20 APRIL 1991, Page 27


The road to Stornoway

Patrick Leigh Fermor

LETTERS HOME edited by Lucy Butler

John Murray, f17.99, pp.407

It was only in his twenties that Robert Byron thought much about the identity of his surname with the poet's. The precise link, several centuries back, was blurred by lack of records, but both sets of Byrons sprang from Lancashire; the affinity had always been taken for granted; they were similar in background and heraldically identical, and the degree of probability is very high. It means nothing of course, that both stars were marked by originality, precocity, extreme intelligence, com- bativeness, courage, humour and a strong literary gift; but, had the centuries been switched, his ghostly lordship would surely have rejoiced in the thought of a link with his famous namesake.

As a brilliant letter-writer himself, he would have enjoyed this collection. It is impossible not to. All the letters are written to Robert Byron's mother and the racy vigour, indiscretion and wit, and the feeling, even at school, of grown-up com- plicity, shadow forth, like the unheard half of a telephone conversation, an addressee of great intelligence, astringency, kindness and comic sense. He loved his parents and his two sisters, this collection had been made by one of them, and her editing, introduction and explanatory notes apart from an unawareness of the meaning of 'protagonist' (a foible shared by her brother which would have evoked a groan from Fowler) — are impeccable.

The earliest letters are from Eton, which he enjoyed in spite of getting into trouble over the ritual opening of an umbrella on an OTC parade. He professed scorn for aestheticism, but went flat-out for art and architecture and the company of fellow addicts, and remained true to all of them for good. His closest friends were Henry Yorke — later the Henry Green of Living, Party Going and Loving — and Lord Clonmore, a charming, vague, Anglo- Irish, Betjemanesque, High Anglican. (Converts, Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics were among Robert's pretended abominations, but he had close friends among all three, cf, later on, Christopher Sykes). When he was 16 he and Brian Howard lured Sir John Rothenstein down to talk to the Arts Society; transported, Robert poured his theories into letters.

In the old days, [he wrote] artists were given their subjects. They painted to order, more or less set subjects, crucifixions, or battle- scenes . . . The Renaissance broke away from this, but still set subjects were painted — portraits and classical legends; then the Pre-Raphaelites tried to break away from this again and to paint what they saw. But then others, breaking away even more, left entirely to themselves ever since the Renaiss-

ance, flew to light and abstract form — just as abstract philosophy never solidifies, so modern art, brought about by this process, is only to be regarded in the light of an interesting experiment . .

Similar pages, laced with anecdotes and amusing gossip, flew home to Savernake Forest in an unbroken stream. This house and forest, and the family, dogs, horses and trees, and the exciting friends his mother's hospitality assembled there, be- came the haven he pined for on his travels. In some bug-ridden Asian khan, he would dream that his dog had climbed on his bed and flung her forelegs round his neck or that he was pelting across country on his hunter Aubrey. These longings recur.

The cast at Oxford — Harold Acton with megaphone and grey bowler in the lead, and captured to a T by Evelyn Waugh constitutes one of the century's riddles. Corks popped round the chief actors for much of the day, they were tight every night, 'dressing up' for party after party Robert's impersonation of Queen Victoria was famous — or hammering out jazz on the piano till dawn; hangovers left just time enough for buying a bowl of Victorian wax fruit next day or, in the case of David Talbot Rice, 'for soaring over fences with the Heythrop like a heron in flight'. London was less than an hour away, with its Great Houses and their glamorous denizens still inside them, and fascinating night-clubs dark as Tartarus beckoned: how, in the long run, could this enjoyable chaos turn out such a constellation of brilliant successes? In the short run, many came temporarily to grief. Robert Byron dispelled the fumes long enough to deliver lectures on Turner, and fill the Cherwell with notions and theories; he read scores of learned, abstruse and extracurricular books; but he came down with a third-class degree he never bothered to collect.

Foreign travel was suddenly vital. He had very little money; journalism was the open sesame; so, with no evidence of capacity but his compulsive vim, Mono- marks and Coppers had to be talked round. For magic carpet, there were like- minded aesthete-hedonists with cars and cash, and Europe was their oyster. The adventures and mishaps of the earliest journey were an intellectual Three Men in a Boat. (The encounters and incidents are illustrated by lively and comic sketches which are much better than the rather over-finished, formal pictures that appear in some of his books.) The jaunt culmin- ated in Greece where, for Robert at any rate, the discovery of the amazing and unspoilt beauty of the country, backed by the electrifying effect of his name on the inhabitants, set the stage for a lifelong love affair. Preliminary reading had laid the way, Ravenna was the first visual hint, then the monasteries of Mistra, Daphni, St Luke and, finally, St Sophia itself con- firmed it.

