Bruce Chatwin - The Songlines


My reason for coming to Australia was to try to learn f or myself, and not from other men's books, what a Songline was - and how it worked. Obviously, I was not going to get to the heart of the matter, nor would I want to. I had asked a friend in Adelaide if she knew of an expert. She gave me Arkady's phone number.

"Do you mind if I use my notebook?" I asked
"Go ahead."
I pulled from my pocket a black, oilcloth-covered notebook, its pages held in place with an elastic band.
"Nice notebook," he said.
"I used to get them in Paris," I said. "But now they don't make them any more."
"Paris?" he repeated, raising an eyebrow as if he'd never heard anything so pretentious.
Then he winked and went on talking.

For lunch we had beer and a salami sandwich. The beer made me sleepy, so I slept until four. When I woke, I started rearranging the caravan as a place to work in.
There was a plyboard top which pulled out over the second bunk to make a desk. There was even a swiveling office chair. I put my pencils in a tumbler and my Swiss Army knife beside them. I unpacked some exercise pads and, with the obsessive neatness that goes with the beginning of a project, I made three neat stacks of my 'Paris' notebooks. In France, these notebooks are known as carnets moleskines: 'moleskine', in this case, being its black oilcloth binding. Each time I went to Paris, I would buy a fresh supply from a papeterie in the Rue de l'Ancienne Comédie.
The pages were squared and the end-papers held in place with an elastic band. I had numbered them in series. I wrote my name and address on the front page, offering a reward to the finder. To lose a passport was the least of one's worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe.
In twenty odd years of travel, I lost only two. One vanished on an Afghan bus. The other was filched by the Brazilian secret police, who, with a certain clairvoyance, imagined that some lines I had written - about the wounds of a Baroque Christ - were a description, in code, of their own work on political prisoners. Some months before I left for Australia, the owner of the papeterie said that the vrai moleskine was getting harder and harder to get. There was one supplier: a small family business in Tours. They were very slow in answering letters.
"I'd like to order a hundred," I said to Madame.
"A hundred will last me a lifetime."
She promised to telephone Tours at once, that afternoon. At lunchtime, I had a sobering experience. The headwaiter of Brasserie Lipp no longer recognised me, "Non, Monsieur, il n'y a pas de place." At five, I kept my appointment with Madame. The manufacturer had died. His heirs had sold the business. She removed her spectacles and, almost with an air of mourning, said, "Le vrai moleskine n'est plus."

I had a presentiment that the "travelling" phase of my life might be passing. I felt, before the malaise of settlement crept over me, that I should reopen those notebooks. I should set down on paper a résumé of the ideas, quotations and encounters which had amused and obsessed me; and which I hoped would shed light on what is, for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness.
Pascal, in one of his gloomier pensées, gave it as his opinion that all our miseries stemmed from a single cause: our inability to remain quietly in a room.
Why, he asked, must a man with sufficient to live on feel drawn to divert himself on long sea voyages?
To dwell in another town? To go off in search of a peppercorn? Or go off to war and break skulls?
Later, on further reflection, having discovered the cause of our misfortunes, he wished to understand the reason for them, he found one very good reason: namely, the natural unhappiness of our weak mortal condition; so unhappy that when we gave to it all our attention, nothing could console us. One thing alone could alleviate our despair, and that was "distraction" (divertissement): yet this was the worst of our misfortunes, for in distraction we were prevented .