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Authors: Robert Byron Jan Morris

Europe in the Looking Glass

BOOK: Europe in the Looking Glass
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is obvious from the beginning. Its subtitle,
Reflections of a Motor Drive from Grimsby to Athens,
tells us at once that we are to be taken back to the 1920s, when the English gentry went for Motor Drives across a Europe that was still decidedly foreign, and there was still something funny to a place-name like Grimsby.

It is a comic postcard start to a book as to a journey, leading to a destination that was still hallowed in the English heart and ingrained in the English culture (for as
Murray’s Handbook to Greece
had observed in 1884, in those days ‘any Englishman with the usual knowledge of ancient Greek will be able to read the Athenian papers with ease’). The substance of
Europe In the Looking-Glass
the looking glass, one notes, not
it) is unmistakably of its time.

But in a literary sense the book is significantly of its period too, because it was one of the first of a revived literary genre – the travel book that was determinedly more than a travel book, but also a display of intellectual enterprise and distinction, a work of art and not least a worldly entertainment. In earlier times many people had written such works in English. Laurence Sterne had toyed famously with the form in
A Sentimental
and Dickens had portrayed America in a related frame of mind. Mark Twain had light-heartedly toured the world; Robert Louis Stevenson had wandered the Cévennes with his donkey; and Alexander Kinglake had provided a classic model with his
, published in 1863, describing a journey through the nearer east in a cheerfully graceful form that feels almost contemporary to this day.

But the turn of the nineteenth century was the age of Empire, of terrific adventures in exotic parts, and of war. The allures of exploration and the seductions of imperialism made for less pleasurable travel writing, and the narratives of men like Burton, Stanley and Henry Baker, set in flamboyant places and spiced with danger, their bindings gold-embossed with lions and savages, were the non-fiction best-sellers of the age. It was only in the 1920s and 1930s, when the Great War had been fought and Empire was losing its assurances, that the Kinglake tradition was revived, and Robert Byron chose his métier.

Europe in the Looking-Glass
was his first book, written in 1926. He was twenty-one, fresh from Eton and Oxford and happily conscious of his remote relationship with Byron the poet. He was a clever, rather idiosyncratic, highly educated young English gentleman, and like Murray’s Briton of an earlier generation, he was steeped in the mystique of classical Greece. He had escaped the miseries of the First World War, he was a child of the automobile age, and it was natural enough that his first foray into literature should be a Motor Drive to Athens, in the company of two similarly
English friends.

By the standards of his class and time he was conventionally immature, having been sent down from Oxford for misdemeanours, and he and his companions roister their way through this narrative like characters from the young Evelyn Waugh, whose contemporaries they were. For a start they did what such young men did then – they gave their car, a rather grand Sunbeam tourer, an affectionate name, Diana, rather as Stevenson had called his donkey Modestine. They behaved, too, as footloose young men of means did behave, revelling in chance encounters and comic episodes, and Byron indulged himself in a manner presently to became common among English travel writers – a kind of
-incompetence and effeteness, self-portrayal verging upon caricature. Diana the car is constantly breaking down or running out of petrol, and
the three young Englishmen present themselves as most decidedly not mechanically-minded.

Byron was clearly rather pleased with himself, and in this very first work of self-expression he indulges in grand judgements on art, politics and people that will sound to many readers, nearly a century on, insufferably pretentious. Ravenna, he magisterially informs us after a week or two on the Continent, is more overwhelming than anywhere else in Europe. The phenomenon of Rothenburg’s conservation is without parallel in Europe. The art of the Risorgimento awaits recognition as ‘one of the most meritorious intellectual phenomena of the nineteenth century’. Palladio’s sense of proportion was ‘unfailing’. ‘There can seldom have lived a good artist with such a capacity for bad work as Bernini.’

But wait: these were the excesses of a twenty-one-year-old. As one progresses through the pages of this book, one begins to realise that they contain the early elements of a far more remarkable mind. For one thing, for all his know-all judgements the young Byron already demonstrates remarkable insights into the history and meaning of art; in this volume they are expressed most vividly in his responses to Greek classicism, later they were to be superseded by a profound admiration for the then neglected art and architecture of Byzantium. Then again, if there are some overwrought passages of prose in
Europe in the Looking-Glass
, there are also descriptions and evocations of striking beauty, to stop one suddenly in one’s patronising tracks. And above all, perhaps, there is a truly mellow sense of humour, usually generous, often cynical or irreverent, occasionally waspish, which impregnates the whole work and remains more or less ageless.

