Strolling round the grounds of Castle Howard, Patrick Balfour is trying to get his head around something. Persia is called Iran these days. 'Persia', that most romantic of concepts, is in certain practical ways obsolete. Perhaps it had been even in the 1930s, when a generation of young Oxford men had made it their business to go there. How delicious though, to be thinking about that historically, geographically and culturally distant place in his present surroundings!

Top left: Castle Howard. Top right: Tus, photo by Robert Byron. Bottom left: Tus, photo by Robert Byron. Bottom right: Tus, photo by Patrick Balfour.

Patrick had forgotten that he was in Persia at the same time as Robert Byron, and has spent the morning reliving the overlap of their journeys with the help of the key published texts. His own Grand Tour and Robert's The Road to Oxiana.


Not that the books could be mentioned in the same sentence without making clear that the latter was a masterpiece. Patrick dearly wished he had written it, but then to do so he would have had to have been a completely different person. Robert Byron:
'Mad, bad and dangerous to know', as Evelyn Waugh had once described him. Patrick was happy, on the whole, to be his own man.

Patrick's own more modest book was a diary of a journey, mostly by car, from London to the Far East and back. The party of eight people, led by Lord Noel, had left Pall Mall in two Rolls Royces on October 18, 1933.


Both books have maps as endpapers, The Road to Oxiana's focuses on the middle of Patrick's own route and looks like this:


Robert had travelled with Christopher Sykes, but not all the time. Upon arriving in Teheran, capital of Persia, Patrick expressed it like this in chapter ten of Grand Tour:

'I found Christopher and Robert on the evening of our arrival, staying at a pension called the Coq d'Or. They had left England two months before us, and Robert was still awaiting the other charcoal burners whom we had met in Baghdad. Despairing of their arrival, he left the next morning in a second-hand Morris for Afghanistan.'

'Charcoal burners' refers to an alternative means of propulsion to petrol engines, and Robert's trip had been sponsored by the inventors. Patrick again caught up with Robert at Meshed, Persia's most easterly city:

'At the hotel we found Robert, seeking means of transport to Afghanistan, since his car had died under him on the road from Teheran. Together we visited the bazaars, which encircle the two mosques and which, like the rest of Meshed, were in the throes of modernisation. We ferreted about among Bokhara embroideries, Turcoman rugs, velvets, bronzes, turquoises and pale-coloured emeralds of Khorasan mixed up with the usual junk. In the tray of one dealer, reposing among jewels and ivories and various treasures, was the top of an old bicycle bell, which had long since forgotten its identity.'

The map below, a detail from the above map, shows Teheran on the left, Meshed on the right, and Herat, in Afghanistan, bottom right, where the two parties ultimately went their separate ways.


Robert doesn't mention Patrick by name in The Road to Oxiana. Instead, on November 11th, 1933, in Teheran, he wrote: 'The Noel party arrived last night in two Rolls-Royces.' And six days later, he expressed it similarly: 'The Noel party arrived yesterday. I have taken a seat for Herat in an Afghan lorry painted all over with roses. It aspires to leave the day after tomorrow.'

Patrick has concluded that Robert owed him quite a lot, as Patrick had often publicised his work in his newspaper column. Indeed, that might have been the reason that Robert didn't mention Patrick by name. Too much mutual back-slapping has never been the way to impress.

In the end, Robert travelled with Patrick's party, but before that they saw something of the same sites. As good a way as any of introducing the reader to Persia is their complementary descriptions of the one Meshed site:

'Just outside the city is the lovely tomb of Khojah Rabi, which the visitor may enter. The building stands in a spacious orchard of trees. Octagonal, it is built of brick, but every part is tiled with a variety of geometrical patterns in blue and green and yellow…'

Patrick Balfour: Tiling in the Tomb of Khoja Rabi

Each of the four main sides has a central bay with a pointed arch; this is recessed to contain a similar arch of half the size, which in turn frames a small, rectangular door. The lower part of the dome in which turquoise predominates, has broad bands of Arabic writing, making coloured pattern of tiles. In a Western landscape these tiled mosques would look garish; but in the bright Persian light their colours soften so that they compare in hue with the wild flowers of an English wood, harebell and Celandine, rather than the gaudier delphinium and sunflower of an English garden.'

