20 March 2009

The Road to Oxiana (revisited)

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

Current Selling Prices
$1500-$3000  /£750-£2000

This is a redoing of a posting from November 2007 with the values edited and some new info on the 'Byronic character' mostly from D J Taylor's masterpiece of research 'BRIGHT YOUNG PEOPLE; The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918 - 1940.' Robert Byron 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 few collectors only, although RB pretty much invented the modern literary travel book. Paul Fussell insists that "what Ulysses is to the novel and what The Waste Land is to poetry", Byrons book is to travel writing. 
 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, and even the dimmest and most chinless book auctioneer has heard of the book.

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 may (apres le deluge) go up gently if modern travel writing becomes more collected. Recent auction records for less than great copies have been well under a £1000. 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...in fact the main one is 'Innocence and Design', a 1935 novel he co-wrote with Christopher Sykes (under the name Richard Waughburton). Interestingly the Macmillan's clothbinding is a pastiche of the patterned cloth often to be found on nineteenth century Oriental travelogues. I once found a copy in the one pound book room of a Suffolk mansion--the jacket was rubbed but it was quickly converted into a £500 note. Now worth twice that for sharp jacketed copies.

  The 'Byronic Manner'.  Waugh was known as being difficult, prickly and abrasive but in the bastard stakes he was a household tabbycat compared to Byron. Basically a rageaholic - as DJ Taylor notes 'a railway journey invariably meant a quarrel with the guard or an altercation at the ticket office.' At least once he was arrested for 'insulting behaviour' (trouble in a cinema queue- fined 19/6). As DJT demonstrates the BYT's were an insolent and troublesome bunch and he was their star performer, a supreme put down artist, master of the 'sarcastic backhander,  the thinly veiled threat...' Vide his treatment of Harry Melville. Melville was well known to the BYTs although he was well into his anecdotage--'last of the professional diners out' (Osbert Lancaster) he had been a friend of Wilde and had known Proust- he embodied all the 'fabled sophistication of the 1890s.' During one of the veteran raconteur's reminiscences Byron is said to have shouted at him 'Can't you shut up, you hideous old relic of the Victorian age.'

On his trip to Albania his travelling companion observed that he 'spent most of the time cursing. He cursed almost everybody who did not speak English, sometime violently, but more often in a pleasant conversational monotone, as though he were discoursing on the beauty of the countryside.' Oddly enough Chatwin was also had his farouche side and could resort to force if countered; Byron was keen on threats of legal action especially against editors who dared to propose changes to his text.


Edwin Moore said...

I have never read any Robert Byron, though I have all of Lewis and the Newby classics - this has inspired me to have a go at him. Have to say that though I love some of Waugh's novels the BYTS are trying.

The best book on Albania I have ever read is a recent one, Robert Carver's The Accursed Mountains (1999) - 'required reading' PL Fermor.

Weirdly I have encountered that cursing in a low monotone recently - a Roma woman who sells The Big Issue in Glasgow has a very slight change in register as people go by without buying - it goes 'Big Issue, Big Issue [something in Roma] Big Issue Big Issue'.

The funny thing is that most people pick it up despite no knowing the language.

Oh i saw this in the TLS -

'. . .Some time in the 1960s, a professor from the Complutensian University in Madrid, Xavier de Salas, was thumbing through an early edition of Vasari, in a Charing Cross Road bookshop, when it suddenly dawned on him that the book in his hands had been owned and annotated by El Greco.'

You don't have any more works annotated by El Greco perchance?

Anonymous said...

Byron's travel writing isn't accurate, though it is truthful- for instance, he was almost monoglot, but still includes long alleged transcriptions of remarks by natives who didn't know English in his books. His great- perhaps his only- virtue was his continual enmity to nazism. "I'll have to put 'war-monger' in my passport." he said in the 1930s, and on one occasion- in contrast to attacking harmless old Melville- he asked an appeasement-minded British diplomat: "Tell me, does Hitler pay you?" and constantly repeated the question when he was ignored.

Anonymous said...

Edwin-- El Greco's copy of an old Vasari? That's nothing I found Eric Clapton's copy of Bert Weedon's 'Play that Big Guitar' (1958) with his signature (E.Clapton) and many notes and even some lyrics (Layla as I recall). On a stall at Dingwall's market. Sylvan.

Edwin Moore said...

Anonymous - you could possibly buy a bit of a palladian house with the money it would fetch!

Anonymous said...

El Greco's own copy of Vasari? That's nothing! I once found Jesus' own copy of the Bible in a Popular Book Centre in Hull....