robert byron

  • In praise of air travel

    (Photo by Vadim Sadovski)

    Would you consider a one- or two-stop flight from London to India? Or would you click the ‘direct flights only’ button every time? How about 21 stops, plus a rail transfer between Basle and Genoa?

    I’d bet no one would consider such an option today, and yet that’s the trip Lord Beaverbrook stood Robert Byron in 1932, weeks after the first Air Mail route from London to British India opened. He recorded his experience in the wonderful odds and ends travel book, First Russia, Then Tibet.

    It begins in self-deprecating travel journalist mode, moaning about the squalor of this new form of transport. But Byron ends up acknowledging that air travel has been a life-changing experience: 

    “I see it now as one of the great experiences of a life, a period of vivid, unclouded enjoyment in its revelation of a huge expanse of the world’s surface, of unsuspected and unimagined beauties, of heat and desolation beyond credence, of a new pleasure in physical movement.”

    His trip is scarcely believable today. Byron stands in the cockpit behind the pilot, his head and shoulders clear of the windshield, the air sending goosebumps down his arms as he surveys the land below. 

    He gazes on the Amalfi coast, the Gulf of Corinth, the White Mountains of Crete, the endless dunes of North Africa, and the corpses of Turkish soldiers still lying in a deserted fort in the Jordanian desert, over a decade after the close of the First World War. 

    Time for a spot of lunch?

    Byron enjoys scheduled stops for luncheon, and sleeps every night in an hotel. The carrier, Imperial Airways, lays on armchairs and morning papers in even the most remote desert locations. They land in time for tea, before a shave and perhaps a bathe in the ocean before supper. 

    One hint of the future of air travel occurs en route from Genoa to Naples, when they are forced to miss a lunch stop since the water is too shallow for their seaplane to land safely. In the event, the engineer produces a “typical Italian lunch of ham, salami, chicken, new rolls, cheese, Russian mushrooms, nectarines, and wine” to eat onboard. 

    In the age of pinched legroom, no frills and, finally, the moral yoke of ‘flight shame’, it’s breathtaking to read such a description of air travel. 

    “Unbuttoned, unshaven, and unfed, I clattered into the hall at a quarter past seven, to find the other passengers already waiting.” But never fear, for “we reached Gaza for tea”

    London to Karachi itinerary

    Day 1 – London to Basle (Luncheon: Le Bourget, Paris)
    Day 2 – Basle to Genoa (by train)
    Day 3 – Genoa to Naples (Luncheon: onboard the aircraft due to conditions on the ground)
    Day 4 – Naples to Athens (Luncheon: Corfu)
    Day 5 – Athens to Tobruk (Luncheon: Suda Bay, Crete)
    Day 6 – Tobruk to Alexandria (Luncheon: unrecorded)
    Day 7 – Alexandria to Gaza (Luncheon: unrecorded)
    Day 8 – Gaza to Baghdad (Luncheon: Rutbah, Iraq)
    Day 9 – Baghdad to Jask (Second Breakfast: Basra, Third Breakfast: Bushire)
    Day 10 – Jask to Karachi (Luncheon: Gwadar)

    Fast forward to the modern age, and find out How to Spend a Long Haul Flight

  • The Road to Oxiana

    Robert Byron The Road to Oxiana globe
    Wallowing as a joy-hog in Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana

    Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana is fascinating as a travelogue through 1930s Iran and Afghanistan, at a time when vehicular roads were in their infancy, ancient practices were in flux and the traveller could cross the path of Russian emigres fleeing across the border from Stalin’s Turkestan.

    It can also be enjoyed for its wit and verve. Byron writes as he speaks, albeit he speaks like an educated Imperial Englishman of the old school. It is in the brevity of his prose that the book comes alive.

    “They sell ice instead of snow in the bazaar.”

    That of Khanabad in Afghanistan. No explanation, no elaboration. Just the naked fact that speaks of another land and place.

    Of a night spent on beds next to their lorry in the Hindu Kush, waiting for a snowmelt river to subside:

    “Mosquitoes the size of eagles collected as though to a dinner bell.”

    The description took me straight back to a similar description of the insect life in Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation, when he meet Osama bin Laden one evening in the same mountain range. A warm evening in the Hindu Kush is clearly an opportunity to commune with all nature.

    It is not the only passage that reminds one of the passing of time. Afghanistan’s woes since Byron’s visit are projected on the contemporary reader everywhere. It makes Byron’s assessment of the two giant Bamiyan Buddhas – destroyed by the Taliban – all the more striking:

    “Neither has any artistic value. But one could bear that; it is their negation of sense, the lack of any pride in their monstrous flaccid bulk, that sickens.”