Robert Byron: The Tomb of Khoja Rabi

'Every morning I take a two-horse cab to the shrine of Khoja Rabi, where I sit and draw, at peace with the world, as long as the short winter days allow. It was built in 1621 by Shah Abbas, and stands in a garden outside the town. The gay tiles, turquoise, lapis, violet and yellow, have a singular melancholy among the bare trees and empty beds a-flutter with dead leaves. It suits my mood.'

Actually, those words of Robert were written in December, 1934, when he had returned from Afghanistan to Persia in order to wait for spring before going on to Oxiana. In other words, his prearranged transport, the so-called charcoal burners, had let him down.

Robert Byron: The Tomb of Khoja Rabi

The forced return worked in Robert Byron's favour. He needed to sit down in front of the art and architecture of Persia and to let their rhythms and patterns slowly sink down through his mind. In rushing from place to place, Patrick had inevitably missed this layering. He was only catching up with it now, in his quasi-isolation on the Castle Howard estate.

Robert Byron: The Tomb of Khoja Rabi

Robert Byron was constantly frustrated in his plan to get to Oxiana. He had to overcome human frailty, his own and that of his guides. Machines let him down and so did people. Endlessly. But he stuck with it and he got somewhere. For a start, he got to the shrine of Khoja Rabi.

Robert Byron: The Tomb of Khoja Rabi

Moreover, on his third visit to Meshed, Robert penetrated to the interior of the Shrine of Imam Riza. No photography allowed. Christ, no infidels at all! You have to read pages 209 to 213 of The Road to Oxiana to get an idea of what Robert had to risk in order to experience for himself the masterpiece of Gohar Shad. As he then put it: 'I tremble to think that of the four finest buildings in Persia, the Gubad-i-Kabus, the small dome-chamber in the Friday Mosque at Isfahan, the Mosque of Gohar Shad here, and the Mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah at Isfahan, my acquaintance with two was postponed till my last fortnight in the country.'

Robert never did get to see if the ancient monuments of Oxiana were even more impressive than those in Persia. The monuments he wanted to see were by the River Oxus and that defined the border with Russia. In June of 1934, a "NO," was so clearly delivered to him by the Afghan Governor, that, after ten months travelling, he resignedly turned towards home.

By then, as Patrick calculates, Robert had been in Meshed three times and he had been in Isfahan - now a World Heritage Site - three times as well. He had built up an understanding of the ancient culture that he'd set out to investigate. In not going to Isfahan himself, Patrick had been philosophical:

'But perhaps it is the essence of travel to leave places unseen, curiosities unsatisfied, so that always at the back of the traveller's mind is the feeling that one day he will return. Every such place is a treasure in store for the future, an illusion still to be tested. "Some day," I think to myself, "I shall see Isfahan," not "I have seen Isfahan, and maybe I shall never see it again." It does not occur to me to think "I have not seen Isfahan, and may never see it."

But let us return to Meshed - November, 1933 - where Patrick and Robert found themselves together, in order to ask: where was that third intrepid writer/traveller, Evelyn Waugh, at that time? He was in a house in Bognor Regis, on the south coast of England, writing up the record of the previous winter's travel that would be published as Ninety-Two Days.


In November of 1932, Evelyn had travelled to British Guiana in South America. Why had he done that? Not in search of an alternative civilisation, as had been the inspiration for Robert Byron's journey. But on a whim, really. Ostensibly Evelyn went to stay with a Jesuit who lived in the jungle. But when he got there, he'd become curious about a town called Boa Vista and so he'd pushed on to that. There he was marooned in that dismal nonentity of a place for a few weeks, bored out of his mind. However, it's there that Evelyn wrote 'The Man Who Liked Dickens', a story that would provide the
denouement for A Handful of Dust.

Patrick had learned about this at Chagford, near Exeter, where they often independently went to write their books. Patrick could put what he'd found out about both writers in the following way. Evelyn Waugh, like Robert Byron, found it very hard to travel from place to place in foreign lands. Both individuals were rugged, determined, and pushed themselves through intense privation: hunger, pain and fear. They got themselves into situations - and experienced emotions - that simply demanded to be written up as books.

