Eric Newby: Through Love and War

An interview with Eric Newby at his home in Guildford, England in 2004, excerpted from A Sense of Place
Eric Newby’s life story reads like a Hollywood script. After a comfortable, middle-class English upbringing, Newby left home at eighteen to join the crew of one of the world’s last commercial sailing ships, the Moshulu, which hauled grain from Austrailia to Ireland. A few months later, World War II broke out. After serving in India, Newby volunteered for the Special Boat Section, which sent squads of soldiers ashore to blow up enemy aircraft. On an August 1942 mission off the coast of Italy, Newby was unable to return to his submarine after attempting to attack a German airfield and was captured by the Germans.

He spent thirteen months in P.O.W. camps before escaping in September 1943, immediately after the Italian armistice. A sympathetic Italian commandant, who was later beaten to death by the Germans, let the prisoners escape. Newby, who had recently broken his ankle, left atop a mule. A Slovenian couple with anti-Fascist sympathies sheltered Newby, who became smitten with their daughter Wanda as she taught him Italian. When it became unsafe for Newby to stay with Wanda’s family, he sought shelter in the maternity ward of a nearby hospital. But as the Germans closed in, Wanda’s father risked his life to drive Newby through Parma to a mountain hideout in the Po Valley. Ultimately Newby was recaptured and returned to prison camps but survived the war.

When hostilities ceased, Newby returned to court Wanda (pronounced Vanda) and thank her family for saving his life. They were soon married and settled in England, where Newby worked in the family clothing business. After a decade in the rag trade, Newby and a British foreign service officer traveled to Afghanistan, which resulted in Newby’s still-popular 1958 book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. They ventured into territory almost never visited by white men and came close to summiting Mir Samir, a near-20,000-foot peak with almost no training in mountaineering. It’s a classic piece of old-school British exploration, and established Newby’s trademark self-deprecating wry humor.

Unlike many travel writers who prefer to wander alone, Newby prefers to travel with his wife, whenever possible. Wanda accompanied her husband on the first part of his trip to Afghanistan, until it was no longer feasible to have an unveiled woman about. Wanda floated with Newby in Slowly Down the Ganges, hauling gear during portages and moving boulders to clear a channel in the riverbed when they ran aground. While in their sixties, the Newbys bicycled around Ireland in December, a sodden, and at times, exasperating trip chronicled in Round Ireland in Low Gear. Eric said he quite enjoyed the trip. Wanda hasn’t been on a bicycle since.

In 1964, Newby became the travel editor of The Observer, accepting the job only after the newspaper agreed to let Wanda join him on trips as his traveling secretary. After a decade in that post, Newby moved on. “I thought I could make more money on my own,” he told me. “And I did.” An accomplished photographer, Newby captured his journeys on film. Sadly, his Hindu Kush pictures were lost when a pack horse crossed a deeper-than-expected river. But his Moshulu images were published in 1999, sixty years after the ship made its last grain haul, in a book called Learning the Ropes: An Apprentice on the Last of the Windjammers.

Love and War in the Apennines appeared in 1971, a riveting account of Newby’s imprisonment and a tribute to the courageous Italians who helped him survive. After our interview, Newby remarked on Wanda’s courage during the war and she said dismissively: “When you’re young you have courage to do anything.” In 2001, Hallmark made a movie calledIn Love and War, based on Eric and Wanda’s story.

Wanda, who speaks with a strong Slovenian accent and calls her husband “Newby,” remains his steadfast companion more than sixty years after they met. I traveled by train to their home in Guildford, about forty minutes southwest of London. Their modest Surrey home overlooks St. Martha’s Cathedral in the North Downs where Chaucer’s pilgrims trekked in medieval times. A bust of Newby stands in the entryway. On the mantle were artifacts from the Newbys’ travels, including a Mayan ceramic head acquired in Mexico.

Newby, who was eighty-four when we met, occasionally had difficulty recalling distant events, but Wanda sat by his side and prompted him. Thoughout the interview Newby’s pale blue eyes sparkled, reflecting, I imagined, the sheen of a Nuristani glacier or the shimmer of the flowing Ganges. At times his face would open into a wide, wistful smile, as he remembered a stirring moment from years gone by. As our interview ended, he said, with characteristic humility: “Sometimes I look up what I consider to be funny bits and read them to myself, and think, could I have written that? I can’t believe it’s so good.”

