“Was he a cold fish?” I asked.

“A fish?”

“A cold person.”

“He was hot and cold. He was all things.”

–BC, from “Among the Ruins”
On February 1984, an Englishman with a rucksack and walking-boots strides into a bungalow in the Irene district of Pretoria. He is six feet tall, with fair hair swept over a huge forehead and staring blue eyes. He is only a step ahead of the illness that will kill him. He is 43, but he has the animation of a schoolboy.

Bruce Chatwin had come to South Africa to see the palaeontologist Bob Brain after reading his book The Hunters or the Hunted?. It was, Bruce wrote, the book he had “needed” since his schooldays, and it had reawoken themes that had been with him a long time.

“This is a detective story, but rather an odd one,” begins Brain’s classic text on early human behaviour, based on 15 years’ excavation at the Swartkrans cave near Johannesburg. Brain’s analysis of fossilised bones raised the possibility that Early Man was not a savage cannibal, as had been generally held, but the preferred prey of one of the large cats with whom he shared the open grasslands of Africa. Around 1,200,000 BC the roles were reversed when homo erectus began to outwit his predator, the dinofelis or false sabre-tooth tiger.”

Bruce Chatwin
by Nicholas Shakespeare

2 thoughts on “Chatwin

  1. This is interesting Bob Brain is a friend of my dad’s – he got imprisoned by the apartheid regime for putting on a display about evolution if I remember rightly.

    HOWEVER! as a former resident of Irene I’m shocked / appauled / horrified to hear it described by Nicholas Shakespear as a ‘disctict’ of Pretoria. The village of Irene grew from the Irene Estate owned by the Van der Bijls. Many residents may work in Pretoria and Pretoria and Johnannesburg have spread in recent years making the formerly emply velt a vast conurbation but it would be hard to find an Irene resident who feels they are part of Pretoria.

  2. I emailed my dad last night and sent him this link but he says Bob Brain was very clever and despite putting on exhibitions and displays disliked by the apartheide regime managed to escape being jailed for it.

    All the boys in Irene would take snakes found in gardens to him for identification. They would arrive at his house brandishing glass coke bottles with the beasts in them. He would marvel at how they managed to NOT get bitten by some very poisonous examples.

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