November 5th, 2016


It is better to travel hopefully than it is to arrive

Book Review: The Road to Oxiana, by Robert Byron
If my previous book was an imitation of the 1930s, then this is the real thing, being the diary of Byron's journey with Christopher Sykes starting at Venice, across the Middle-East to Afghanistan in 1933-4. Allegedly an architectural adventure, the writing is at least as much ethnographic and political.

This edition begins with an introduction by Bruce Chatwin, written around 1981 and somewhat polemical on the then current state of Afghanistan compared to the 1930s. I have to say, to me it reads rather naïvely now.

It is perhaps reassuring, if not comforting, to discover some themes that weigh down on recent history in fact extend much further back in time. I wasn't surprised by his writing of the conflicting Arabic and Jewish perspectives in British Palestine; but it was novel for me to discover that the Soviet Union was engaged in border skirmishes with Afghanistan. Much of his time is spent in Syria, Iraq and Iran (Persia); in a bizarre attempt to protect his diary from any prying eyes, the Shah is referred to throughout as "Marjoribanks".

The overall impression is part Lawrence of Arabia, part Jonathan Meades, and part Agatha Christie - especially in his visit to an archaeological site jealously presided over by a German academic who forbids photography. Some locals are welcoming, others less so; more than once they are suspected of spying, and frequently the picture is one of a lawless country. Forever the victims of inadequate transport conditions and endless visa negotiations with local governors and dignitaries, the plucky Brits nevertheless do find many sites worth describing, even if they are not able to visit all the places they intend.