Archive for the ‘Eric Newby’ Category

I’m getting back on the posting pony, after having been tumbled to the ground by recent events, and aren’t I lucky this morning, because look at this! – I found a draft post from mid-May that I never did publish. I think I was going to add a Bill Bryson (I’m a Stranger Here Myself) to the line-up, but I’m sure no one will mind giving my thoughts on Our Mr. Bryson a miss (short verdict: in general, I like his stuff quite a lot), because he’s hardly under-reviewed and I haven’t anything new and stunning to say about his earnestly (relentlessly?) humorous ramblings.

Quickie reviews only, I’m afraid, but operating on the premise that a little something is better than nothing, here we go.

pied piper nevil shutePied Piper by Nevil Shute ~ 1942. This edition: Heinemann, 1962. Hardcover. 303 pages.

My rating: 9/10

A ripping yarn, indeed, and typical of Nevil Shute at his best.

Elderly (70-ish) John Howard, not needed for war-related work due to his age, and mourning the loss of his pilot son in the early days of the Second World War, decides to take a quiet fishing trip to eastern France, despite the menacing activities of the German forces in other parts of Europe. Unwittingly caught out by the swiftness of the unstoppable German invasion, Howard finds himself escorting two young English children in an increasingly desperate attempt to return to England. His entourage increases child by child as he collects various waifs and strays, as well as a young French woman who has an unexpected connection to the Howard family.

The coast is reached, and transport across the Channel seems to be coming together nicely when the local Nazi commander intercepts Howard and accuses him of espionage – a charge which carries a brutal penalty…

A fast-moving story with a slightly unusual cast of characters. The children are mostly believable, and John Howard himself is the epitome of quiet heroism. The invading Nazis are brutish and brutal, in between their attempts at placating the locals by benevolent establishment of soup kitchens and the like; the English who are caught in the turmoil are universally likeable and high-minded; the French locals are mostly portrayed as a combination of bovinely stoic, and (paradoxically) boldly sly.

Pied Piper is rather obviously (and expectedly so given its time of writing) something of a fervent propaganda novel, celebrating as it does the sterling nature of the British Everyman in the face of the Teutonic War Machine, but with enough departure from the clichés here and there to keep it engaging. Nevil Shute brushes over some vital details as he keeps his story moving right along, but those he includes add clarity and verisimilitude to this gripping and very readable tale.

something wholesale eric newbySomething Wholesale by Eric Newby ~1962. This edition (revised 1970 and 1985): Picador, 1985. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-00-736751-1. 228 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Ever since a teaser in the early part of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush I have been deeply curious as to Eric Newby’s “time in the rag trade”, as he so facetiously terms his years as a apprentice of sorts in the family business, Lane and Newby Limited, a wholesale women’s fashion house situated in London. By the time Eric darkened its door in 1945, after his return to England after a traumatic wartime of special forces service, time on the run from capture, and prison camp incarceration (see Love and War in the Apennines/When the snow comes they will take you away), the once-thriving business was in the first stages of what would prove to be its death throes.

The rationing of cloth was still in effect for some years after the end of the war, and this created serious difficulties for Great Britain’s dress-making firms, but of more serious impact was the resurgence of the very competitive French fashion houses, in particular Dior, whose hyper-feminine New Look (incidentally requiring vast yardages to make up, putting the struggling English firms at a severe logistical disadvantage) was a jaw-dropping success on the 1947 haute couture scene.

As Eric becomes more and more enmeshed in the garment trade – quite literally, as one will learn from the anecdotes in Something Wholesale – he records with a keen eye to detail the absurdities of that arcane world, and the many eccentric characters he came up against, from flirtatious “outsize” models intent on playing under-the-table footsie with the boss’s son (Eric, of course), to various department store buyers, commercial travellers and contract seamstresses.

In general I enjoyed this memoir, though the humour is of the determined type and not particularly funny after a certain point – pseudonymous names such as Throttle and Fumble (a retailer of Lane and Newby’s output), and the Misses Axhead and Stallybrass being examples of the sort of heavy-handed fun which Eric Newby resorts to for much of the book.