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You were born in 1919, just after the Great War, right?

I was born by Hammersmith Bridge in London on the River Thames on the night of December the 6th, 1919. It was a wild and stormy night. The surgeon who delivered me—the delivery was at home—was not very pleased when my father telephoned him at three o’clock in the morning saying that my mother was in labor.

I went to St. Paul’s, which is a very famous boys school. I stayed at St. Paul’s until 1936 and then I failed algebra. My father took me away from school, much to my horror, and put me into a business, which I wrote about in the first chapter of The Last Grain Race. That put me in an advertising agency, which had very, very beautiful typists, they were actually delicious. I stayed there for two years learning the business, and I got more and more disenchanted with London.

One day I went home from Piccadilly Circus where our agency was, and still is, and I went down in the Underground. It was absolutely crowded during the rush hour—there was only standing room. I suddenly felt a hand groping in my pocket and pulling out my handkerchief and blowing his or her nose on it. I never found out who it was, but I was so disgusted by this that when I got to my destination, which was Hammersmith Bridge where we had the flat, I told my father that I would like him to give up the idea of me going in for advertising and that I’d like to become a sailor.

I asked him if he would apprentice me to one of the last of the big sailing ships going around Cape Horn, which he did. This was in the autumn of 1938. I got my orders to go to Belfast and join a ship there, the four-masted barque, Moshulu, the biggest sailing ship in the world at that time. After that come events that were quite hair-raising for me and quite amusing for other people. As soon as I got on the deck, one of the mates came up to me and said, “Go up the rigging.” The top of the rigging was the height of Nelson’s Column, in fact it was ten feet higher

[198 feet]. It’s all in The Last Grain Race.

So you had just gotten onto the ship, before you even could change out of your nice clothes, and they’re saying climb up the rigging!

He wouldn’t let me take my shoes off, which was extremely dangerous because I had very slippery shoes. The only support you had up aloft was a wire hawser under the yards. The yards were crossed, and I was terrified of course, but they did the right thing. Everybody was made to do this because if you didn’t, you would put it off forever. The captain would get fed up with you and you would be a waste of time and money.

So we sailed to Australia from Belfast in eighty-two days. We loaded a cargo of grain there, 63,000 sacks of grain, which we lowered into the ship’s hold. It took us a month to load this cargo. We sailed for Europe from Australia, and we were thirty days to Cape Horn and fifty-five days to the equator, and eventually arrived in southern Ireland in ninety-one days, the fastest passage of the year. There were twelve other ships, and ours was the fastest. It was the last grain race ever done—the ship is now anchored in Philadelphia. It’s been turned into a restaurant—they’ve cut windows in the side of the ship.

It was the last grain race because World War II broke out a few months later. Would you discuss your experiences during the war?

During the war, I went to India for five or six months, which was fascinating. That provoked me to go and make this journey down the Ganges later on. We both felt that it [the Ganges trip] was one of the most marvelous experiences that we could possibly have had.

When the war began I joined in something called the Special Boat Section, which was formed to land troops on the enemy shore and blow up their aircraft and then, if possible, return to your submarine. The first place I ever landed in was Sicily—I was landing with half a dozen men to attack a German airfield. This was in 1942. We failed to get back to the submarine because we got cut off. We managed to swim out to sea to avoid being captured by the Germans, but we didn’t escape. We were eventually picked up by Sicilian fishermen after having been six hours in the water. That was in 1942 when I was captured.

And then in 1943, after the Italian Armistice, we all broke out of the prison camp we were in, several hundreds of us, and there I saw Wanda, looking very beautiful. When the Germans came to take us to Germany, we broke out of the camp, and I had to be on a horse because I had broken my ankle. I couldn’t walk. It was at this time that Wanda met me and hid me—this is all described in Love and War in the Apennines.

Tell me about the first time that you met.

