Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin by Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare (eds) - review by Richard Davenport-Hines

Richard Davenport-Hines

Roving Correspondent

Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin


Jonathan Cape 526pp £25 order from our bookshop

In 1963 Bruce Chatwin wrote to his mother from Herat in Afghanistan. ‘The men storm about with artificial ferocity, flashing dark and disdainful glances. In fact their eyes are made up, but then the outward appearance is all important. Turbans are often yards of ice-pink silk.’ Behind a street of small booths there stood a caravanserai with a hoard of American women’s wear suspended and billowing out from every arch:

From Maine to Texas, from Chicago to Hollywood, the wardrobes of thousands of American ladies over forty are hanging into the breeze. Gowns that could have been worn by Mary Pickford, shiny black velvet with no back, or by Clara Bow, red lace and bead fringes, Jean Harlow, flamingo pink crepe off the shoulder with sequin butterflies on the hips, Shirley Temple, bows and pink lace, the folk-weave skirts they square-danced in, the crinolines they waltzed in, fiery sheaths they tangoed in, utility frocks they won the War in, the New Look, the A line, the H line, the X line, all are there, just waiting for some Afghan lady to descend from her mud-built mountain village and choose the dress of her dreams to be closely concealed under her yashmak.

Six years later Chatwin was in Kabul, dining with a Wellington College housemaster and his ex-pupils who were sponsored by the Anti-Slavery Society. ‘No spectacle … was more bizarre than one puffy public school master followed by three of the most exquisitely dressed and pretty and flirtatious boys,

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