The Road to Oxiana – Robert Byron

The Road to Oxiana is more than a travel diary, indeed it isn’t really a diary at all although it reads like one, as Byron actually took several years to produce something that appears to have been written at the time with it finally being first published in 1937. This is one of the all time classic travel books, like Patrick Leigh Fermors’ A Time of Gifts, also about a journey undertaken in 1933, this is a book by a young man who was experiencing the world at a momentous period between the two wars. Byron was 28, Fermor was even younger at just 19 and like Byron actually wrote his classic work several years later although in his case it wasn’t finished and published until 1977 when Fermor was 62. The Road to Oxiana is unfortunately not as well known as Fermor’s work but it deserves to be just as well read, partly for it’s historical nature but also for the insight it gives to countries and peoples that it can be very difficult to visit nowadays.

Byron’s humour and infectious enthusiasm for the countries he travels through and the people he meets starts with an apparent disaster with the non-arrival in Beirut of the experimental, and somewhat surreal, charcoal powered Rolls Royce that he had intended to travel in with his long suffering companion Christopher Sykes. We then continue on the road in a series of unpredictable and often ramshackle vehicles and an equal collection of unpredictable and ramshackle horses and ponies whilst continually dodging the Persian secret police who were desperate to find out what on Earth these men were doing. It was concern about these not very surreptitious although supposedly secret followers that led him not to refer to The Shah by name at any time in the notes he took whilst in Iran but to instead have that tiresome fellow Marjoribanks. The book is quite often funny especially in the reconstructed conversations that Byron has with varied notables during the trip often as they attempt to fleece him as he is seen as a wealthy traveller.

Not for nothing is the book called the Road to Oxiana, as the River Oxus, which is ostensibly the destination, only gets a brief mention at the very end although I won’t spoil the story by saying how. No, this is a book of a journey and the care and time that Byron took over his choice of words draws the reader into the extraordinary life of Iran at the peak of the Peacock throne, from unbelievable wealth to grinding poverty. We travel the length and breadth of this huge and truly spectacular country, about two thirds the size of the European Union with enormous mountain ranges and vast deserts all faithfully illustrated by Byron’s pen. However it isn’t just Iran that is covered in the narrative, although the majority of the book covers this vast country, we also visit Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and finish in Peshawar which was then in India and is now part of Pakistan.

This was Byron’s eighth, and final, book and his previous travel books had included a drive from England to Greece (his first book Europe in the Looking-Glass) and a couple of further books detailing his experiences in Greece along with a journey to Russia and Tibet and a visit to India. He also fitted in a history of Western painting and a book on architecture, but it is for The Road to Oxiana that he is known today. Sadly Byron was on board a ship that was torpedoed in 1941 on his way to Africa presumably on a mission for British Intelligence and his body was never found. Who knows where he would have got to had he survived the war and what books he would have written. Christopher Sykes went on to write a short memoir to his friend in his book Four Studies in Loyalty which was published in 1946.

I first read the book whilst travelling around Iran myself in 1998 and have returned to the book with increasing pleasure several times. I promise that you don’t need to visit Iran to love this book although be warned it may make you want to go there as well. The copy I currently have on my shelves is the Folio Society edition from 2000 which is beautifully illustrated with seventeen of Byron’s photographs taken whilst on the trip and bound in full cloth, gold blocked with a design by Francis Moseley.

Britain’s Lost Cities – Gavin Stamp

This has to be the most depressing yet fascinating books I have read in a long time. Gavin Stamp was an architectural historian and for many years was president of the Twentieth Century Society, sadly he died in 2017 aged just 69. He wrote many books and hundreds of articles on architecture including almost forty years as a columnist for Private Eye under the pseudonym of Piloti and was for a time professor of architectural history at The Mackintosh School of Architecture, part of the Glasgow School of Art. As you can tell from the brief biography he was an expert in his field and despite his long time association with the Twentieth Century Society this book is excoriating about the wanton vandalism to major cities undertaken by city planners in the 1930’s to 1970’s. The book looks at nineteen cities in England and Scotland and with the assistance of old photographs shows some of what has been lost including the Lion Brewery which features on the cover and which stood on the south bank of the Thames in London and survived WWII only to be pulled down in 1948 to make way for the Royal Festival Hall.

I assumed, like probably most people in Britain, that most of the soulless centres to British cities were down to thoughtless rebuilding plans after the Luftwaffe bombing runs of WWII done in the years of austerity following the war. But this book makes it clear that at least for some of the cities the destruction of ancient thoroughfares and the buildings that made them often happened long before the bombers made razing what was left so convenient for the planners involved. I have travelled over large parts of Europe and seen the wonderful rebuilding of old cities, often reconstructing the lost or damaged buildings from before the war not the awful mediocrity of Britain’s reconstruction forcing inappropriate new ring roads through what was largely repairable, or even worse undamaged, buildings. The page shown above dealing with Coventry includes one of the most damning quotations from a city planner.

