Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In the last few days I have had to consider, more deeply than I ever thought necessary, the utility and meaning of travel writing. What's it all good for anyway? Hopefully not just armchair tourism. Because if that's all it is, then in these troubled times, we may as well all pack up and go home.
Then I remembered Robert Byron, the founding father of modern travel writing. Travel writers until his time, including his contemporary Peter Fleming (brother of Ian, the creator of James Bond), had written in a serious and imperial tone. After all, many earlier travelers such as Alexander Burnes literally traveled while on Her Majesty’s secret service, for the good and the sake of the British Empire.
But not Byron. He went to Iran and Afghanistan because he wanted to study Islamic architecture. And he wrote in a very different register. In his seminal work, The Road to Oxiana, he described his trip "with irreverence, slanderous innuendo, ludicrous analogies, showy erudition, neurosis, snobbery, aesthetic obsessions, and infuriating charm," in the words of the Scottish travel writer and member of Parliament Rory Stewart. Byron made traveling writing funny, and in so doing he began the modern school of it. By now, Peter Fleming is all but forgotten, while The Road to Oxiana remains the lodestar to which all serious travel writers look to for inspiration.
And perhaps it is not coincidental that humor was the distinguishing novelty of Byron's writing. Nothing breaks down barriers between people quite like humor. There is nothing more humane than sharing a good laugh with your fellow human beings.
And Byron had a deep and abiding humanity in him, which manifested itself in the chaos of 1930s Europe. Eight months before Byron entered Iran on the trip that formed the basis of The Road to Oxiana, Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany. After returning to England, Byron "increasingly devoted his energies to objecting in the most violent terms to the Nazification of Europe and abusing those in England who imagined that some sort of compromise with this new wickedness was possible," in the words of American historian Paul Fussell. "I shall have warmonger put on my passport," Byron told his friend and travel companion Mark Sykes.
Or as Stewart put it,
[B]eneath his waspish aestheticism lies a real moral courage, which makes him at his best… more like… George Orwell…. While much of the English upper classes remained patronizingly aloof or even sympathetic toward Hitler, Byron campaigned so hard, so early, and so aggressively against Hitler that he began to be blacklisted from London dinner parties. The civilization which Byron celebrates [in his travel writing] is not just artistic. It is moral.
Byron's moral rectitude cost him dearly. "By the time war broke out Byron had made so many social enemies that no one seemed to want him around, and at first the best war job he could get was as a sub-editor in the B.B.C. Overseas News department."
And Byron, too, had wrestled with the meaning of travel as I have. He concluded that travel is a form of humanistic education, through which the traveler learns "the tolerance and understanding of the customs and mentality of foreigners." Travelers seek "an organic harmony between all matter and all activity, whose discovery is the purpose of their lives."
Mark Twain put it more plainly in his travel book Innocents Abroad:
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.
In 1941, Byron sailed for the Middle East once more amidst the war to become a British intelligence officer. A German destroyer torpedoed his ship off the coast of Scotland. He was two days shy of his 36th birthday, barely older than I am now. But he left us his example, both literary and moral. Through him I understand that travel is not about snapping that perfect Instagram pic. Through him I understand why we do what we do.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."