The main road ran in front of the prison camp, which was a large Italian palazzo-type building. You weren’t allowed to look at the road, and if you did they’d fire shots at you. I don’t know whether they intended to kill you or just frighten you, but they did certainly frighten me. I could see girls on bicycles—they were all pretending that they were going to visit the cemetery, but what they really wanted to do was see the Allied boys in the camp.

I saw Wanda, and she looked pretty attractive to me. She waved to me and I waved back. The sentries did what they were told to do and fired but missed. Then it became apparent that the Germans were not going to be able to be driven back out of Italy as we had hoped. But we were let out of the camp by the Italians.

Wanda: After he escaped he went to a farm and stayed there for two or three days. After that it became dangerous. He needed help because he couldn’t walk, so he was moved to the hospital. It was all terribly strange. We were terribly fascinated to see some English people. We’d never seen them—it was another country and far away. The only thing we knew about the English was they had very good raincoats. I said, “Well look, you can’t stay here. I’ll help you.” My father was a great friend of the town’s doctor…

Eric: And they were both violently antifascist, dangerously so for their own safety.

Wanda: So they decided to put him near the maternity ward. I used to teach him Italian there, and he wasn’t concentrating very much.

Eric: I’m still not concentrating, but I did succeed in that.

Wanda: Yes, you learned quite a lot. And then the Germans got to know where he was, and I said, “You must escape.” And he escaped from the hospital at night through a window. My father and the doctor waited for him and they took him to the mountains.

Eric: We had a hair-raising ride down the Via Amelia, that long road that goes from Bologna to Rimini. We were driving the doctor’s car which had a red cross on it. If the Germans had found him carrying a prisoner of war, he’d have been shot instantly. Anyway, we drove all the way down this Via Amelia, and on the way passed the 16th Panzer Division on the march. It was the first time I saw our enemies close to. We got to the main town, Parma, where we would have to turn off to go to the mountains.

As we entered the main square, which was full of Germans, our car broke down. It worked on methane gas and got a leak in the gas pipe. So we were putting our heads inside the radiator, which was the most sensible thing to do because there were all these German military police responsible for discipline. All they were interested in was getting this square cleared for the 16th Panzer Division. So we drove unscathed through the mountains which was really fortunate. In fact, we’re probably lucky that the Panzer division had been there. I must say it’s a very strange feeling sitting in a queue of German lorries when we’d been taught that if you got as near as that to a German you’d be dead.

Wanda: But the Germans got to know about my father and the doctor, and they put them in prison in Parma, a civilian prison. The thing was that there were a lot of partisans around, and when a German soldier was killed, they took at random, say, five prisoners and shot them. That was the great danger. Twice I went to see if my father was among them but he wasn’t. The reason he was saved was that the interpreter of the prison was a Slovene—and we are Slovene—and I started talking to him. I asked him where he came from and he told me: a village near Ljubljana. And that was my village. It’s all described in a film called In Love and War.

He said he would help me on one condition, that I come and tell him every week about the partisans in the village. And I said yes. Of course I would never have told him anything—I just gave him very silly messages. I think he got fed up—he told me not to come anymore. But the doctor wasn’t released and he had to fake appendicitis. He was operated on and never really recovered. He was a marvelous man. That’s war.

What did you do after the war?

I got myself working in the family fashion business. That made it difficult to contemplate any travel. We started traveling to see Wanda’s family in Slovenia, but we didn’t do any serious traveling at all until the 1950s. The Last Grain Race was really successful, and my publisher asked me what I would like to do more than anything else. I said I would like to go on a journey through wild country in central Asia. And he said, “Well, you shall.”

Before we discuss the Hindu Kush, I’d like to ask, when you embarked on that sailing ship, did you think that someday you might write a book about it?

I had kept very detailed accounts every day about what happened on the ship. It was the only way—you can’t remember things and say, I’m going to write them down later. You must write them instantly. I’ve always found that. I knew that if you go to sea, you had to keep a log book. It may sound monotonous, but it made it possible for me to write what was really quite a good book about the sea.

