Monday, 19 September 2011

The Road to Oxiana

by Robert Byron

Byron  was a pre WWII travel writer, indeed he died when his ship was torpedoed in 1941. The Road to Oxiana is the diary of a trip he made to Afghanistan in 1933-4, it can be read on many levels, from 'travelogue of an upper-class brit abroad' to the 'wanderings of an archaeological aesthete'.

One of the main joys of the book is that Byron is always well-written and forthright, for instance on the Venice Lido from the first paragraph :-
 The bathing, on a calm day, must be the worst in Europe: water like hot saliva, cigar-ends floating into one's mouth and shoals of jellyfish.

Lifar came to dinner. Bertie mentioned that all whales have syphilis.
The journey is travelling in the old style, things happen when they will, cars break, rivers flood roads, visas are granted and denied on a whim -his whole trip seems to run several months over its allotted time, and in the end he never does see the Oxus.

Byron's true passion if for architecture -I advise you to cultivate a knowledge of the squinch, it'll be useful for scrabble if nothing else- again the best I can do is to quote, this is about the Friday Mosque in Isfahan :

...But while the larger lacked the experience necessary to its scale the smaller embodies that precious moment between too little and too much,when the elements of construction have been refined of superfluous bulk, yet still withstand the allurements of superfluous grace; so that each element, like the muscles of a trained athlete, performs its function with winged precision, not concealing its effort as over refinement will do, but adjusting it to the highest degree on intellectual meaning.
 All in all it's worth taking the journey with Byron and listening to his story telling on the way. You wouldn't want to be on the sharp end of his tongue though -even if he does dish it out fairly impartially.

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