In 2003 Paddy recommended James Knox’s biography of Robert Byron in the Spectator’s Christmas book selection. It is still available from Amazon. Maybe some of you will add it to your letter to Santa for this year.
by Patrick Leigh Fermor
James Knox’s biography of Robert Byron (John Murray) is a book we have been waiting years for, and it surpasses all expectations.
Outside strictly academic circles, in the early 20th century Byzantium was little known in England, but after the Great War things began to change. In the 1920s and ’30s, there was Steven Runciman at Cambridge and, at Oxford, Robert Byron. His was the Brideshead generation. How they managed between corks popping all day and parties all night to do more than hunt for Victorian china fruit in the afternoon remains a mystery.
In the heart of this chaos, fervent extra-curricular study was at work. Abstruse historical byways were trailed and notebooks were filled up. Byzantium was the goal, and soon, in his early twenties, Robert Byron, with several of his friends, set out on corroborative journeys, and on return published his findings. Europe in the Looking Glass — a sort of pan-European Three Men in a Boat — was soon to be followed by the brilliant Byzantine Achievement. The magic of Byron’s name opened every door in the Greek world, and The Station, a monumental and marvellous description of Mount Athos, remains unsurpassed. The Birth of Western Painting — an analysis and history of the earliest Byzantine inklings to the last of El Greco — is a defence and an assault. Classical Greece and the Renaissance both get it in the neck; so do Western Christianity and the Crusades, especially the Fourth. Some of his Quixotic giants turned out to be windmills, but much good was done and Byzantium emerged in glory. Youthful flair and high sophistication marked all his writings, and recondite knowledge was leavened by the surprising bonus of a hilarious narrative gift.
There’s a connecting chain running through all his travels: India, Afghanistan, Persia, Tibet, Russia; then he would bury himself in Savernake Forest for a winter of writing and hunting, setting out eastward again in spring. We are lucky to have James Knox to set down the details of this dynamic and many-sided figure, with his energies and angers and his unorthodox passions and his laughter.
In 1941 Byron was heading east again by the northern detour when a U-boat torpedoed his ship. He was 36. We can never know how many brilliant sequels to The Road to Oxiana were sunk off Stornoway.