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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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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