Christopher Sykes (author)

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Christopher Hugh Sykes FRSL (17 November 1907 – 8 December 1986) was an English author. Born into a well-off northern English landowning family, he was the second son of the diplomat Sir Mark Sykes (1879–1919), and his wife, Edith (née Gorst). His sister was Angela Sykes, the sculptor. His uncle, also Christopher Sykes, was, for a time, a close friend of Edward VII.[1]

Life and career[edit]

Educated at Downside School and Christ Church, Oxford, Sykes was, for a time in his youth, in the Foreign Office, including a stint as an attaché (1928–29) in the British Embassy in Berlin, where Harold Nicolson was then Counsellor. This was followed by a year (1930–31) at the British Legation in Teheran. An early hero was Aubrey Herbert, remembered now as the man who inspired John Buchan's classic thriller, Greenmantle.[citation needed]

Though Sykes thought of making politics his career, his stammer and also his artistic and imaginative disposition indicated that political life was not for him. At the School of Oriental Studies in London, he devoted himself to Persian studies in 1933 before travelling in Central Asia during 1933–34 with Robert Byron, who later wrote The Road to Oxiana recounting their long expedition in what was then an almost unexplored country. In the book, Byron states that Sykes was given an order to leave Persia, but they could negotiate that he leaves via Afghanistan with Byron.[2]

On their return to England, Sykes and Byron wrote a novel together under the name of Richard Waughburton, Innocence and Design, published in 1935. A little later, Sykes and Cyril Connolly planned a book with the title of The Little Voice. In common with other projects of Connolly's, the book never got beyond the planning stages. Sykes published in 1936 a biography of the German Persianist Wilhelm Wassmus; he did not, during later years, include this volume in his list of his publications. A memoir of Byron, killed at sea in 1941, was included in Sykes' best-selling book, Four Studies in Loyalty.[citation needed]

Sykes had an eventful war. Having held, like his famous father, a Territorial Army commission in The Green Howards in 1927–30, he was commissioned in 1939 as a reserve officer in the regiment's newly formed 7th Battalion. In June 1940, Sykes joined SO1 (later Special Operations Executive [SOE]), where he was personal assistant to Colonel Cudbert Thornhill. In October 1941, Sykes was sent out to Tehran as Deputy Director of Special Propaganda (DDSP) under diplomatic cover (Second Secretary at the British Legation) in the aftermath of the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, where he remained until November 1942, when he was transferred to Cairo. Out of a job because his department had been wound up, Sykes found time to write a light novel, High Minded Murder (1944), something of a roman à clef, set in wartime Cairo where Graham Greene's sister Elizabeth was living(Sykes mentions Greene himself in his biography of Waugh). Meanwhile, after failing to find any position as an intelligence officer in the Middle East, Sykes returned to the UK in May 1943, volunteered for the Special Air Service (SAS), and was posted to the Commando Training Depot at Achnacarry Castle, Invernesshire on 1 July 1943. As an SAS officer, Sykes, who spoke fluent French but could not pass as a native, undertook extremely hazardous work with the French Resistance: an experience which, like his friendship with Byron, was depicted in Four Studies in Loyalty (dedicated to the town of Vosges), this time in that book's last chapter.[3]

Nowadays Sykes is especially remembered for his biography of his friend Evelyn Waugh, whom he met after the success of Waugh's Vile Bodies. He introduced Waugh to the socialite Diana Cooper, aka Lady Stitch. He praised Brideshead, Waugh's Catholic epic (the two were both Catholics, but with the notable difference—mentioned by Waugh's son Auberon when reviewing Sykes's book in the November 1975 issue of Books and Bookmen – that whereas Waugh converted to Roman Catholicism in his twenties, Sykes was a cradle Catholic) though admitting to his dislike of the character Julia Flyte. Sykes makes some interesting comparisons between scenes in Waugh's books and those of William M Thackeray - the fox hunting scene in a Handful of Dust is compared to that in Barry Lyndon.

Sykes is also remembered to a lesser extent, for his history of the British Mandate of Palestine, Crossroads to Israel (1965). He also wrote several books of fiction and lives of Orde Wingate (published 1959 - Sykes drew attention to Wingate as the possible basis for Waugh's character Brigadier Ritchie Hook in The Sword of Honour trilogy, in his biography of Waugh) the general sometimes known as the "Lawrence of Judea" (a phrase that Wingate deplored); Lady Astor, who, born in Virginia, was one of the first women to sit in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom; and Adam von Trott zu Solz, executed following his part in the failed 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler.[citation needed]

After 1945 Sykes worked for many years in BBC Radio, where he helped to get Waugh's broadcast on P G Wodehouse, who was captured in Le Touquet by the Germnas, on air, as well as writing for several British and American periodicals, including The New Republic, The Spectator, Books and Bookmen, The Observer and the short-lived English Review Magazine. He was invested as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.[citation needed]

Marriage and family[edit]

He married Camilla Georgiana, daughter of Sir Thomas Wentworth Russell (great-grandson of the 6th Duke of Bedford)[4] on 25 October 1936.[1] Their son, Mark Richard Sykes (born 9 June 1937), by his second marriage, is father to six children including New York-based fashion writer and novelist Plum Sykes. The writer and photographer, Christopher Simon Sykes, is a nephew.[citation needed] Writer/journalist Tom Sykes is a grandson.[5]


  • Wassmus, a biography (1936)
  • High-Minded Murder, a novel, (1944)
  • "Four Studies in Loyalty", essays including a memoir of Robert Byron (1946)
  • Answer to Question 33, a novel (1948)
  • "Character and Situations"; six short stories (1949)
  • A Song of a Shirt, a novel (1953)
  • "Two Studies in Virtue", two essays (1955)
  • Orde Wingate, a biography (1959)
  • Crossroads to Israel (1965)
  • Troubled Loyalty, a biography of Adam Von Trott zu Solz (1968)
  • Nancy: The Life of Lady Astor (1972)
  • Evelyn Waugh, a biography (1975)

As Richard Waughburton[edit]

Innocence and Design (1935; written as "Richard Waughburton", jointly with Robert Byron)


  • Dictionary of National Biography
  • Cooper, Artemis, Cairo in the War, 1990


  1. ^ a b Profile, Retrieved 4 September 2014.
  2. ^ Byron, Robert (1982). The Road to Oxiana. Oxford University Press. p. 220. ISBN 9780195030679.
  3. ^ See HS 9/1433/9, The National Archives, Kew. This is Sykes' (D/N11) SOE personnel file, which outlines his military career.
  4. ^ Profile, Retrieved 29 June 2016.
  5. ^ Tom Sykes, "This Is My Half of the Castle: The Eccentric Living Arrangements of Aristocrats," Daily Beast, 25 August 2016.