February 7, 1905 – Robert Byron
Robert Byron: traveler, wit, dandy, queer, and ornament of English upper-class society in the decade before World War II.
Byron’s classic travel book, The Road To Oxiana (1937) is still in print today. Another gay English travel writer, Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989), described Byron’s book “a sacred text” (Chatwin was one of the first prominent men in Great Britain known to have contracted HIV and to have died of an AIDS-related illness, although he hid the details.)
At Oxford, Byron studied architecture, but he was perhaps best known for his impersonation of Queen Victoria. His hedonistic life ultimately got him expelled, so instead of university, he traveled. Still, architecture was a passion and the subject of much of Byron’s writings. He was a forceful advocate for the preservation of historic buildings.
His first great trip was to Mount Athos in Greece, resulting in his book The Station (1928). Back in England, he composed his opus, The Byzantine Achievement (1929). Five years later Byron published First Russia, Then Tibet: Travels Through A Changing World.
He hung out with the Bright Young Things, the name given by the tabloid press to a group of 1920s-era bohemian young aristocrats and socialites in London who threw elaborate fancy dress parties, went on elaborate treasure hunts through nighttime London, and drank heavily or used drugs. Among that circle were the great lay-about Stephen Tennant, photographer Cecil Beaton, painter Rex Whistler, and journalist Nancy Mitford, who remarked of Byron: “Isn’t Robert simply killing?”. Gay writer Evelyn Waugh‘s 1930 novel Vile Bodies, adapted to film as Bright Young Things (2003), is a satirical look at this scene.
The bright promise of the late 1920s extended to the end of the next decade, with more travels to China, Persia, Russia and India. Byron took a 10-month journey through the Middle East during the years 1933-34. He took a ship to Cyprus then travelled through Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Persia, and Afghanistan. His journey ended in Peshawar (now part of Pakistan).
That journey was the basis for The Road To Oxiana, considered by many travel writers to be the first great piece of travel writing. He gets rather rapturous when describing a column, or an arch or a minaret:
“The beauty of Isfahan steals on the mind unawares. You drive about, under avenues of white tree-trunks and canopies of shining twigs; past domes of turquoise and spring yellow in a sky of liquid violet-blue, along the river patched with twisting shoals, catching that blue in its muddy silver, and lined with feather groves where the sap calls; across bridges of pale toffee brick, tier on tier of arches breaking into piled pavilions; overlooked by lilac mountains, by the Kuh-i-Sufi shaped like Punch’s hump and by other ranges receding to a line of snowy surf; and before you know how, Isfahan has become indelible, has insinuated its image into that gallery of places which everyone privately treasures.“
Byron attended the last Nuremberg Rally in 1938, with Nazi sympathizer Unity Mitford. Byron knew her through his friendship with her sister Nancy, but he was an outspoken opponent of the Nazis. Nancy Mitford hoped at that Byron would propose marriage and was later astonished and shocked to discover that he liked other gentlemen, complaining: “This wretched pederasty falsifies all feelings and yet one is supposed to revere it.”
Byron remained a fervent and vocal critic of Hitler, objecting in the most violent terms to the Nazification of Europe and abusing those in England who imagined that some sort of compromise with the nasty Nazis was possible.
However, it was in Persia (now Iran) and Afghanistan that Byron found the subject for which he forged his style of modern travel writing, which was in full blossom for The Road To Oxiana, written in Peking (now Beijing), his temporary home.
In Peking, he lived with Desmond Parsons (1910 – 1937), a brilliant linguist, an aristocratic aesthete, and one of the most magnetic men of his generation. Parsons was the lover of Harold Acton (1904 – 1994), a British scholar, and fellow aesthete, who studied Chinese language, traditional drama, and poetry, some of which he translated. Waugh based the character of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited on Acton.
Byron developed a terrific crush on Desmond who was stricken with Hodgkin’s Disease and left for a Swiss clinic where he died at 26 years old in 1937. Devastated, Byron never wrote another major work. In 1941 he set sail for Egypt, on assignment for the London Times, and his ship sank in a torpedo attack by a Nazi German U-Boat. His body was never found. He was just 35.
Byron’s short life was chronically hard up for money. Like several of his fast friends, including Waugh and novelist Anthony Powell, he was essentially a middle-class guying just making his way in the world. This encouraged a hardy attitude towards his work, and a wariness in the company of his better-connected friends. Still, their aristocratic influence was there. His rich chums paid for his global adventures, and he didn’t travel light: Lots of bags, trunks of food and wine, photographic equipment, and always several good-looking guys.
Powell claimed that he once asked Byron what he would like best in the world. Byron snapped back:
“To be an incredibly beautiful male prostitute with a sharp sting in my bottom.“
Byron, weighed down with expensive baggage and glamorous friends, reminded me of Chatwin (Chatwin wrote an introduction to a 1981 reprint of Byron’s The Road To Oxiana). There is the same flamboyance, the same extremes of personality, in Byron’s case, flaring up into outright belligerence. His editor in London once received a letter from Byron that read:
“I warn you quite frankly that if this chapter is altered in any way I don’t like after I have passed the final proof, I shall put the matter in the hands of a solicitor.“
His temperament spilled over into his aesthetic, including this wonderfully insolent description of Tehran:
“… that vile stinking hideous intrigue-ridden pretentious vulgar parody of a capital.“
As another example of his style, I offer this from The Road To Oxiana:
“There was no furniture in the room. In the middle of the floor stood a tall brass lamp, casting a cold white blaze over the red carpets and bare white walls. It stood between two pewter bowls, one filled with branches of pink fruit blossom, the other with a posy of big yellow jonquils wrapped round a bunch of violets. By the jonquils sat the Governor, with his legs crossed and his hands folded in his sleeves; by the blossom his young son, whose oval face, black eyes and curving lashes were the ideal beauty of the Persian miniaturist. They had nothing to occupy them, neither book nor pen nor food nor drink. Father and son were lost in the sight and the smell of spring.
The irruption of the barbarian, dusty, unshaved, and lurching tired, was a trial of manners to which they rose, not without astonishment, but with a bustle and good-will that must have hurt their mood of poetic contemplation.
While I lowered myself to the floor, creaking and sprawling like a dog in a doll’s house, and feasted my nose in the jonquils, fire was kindled, the samovar re-lit, and thick red wine poured out; with his own hands the Governor chopped and skewered the meat to make me a kabob, and roasted it over the charcoal embers; then he was dismembering tangerines and sugaring them, for my pudding. In the end he went so far as to offer me his own bed. I explained mine was coming, and begged the room below to put it in.“