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Tim Mackintosh-Smith on Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana

From Harry’s Bar to Delhi

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‘What Ulysses is to the novel between the wars and what The Waste Land is to poetry, The Road to Oxiana is to the travel book.’ So says Paul Fussell in the first puff on the back cover of my thirty-year-old paperback edition of Robert Byron’s 1937 masterpiece. Now, as it happens, Professor Fussell – or rather his Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars – is sitting next to me, and what he actually said was, ‘Its distinction tempts one to over-praise, but perhaps it may not be going too far to say that what Ulysses is to the novel . . .’ etc. In the puff, the professorial hedging has been entirely clipped away. Still, it is high praise indeed. Is it deserved? That old stirrer Wilfred Thesiger thought The Road to Oxiana, far from being the great transformative work of twentieth-century travel, was ‘a lot of nonsense’.

I don’t know how many times I’ve travelled The Road to Oxiana. Probably a dozen. But one of the great things about books is that we forget them. Of course we remember if we liked a book or not, and we recall details, characters, perhaps whole chunks. From Oxiana, I always remember Shir Ahmad: ‘(m) Italian lady she sit beside me,’ the Afghan diplomat told Byron, musing on a visit to the opera in Rome. ‘She is (eyes blazing ff ) big lady, yah! great? no, fat . . . Her breast is (cr) too big. (mf ) It fall out of box, so . . . (pp) I am frightened. I see if it shall be in my face ( f ) I suffocate.’ We remember bits and pieces like this, and general outlines. But the universe of particularities that is a book is too big for a single mind to grasp and hold. So it is that I can set off again with Byron, heading for the blue yonder of the lands along the Oxus, but not really knowing where I’m going.

The Contents, a list of places, is a helpful memory-jog. We begin in Venice. Then

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‘What Ulysses is to the novel between the wars and what The Waste Land is to poetry, The Road to Oxiana is to the travel book.’ So says Paul Fussell in the first puff on the back cover of my thirty-year-old paperback edition of Robert Byron’s 1937 masterpiece. Now, as it happens, Professor Fussell – or rather his Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars – is sitting next to me, and what he actually said was, ‘Its distinction tempts one to over-praise, but perhaps it may not be going too far to say that what Ulysses is to the novel . . .’ etc. In the puff, the professorial hedging has been entirely clipped away. Still, it is high praise indeed. Is it deserved? That old stirrer Wilfred Thesiger thought The Road to Oxiana, far from being the great transformative work of twentieth-century travel, was ‘a lot of nonsense’.