    He is equally damning about Persepolis – perhaps the defining ancient monument of all Iran in most tourist itineraries. It is undeniably refreshing. It is refreshing, because it sits alongside an ardent love of sublime architecture – in this case, Islamic.

    He swoons over monuments the wider world knows little of. The ruins of Gohar Shad Begum’s Musalla in Herat leaves him spellbound over this powerful Islamic queen. A mysterious tower – the Gumbad-i-Kabus – on the far northern frontier with Russian Turkestan, Byron regards as ranking “with the great buildings of the world”.

    And for all his Imperial Britishness, for all that he maintains a belief that certain innovations that had propelled the West to greatness must suffuse the whole globe in time, he has one of the sharpest eyes I have come across for the weakness of another import: nationalism and its attendant fawning mimicry of the West.

    He travelled Iran at a time when Reza Shah Pahlavi was attempting the same kind of repressive, top-down reforms that Kemal Ataturk performed in Turkey. Disdainful not only of Islam, but more broadly of Islamic cultures, these ruler sought civilised modernity in aping the trappings of Western cultures – such everyday edicts as the mandatory wearing of brimmed Western European hats.

    On arrival in Afghanistan, Byron is effusive in his admiration:

    “Hawk-eyed and eagle-beaked, the swarthy loose-knit men swing through the dark bazaar with a devil-may-care self-confidence … They expect the European to conform to their standards, instead of themselves to his, a fact that came home to me this morning when I tried to buy some arak; there is not a drop of alcohol to be had in the whole town [Herat, Afghanistan]. Here at last is Asia without an inferiority complex.”

    He was relieved to have left the faux-West of the Shah’s Persia. What might he make of Iran today, or for that matter, many towns in central and eastern Turkey, where alcohol is equally scarce? To dismiss such descriptions as betraying some sentiment of the Orientalist ‘noble savage’ is to be locked in a mindset that views Westernisation as inherently culturally superior. Byron’s perception can tell us much about the assumptions of the Westerner, the strange twisting of Asian societies that has occurred on contact with the West, and the divisions we still see today.

    Perhaps most important is the sheer wonder he takes away with him – a young man who would die only seven years after this trip. It is a wonder painted in colour throughout the book – “viridian poplars”, “indigo mountains”, “lemon-coloured cornflowers”, and the turquoise, pink, dark red, and dark blue joy of Gohar Shad’s mosque in Mashhad. In Byron’s own words:

    “It was as if someone had switched on another sun.”

  • Forget Disneyland. Venice really is the ultimate kids’ destination.

    A Venetian canal after dark
    A 2-year-old who first discovers Venice by night thinks it’s even more amazing. Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

    I arrived in Venice on the weekend that the city’s mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, had planned to put into action his new turnstiles, restricting access to certain main thoroughfares in order to deal with the crush of visitors in the early May weekend that is a bank holiday in the UK. A local residents’ activist group had already torn down turnstiles placed the week before in preparation for the weekend, and whether they were actually used or not, I’ve no idea, since I went nowhere near the main thoroughfares of the city in my week’s stay with my wife and two-year-old son.


    I was in Venice — just like Robert Byron in the laconic opening to his The Road to Oxiana— as a ‘joy-hog’. It’s a phrase that perfectly captures the experience of Venice for me, someone who has now visited five times, with different combinations of people, since my first solitary trip at a 25-year-old in 2004. I realised afresh, as I stood aboard a vaporetto bus-boat passing San Marco Square, that Venice is still the most extraordinary idea for a city ever conceived. The very fact that it exists outside imagination makes it constantly revelatory. It is a sensation that doesn’t seem to dull with repetition.


    It is also a relief. Time spent away from Venice denudes the memory. You begin to know it in caricature, just as we know anywhere that is so famous and so photographed. You forget, slowly, the real feeling of being present there. You talk to others about how it’s crushed by tourists, badly run, stinks in the summer. Venice is as far as it gets from being a newly discovered getaway — the untouched secret experience that excited veteran travellers can whisper about. It doesn’t avoid the day-trippers and the budget airline weekenders — it gets bombarded by them.


    Of course, if you stay in the darker corners of Dorsoduro or Castello, or delve deeper into Venice’s real soul in the housing blocks of Sant’ Elena or La Giudecca, then you won’t feel the tourist crush like a San Marco day-tripper, but you will still hear the eternal paean of the Venetian: no one can live here anymore, the cruise ships are destroying the foundations, the supermarkets are killing the grocers, the place is a theme park. None of what they say is false. It is all painfully true. Yet despite it all, as you ride the vaporetto with the lagoon wind in your face, you feel giddy.