The comedy is often incidental, as it were, to the theme of the moment, and generally lies in detail, and in a virtuoso choice of words. We glimpse, for instance, fisherwomen of Naples ‘munching lethargically at their indescribable foods’. At a fountain at the Villa Lante at Viterbo we notice ornamental lions ‘expectorating’ their water towards ‘recumbent’ Tritons
below. And for the young Byron the character of the celebrated Greek national costume, the fustanella, is best exhibited by ‘the dirt and squalor of the old men who passed by, their short tunic skirts frilling out above their knees, and their whole legs swathed in bulky white wrappings tied here and there like parcels of washing…’

But in and around the
joie de vivre
of it all, anyone can see that there is a remarkable sensibility germinating here. In long passages of serious description and analysis a fine intellect is at work too. For example Byron devotes several pages to the cathedral at Esztergom, in Hungary, which he had visited the year before when he was hardly more than a youth. It is a detailed, careful and perceptive technical analysis. Only once does he lapse into his adolescent dogmatism (when he cannot help remarking that the cathedral’s high altar, ‘though inoffensive, embodies the worst characteristics of the Guercino tradition…’) For the rest, having read this undergraduate assessment few readers will be tempted to doubt its magisterial conclusion that ‘the church of Esztergom stands alone as the finest single edifice of early
architecture in existence’.

And we shall be right, for in
Europe in the Looking-Glass
we are discovering the seed of great writing. After its title page an author’s statement declares that the book makes no pretensions to literary merit – ‘it is offered to the public in the sole hope that the public will buy it’. In fact, a few pages later, Byron says he hopes it will further ‘the new sense of European consciousness’, and this was certainly a truer intention. For it was a first book, very much a young man’s book, and before long Robert Byron was to mature into a writer of high learning, skill and lasting influence, and to be the great master of that particular genre of travel writing with which he first experimented in 1926. He travelled constantly all his life, and became a great authority on matters Byzantine, until six books later, in 1936, he wrote his masterpiece
The Road to Oxiana
, which established his place once and for all in the English literary canon.

Europe in the Looking-Glass
Byron was pioneering a new kind of travel writing. With
The Road to Oxiana
one can almost say that he invented another, so startlingly original was its form – a kind of artificial diary and memorandum, put together collage-like in afterthought, and declared by scholars to have had the same sort of effect upon travel writing that Eliot and Joyce had upon fiction. Certainly, by way of
we can the trace the influence of Robert Byron upon countless later practitioners, from Patrick Leigh-Fermor to Eric Newby to Rory Maclean (who also travelled with a car – not a Sunbeam, but a Trabant).

And many more of us, too, may feel that we have been liberated by Byron’s example from the curse of the travelogue – the stigma that used to imply that travel-writing could not qualify as true literature. Alas, few of us now alive have been able to thank him. Robert Byron died in 1941, aged thirty-five, when a German U-boat torpedoed the ship in which was sailing on a BBC commission to Egypt. His body was never recovered.


– Jan Morris, 2012

, pacing sedately along the left side of Upper Brook Street at half-past ten on the sultry night of Friday, the 1st of August, 1925, was surprised to find stretched lengthways upon the pavement three recumbent figures, studying a map by the dim green light of a street lamp above them. Drawn up by the kerb stood a massive touring car, the back of which was entirely occupied with a mountainous pile of trunks and suitcases. The policeman, after a minute’s hesitation, unbent so far as to take a glance at the map himself; and, if his eyesight was good, he may remember to this day the shadowy outline of East Anglia that spread itself beneath him, bounded on the west by the Great North Road.

‘Out through Finchley,’ murmured a voice, ‘then past Hatfield to Peterborough, leaving Cambridge on the right.’

This was settled. The map was folded. And the three figures, David Henniker, Simon O’Neill and myself, rose to their feet and moved towards the car. With a last glance, the policeman continued on his way, stolidly scrutinizing the unending succession of area railings that lined the remainder of the street.

