Songlines: making you question your travel and your home

Posted 27 Feb 2018 by Writing Squad in Writing Squad Reviews

Continuing our occasional series of book reviews by members of the Writing Squad, Charlotte Wetton talks about a travel book which made a big impact, and may do so on you as well.

If you like plots more than ideas, this might not be the Songlinesbook for you. The Songlines describes the author’s time in central Australia and his efforts to understand the Aborigines ‘songlines’ across their land, but it broadens into a hunt for a more universal truth about our species. Chatwin’s friend Salmon Rushdie described The Songlines as ‘an obsession too great for him’. Chatwin had previously written, but failed to publish, an academic book on nomads; and this book does read as one with a vast reservoir of thinking behind it.

But The Songlines is no dry opinion-piece. Its pacey prose and dialogue are enjoyably clear. The novelistic drive comes partly from the wonderful characters who appear from the first pages - the priests and policemen and activists who populate Alice, many connected to the Aboriginal land-rights movement. Scenes such as the kangaroo hunt – the traditional spear replaced by the front of a truck – are vividly memorable.

"Chatwin builds his case that nomads are ‘the crank-handle of history’ and that to be stationary is the cause of all melancholia"

Having lured you into this hot, dusty, peopled world, the book changes in the middle and there is a long section of extracts from Chatwin’s travel notebooks. Here are chance encounters on the road, potted life histories, quotations from philosophy, mythology, archaeology and ethnography. Through these snippets, Chatwin builds his case that nomads are ‘the crank-handle of history’ and that to be stationary is the cause of all melancholia. The narrative resumes, the notebooks inter-spaced with his time in Australia. He expands his quest for understanding to the human psyche, pondering the existence of ‘Dinofelis’ -  a big-cat preying on early humans, who could be responsible for the formation of our psyche around the terror of being hunted.

"this book expanded my mind. It made me question my own experience of travel and home"

I don’t know how much of this research may have been debunked in the thirty years since publication, but this book expanded my mind. It made me question my own experience of travel and home – what parts of mythology and anthropology spoke to my experience of the world? This is an intellectual read but it’s an enjoyable and fleshy one; people and places brought to life with Chatwin’s sparse style - such as the explosive haggle between an Aborigine artist and a white art-dealer. This is research through a life lived, a book that studies humans but that is ultimately concerned with humanity and human encounters.

Charlotte WettonCharlotte is a poet based in West Yorkshire. Her first pamphlet, I Refuse to Turn into a Hat-Stand won the Michael Marks Awards 2017, following a spoken word album, Body Politic. She has published in Poetry Wales, Staple, Stand etc.  She regularly performs across the North and will run workshops if the opportunity sounds fun. She is on Twitter as @CharPoetry


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