William Dalrymple in the Times Literary Supplement:
In the autumn of 1986, the painter Derek Hill rang out of the blue and invited me to lunch at his club in St James’s. He was then about seventy; I was twenty-one. I was just back from a journey following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, and Derek wanted me to bring to the lunch some of the Mongol roof tiles I had found at Polo’s final destination, Kubla Khan’s summer palace at Xanadu. The lunch, he explained, was for a friend of his who particularly wanted to see them.
That friend turned out to be Bruce Chatwin, and the lunch was one of those encounters that happen only once or twice in a lifetime and that really do change the direction you end up taking. Chatwin, I thought, was simply astounding. As we sat in the panelled dining room, surrounded by whispering pin-striped clubmen, my small fragments of glazed tile were the starting point for a conversational riff that moved from the nomads of Mongolia in the thirteenth century and cantered over the steppes to Timurid Herat, then leapt polymathically to Ibn Battuta, Ibn Khaldun, Sufi sheikhs and the shamans of the Kalahari bushmen; before long we were being told about Taoist sages, Aboriginal “dreaming” pictures and ancient Cycladic sculpture and thence, as coffee came, via Proust and Pascal and Berenson, to Derek’s portraits, and the latter’s story about sharing a railway carriage with Robert Byron who performed a pitch-perfect imitation of Queen Victoria, using the train’s antimacassar as the Queen’s mourning veil.
At the end, Chatwin limped off on crutches to the London Library saying he needed to check some references for his forthcoming book on the Aborigines of Central Australia…