The preliminaries of the tour had been rather erratic. One weekend, at the beginning of May, David had arrived in Oxford and asked me to dine with him. We had had a peculiar dish of sole covered with burnt custard and muscatels. During this he suggested that I should join him and Geoffrey Pratt on ‘a trip to the Balkans’. The prospect seemed delightful. We began to outline the route, but found it impossible without the aid of an atlas. Then David motored home to bed.

A few days later Wembley opened her gates a second time to a patriotic public. The first person to be seen on arrival in the Amusement Park was Simon, sitting bolt upright on the Giant Racer, in a bowler hat and gloves. He was nervously sharing a compartment with a small boy in a vermilion cap, and was immediately whisked out of sight as we arrived at the
. For the past year he had been on a visit to the Galapagos Islands as part of a scientific expedition, and since his return we had not until this moment seen him – nor he Wembley.

After he had alighted and suffered the effusive greetings consequent on so long an absence, we asked him what he was doing. He said he did not know. I suggested that he should come with David to the Balkans. It would mean another car. He replied that he thought that that could be managed. At that moment the police, who were on the track of a couple of missing iron chairs, appeared round the corner. We disappeared into Hong Kong, and thence entered Trinidad by a back way, where we drank Planter’s Punches. Eventually we parted in Shaftesbury Avenue.

At the beginning of July the prospective members of the party spent Friday to Monday at Highworth, David’s home. It was arranged that I should go with Simon in one car, while David and Geoffrey Pratt should share the other. But three or four days afterwards Simon discovered that, for various reasons, he was unable to provide a car after all. I, therefore, realizing that all along the idea had been too good to be true, dropped out and decided to go to Ireland instead.

However, on Tuesday, the 28th of July, a wire arrived from David asking if I could leave for the Balkans on Saturday. Geoffrey Pratt, it appeared, had failed at the last minute, as his firm would only give him a fortnight’s holiday. It was to be David, Simon and myself.

The next day I spent between the Passport Office and Cook’s in Ludgate Circus; and the day after hurried home to pack, having a quarrel in the train with a woman in a white feather boa, who proved to be the sister of the local parson. On Friday
I returned to London; and was poised on an island at the bottom of the Haymarket, when David emerged unexpectedly from between two ’buses and said that we were starting that night. The rest of the evening passed in a fever of excitement. At ten-fifteen, accompanied by Simon, he drew up at the front door. The tour had begun.


In appearance, the party, as a whole, was not undistinguished. The car, a large touring Sunbeam, was painted a dark, nearly black, blue-grey. She was named Diana. Her lines were impressive and her bonnet long, sloping scarcely at all from the level of the tops of the doors. The tank at the back hung low, and the clearance all round was small, so that the back light and exhaust did not survive the third day’s journey. On either side, resting on the front wings, were mounted two wire-spoked spare wheels to each of which was roped a spare outer cover.

The back was entirely filled with luggage. At the bottom, invisible to the policeman and undiscovered by successive customs officials, were a 30-gallon tank of petrol, a cylinder of oil, four spare springs, fifteen inner tubes in yellow cardboard boxes that all came to pieces within twenty-four hours, and an ever-increasing rubble of sticks, hats, books, magazines and stray tools. On top, resting on the seat without its cushion, stood the heavy luggage: a huge yellow cabin-trunk belonging to Simon, that protruded at least two feet above the hood; a very large brown one, the property of David; and a moderate black box of mine. In front were the lighter pieces: two suitcases, heavily fitted with coming-of-age bottles, in canvas overalls; and a very worn Gladstone bag capable of unlimited expansion. Finally, in front in a row, sat the three human units of the expedition.

As the interest, if any, of the following account must depend largely on the angles adopted towards places already familiar and adventures already commonplace, some description of the antecedents of the party may not be altogether superfluous. All three had been educated at the same school and at the
same university. At the former, frequently described as ‘one of our leading public schools’, David had preceded Simon and myself; and even we were not contemporary. I retain a vision of him as an older boy, out beagling, running persistently and seriously across ploughed fields, with a rather prominent nose held well up in the air and light greenish blue eyes downcast.