But here and there the narrative strikes pure gold, and some bits are sarcastic gems of prose and really quite perfect. And though he refuses to be completely serious for much of the tale, Eric Newby’s ultimately loving depiction of his parents and their dedication to the firm is perhaps the most gentle and poignant aspect of this uneven memoir.

Lane and Newby went down for the third and final time in 1956, winding up its affairs after the death of Eric’s father, but Eric himself stayed employed in the garment business until 1963 – taking off for an occasional expedition during holidays and writing the odd book and magazine article here and there in his spare time – when he finally managed to find full-time employment in a career much more suited to his tale-telling aptitude, journalism.

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When the snow comes, they will take you away by Eric Newby ~ 1971. This edition: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.  British title: Love and War in the Apennines. Hardcover. ISBN: 684-12486-6. 221 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10. Loses a bit for occasionally awkward phrasing which made me stop and re-read in an attempt to keep the story sorted out. It broke the flow a few times; nothing too serious. Otherwise, a very engaging and sincere memoir.

***** 

I said “sincere” just above, and that is my overall impression of this World War II prisoner-of-war account by the late British travel writer Eric Newby, best known perhaps for his month-long ramble in the Hindu Kush back in 1956. Fourteen years before that famous excursion, Newby was occupied with an even greater adventure after he was interned with his companions in German-occupied Italy after a British Special Forces sabotage mission against a German airfield in Sicily went completely awry.

We were captured off the east coast of Sicily on the morning of the twelfth of August, 1942, about four miles out of the Bay of Catania. It was a beautiful morning. As the sun rose I could see Etna, a truncated cone with a plume of smoke over it like the quill of a pen stuck in a pewter ink-pot, rising out of the haze to the north of where I was treading water.

After being dropped off by a submarine off the Sicilian coast, Newby and five companions had paddled their folbots – portable folding canoes – to the beach, and proceeded to attempt to sneak onto the German airfield and bomb as many of the planes as possible before escaping back to the beach and then a pick-up rendezvous with the sub. Unfortunately for the saboteurs, the Germans were very much on the alert, and the sneak attack ended in a hasty retreat. The canoes sank one by one during the night, leaving the men completely stranded at sea, where they were picked up by Italian fishermen. A year in a rather decent POW camp followed, with numerous unsuccessful escape attempts by various prisoners being attempted, before the Allied-Italian Armistice of 1943 which saw a mass exodus of Allied prisoners and Italian soldiers into the countryside just ahead of advancing German troops.

Eric had unluckily broken his ankle the night before the Armistice, which complicated his movements considerably. Ending up in an Italian hospital, waiting for the inevitable arrival of the Germans, Eric met a young Slovenian woman, Wanda, who initiated a series of language lessons – Italian in exchange for English – which soon led to something more than a disinterested friendly relationship.

When the Germans did show up, Eric was put under guard by Italian policemen, but he managed to escape out of a bathroom window, broken ankle and all, following Wanda’s instructions as to how to find assistance in the town. An underground movement of antifascist/anti-German civilians was mobilizing, and Eric came under their protection and was passed from house to house until his eventual haven in a small mountain village, where he ended up working for a farmer in exchange for shelter and meals.

Wanda kept in occasional contact, mostly by cryptic notes and once by a rare and risky visit, and Eric stayed one step ahead of his potential captors. But as the autumn progressed and the mountain snows began to fall, the period of freedom drew to a close, as it became impossible to hide the presence of Eric and the other temporarily free POWs from the investigative raids of the German patrols.

As the book ends, Eric has been recaptured and is heading to another internment camp, where he will be spending the rest of the war. He and Wanda managed to stay in contact, and were married after the war.

This book is a self-deprecating account of one man’s attempt at maintaining his freedom, though, as Eric himself notes several times, the best thing he could have done both for himself and for the Italian villagers who risked their lives to aid him would have been to surrender. And there was a very real danger to his hosts. Entire families were shot for harbouring fugitives, and though there were numerous people willing to run such a risk, there were others just as eager to turn in both escaped prisoners and those of their neighbours who aided them.

