying the night. The journey takes all afternoon, the white cobbled path twisting through woods of Spanish chestnut, past ruined stone fountains, over bridges spanning dried-up rivers. Thirsty and perspiring, I long for a freshwater stream to plunge in – although, from a former British diplomat, John Ure, I have gathered that Athonite monks deplore nakedness. Ure told me how, as a young pilgrim here, he once stripped off to splash himself in a stream, when a hermit emerged from a cave above him, screamed and ran off covering his eyes. Later, Ure arrived at the Grand Lavra to find the monks in a state of excitement. They had received a visit from one of the holiest hermits on the peninsula, who had broken his vow of silence to report a vision he had seen: John the Baptist baptising in his local stream – his telltale body radiating with “a shining whiteness unlike any normal mortal”. Already they were discussing the erection of a stained-glass window.
The gatekeeper at Vatopedi is Father Theano from Brisbane. Does he miss Australia? “The grace of God sustains you. You forget the past and keep an eye on the future.” He is dead to the world he has left behind, which is why he wears black. But Father Theano is far from gloomy. He brims with news of a minor miracle that occurred at Vatopedi last July. An old monk, Father Joseph, had died in huge pain with a terrible expression on his face. “We couldn’t close his mouth. We asked the Abbot if we should bind it shut, but he said, ‘No, let it hang open’ – and when we came out of the liturgy his mouth was closed in a tremendous smile. Look, I have a photo,” and from his black robe Father Theano produces a portrait of a bearded corpse with cheeks like polished doorknobs, beaming. “That is what sanctification is. It comes from within you.”
Vatopedi, founded in 972, is the peninsula’s second oldest monastery and its largest. Its luxuriant church accommodates 107 monks from 12 countries. I watch them at Vespers flit across the water-veined marble floor. Their destination: half a dozen holy icons which they proceed to kiss in a way that reminds me of a scatter of swallows sipping the surface of a glassy pond; then, adjusting their hats, they sit down in squeaking stalls, faces in mid-distance reverie, beneath frescoes that Robert Byron, revered by Chatwin beyond all writers, considered the finest in the world.
Chatwin was so enthralled by the chanting of the Kyrie eleison, the words unchanged for more than a millennium, that he made a scene with some noisy Greek pilgrims, “demanding hushes at once and interrupting the service”. My solecism is to sit cross-legged. From nowhere, a black stick appears and wallops me – the wielder, a small wax-faced monk whose long white beard accounts for a quarter of him.
Chastened, I uncross my legs and go on listening. To the singers, the plainsong serves to enthrone their veneration for the Mother of God. Whatever one’s belief – and as Patrick Leigh Fermor reminds us, “no living man, after all, is in a position to declare their premises true or false” – the mysterious scallops of sound are absolutely transporting to hear live. “To anyone who has sojourned beneath the Holy Mountain,” Robert Byron wrote of Athos, “there cannot but have come an intensification of his impulse to indefinable, unanalysable emotion.”
In roughly such a state, Chatwin must have shouldered his rucksack and wandered down to Stavronikita.
Father Theano watches me leave. He arrived on Athos 20 years ago, but has never done the walk to Stavronikita. “I liked walking when I was young, but all things in moderation.”
It’s late in the morning when the castle-like building comes into sight, perched on a cliff above the Aegean. There is no swell and the sea is smoother than shell. Suddenly I spot it. A small black metal cross on a ledge of white rock, facing the bay.
It’s too dangerous to clamber down, so I stand and contemplate it. I shall not attempt to describe the sensation of trying to shed the load of a 19-year involvement, but my anticipation is shot through by an extraordinary blankness. I realise that I had been willing for some sign or emotion, however slight, to tell me that my journey was really over.
After a long interval I turn and walk up the hill to the monastery, where a surprise awaits me.
Fumblingly at the gate, I explain my mission to the monk who brings out a silver tray containing the traditional offering of loukoumi (Turkish Delight), tsipouro (ouzo) and water. He invites me inside to look at the church. I follow him though a door, into a chapel at once more intimate than at Vatopedi, small, dark, marvellous. In pride of place beneath the gold corona, staring out from the top of a base shaped like a squat grandfather clock, is a glassed-in icon of a bearded man.
The face is composed of mosaic fragments and there is a deep gash from the left brow down to the lip.
The monk explains that the icon arrived over the sea of its own volition from Byzantium.
“And the gash?”
Caused either by pirates who tossed it into the sea, or else by an oyster that a local fisherman found clamped to its forehead when he dragged it up in his net.
“Who is he?”
The monk gives me an impatient glance. “Saint Nicholas” – to whom Stavronikita is dedicated.
A name can mean nothing. But in that moment, in that space, it humbled me to learn, as I gazed around at frescoes that depicted scenes from the life of my patron saint, a name can mean more than a lot.
* Under the Sun: the Letters of Bruce Chatwin, selected and edited by Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare, will be published in September by Cape