obituary: Eric Newby

October 20, 2006

From the Telegraph’s obituary:
“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. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958). The central elements of this humorous tradition are 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. Some of the book’s comedy is genuine, as when tribesmen test the waterproof nature of Newby’s watch by immersing it in a goat stew. But much of its humour stems from a self-ridicule that borders on melancholy, such as the description of the exquisite pain Newby suffered from walking in new boots, literally flaying his feet. He was fortunately far tougher than his literary persona suggested.
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush climaxes with the most celebrated meeting between travellers since that of Livingstone and Stanley, when a tottering Newby encounters the striding form of Wilfred Thesiger on the banks of the Upper Panjshir. The meeting is presented as that of inept amateur and professional adventurer, with Thesiger representing a certain Englishness to be both admired and satirised. When Newby and his companion begin blowing up air mattresses to cushion their rocky beds, Thesiger reacts with immortal disdain: “God, you must be a couple of pansies.”
Newby’s father was a partner in a firm of wholesale dressmakers but harboured dreams of escape. As a child he had run away to sea, reaching Millwall before he was recaptured. His nautical ambitions resurfaced as a passion for rowing; he spent the afternoon of his wedding day sculling on the Thames with his best man, missing his honeymoon boat train to Paris……………
Newby spent a good part of the war onthe run and hiding from the enemy. Having been initially helped by his future wife, Wanda, he 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.”

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