It is also a touching love story, both of a man and a woman who meet and fall in love in most uncongenial circumstances, and of Eric Newby’s deep affection and respect for the Italian peasants who sheltered and fed him at unbelievable risk to themselves and their families.

A sincere and grateful story, written in a modest tone with a good dose of wry humour.

This is one of the recommendations in Noel Perrin’s book about good books, , which I reviewed earlier this year.

I must agree. Highly recommended.

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Departures and Arrivals by Eric Newby ~ 1999. This edition: The Lyons Press, 1999. Hardcover. ISBN: 1-58576-224-4. 192 pages.

My rating: 5/10. Some decent essays but not enough of them to swing the balance between “fair” and “very good” reading. A lot of reciting of railway schedules, and short, out of context snippets about trips which blurred together after a while. Travel writing “lite”. I expected more from this writer.

*****

A few essays into this book I was thinking to myself, “Okay, these are obviously excerpts from other works. Where’s the reference page?” Looking through the front and back material, there was no indication that this was the case; it apparently is a stand-alone collection of (mostly) travel tales and short reminiscences of the writer’s earlier life.

There is no context given more many of the trips referenced, which I found disconcerting. “Flying into Coober Pedy…” Yes – okay – so you’re in Australia – but WHY are you there? What bigger trip is this part of? And aside from discovering that opal miners like to be paid in cash, and certain of them have a fondness for personal architecture such as a revolving bed surrounded by mirrors, what other memorable things did you find there that we, your readers, might be interested in?

Though there are well-written, interesting, and amusing passages, the whole thing feels like a selection of truncated pages from a personal journal, bits and pieces of information jotted down in transit to aid in later memory of the trip. Perhaps it is, worked up with a minimum of added information.

I suspect this is a book which was commissioned and published on the strength of the author’s earlier, and much stronger, efforts. A case of selling the name, not the content.

It was readable, but  vaguely unsatisfying. One to borrow from the library for light diversion, hotel room reading on a road trip (which is how I’ve just experienced it), but I’m not left with an urge to rush out to buy it. Not recommended, unless you come by it for a bargain basement price.

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A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby ~ 1958. This edition: Harper Collins, 2010. Introduction by Evelyn Waugh, Epilogue by Hugh Carless. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-00-736775-7. 288 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10, after some inner debate. I have decided to overlook the more blatant “Eurocentric” passages, and to view this book as a product of its times, despite a vast change in standards of political correctness in the ensuing fifty-some years since its first publication. Very readable, in a dryly witty British way.

*****

In 1956, 37-year-old Englishman Eric Newby, having received a publisher’s advance to write a travel book, contacted his friend, career diplomat Hugh Carless, and floated the idea of travelling to Afghanistan and trekking in the Hindu Kush mountains, an area where few Europeans had previously ventured. The two decided that the trek should have some definite aim, in part to enable them to request grants from various organizations to assist with expenses, so, without letting their lack of mountaineering experience stand in their way, they decided to focus on ascending 20,000 foot Mir Samir, which had not yet been climbed to its summit.

After a two-day crash course in basic alpine climbing at Snowdonia in Wales, the two felt they were marginally more prepared for the rigours ahead, and the trip was on. Each man brought a certain experience to the expedition.

