14 November 2007

The Road to Oxiana...

After Akcha, the colour of the landscape changed from lead to aluminium, pallid and deathly, as if the sun had been sucking away its gaiety for thousands and thousands of years; for this was now the plain of Balkh, and Balkh they say is the oldest city in the world. The clumps of green trees, the fountain-shaped tufts of coarse cutting grass, stood out almost black against this mortal tint. Sometimes we saw a field of barley; it was ripe, and Turcomans, naked to the waist, were reaping it with sickles. But it was not brown or gold, telling of Ceres, of plenty. It seemed to have turned prematurely white, like the hair of a madman – to have lost its nourishment. And from these acred cerements, first on the north and then on the south of the road, rose the worn grey-white shapes of a bygone architecture, mounds, furrowed and bleached by the rain and sun, wearier than any human works I ever saw....

Robert Byron. THE ROAD TO OXIANA. Macmillan, London 1937.

Current Selling Prices
$1500-$4000 /£750-£2000

The greatest travel writer of his day, aesthete and leading member of the Brideshead generation and connoisseur of coloured architecture. The Road to Oxiana, describes his journey to Persia and Afghanistan in 1933-34. 20 years ago the book was known to a mere few of the cognoscenti (the cognac scented as one wag has it.) After it appeared in a catalogue for £500 and sold, one over zealous dealer travelled the length of Britain looking for it (they had quite a few shops back then) and asked every seller if he had a copy. It is not an especially rare rare book so he found a few. The book was then wide awake and later started to achieve spectacular results in auction and is no longer fun unless you find it at the bottom of a tea chest in a sale that somehow has eluded being listed on the web. Trouble is they are all listed and they don't use tea chests anymore...

Robert Byron is referred to (by Philip Hensher) as a 'High priest of Camp' mainly from the set he ran with at Oxford (Hypocrites Club etc.,) His taste, sometimes called kitsch, was for things that others at the time disdained - like Byzantine art and Persian architecture, Georgian buildings, Victoriana etc., He was said to resemble Queen Victoria and occasionally dressed up as her for parties. He never gave up his youthful enthusiasms or his desire to shock; he lost friends over his insistence from the start that Hitler would have to be fought, and that the Munich agreement was a disgrace. He did not get on with Evelyn Waugh. He was surprisingly rugged, his journey into Tibet in 1929, for instance, was by any standards extremely harrowing and physically taxing. This is covered in a useful work 'First Russia, Then Tibet' (Macmillan 1933)--not uncommon but can command a £100 note and a lot more in the jacket. His signature is highly uncommon, earlier this year we bought a couple of presentation copies --including one of his first book 'Europe in the Looking-Glass. Reflections of a Motor Drive from Grimsby to Athens' (1926). We described it thus:
'Signed presentation from the author --'Mrs.Harrod - if only I had seen her more- Robert Byron.' This is Lady Wilhelmine 'Billa' Harrod who was married to the economist Roy Harrod and co - authored the Shell Guide to Norfolk with John Betjeman, to whom she had been briefly engaged. In 1937 as Billa Cresswell she had been the secretary and only employee of the Georgian Group with which Byron was passionately involved; he said of her '...she would make a wonderful agitator.' On her marriage to Roy Harrod in 1938 she gave up the job and this inscription obviously refers to that. Billa Harrod continued to agitate for the saving of beautiful buildings all her long life, Robert Byron was killed in the war in 1941.'
It was not a nice copy but went to a collector fairly smartly at £800.

VALUE? A copy of 'Oxiana' in a decent jacket made £1400 + premium in 2004. A fairly decent copy is on sale as we speak at £2000. The book will probably go up gently as modern travel writing becomes more collected. The great proponent of Byron was Bruce Chatwin who has turned him into something of a cult. Meanwhile Chatwin's own 'Oxiana', his first book 'In Patagonia' has declined in value--at one point it was knocking on a grand but can now be found for less than £500 'fine/fine' -- there are too many about and it is possible that he is less admired than he was in the 1990s. There are several other Robert Byron rarities and 'sleepers' that I might address at some point...

1 comment:

DoublyHelical said...

this book is a great read, even at the $15 a current pb reprint costs ;-)

Your blog is very enjoyable, great work!