Wanda: When the coronation came in England in 1953, we went to a party—a publisher we knew invited us. Eric hadn’t written anything, and this publisher said, “Have you got any pictures?” Eric said, “Yes, I’ve got a lot of pictures.” So the publisher said, “Why don’t you do a book on the pictures with captions?” And he started writing, writing, writing, and it became more than captions. That’s how they published the book.

So how did the Hindu Kush trip get started?

At this time I was working in a couture house in London. I sent a telegram to my friend Hugh Carless who was in the British Foreign Office, saying: “Can you come, Nuristan?” This was a part of Afghanistan which nobody ever visited. And he sent a telegram back saying, of course. When he came to England, we only had five days before we were leaving, and we both found that neither of us had ever done any mountaineering at all, which was rather terrifying. We telephoned a pub in Wales near Mount Snowdon and went there and found people who were prepared to teach us to climb.

In five days?

Yah, it was pretty amazing. Although I shouldn’t say it myself, the whole thing was quite funny—it’s one of the funnier books. Just before we left, one of the waitresses in the hotel gave us a little book showing how to cut steps in ice. And that’s all the instruction we had—we actually found ourselves stuck on this rather large glacier with one ice ax between us, reading this little book for instruction about how to proceed. It was a very dangerous situation because this mountain was having the picturesque habit of appearing to fall to pieces. Great rockfalls were taking place all the time.

At any rate, we failed to get to the top. We could easily have said we got to the top because there were no porters or anything like that. In the end, tormented by what we should say, I sent a telegram to the editor of The Times in London saying Newby and Carless have failed to climb the 20,000-foot peak in the Afghan Hindu Kush. Nobody could accuse us of not telling the truth.

Many of the writers I’ve interviewed prefer to travel alone, but you often travel together—how is that for you as a writer to travel with your wife?

I was travel editor of The Observer, and it meant being abroad a lot. I was very emboldened when I said to them, I’d like the job but I would like to have my wife to act as my secretary and fellow traveler, and I promise you she’ll be made to work. And she was, actually. I couldn’t have done the Ganges trip by myself.

Tell me a little bit about the Ganges trip and what you recall about it.

We had an interview with Mr. Nehru (India’s first prime minister who served from 1947 until his death in 1964) and he gave us a wonderful letter which we embalsamated in plastic. The only occasion we used this thing was when we were far south on the Ganges. It was just before Christmas—we had no idea what we were going to do for Christmas; we knew everything closed up as it does in Britain. We went to the Kanpur Club which had been a stronghold of sahibs. We asked the secretary if we could be put up for the Christmas holiday. I gave him Nehru’s letter and he looked at it, and he said, Mr. Nehru is not a member of the Kanpur Club.

The most impressive thing of going down the Ganges was the visit to the great fair at Allahabad was at that time barely known in the West. There were reputed to be something like 5 million pilgrims there on a sandbank. This, from time to time over the years, caused terrible losses of life amongst the pilgrims because stampedes take place and a lot of people get crushed to death.

It was terribly cold at night. We slept in the open on sand islands in the middle of the Ganges, which in some places was five or six miles wide.

Wanda: We got a fright one night. Mr. Nehru had said beware of robbers so we always slept in the middle of the river on some sands. One night we saw some men and thought they came to rob us. But in fact they were only curious because they had never seen a white man.

The difficulty of the Ganges was the first forty or fifty miles because every so often we heard shhhh; that means there was a rapid. We had to take everything out of the boat and carry it, and the sand was red-hot in the middle of the day. That was very tricky. I dropped the stove in the river and we couldn’t cook, so we had to rely on cow dung.

Eric: And there were lots of corpses that were semi-burned. The poor can’t afford anything but a partial cremation because the cost of wood is so fantastic. The shortage of wood must be worse now than it was when we were there [1963-64]. From the start, we went twenty yards and the boat stuck. We were stuck at the beginning of the 1,200-mile journey, before the first rapids even.

Wanda: But it was a good journey.

You’ve both traveled quite a bit by bicycle.

Yes, we went round Ireland.

But you went in December—why?

Well, we had other things to do in the summer, our garden…

Why do you enjoy traveling by bicycle?