Newby, though having spent the previous ten years working in his family’s ladies’ fashion business, had strong credentials as an outdoorsman. At the tender age of 19, he had spent time on a four-masted Finnish sailing ship, voyaging from Australia to Europe via Cape Horn, and his eventual book about this experience, The Last Grain Race, was responsible for the publisher’s advance which initiated the Hindu Kush journey. With the start of World War II, Newby served in the famous Black Watch regiment, and was involved in the Special Boat Section, making lightning commando raids on enemy airfields and the like. One of these expeditions went awry, and Newby was captured off Sicily and interned for the rest of the war, barring a brief period of freedom in the Italian mountains, where he met his future wife, a Slovenian village girl, Wanda, who aided him in an escape attempt. This period was also written about, in Love and War in the Apennines, published in North America as When the Snow Comes, They Will Take You Away. (I am currently reading this memoir, and it is fascinating, and helps put Eric Newby the Hindu Kush “explorer” into context.) Wanda wrote her own memoir, Peace and War: Growing Up in Fascist Italy, in 1992. Always strongly and competently athletic, and with a strong sense of humour and a forthright readiness to embrace new experiences, Newby’s intent to venture into the forbidding mountains of a somewhat hostile Afghanistan is more understandable than it appears from his account of the initial decision in A Short Walk, where it appears to be merely a whim of the moment.

Hugh Carless himself, while on one of his official postings in Kabul, had previous experience in the area, and it was his accounts of trekking in the region with Tajik guides which got Newby thinking about the possibilities of a more ambitious expedition. The 31-year-old Carless brought knowledge of local languages and on-the-ground diplomacy to the partnership, as well as a strong inclination to adventure which more than matched Eric Newby’s.

The entire adventure, the “short walk”, lasted only a month, but what a marathon that month was. The book details the trials and tribulations, as well as the rewards, of the journey first to Afghanistan, and then, after engaging local guides, into the mountains. Mir Samir was reached, and the climb attempted, but both Newby and Carless were so weakened by continual dysentery and altitude sickness that they were forced to turn back a mere 700 feet from the summit. (A German party of experienced climbers was the first to reach the summit, only three years later, in 1959.)

After descending Mir Samir, bloodied and bruised, the trekkers continued around the foot of the mountain, as Newby and Carless thought they would like to see it from the “other side”, which entailed the party entering the neighbouring province of Nuristan, to the trepidation of their guides; regional rivalries were intense and deadly, and there was a very real danger of violence to trespassers.

A safe return was made, and the two men were thereby provided with anecdotes for a lifelong series of dinner parties, not to mention a whole book. The guides returned to their normal lives, grateful, one would assume, that the whole darned thing was so quickly over.

Much is made of Newby’s playful, ironic tone in this book, and while I did appreciate the bantering tone, as it made for an enjoyable reading experience on a purely diversionary level, I did continually keep thinking to myself, “Why?” Why risk life and limb, not only of themselves but of their guides, on such a pointless journey? Because it was “there”? That does seem to be the chief motivation set forth in the book, and I am not sure whether learning from the afterword by Hugh Carless, special to the 50th anniversary edition of A Short Walk, that the trip was contrived at least partly in order to have an experience to write a book about, that I am any happier with that reasoning. I suppose it is no different from the contemporary trips in search of material by the likes of Michael Palin and Bill Bryson, and even the revered Paul Theroux. We do tend to love a good traveller’s tale, whether we are fellow adventurers or merely armchair voyeurs.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is often referred to as the book that started that successful genre, but I must differ on that point, as the traveller’s tale form stretches back in popularity to pre-history. Think of The Odyssey, and the Nordic journey tales, and Marco Polo, and the countless accounts since then. This book is a worthy successor of its historical ancestors, but it very much walks in the shadow of what came before, versus branching out in any significant way.

Newby and Carless ultimately come across as being a wee bit arrogant (okay, in Carless’ case, hugely arrogant), with their snide comments on the personal habits of the natives of the area. To balance this they do poke continual fun at themselves, and there are numerous appreciative comments regarding the region and the people, so perhaps it is merely a case of the author being more honest than most in that he records his negative thoughts, rather than submerging them in the interests of political correctness as more modern writers have been trained to do. Whatever my criticism, the fact remains that these two men ventured where few others dared, and, in the face of overwhelming discomfort and very real danger, pushed forward to pursue their stated goals, with a great degree of success.

To sum up, I quite enjoyed reading this book, am eager to read more of Newby’s work, and would happily recommend A Short Walk to others, with the note that it represents the attitudes of the time it was written, and may jar the sensibilities of a more tactful and possibly better educated (in a worldly aware sense) time.

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