Alan Munro on Cecil Roberts

Romance of the Road

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It is curious how a long sought-after book can suddenly reveal itself. Such was my luck when browsing among laden shelves beneath the old castle in Hay-on-Wye. Some years earlier a friend had lent me a copy of Cecil Roberts’s fascinating venture into the romance associated with the old Bath Road – that extended artery running westward by river and plain from London to England’s most elegant social watering-hole. The book’s vivid mixture of history and myth, grandeur and scandal, resolved my wife and me to retrace the author’s steps along this lifeline in our national story. It took ten years of searching before I found a first edition, wedged inconspicuously into the Hay bookshelves. At last we were off, guide and companion in hand.

Cecil Roberts, novelist, poet, dramatist, war correspondent, antiquarian and, I dare say, snob, was born in Nottingham, left school early and joined a local newspaper. He developed into one of the most prolific writers of the mid-twentieth century. By the time of his death in 1976 he had written 51 published works, including 21 novels, hardly one of which appears, tellingly perhaps, to have been reissued. But for anyone interested in places and their associations And So to Bath (1940) is a gem. Writing at the end of the 1930s under the shadow of war and in a succession of stages along the road’s hundred miles, Roberts conjures up a fascinating historical panorama from prehistoric times to Rome, the Plantagenets, the Tudors and Stuarts, the cultural glories (and social misdemeanours) of Georgian England and the Victorian prosperity and reforms that followed it, through to a philistine twentieth century which he laments. With a magpie’s zeal Roberts has gathered it all for us. For occasional fellow travellers he has the scholarly and spinsterly Miss Whissett, and Rudolf, an enthusiastic young Austrian student of English literature whose companionship may have held more than a passing charm for the bachelor

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About the contributor

When not engaged in diplomacy abroad, Alan Munro has lived at the London end of the Bath Road for fifty years. His light-hearted memoir of a diplomatic career, Keep the Flag Flying, has recently been reissued in paperback.

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