‘That,’ said my informant, in whose house Simon was, ‘is O’Neill. He’s queer – he says he’s a communist. He’s very clever. Yes, I like him.’

It was 1921. ‘Communist’ in those days was but another word for Bolshevik, and at the time the streets of Moscow were running blood. It seemed strange, even as a pose.

The following Easter Simon left. I never knew him except by sight.

David had been taken away before the end of the war. His family had gone to Canada and he, as he was supposed to have bronchial trouble, had accompanied them. He attended a Canadian school and also MacGill University. Then he came home to Oxford. Simon and I arrived there a year later, he having spent most of 1922 at Tours, while I had remained at school.

Simon’s communism is the misdirected outcome of sympathy for those less fortunate than himself. During our trip he talked vaguely of the nationalization of the banks. Otherwise he was considered at Oxford a brilliant historian. He is fond of obscure details, and paradoxes culled, from Chesterton and Belloc, which upset the views of every single authority on any given subject. His knowledge of out-of-the-way facts, such as the date of the death of the last woman who spoke Cornish, or the dimensions of the Albanian fustanella, is astonishing, though uncoordinated. He is extremely well read.

Unfortunately, his relations with his college authorities did not run smoothly. Regardless of his degree, he forsook the pleasures of university life and started to write a history of church persecution under Cromwell. Then he joined the scientific expedition. This, for some reason, elected to go in
a sailing ship, and spent most of its time waiting for funds at Panama, to the complete demoralization of all on board. The town was full of American officials and their wives. Eventually they did succeed in reaching the Galapagos Islands; and were finally faced with complete starvation. By that time, however, Simon had left them.

In appearance Simon is upright and neat. He affects a pearl pin and stiff collar. Whenever possible he likes to dress for dinner. Both he and David have lost their fathers.

David is of a different type. A kind of supernatural vigour is his outstanding characteristic. He is lazy, partly because this exhausts him. But whatever he does becomes of itself remarkable.

He is slim, and possesses and wears an enormous wardrobe of fashionable, though sombre, clothes. Whereas Simon is shy and does not converse fluently with strangers, David is totally devoid of even a decent sense of embarrassment and can make inexhaustible conversation to any living creature that understands a single word of French, German or English. He also has a knowledge of history, but his chief interests are decoration and architecture. In the latter he is a purist. To both him and Simon, Sentiment and Romance, far from palliating the defects of a building or the unauthenticity of a legend, are not only meaningless, but repellent. It was on this common ground that they differed most fundamentally from myself.

As mentioned above, Simon’s knowledge of the Universe was confined to Panama, some desert islands and Tours. I had, in the spring of 1923, spent five weeks in Italy under ideal circumstances, and could claim some knowledge of that country and her monuments. I had also visited parts of Central Europe. But of the three, it was only David who possessed more than a superficial familiarity with Europe, her countries and their inhabitants. He knew France. He had experienced revolutions in Germany after the war. And in 1924 he had motored to the Russian frontier, spent six weeks in Poland, and then taken Prague, Vienna and Rome in his stride home.
This had been a most remarkable tour, which only his initiative could have carried through. It is his outstanding ambition, in fact, to make the acquaintance of the whole earth and the races with which it is peopled.

To attain a sense of the relative proportions of the various entities of which the modern world is composed, it is essential clearly to define the position occupied by the civilization of the United States. This is only possible by comparison with Europe. But Europe, taken as a whole, is such an unknown quantity to most of her inhabitants, nurtured in the disastrous tradition of the armed and insular state, that they are unable to gauge the contrast between their own corporate civilization, the laborious construction of two thousand years, and the retrograde industrialism sprung up in a night on the other side of the Atlantic. Admittedly it is not to be expected that the doings of three young men, interpreted through the pen of one of them, can prove of any serious value. But if, in providing to a certain degree, however lopsided, a picture of the continent of which England forms a part, these doings will in any way further the new sense of ‘European Consciousness’ that is gradually coming into being, perhaps the reader will forgive the inchoate agglomeration of trivial fact and irrelevant opinion that comprises the remainder of this book.

BOOK: Europe in the Looking Glass
5.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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