24 October 2006

RIP: Eric Newby, CBE, MC

Eric Newby, who died on Friday aged 86, was the author of some of the best books in the canon of English travel writing, notably A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and Love and War in the Apennines.

Informed by a pin-sharp eye and a self-deprecating persona, Newby's literary style was inspired by the comic portrait of the Englishman abroad presented in the writings of Alexander Kinglake, Robert Byron and Evelyn Waugh. In a preface to the book that made Newby's reputation, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958), Waugh identified the central elements of this humorous tradition: its quintessentially English spirit of amateurism and its tone of ironic understatement.

For Newby's "short walk" was in reality an arduous journey through the more remote parts of Afghanistan, culminating in a dangerous assault on Mir Samir, an unclimbed glacial peak of 20,000ft. The sum of his preparation for the mountaineering ahead was a brief weekend on the Welsh hills.

I don't think I'd ever actually heard of him until Mike Lief blogged about his death, but I'm obviously going to have to track down some of his books. He was a sailor:
One of his father's frequent fiscal crises, and Eric's persistent failure to pass algebra, saw him removed from St Paul's at 16. He joined an advertising agency, where he spent much of his time riding a bicycle around the office. He was mercifully released from this when his employers lost the Kellogg's account, and in 1938, aged 18, he signed on the four-masted Finnish barque Moshulu, engaged in the 30,000 mile-round grain trade between Ireland and Australia.

Newby later recounted his experiences in his first book, The Last Grain Race (1956), which gave a vivid description of the claustrophobic life of a sailing ship's crew.

It gave notice of his powers of observation, his unforced prose and his taste for the ridiculous. One memorable set-piece describes Newby's attempts at dentistry in a swaying fo'c'sle after an alcoholic Christmas lunch, with most of the molten gutta-percha spilling down the throat of the ailing seaman.

And a soldier:
In 1940 Newby joined the Black Watch, serving in India before volunteering for the Special Boat Section, then operating out of Alexandria. In August 1942 his detachment was sent to sabotage a German airfield at Catania in Sicily. This highly dangerous mission, unpromisingly codenamed Operation Whynot, was designed to aid the passage of the Pedestal convoy, bound with vital oil to Malta.

When Newby landed from his dinghy it was the first time he had set foot in Europe. The operation was not successful — no one had thought to tell the SBS men that there were 1,000 German troops at the airfield — and Newby was captured by fishermen after failing to rendezvous with the waiting submarine.

He was sent to the prison camp at Fontanellato, in the Po Valley. The camp's hierarchy, he later wrote, resembled that of a public school, divided into the "socially OK and the rest", its kindly headmaster the prison commandant. With his connivance, the prisoners broke out into the countryside after the Italians surrendered in September 1943, Newby hobbling on a broken ankle. He related his subsequent adventures in perhaps his best and most original book, Love and War in the Apennines (1971).

Having been initially helped by his future wife, Wanda, Newby was later sheltered, at great risk, by the Italian peasantry. He passed the winter of 1943 on a farm, clearing the stones from a vast field, and then hid in a cave. Once he met a German officer out butterfly hunting, who recognised Newby but preferred to share a beer rather than ruin a sunny day with the business of war.

And other things:
Newby worked for the couture house Worth Paquin from 1955 to 1956 and then, while starting to write, for the publishers Secker & Warburg for three years. He then returned to fashion as the central dress buyer for John Lewis.

In 1963 he and Wanda were the first to travel the 1,200 miles of the Ganges by rowing boat, a journey described in Slowly Down the Ganges (1966). Newby later made the first descent by a European of the Wakwayowkastic, a tributary of the Moose River in Ontario.

Thereafter he was travel editor of the Observer from 1964 to 1973, and wrote several more books, often travelling with Wanda.

The above paragraphs were quoted from The Telegraph. Other obituaries are available here and here.

1 comment:

bothenook said...

what an amazing man. i wonder why i hadn't heard of him before. it sounds like he writes the kind of books i love to curl up and read.