Eric Newby CBE MC


Eric Newby
December 6, 1919 - October 20, 2006

Traveller and writer whose accounts of amateur exploration and tales of far-away lands epitomised adventure before tourism

IT WAS a cable, John Buchan style — CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN JUNE? — to a friend in Rio de Janeiro in the spring of 1956 that launched Eric Newby on his career as a travel writer. The friend, Hugh Carless, a diplomat then serving as Second Secretary at the Rio embassy, was to become immortalised as Newby’s long- suffering companion on a journey of a delightfully amateurish sort, which became the subject of one of the funniest travel books ever written, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958).
At the time Newby was working in marketing in the fashion industry. It was a week before the showing of the spring collection, and things were not going well. The dress on which the fashion house was pinning its hopes of gaining a share in the market was, by general consent, a disaster. As the hapless individual responsible for recommending it to fashion buyers, Newby had begun to think of it as Grand Guignol.

He was beginning to feel that he and the fashion industry had a strictly limited future together, when the harassed fitter handed him a telegram, which had just been delivered. It read: OF COURSE, HUGH.

Newby recorded: “The showroom, already large, suddenly expanded. I understood what Sassoon meant when he wrote: ‘Everyone suddenly burst out singing.’ ”

Chucking in his job, Newby got together in London with Carless, who was by then in between Rio and a pending posting to Tehran, and the pair put in a somewhat unrealistic preparation for their endeavour, with a crash course on rock climbing in Wales. With this pitifully inadequate introduction to heights, the pair set off to assail the 18,000ft eminences of the Hindu Kush, northeast of Kabul.

A Short Walk amusingly tells the tale of their chaotic progress through this spectacularly beautiful wilderness, Carless’s ascetic determination being set, for dramatic purposes at least, against Newby’s indolent sloth. Though the experience was played for laughs by Newby in the book, the success of the venture undoubtedly owed much to Carless’s resolve, and gained him a tribute in Newby’s dedication.

The book ended with a salutary encounter between the somewhat bedraggled, Newby-Carless expedition and the caravan of the iron-hard, legendary veteran of exploration, Wilfred Thesiger. At the end of a long evening swapping recollections Newby and Carless prepared to turn in on ground which was in Newby’s words “like iron, with sharp rocks sticking up out of it. We started to blow up our airbeds. God, you must be a couple of pansies,’ said Thesiger.”

Newby was to write many travel books after that. And his preferred mode of travel was overland, ideally on a bike with his wife, whom he had met during the Second World War. But in a world gradually shrinking under the pressure of adventure tourism, none perhaps was able so to capture the sheer delight of finding oneself for the first time in the untenanted wild places of the Earth.

George Eric Newby was born in London in 1919 and educated at St Paul’s School. He always said that shopping trips to Harrods with his mother were one of the early impetuses to travel, lavish displays of silks and the exotic contents of the Food Hall suggesting the wonders of abroad.

After leaving school in 1936 he worked for two years with Dorland Advertising, before, in 1938, being seized by his first revulsion against the life of commerce, and signing up as an apprentice seaman on board the Mariehamn four-masted barque Moshulu. He joined her at Belfast for the voyage to Australia, on which the raw recruit gradually earned the respect of the seasoned Åland islanders and mainland Finns of her crew. The return trip, in cargo from Port Victoria to Queenstown (Cobh), was the last of the great prewar grain races. Against Moshulu were the two German four-masted barques Pamir and Passat — but Moshulu still beat them home in a passage of 91 days. Newby was to describe his experience in The Last Grain Race, which he wrote while working in fashion and published in 1956.

A few months after Newby’s return to London, war broke out. He initially enlisted in the London Scottish, but in 1941 in the Middle East he joined the Special Boat Section (as the SBS was then known), formed to carry out sabotage missions on enemy coasts. In August 1942 one such mission on the Ionian coast of Sicily involved blowing up 60 or so German bombers on an airfield near Catania. When Newby and his party of five arrived at the air base they found that each aircraft was guarded by a number of troops. They decided to retreat back to the beach where they had buried their canoes. Unable, however, to make a rendezvous with the submarine that had brought them inshore, they were picked up by a Sicilian fishing boat after eight hours at sea. Newby was sent to a camp at Chieti a few miles inland from Pescara on the Adriatic coast, and later to Fontanello, near Parma.

After the Italian surrender many of his fellow prisoners were able to get out of the camp and make their way south to meet the advancing Allies. Newby was at that time languishing with a badly broken ankle in the prison hospital, and was unable to join them. But he was lucky enough to be rescued by a sympathetic Italian doctor who smuggled him to another hospital run by nuns.

While there he was befriended by a young woman, Wanda, from a part of Slovenia that had been ceded to Italy after the First World War, when her parents had been dispossessed. When his ankle improved she arranged for him to get away from the hospital into the remote Apennines, where he was cared for by peasant families in their primitive cottages. There he stayed until he was betrayed to the authorities by an informer, and sent to a PoW camp in Germany where he spent the rest of the war. The Military Cross awarded for his SBS mission was gazetted in 1945.

After the war he returned to Italy and sought out Wanda. They were married in Florence in 1946. Their Italian adventure and romance are described in Love and War in the Apennines (1971). After being demobbed, Newby worked for a number of years in the rag trade, first for his father’s wholesale company, Lane & Newby. These years were described humorously in his book Something Wholesale (1962), an account of the firm’s eventual decline. In 1954 he left to join the couture house Worth Pasquin, where he began work on The Last Grain Race, which was published as he was setting off for Nuristan with Carless.

On his return he started to write the Hindu Kush book while working for the publisher Secker & Warburg as head of promotions. Securing Evelyn Waugh to write a preface for it was a huge coup. (Waugh afterwards admitted that he only agreed at first on the mistaken assumption that Newby was the novelist and critic P. H. Newby.) But the book’s critical success was not enough to emancipate Newby from other paid toil. In 1959 he returned to the fashion trade with John Lewis, for whom he was a Central Buyer until 1963.

From 1964 to 1973 Newby was travel editor of The Observer. When he started the job the largest amount of currency a traveller could take abroad was £25, and his advice to his readers had to take the hard facts of economy into account. Travel was beginning to burgeon as a recreation in the 1960s, and as he wrote about some of the undiscovered places of the world Newby was painfully aware that he was becoming part of the process through which voyaging was inexorably becoming tourism.

Wanda was to accompany Newby on many of his journeys. These included a three- month voyage down the Ganges in 1963, during which she was laid low with food poisoning. It was an experience which produced from Newby Slowly Down the Ganges (1966). Closer to home was Round Ireland in Low Gear (1987), an account of a bicycle tour they did together.

For nearly 30 years he and his wife had a house in Tuscany, but they sold this when the Italian rural life they had savoured began to disappear under the pressure of modern communications. “They no longer told long amusing stories after television arrived,” was Newby’s verdict on the demise to that rich rural life he had first encountered in Italy during the war. A Small Place in Italy was an account of this vanished Tuscan idyll.

Latterly Newby and Wanda had lived in Dorset and then Surrey. But he remained an indefatigable traveller. In his mid-seventies he cycled from Scotland to Dorset. Around the World in Eighty Years (2000) looked back on a lifetime of travelling. A Book of Lands and Peoples appeared in 2003. Newby had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1975. He was appointed CBE in 1994.

Eric Newby is survived by Wanda and by their son and daughter.

Eric Newby, CBE, MC, writer, was born on December 6, 1919. He died on October 20, 2006, aged 86.

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