Robert Byron by James Knox

A camp iconoclast turned warmonger

Richard Canning
Tuesday 23 December 2003 01:00
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"Anyone who reads around the travel books of the Thirties must, in the end, conclude that Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana is the masterpiece." So Bruce Chatwin began his introduction to the 1981 reissue of Byron's last work. Still, today, just two of Byron's eight books are in print: Oxiana and The Station, a study of Mount Athos written when he was 22.

Oxiana's unholy mesh of journal entries and discursion reimagined "travel writing", though Byron's debt to Norman Douglas was greater than usually acknowledged. Byron in turn influenced Chatwin so directly that - as the latter conceded - his own style sometimes approached pastiche.

The biographer of a travel writer risks being eclipsed by his subject, as any such gifted writer has already reimagined his experiences. Knox overcomes such challenges. This first life of Byron is deliberate and succinct, sharing his subject's strong sense of conviction. Of Byron's brittle, dogmatic temperament, Christopher Sykes, companion on his Persia-Afghanistan jaunt, coolly notes that his friend's death deprived acquaintances of "needful opposition".

This is a rather traditional book, concentrating on externals. I missed reflection on Byron's inner life: his self-doubt; his vulnerability to depression. These are present, implicitly, in Byron's pathetic pursuit of the gorgeous, aloof Desmond Parsons, his one "pash". Love letters beg Desmond for more time, affection or regard. He always feared he would lose Desmond: Hodgkin's Disease was to claim him at 26, with hideous efficiency.

Equally striking is the heroic aspect to Byron's perpetual antagonism. Efforts to conserve Byzantine monuments abroad and London's Georgian legacy each deserve praise. In both cases, Byron worked alongside others. His early certainty of the turpitude of appeasement alienated everyone he knew. As war loomed, he was deemed by Nancy Mitford "no longer suitable" for bridge parties. "Pity you're so red," she added, to the man she had once wanted to marry for his wit. This would have been galling, as Byron was among the first to understand the incipient horrors of the Soviet Union. The accounts of his journeys there in First Russia, then Tibet (1933) show extraordinary acuity.

By the Thirties, Byron was fully engaged with Europe's crisis, and, typically, knew what to do about it: "I shall have warmonger put on my passport." His most impressive journey is the one he could not write up: the maturation of a garrulous, camp iconoclast, best known at Oxford for impersonating Queen Victoria. Byron's last letter home - in 1941, as he anticipated war duties as an observer in the East - underlines the point: "I regard this as a glorious war and am glad to be taking a more active part in it." His ship was torpedoed; Byron drowned, aged 35.

He would prove hugely influential: on travel literature, on conservation, and on our appreciation of Eastern cultures. Knox might have proclaimed more boldly for Byron. Notwithstanding, this is a fine, thorough work, best read alongside Byron's Letters Home, edited by his sister and still available.

The reviewer is writing a biography of Ronald Firbank

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