This in turn led on to a memorable examination of Mount Athos with David Talbot Rice and Mark Ogilvy-Grant, and the results are concentrated and distilled in The Station. Packed with original insights and evocations of the history and treasures of the mountain and, above all, their journey and the strange life there, and bursting with vitality and humour, the book came out when he was just 23. (Its impact and effect on at any rate one reader remained vivid. When, ten years later, I was about to set off on European travels, the sudden discovery altered my whole itinerary and, one thing leading to another, perhaps the course of a lifetime.) These letters are the untreated raw material of his literary achievements, and it is fascinating to see how little of the original verve was lost in their mavellously written final shapes. It is easy to forget how little about Byzantium, outside archaeological circles, was known in the 1920s — at any rate in England. In his attacks on Ancient Greece, he hoped to lift the killing shadow into which the Classical past, by comparison, plunged the Eastern Roman Empire; he was at war with many centuries of scholas- tic bias; Gibbon and Leckie and Fall- merayer were his enemies, and when, next year, The Byzantine Achievement appeared, he was conducting us round a Byzantine Empire from which, he hoped, the Classical incubus had now been exor- cised. More surprising than either of these, perhaps, was the vast, illustrated tome he compiled with David Talbot Rice, The Birth of Western Painting. It traces the descent and the flowering of a tradition to which Byzantium gave birth and which, in the West, breathed its last in Spain with the death of El Greco. He was at grips, in fact, with a resurgence of his old Classical enemy, this time in the stately new trap- pings of the Renaissance. I reacted to this book, years later, by hotly exhorting a hesitant reader:

You will follow and perhaps disagree with his arguments. They explain . . . how the same [Cappadocian Byzantine] trends blossomed simultaneously in Florence and Siena; where, short-circuiting Constantinople and Athos, Byzantine influence had already been at work in the pictures of Giotto, Duccio, Cimabue, Lorenzetti and Barna da Siena . . . You will be following the prominence and eclipse of Byzantine Art and enjoying some of the spirited, uncircumspect and powerful English prose of this century. It resembles a high-mettled horse. You may smile at the brio with which he deals with obstacles and opposition. Instead of evading or dismantling them, he points out the target, as it were with a sabre, and then, with dazzling bravura, clears it in a bold leap or gallops over it roughshod, slashes and kicks it to matchwood and rides on.

Obviously, I was under his spell; and, mutatils mutandis, still am; lost in admira- tion, anyway. 'That some of his dragons long since turned out to be no more than windmills', writes Talbot Rice, 'has, perhaps, to some extent been due to the violence of Byron's attack'.

The same pace carried him next all over India, and, most adventurously, deep into Tibet, and then all over Russia in search of northern Byzantine traditions in the Slav world, and the painting of Rublev. (He hated the regime but was fascinated by the country. One of the surprises of this remarkable book is the fact that the bias and rage that sometimes smoke from the page are often, a score of pages on, contradicted flat. These are private letters. It is as it should be.) Persia and Afghanis- tan, in pusuit of Timurid pre-Mogul re- mains with Christopher Sykes, was a pro- tracted, hair-raising and wonderful adven- ture, richly rewarded by Yezd, Kahuz, Herat, Balkh and Ghazni. They were worth all the snow-bound halts, the scarce or uneatable food — Byron hated hardship for its own sake — the vermin and the arrests on suspicion of espionage. Another bonus was the marvellous, page-long and hilarious sequences of conversation with Shir Ahmed, the Afghan Ambassador; they are scored like an opera and noted diminuendo, piano, and crescendo, the fortissmo sometimes swelling into capitals, and they leave the reader feeling weak. The result, The Road to Oxiana, is his triumph. There was always something odd to notice: `The Russian consul here is not so austere as some comrades. He dresses in loud tweeds, like Bloomsbury in the country,' and on one frightful Christmas in Meshed he thinks ruefully of his Sitwell fellow- guests at Polesdon Lacey the year before: `I would enjoy a few minutes' conversation with Sachie and Georgia.' Crossing Siber- ia, he spent months alone to write in a friend's house in Peking — Peiping then, before its jingo avatar — and suffered a breakdown of health and made his way home through Japan and the United States.

War overshadows the last few letters. (`Ran [Earl of Antrim] says Sandy Mac- pherson at the Wurlitzer organ on the BBC is definitely lowering the morale of the fleet'). After a long search, he found a slot in the conduct of the war where his knowledge of Asia could have been of tremendous secret use; but, heading for the Middle East, his ship was torpedoed by the Scharnhorst off the north coast of Scotland. It was on 24 February 1941. He was 36. As we know, he was never found; and what we can never know is how many brilliant unwritten sequels to The Station and The Road to Oxiana were also lost off Stornoway.