Robert Byron's first book written at the age of 21 has just been republished. It has been out of print for over 80 years but fans of "The Road to Oxiana" may have their loyalty sorely tested!
Some wise soul once suggested that we should never meet our heroes. In the case of Robert Byron’s recently republished “Europe in the Looking Glass”, the adage should be adapted to: “Never read your hero’s first book”. Robert Byron’s “The Road to Oxiana” was and remains an absolute classic of travel literature but his first book “Europe in the Looking Glass” is a very different kettle of fish – in fact it is rather embarrassing. But what should one expert of a 21-year-old Etonian of the jeunesse dorée of the 1920s?
In 1924, Robert Byron was sent down from Oxford for “misdemeanours”, a euphemism which conjures up a tuxedo-clad and champagne-fuelled episode from Brideshead Revisted. As a result he was kicking his heels in London, and, having little to amuse him, he embarked on a trip with two friends to drive to Athens, stopping off on the way to see the delights of European culture. The project was – he remarked rather grandly for one of his years: “to further the new sense of European consciousness”.
Their choice of car, dubbed “Diana” in waggish style, demanded attention: a massive and flashy Sunbeam convertible that caught the eye of all passers-by, and received a few insults too along the way, all of which seemed to be water off a duck’s back to Byron and his chums. This was not a strenuous walking tour that depended on the kindness of strangers. Nor was it a character-building slog. Robert Byron clearly had quite enough character already, and not a few opinions. The various stops on the way always ended up in 5-star hotels with room service and hot running water. In this day and age, where rough and ready travel writing searches for hitherto untold delights and epiphanies, this all seems a little too cushy. To be fair, Byron was no soft-bellied aesthete; his indifference to personal hardship and suffering in his imaginative diary of a trip to Peshawar from Venice, “The Road to Oxiana” attests to that.
Received ideas were anathema to the young Byron and he would have done anything to shock. His lifelong interest in Byzantine art, which he saw as superior to that of the Renaissance, was the perfect example of a man fighting against commonly held ideas of little worth (as he saw them) – despite the fact that Byzantine art had by that time already been passed over as a decadent and flimsy aesthetic. Byron was not to be put off.
Information on the inside cover reveals that this book has remained unpublished for over 80 years, and we now know why. However, only a few years later Byron would pen the seminal work, so you cannot help but think the best of him and look for clues of his future genius, if only as an excuse not to lob the book in the bin. There are a few hints at future greatness but they are so well camouflaged as opinionated guff that your loyalty to the future Robert Byron is sorely tried.
The book offers few gems on architecture (one of Byron’s key interests) but there are some cringingly awful throwaway lines such as: “There can seldom have lived a good artist with such a capacity for bad work as Bernini”. One begins to suspect that having a strong opinion has more value than an informed opinion.
None of the travellers actually say “spiffing” but you they seem to come awfully close. No doubt it would be a mistake to judge the 1920s by today’s more republican and egalitarian standards, but there is no getting away from the sensation that Byron is travelling about with a silver spoon firmly lodged in his mouth. The book’s introduction by Jan Morris, is a tour de force. She loyally describes the travellers’ self indulgence and opinionated mulch as so much joie de vivre, or the faux incompetence of a more innocent bygone era –mere high-jinx and adolescent dogmatism. She is balanced and fair and more humane than many other reviewers will ever be, I suspect.
The key moments of the trip are the group’s Italian and Greek experiences, although Byron actually has little to say about Italy. His only contact with reality appears to have been a solitary walk through the streets of Naples where the poverty (one can sense) gave him a real shock. In Greece he is feted for his surname. The poet, Lord Byron, to whom he was a very distant relation, was still then a national hero to the Greeks for the part he played in liberating Greece from the Turks. Byron has a great deal to say about the massacre in Smyrna, when the Royal Navy stood by merely watching the Turks hack down Greeks and foreigners as they desperately tried to escape by throwing themselves into the sea. He does not actually say anything of note about Greek or Italian art, and is more taken up with his chance encounters with the Fascisti of Italy (who left him unimpressed) and wayward Englishmen floating about Greece, in whose company he had his friends behave appallingly, smashing their glasses to the floor to get the waiter’s attention in one episode – resembling spoiled brats with more sterling than sense. But then again, nobody’s perfect.
If you look closely, there are some seeds of his future genius – the unmistakable Byronesque turn of phrase and his telling descriptive power, not to mention his horror of clichés. It is surprising how quickly Byron matured as a writer and a man, as it was only a few years later that he wrote the very stylish, humorous and intelligent “The Road to Oxiana”, for which he is still known worldwide and which Bruce Chatwin hailed as “a sacred text, beyond criticism”. We will never know how he might have developed as a writer. Byron’s life was brief. A mere four years after his classic travel book was published, the ship he was travelling on in the North Atlantic was torpedoed and his body was never found.