Robert Byron 1937. The Road to Oxiana. Penguin Travel Library edition (1992): London, vii & 311 pp.

A way of tasting a time and a place no longer attainable.

A few years before World War 2 broke out, a journey of nine-hundred-plus miles, by car and by horse, Venice to Peshwar through Iran when it was Persia, Afghanistan into India. Vastly understated narrative. Broken axles are nothing; diverse perils, incarceration, illness and much humour dismissed with casual economy of words. Many contemporary events and people are implicit and sadly over my head (would love to read a modern annotation). As are the origins of British post-war attitudes to Israel and Palestine, Jews and Arabs. To later readers, Byron’s acute wit and acerbic character assasination seems to presage Christopher Hitchens, even Basil Fawlty. And yet great good humour and a naked pleasure in the meeting of Islamic people, culture and architecture is the lasting impression, even if that represents a slightly rosy (according to some) representation of Robert Byron’s character.

Joy in short sentences.

This at last takes the taste of the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal out of one’s mouth.

The fleas of Azerbaijan are a formidable enemy.

Most of all, after such an epic 11 month journey, remember his closing words on returning to England. Never has anyone, even Homer, better captured the return from a voyage:

At Paddington I began to feel dazed, dazed at the prospect of coming to a stop, at the impending immobility of a beloved home. The collision happened; it was 19 1/2 days since we left Kabul. Our dogs ran up. And then my mother–to whom, now it is finished, I deliver the whole record; what I have seen she taught me to see, and will tell me if I have honoured it.

Robert Byron died in 1941 when the ship in which he travelled was torpedoed by a U-boat off Scotland.