William Dalrymple, whose teenage passion for photography was superseded by writing, puts the theory to the test
In the gusty, blustery, leaf-blown autumn of 1986, the painter, Derek Hill, rang out of the blue and invited me to lunch at his club in St Jamess. He was then about 70; I was 22. The reason for the sudden invitation soon became clear. 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 Polos final destination, Kubla Khans 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 the travel writer Bruce Chatwin, and the lunch was one of those rare encounters that happen only once or twice in a lifetime and really do change your entire trajectory. Chatwin, I thought, was simply astounding. As we sat in the hush of 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 13th 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. As coffee came, the conversation moved via Proust, Pascal and Berenson to Dereks portraits, and his story about sharing a railway carriage with Robert Byron who performed a pitch-perfect imitation of Queen Victoria using an antimacassar as her mourning veil.
To read more copy this link into a new tab: http://www.theguardian.com/us