Sunday 4 May 2014

The Other Great Byron

I am re-reading The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron. It's the sort of book you should keep beside your lavatory, and then every few years devote some proper time to reading at length.  Lots of sensible people think it is the finest travel book ever written - Bruce Chatwin described it as "a sacred text, beyond criticism".  The majority cite it as a seminal influence on all the good travel writing that followed.

Byron published Oxiana in 1937, just four years later he died when the ship he was travelling in was torpedoed off the north of Scotland. He was only 35.  But he had lived through amazing times -- far enough away from the age of tourism to be able to travel in the old style; but also in the midst of the great historical upheavals of the 20th Century. He was a sharp observer. He spotted Stalin's monstrosity while H.G.Wells, Sidney Webb and others were returning from the USSR starry eyed. He also saw the writing on the Red Fort Wall about the future of British India.

Yesterday I pondered on this section from Oxiana where Byron, en route to Central Asia, is in Tel Aviv and meets a leading Zionist. Byron is impressed with how the settlement has developed but asks a simple question. He receives a dismissive answer:

"I asked if it might not pay the Jews to placate the Arabs, even at inconvenience to themselves, with a view to peace in the future. Mr Gordon said no...'If the country is to be developed, the Arabs must suffer, because they don't like development. And that's the end of it.'"

The young Englishman's question could still be asked 80 years later.

PS. One more thing about Byron that strikes me in 2014. How would he use his conversational, immediate writing style, which is energetic and often hilarious, if he was writing now? Would he tweet instead of publishing on paper? The answer is possibly no. He worked painstakingly hard on his words - it took him 2 years to finish Oxiana after he got home - to give the impression of "dashed off" diary entries.

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