They took very different approaches to the writing. Evelyn wrote up his three-months of hardship in the jungle in a cursory way, sticking to the uncomfortable facts: a pot-boiler. It took him little more than a month of isolation in Bognor Regis to do so. But less than a year later he would return to his experience in the jungle when writing up his brilliant novel,
A Handful of Dust. Robert Byron put much more effort into the travel book itself, indeed was still turning the 1933/34 diaries into The Road to Oxiana in 1936, living in a house in China. Which was the more successful approach? Depends whether you want a great novel, still talked about today, or a cult travel book, which has stood the test of time equally well, if with a smaller audience.

Patrick decides to stick with The Road to Oxiana. Indeed, to travel to the heart of it via some human transactions. First, in Teheran, with Christopher Sykes ill, Robert had the opportunity to hook up with an American traveller called Farquarson in order to travel to Afghanistan. Robert spends four solid pages of his book mocking Farquarson's mealy-mouthed and repetitive way of drawling, before ending as follows:

Farquarson: "Before we start I've gaht to know you've enough money to get back to Persia, and I've gaht to see the notes actually in your hand…"

RB: "What?"

Farquarson: "I've gaht to see the notes actually in your hand…"

RB: "Good-bye."

Farquarson: "…before leaving, so's I can be quite sure you can shift yourself in the event of…"

RB: "GET OUT, if you're not deaf."

Eventually, Robert made progress towards Oxiana with a local guide. But not steady progress as this exchange shows:

"Is this really the way to Karokh?" I asked for the tenth time.
"Yes, it is. I have told you again and again it is. You don't understand Persian."
"How do you know it is?"
"I do know it is."
"That is no answer. It is you who don't know Persian."
"Oh, I don't know Persian, don't I? I don't know anything. I certainly don't know where this path goes."
"Does it go to Karokh or does it not? Answer me, please."
"I don't know. I don't know Persian. I don't know anything. You say Karokh, Karokh, Karokh. I don't know where Karokh is."
And all of a sudden, sinking down upon the herbage, he put his head in his hands and groaned.

Back in Persia, in Perepolis, Robert was looking for permission to photograph local monuments. This was not forthcoming, and he felt he was being selfishly obstructed by a German doctor who was ensconced in the town. He wrote to him insisting that he would be taking photographs unless he was shown the written concession giving this man Herzfield exclusive rights. That - or 'force' - would be the only thing that would stop him. Robert got his photographs.

In Meshed for the third time, Robert was determined to see the interior of the Mosque of Gohar Shad even though, as Patrick has said, it was off-limits for infidels. So Robert and Christopher hired a guide and 'blacked up' for the occasion. That is, they used burnt cork to darken their skin.

Robert Byron disguised as a lower middle-class Persian. Photo by Christopher Sykes

Stunned by the view from the great courtyard at night, Robert knew he would have to see it again in the full light of day. Christopher couldn't join him, because of his beard, and their guide wouldn't risk it either. But Robert got into costume again and walked the mile and a half to the mosque. He then retraced his footsteps of the previous night, and was rewarded by being able to write this in his diary:

'The whole quadrangle was a garden of turquoise, pink, dark red, and dark blue, with touches of purple, green and yellow, planted among paths of plain buff brick… The great minarets beside the sanctuary, rising from bases encircled with Kufic the size of a boy, were bedizened with a network of jewelled lozenges. The swollen sea-green dome adorned with yellow tendrils appeared between them…But in all this variety, the principle of union, the life-spark of the whole blazing apparition, was kindled by two great texts… '


'The vision was a matter of seconds. Simultaneously I began to feel insecure. I had intended follow last night's plan of walking slowly round the court, but was prevented by two crowds, one listening to preacher before the main Ivan, one praying before the Tomb opposite; so that either way was threatened by religious etiquette.'

How did Robert extricate himself from this situation? Aware that everyone else looked different in clothes and manner from his supposedly lower middle-class Persian self, and that his appearance was attracting attention, he scuttled back into the bazaar.

