Written by Sarah Anderson and publishing in the Independent on 23/10/2006
With the publication in 1958 and success of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Eric Newby created a new and lively genre of British post-war travel writing. Before attempting to conquer the Hindu Kush, Newby had been working for the fashion house Worth-Paquin; he had sent a cable to his friend Hugh Carless, “Can you travel Nuristan June?”, to which he received the reply “Of course, Hugh.”
Both were somewhat ill-prepared for what could have been a tough expedition and so to help them prepare for the journey they went to Wales for a crash-course in climbing. The resulting book is a hilarious account of their unorthodox adventures in an inhospitable region of northern Afghanistan, which included meeting Wilfred Thesiger, something which gave Newby the opportunity to get “tantalising glimpses of the contents of an explorer’s luggage”.
George Eric Newby was born on a wild December night in Barnes, south-west London in 1919. He was educated at St Paul’s School, but was removed by his father, because he was poor at maths, and started work in a West End advertising agency, where he was “too unimportant to be sacked”. He left voluntarily after what he found to be the gruelling daily experience of the London Tube and in 1938 became an indentured apprentice on a Finnish grain ship, Moshulu, bound for Australia. His first book, The Last Grain Race, which was not published until 1956, is the story of how this boat won what turned out to be the last grain race. More than 60 years after this voyage he published a photographic postscript to the account in Learning the Ropes: an apprentice in the last of the windjammers (1999).
In 1940 Newby was sent to Sandhurst for officer training and in 1941 joined the Special Boat Section based in the Middle East. He was captured in Sicily in 1942 and the following spring was moved as a prisoner-of-war to northern Italy; this was his first experience of a country he felt he had known “intuitively”, and which he came to “know and understand best”.
He had already glimpsed his future wife Wanda before he managed to escape, and later when he was in hospital with a broken ankle he met her again. She volunteered to teach him Italian under the watchful eyes of the hospital nuns. Before they parted and he was recaptured in Parma, they vowed to meet again. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in Czechoslovakia and Germany and after the war, in 1946, he and Wanda were married in Florence. Love and War in the Apennines, his account of this period, was published in 1971.
After the war Newby went into his father’s business, the rag trade, and travelled around Britain for several years showing the seasonal collections. During this time, he had a “private dream” to travel, which sustained him. He ordered his first pair of boots from an advertisement he found in the 1878 edition of the Murray’s Handbook to Switzerland and it was in these that he went to Nuristan with Hugh Carless.
Between 1956 and 1959 he worked at the publishers Secker and Warburg but went back to John Lewis in 1959, for a final stint in the fashion world. He was finally sacked as their fashion buyer in 1963; Something Wholesale (1962) is about those years, in what seems an odd profession for as eccentric and funny a traveller as Newby.
He and Wanda sailed down the Ganges from Hardwar to Calcutta in 1963, a journey which resulted in Slowly Down the Ganges (1966); he kept meticulous journals in pencil during his travels and it was these which enabled him to write his books sometimes many years after a journey.
He had been given a camera for his seventh birthday and although he never called himself a photographer, he did take photographs whenever he travelled; his photographs, published in What the Traveller Saw (1989), show what a perceptive eye he had for quirky detail.
In 1964 he became travel editor of The Observer and general editor of Time Off Books. He stayed at The Observer until 1973, writing afterwards that it was the one job that he was genuinely sorry to leave. He was unhappy with the way travel had changed in the nine years he had been there and disliked being herded around en masse and treated “rather like air freight”.
In 1977 he fulfilled a long-standing ambition to travel with Wanda on the Trans-Siberian Railway and The Big Red Train Ride was published in 1978. In 1983 he made a journey round the Mediterranean countries which became On the Shores of the Mediterranean (1984). In 1985 the Newbys travelled in Ireland on bicycles “to enjoy ourselves”, which he recognised was an “unfashionable aspiration in the 1980s”. Round Ireland in Low Gear (1987) is an account of their not-so-enjoyable trip.
Much of Newby’s travelling was done with Wanda. Indeed, he would not often go on an assignment without her, and when he was asked in a magazine article to name the one indispensable item with which he always travelled, rather than choose a run-of-the-mill article like aspirin or a Swiss army knife, Newby chose his wife.
He had a wonderful sense of humour and sense of the absurd, and was a very funny speaker, often laughing uncontrollably at his own jokes. He had a genuine love of life, enjoying good food and drink, but there was a melancholy, self-doubting side to him, something which seems oddly characteristic in later life of those who have been prisoners of war in Germany.
Newby was very particular about what he wrote, but was courteous and usually very amusing in his dealings with sub-editors, having a real concern for the ordinary person. For 25 years the Newbys had a house at the foot of the Apuan Alps, I Castagni, where, demonstrating his vigour and robustness, Eric dug and planted a vineyard; this time in Italy was turned into a book, A Small Place in Italy (1994). He and Wanda were great home-makers, their houses full of things collected on their travels, and they were both immensely hospitable, giving annual lobster parties at their house in Dorset. They moved to Dorset in the late 1970s and from there to Surrey.
Newby’s Departures and Arrivals (1999), a collection of essays, and Around the World in Eighty Years (2000) looked back over a life in travel; and in A Book of Lands and Peoples (2003), an anthology of travel writing, he paid tribute to a book which had inspired him as a boy, the Children’s Colour Book of Lands and Peoples (1926), which, he wrote, “turned me into an embryonic traveller”.
George Eric Newby, writer: born London 6 December 1919; MC 1945; staff, Worth-Paquin 1955-56; staff, Secker & Warburg 1956-59; fashion buyer, John Lewis 1959-63; Travel Editor, The Observer and General Editor, Time Off Books 1964-73; FRSL 1972; FRGS 1975; CBE 1994; married 1946 Wanda Skof (one son, one daughter); died near Guildford 20 October 2006.