Europe in the Looking-Glass by Robert Byron

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Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4, 13-17 February 2012
First published in 1926, Europe in the Looking-Glass offers an account of three young Englishmen travelling across the continent in an unreliable car, visiting various countries including Germany, Italy and Greece.
The book offers a fascinating insight into attitudes current at that time: the three protagonists are a happy-go-lucky lot who take pleasure in the thrill of the trip - enduring the occasional flat tyre, or an encounter with an obdurate foreigner, while savouring foreign food and/or historic sites.
While Byron remains fascinated with other cultures, he also looks forward to what might happen in the future. He finds the Germans bellicose - too obsessed with their own self-importance (some seven years before the Nazi Party came to power); the Italians, on the other hand, have embraced Fascism under Mussolini, an ideology that seems to have improved their organizational capacities but increased the levels of violence within the country. Oppositional voices are ruthlessly put down.
The book also reveals Byron's own prejudices; he remains a fervent Hellenist, who despises the Turks for what they did during the Smyrna Massacre of 1922. The Turkish soldiers are described as "bestial" and "mentally unsound." At the same time he criticizes the British navy for remaining on the sidelines and refusing to intervene in the conflict, even though they were moored close to the city. Such observations reveal a profound ambivalence on the author's part: while being convinced that Britain is the leading European power, both militarily and economically, he nonetheless believes that they are too keen on pursuing a laissez-faire policy, allowing other countries - Germany, Italy, and even the new Turkish Republic under Kemal Atatürk - to re-arm wıthout doing anything to prevent it. Byron's worries would be vindicated a decade later in the run-up to the Second World War.
The "looking-glass" of the title actually refers more to the author than to Europe, as we are given an insight into the mind of a young British dilettante who gradually develops a political consciousness through European travel. Rupert Penry Jones' narration conveyed the author's gradually developing sense of self-awareness that eventually undermines his feeling of complacency (that Britain will remain the leading European power). He enjoys the thrill of travelling, but occasionally does not like what he sees. The producer of this Book of the Week was David Roper.