That then is the road to Oxiana, concludes Patrick. Travel it, dear reader, if you think you're tough enough. If not, dip into
The Road to Oxiana between regular meals and naps.

Patrick has been walking the grounds of Castle Howard long enough. Long enough for what? Long enough for a vision of sorts to come to mind. It goes something like this:


Poor Robert. Dead at 36. What a waste.

Robert and Brian Howard had been friendly at Eton and were still chums post-Oxford, coming up with a book idea that they were to edit together in 1926. That book never appeared. Whose fault would that have been? Patrick wonders. He doesn't wonder for long. Brian Howard was an amazingly talented man, but he was not a finisher.


Poor Brian. Killed himself in his prime. 'Unfinished', being his middle name.

Evelyn Waugh was a finisher, albeit sometimes a grumpy one. He was also an inspired thinker and writer. He knew, as Robert did, how to put his hard-won experiences to effective literary use. And it's not that he was ignorant of the Moslem culture either. When he took a house in Fez, Morocco, in order to write the first half of A Handful of Dust, he was calling on his experience of the Amazon jungle and being lost there. But then when writing Brideshead Revisited, at Chagford, he made use of Fez in the set-up. For instance, Evelyn was friendly with the British consul, so that's who Charles uses to locate Sebastian's exact whereabouts. And in some way Evelyn's regular liaisons with Fatima, a local prostitute who he mentions disparigingly in letters home, becomes transformed into the tender and comic interactions between Sebastian and Kurt in the book.


Poor Evelyn. By far the fattest, feeblest 62-year-old in the cemetery.

Evelyn Waugh and Henry Yorke had a mutual respect that survived until the second world war. Even beyond that. But it didn't survive Evelyn's souring ageing process.


Can Patrick say 'Poor Henry'? Or is 68 years a reasonable innings? Reasonable for a paranoid alcoholic who had become frail and misanthropic?


What a strange feeling. To have been dead for 44 years and suddenly resurrected. Sharpens the mind no end. For instance, Patrick can now see Evelyn Waugh's achievement in pin-sharp perspective. From 1928 to 1939, he'd written the following in an autobiographical vein: Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, A Handful of Dust, Scoop and Work Suspended. That's six books in eleven years. Then, between 1940 and 1945, there came Put Out More Flags, Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, Brideshead Revisited and Unconditional Surrender. That's five masterpieces in a mere six years! Trouble is, it took Evelyn the rest of his life to write them up. After the war, Evelyn rapidly became an old man, such was the effort of those war years. The Loved One, Scott-King's Modern Europe, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold and Basil Seal Rides Again are all short - if brilliant - pieces of writing, and cover Evelyn's existence from 1946 to 1966. Respectively, a perverse man, a dim man, a paranoid man (worse than Henry) and a jealous, old alcoholic (again, worse than Henry). Slim pickings for the final twenty years of a major writer's existence.


What is that - a pop song? Ah yes, '5-4-3-2-1' by Manfred Mann, a hit from 1964. When Patrick was still very much alive the first time around. Indeed, when Evelyn was still just about putting one foot in front of the other.

"Always onward, rode the six hundred
Down the valley on their horses they thundered
Ah, but once they're down, they really blundered
Uh-huh, it was the Manfreds."

Patrick realises that he must leave it there. A period of maximum insight is invariably followed by an equivalent one of absolute nonsense. Such has been his experience in this new life. This new life half-lived at Castle Howard, and half-lived in the brilliant books of his peers.

After Dinner Speech
"If Patrick Balfour will allow me to say something now… Thank-you, Patrick… I realise I’ve been trying to piece together a bigger picture of Evelyn Waugh and his peers. They were operating from the absolute peak of a first world power. That may be why their achievement seems so great - the utter privilege these golden lads were drawing on. From the spires of Oxford to the minarets of Persia, the world was their oyster. But the other side of privilege is self-indulgence, and boy did that turn around and bite Evelyn and company. But be that as it may, let's raise our glasses. To Oxford's class of 1924! Do I mean 1924? Pretty much, yes.