I don’t know how many times I’ve travelled The Road to Oxiana. Probably a dozen. But one of the great things about books is that we forget them. Of course we remember if we liked a book or not, and we recall details, characters, perhaps whole chunks. From Oxiana, I always remember Shir Ahmad: ‘(m) Italian lady she sit beside me,’ the Afghan diplomat told Byron, musing on a visit to the opera in Rome. ‘She is (eyes blazing ff ) big lady, yah! great? no, fat . . . Her breast is (cr) too big. (mf ) It fall out of box, so . . . (pp) I am frightened. I see if it shall be in my face ( f ) I suffocate.’ We remember bits and pieces like this, and general outlines. But the universe of particularities that is a book is too big for a single mind to grasp and hold. So it is that I can set off again with Byron, heading for the blue yonder of the lands along the Oxus, but not really knowing where I’m going. The Contents, a list of places, is a helpful memory-jog. We begin in Venice. Then we spend quite a while in Persia, then move to Afghanistan, then – hang on – we’re back in Persia again; then off to Afghanistan once more. It seems we make no fewer than seven separate trips to Teheran along the way and end up, via India, in Wiltshire. Perhaps Thesiger had a point: as itineraries and narratives go, it looks nonsensical. I’d forgotten too that there was an Introduction to my edition by Bruce Chatwin. ‘Long ago,’ he says, ‘I raised The Road to Oxiana to the status of “sacred text”.’ Now, I respect Chatwin as a writer. I admire Thesiger. I trust the judgement of neither. So what is this book? Is it sacred, or is it nonsense? And then I’m on Byron’s first page, swimming at the Lido in ‘water like hot saliva’, drinking a cocktail of champagne and cherry brandy at Harry’s Bar (‘“To have the right effect,” said Harry confidentially, “it must be the worst cherry brandy.” It was.’) and wandering round Palladio’s Villa Malcontenta: ‘Europe could have bid me no fonder farewell than this triumphant affirmation of the European intellect.’ From there on there’s no looking back. Once you’re on the road to Oxiana, twisted though it is, you’re drawn along too fast to worry about lit. crit. It’s all over the place, the very opposite of the slow, single-minded Thesigerean crossing f empty quarters. The landscapes are densely peopled, heaving with characters and noise and smell and colour. Snapshots, snatches of dialogue, objets trouvés, realia, ephemera – letters of introduction, applications for travel permits – are pasted together with the artful abandon of découpage. Imagine a travelling trunk of Victorian times – one of those Wolseley valises, maybe, that turns into a wardrobe or a bed – grand, battered, covered in pictorial labels, and then transformed into a book – and you have some idea of what it’s like. The fact that it’s all done as a diary, the entries headed with place, date and, often, altitude, gives it the verisimilitude of three-dimensional movement through time. The fact that Byron’s verbs vault madly between tenses adds temporal disorientation to an already loopy route. (And this, not itineraries, is what real travel is about. Real travellers belong to a lost tribe.) It could all have gone desperately wrong, but it works brilliantly. All this is quite apart from the topographical interest of the book. In 1933–4, Byron and his friend Christopher Sykes were travelling through an Iran and Afghanistan that happen to occupy the same spaces on the maps as their namesakes today, but were in many respects different countries. One may still be able to find the odd pipe of opium in the Islamic Republic (to Byron, smoking the poppy-wizard with a policeman, it ‘tasted of potato’; perhaps he didn’t inhale); one can find booze flowing freely in certain households in Teheran. But what has happened to the Iran where one could pick up a bottle of half-decent claret in a wayside caravanserai, or assault a sanctimonious cleric – as Byron did – with a bottle of arak, and get away with it? Where Christian missionaries operated freely and openly (albeit making few converts – Archdeacon Garland’s score was one, during thirty years in Isfahan, and she reconverted to Islam on her deathbed)? Where any self-respecting city had British and American consulates (‘“Just in time for the ball!” shouted Mrs Gastrell, as we staggered up the steps of the Consulate’ – this in the Shi’ite holy of holies, Meshed)? And do Afghan soldiers march these days with roses in the muzzles of their guns? Byron, whose best comic writing relies on bathos, revelled in the absurd juxtapositions of that lost world: Othello in Armenian in Teheran, say, or Sykes discussing Gibbon’s Decline and Fall in Persian with a muleteer. Indeed, much of the territory itself was a comic misfit – between the Persia of ‘the Omar Khayyám fiends’ and the gimcrack-westernizing Iran of ‘Marjoribanks’ (Byron and Sykes’s private name for the Shah). Afghanistan, he felt, was in much sounder cultural shape: ‘Perhaps the Afghans have struck the mean [between tradition and westernization] for which Asia is looking.’ Seen from our own much bleaker present, it all seems rich and strange. So too does Byron himself. At first sight, he is an outrageous example of that all but extinct creature, the opinionated aesthete. ‘I came to Persia’, he pronounces soon after his arrival there, ‘to get rid of . . . the taste of the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal.’ What can one say? He only does it to annoy . . . But soon we learn to love this ranting arbiter of taste, to look forward to his poses and pontifications – and to realize how often his darts hit the mark. I’m not sure though about his attack on the unfortunate Buddhas of Bamian in Afghanistan: ‘It is their negation of sense, their lack of pride in their monstrous flaccid bulk, that sickens . . .’ (Perhaps the Taliban, who in 2001 destroyed the Buddhas with artillery fire – ‘we turned them into dust,’ they crowed, ‘then we made dust of their dust’ – were Byron fans.) It’s all enormous fun, but in the end it’s not the point. Byron was indeed an aesthete, but he was no intellectual popinjay. All this richness and rococo grotesquerie is here as the setting for gems – cool, cut, polished, glittering – of architectural description, which I will not quote. They are what the book is really about, and they can only be read in situ. Reading is travel; reading Byron is also seeing – seeing buildings like the Sheikh Lutfullah mosque in Isfahan and the Gumbad-i-Kabus, that extraordinary tomb-tower, caught in eternal take-off from the Caspian steppe. Illustrations are superfluous. So, is it sacred, as Chatwin thought? Yes, in a humanist way. The journey is mad on the map, but its sane and deeply serious intention – of looking at the material expression of human civilization – elevates it from jaunt to pilgrimage. The pilgrimage leads from Palladio’s Malcontenta and European rationalism via Islamic rationalism – Sheikh Lutfullah, the Gumbad-i-Kabus – to the beginnings of Eastern irrationalism in the ‘Indian and painstaking’ Qutb Minar, the huge thirteenth-century minaret of Delhi. It ends, touchingly, in England, with Byron’s mother: ‘What I have seen she taught me to see.’ And is it nonsense, as Thesiger said? Yes, in the sense that it explodes the norms of narrative and itinerary. Byron is the holy fool of travel writing, clothing truths about humanity and culture in a motley robe – the garb of Harlequin, the hazarmikhi or ‘thousandpatched’ cloak of the old Persian sufis. But is it the Ulysses, the Waste Land of Travel, as Professor Fussell thought it might be, if it wasn’t going too far to make the claim? No. Many before Byron travelled the same road, even if it didn’t lead to Oxiana. Byron’s inscribed copy of Norman Douglas’s Old Calabria represented, he told the older author, ‘the imprint of one mind upon another’. That imprint is clear to see. Byron follows, so to speak, in Douglas’s mindsteps. His inset playlets are inherited from Douglas; so is his narrative waywardness, so too the outrageous ex cathedra pronouncements (if anything, the old Scot was even more of a tease). The diary en plein air had already been used by, among others, Edward Lear, to brilliant effect – ‘I read and felt that I was there,’ wrote Tennyson of the painter’s Albanian journals. As for that rich vein of the absurd, it leads back via Lear to Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey and even earlier travellers: an exchange between Sykes and their light-fingered police escort near Tabriz – ‘“Are you a thief?” asked Christopher. “Yes I am,” he replied’ – took place in almost as many words over the border in Anatolia, in Ibn Battutah’s fourteenth-century Travels. The point is that, in Travel, nobody’s his own forerunner. In Travel there’s no Ulysses, no Waste Land – only Ulysses himself, and all the other travellers before and since, out there on the road, leading us through waste lands as yet unexplored. Some travellers, of course, are more visible than others. Robert Byron is one whose lead we cannot help but follow. He stands out above his generation, perhaps above all the travellers of the twentieth century. And this despite his all too short career: he died at 35, appropriately en route, on a ship torpedoed in the Mediterranean in 1941. Seven years earlier, Byron had halted at an Afghan wayside shrine in a grove of umbrella-pines. In the way that smells do, their scent suddenly transported him back to another place – the Pinetum at Ravenna, which he visited on his first journey abroad. ‘I might have been a dentist . . . but for that first sight of a larger world,’ he wrote. Thank goodness for Ravenna, and for all the other places that ravish us and set us on the road.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 34 © Tim Mackintosh-Smith 2012


About the contributor

Tim Mackintosh-Smith has always wanted to have a go at the prize suggested by Byron: ‘£10,000 for the first man to cover Marco Polo’s outward route reading three fresh books a week, and another £10,000 if he drinks a bottle of wine a day as well. That man might tell one something about the journey.’ Sadly, the prize was never endowed.

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