We used to watch from the roof to see which buildings were blazing and then dash downstairs to check how much easier it would be to put our plans into action.

Donald Gibson, City Architect for Coventry from 1938

The photograph of Bull Street in Birmingham at the top of the page reproduced above is amazing as every building shown in the picture no longer exists. I chose to illustrate this blog with Coventry and Birmingham as those are the cities I know best but I have to say that the pictures in the book for these Midlands industrial centres are completely unrecognisable. Quite what St George in the Fields church in Hockley (one of the northern districts of central Birmingham) had done to offend the local planners before its demolition in 1960 I don’t know but it looks a fine large building with an important history and where it stood is now just an open parkland so it clearly wasn’t in the way of some grand design. According to Wikipedia it had a capacity of almost two thousand people so it was a substantial church apparently needlessly lost.

Birmingham had its heart ripped out in the 1950’s and 60’s to make way for the car with underpasses and flyovers running right through the centre with little thought for pedestrians and is now undergoing further massive rebuilding largely removing structures thrown up sixty years ago. It’s too late sadly to restore the city centre but what is going up now does seem to be an improvement on what was done in the middle of the twentieth century.

Sorry about the wobbly images of the inside pages, trying to photograph these whilst holding the book open without breaking the spine really called for at least three hands, possibly four which is definitely more than I have available at the time. The copy I have is the 2010 first softback edition, the book was originally published in 2007 as a hardback, both versions are by Aurum Press which is now a division of The Quarto Group. I also have the first hardback edition of his follow up book Lost Victorian Britain, sadly both of these books are now out of print.

Murder Underground – Mavis Doriel Hay

From the British Library Crime Classics series which currently stands at around ninety titles and are a highly successful attempt to bring largely forgotten mystery and crime novels, mainly from the golden age of crime writing from the 1920’s to the 1940’s back into the public view. They all have this very attractive cover style and make a lovely collection on the shelf. Mavis Doriel Hay wrote three crime novels in the 1930’s and this was her first, originally published in 1934, and the first thing you note whilst reading it is how odd it is especially around the treatment of the police and especially their interviews with witnesses. Normally such interviews form an important part of the narrative but here we never get to ‘sit in’ and hear what they have to say. Initially at the boarding hotel where most of the action takes place all the residents are gathered together in the drawing room and the unnamed inspector is in the smoking room calling each one in in turn but the narrative never leaves the drawing room, what we get instead is chit chat about what might be happening in the smoking room. After this the police literally fade into the background being reduced to figures following various characters but almost never being involved in anything until after page 200 when the inspector, now finally given a name, appears again.

The lack of police or indeed anyone who would be recognised as the classic amateur detective so beloved by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and many others of this period is very unusual instead all of the residents of the small private hotel where the victim had lived have a go at solving the mystery in a piecemeal way and the reader is slowly presented with whatever they have discovered or deduced. This lack of the ‘normal’ structure I found frustrating at first but gradually grew to enjoy the atypical format with facts seemingly popping up at random as the various characters proceed in their individual investigations. The case should really be relatively simple, The old lady victim, Miss Euphemia Pongleton (sadly Hay’s major failing is the use of ridiculous names), is found near the bottom of the stairs at Belsize Park underground station with her dog’s lead entangled round her neck although she had not taken her dog with her and a stolen brooch is in her bag. There are lifts at Belsize Park so the long flight of stairs is rarely used although Miss Pongleton was known to always take them as she disliked lifts. However it turns out that three of the Frampton Hotel’s residents, or associates of residents including Miss Pongleton’s nephew and presumed heir Basil, also used those stairs that morning despite it not even being the closest station to the hotel.

The brooch she had confiscated from one of the hotel’s staff who had received it from her boyfriend who had in turn been given it as proceeds from the robbery that he had been conned into being the getaway driver for. It was wrapped in paper with his name written on the outside and to add to the suspicion that he might be guilty of the murder itself he worked as a porter at Belsize Park and was known to be on the platform at the bottom of the stairs as Miss Pongleton descended. Add to the tangle of clues a missing string of pearls and an apparent recent will, also missing, disinheriting Basil; along with how the dog lead made it round the neck of Miss Pongleton when it should be hanging on the coat stand in the Frampton and you are certainly not short of ways of investigating the murder and several prospective dead ends. The actual murderer is revealed near the end although it was a character I had taken a dislike to right at the start so I can’t say it was much of a surprise but it was an enjoyable read nevertheless.

Hay up until the point of writing this novel had previously stuck to her speciality which was rural crafts and after WWII she went back to writing on this subject never again to produce a murder mystery. Her only two other titles in this genre ‘Death on the Cherwell’ in 1935 and ‘The Santa Klaus Murder’ from 1936 are also available in the British Library collection