    If Venice is now simply a theme park, then it must be the best theme park in the world. The idea stuck me as my vaporetto inched its way into San Zaccaria to dispense the masses into San Marco Square. All these willing tourists — Americans, Japanese, Chinese, Russian — all with camera phones in trigger positions, all waiting for their little moment to record history. If this is a theme park, where else in the world do you get a theme park built on such real, ancient foundations? They’ve tried to build theme park versions of Venice in Disneyland and Las Vegas, but this is a real city. It must bowl the tourists over.


    A city for all ages


    I could continue to wax lyrical about timeless Venice. It is an easy place to wallow in Lord Byron’s athletic swims, sink into Von Aschenbach’s deckchair on the Lido, or conjure Calvino’s elusive city among the canals. But this was not my focus on this trip. This time Venice was about boats — speedboats, yellow boats, red boats, dustbin boats, taxi boats, bus boats, huge boats, tug boats — wow! It was about gelato — Fior di Latte, Crema di Limone, Stracciatella, Fragola y Anguria! And it was about the beach (Yes, Venice has a beach). My reason? A two-year-old.


    Believe it or not (and most of the romancing English couples we met did not), Venice is a fantastic city for kids. Now, on the face of it, that just can’t be true. It’s one of the most tightly compact urban spaces in Europe, hemmed in as it is by lagoon water on all sides. Having been created in the Middle Ages, Venice never really did public space off water until Napoleon knocked down a section of the city to make way for the Public Gardens that are a notable green spot today. Despite there being a lot of squares, there are precious few playgrounds and you’d assume that a boathook would come in handy to fish the toddler out of the brine every five minutes.


    Despite these drawbacks, Venice is a kiddie revelation. My son met his first Italian playmate on the public vaporetto from the airport. She was on her way home from a family trip to the mainland and while her parents escorted us across the city from the Fondamente Nove to our flat in Dorsoduro, they both flitting, screaming in unison, down every blind alley they could find. There are a few. It was nighttime. We were crossing a city. Yet two toddlers were able to run, unaccompanied, ahead of us. They could disappear around sharp corners, to return a moment later, faces alight.


    This is the first and most obvious charm of Venice — the one everyone, of every age, screams about. No cars! An entire modern city without an automobile in sight. I mused that maybe, just maybe, this is what all cities will feel like in a hundred years? But for now, Venice alone is car-free, and it makes for toddler freedom. Fortunately, my toddler was just old enough to understand that water is water, and he can’t walk on it, quite. He might find lots of interesting things to prod on the edge of it, but he won’t hightail it straight off the nearest fondamente.


    With that established, Venice suddenly becomes a huge, adult-sized maze of winding streets and waterways, with gondolas and speedboats endlessly appearing and disappearing. My son was entertained one evening for about half an hour simply by standing on a small bridge and waving to each and every gondola as it came through on what was obviously a well-oared tourist route. The romancing couples sometimes responded. The gondoliers always did. Toddlers might get a lukewarm reception from couples on their big bonding excursion, but Italian men are utterly, totally besotted.


    This put the icing on the cake for my little one. Everywhere he went he was hailed, tickled, cajoled and fed by a panoply of actors eager to get a laugh, a smile, a cheeky grin — just something that told them they had his approval. He loved it. He loved the gelato man who gave him massive, discount portions. He loved the cicchettibar where his snack came free, plus free chocolate eggs. Hell, it even began with Luigi, our Easyjet air host, before we even took off from the UK, when he was showered with free stickers and pantomime faces.


    Plus, that beach. Okay, so most people don’t come to Venice for the beach anymore. Robert Byron may have dismissed the bathing, on a calm day, as “the worst in Europe”. But a walk down the Granviale Santa Maria Elisabetta on a sunny afternoon is not a chore, a beach is a beach, and when a toddler hits sand, nobody cares whether a digger has had to haul it off a barge onto this thin strip of littoral or not. In fact, we-hey! Look over there! A big yellow digger — digging sand!


    In a nutshell, it turns out Venice rocks. It rocks even more than I had thought it did in the first place. It rocks as a real, 21st century city for real 21st century kids who couldn’t give a flying Fragola gelato whether it contained a single museum, grand master, architectural highlight or arts extravaganza. It’s a city with water instead of roads, for Pete’s sake.