I explain about that at the beginning of Round Ireland in Low Gear: Because it’s quiet and unless you load yourself with too much gear, there is very little that can go wrong.

Wanda: I’ve never bicycled since. When you bicycle and it rains, all the water goes into your shoes, and you have wet feet all day. It’s very uncomfortable. But I loved the Irish. Then the beer was very cheap and they used to drink a lot of Guinness in the evening. And they used to talk, now they don’t talk so much. We met some very nice old men who would talk about their lives.

Eric, what have your greatest gratifications been as a world traveler?

I’ve always been fascinated to know what’s over the next hill or around the next corner. As one music-hall man wrote, “With a ladder and some glasses, you could see the Hackney Marshes, if it wasn’t for the houses in between.” That more or less sums up my attitude.

Is there still one trip you’d like to make or one place you’d like to visit that you haven’t seen yet?

I’d like to go back to Turkey. I’ve been many, many times to Turkey. I’d like to go to southeastern Asia minor, Syria. And I’d like to go back to Mexico.

Who are the writers you admire?

I must say that Patrick Leigh Fermor would be quite high on any list, starting with The Traveller’s Tree, a wonderful book about the Caribbean, absolutely splendid. Everything he does, he has a sort of magic touch with. And I think Evelyn Waugh is very observant, very funny. I’ve read his books more than once.

He wrote the foreword to your Hindu Kush book, yet you wrote that you never met him.

I gave him a princely gift of three magnums of burgundy, thanking him for the foreword. And he said rather waspishly, because he was a rather ill-tempered man, he said, “When you say that Wilfred Thesiger was wearing the same sort of tweed coat that Eton boys wear, how do you know? You were never at Eton.” I wrote back to him and said, “In point of fact, I met Wilfred Thesiger in Piccadilly the other day, and incidentally he was wearing a bowler hat, and he said the Eton jacket is my old change coat from Billings & Edmonds.”

He invited us to join him on his birthday (and share the wine we gave him). But I wouldn’t go because he was very forgetful and he might easily have said to me, I don’t know who you are. He might have said, there’s a common little man at the door, who could he be?

I remember you wrote that you saw him in a restaurant but chose not to say hello.

Wanda: We were having tea at the Ritz [in London] with our children, and the children said to Eric, why don’t you go to him? But he wouldn’t. And then you met him in the street, and you both turned…

Eric: He was going to our wine merchant and we passed one another and both after a few yards turned round and looked at one another, and then went on (laughs). That was rather silly. I was rather timid.

After fifty years of traveling and writing, what are you most proud of, what do you feel have been your greatest accomplishments?

One of the books I really did like is Something Wholesale: My Life in the Rag Trade. That’s a truly amusing book actually. Reading that now, I wonder how I stood it all those years, going up the backstairs of London stores with armfuls of suits and dresses to sell. I went on doing that for years and years until I finally broke away when I went to the Hindu Kush. Even then I had to go back and work as a fashion buyer. I’ve really worked hard in my life because it’s tough being a writer and also a fashion buyer as well. They don’t normally come together.

With your pioneering adventures, do you feel that you have inspired other people to travel?

I think that is one of the principal things I will have accomplished. Whether I did it consciously or not, I don’t know. But I do think that I have inspired oceans of young people to travel. I can tell that because of the mail one gets, the letters one gets, the reviews one gets even…

Do you think the world is a better place because of the opportunities for travel we have today?

I think that people have been lucky to be able to indulge in it. The future looks particularly black for travelers.

Wanda: Before he went anywhere, he read a hell of a lot about the place he was going, so he knew what he wanted to see and what interested him. One of our most exciting travels was to Libya when it was completely forbidden—you just couldn’t go, and he wanted to go to Libya. He asked the embassy and they said, “No, no you can’t.” So I said, “Why don’t you write to Khaddafy?” After that, a huge letter arrived saying, “Please be our guest.” He showed it to the embassy, and they couldn’t believe it.

Eric: We went there and failed to meet him because somebody had attempted to assassinate him that week. And then the policewoman was killed in St. James Square in 1984 by Libyan terrorists, and after that nobody could condone travel to Libya, so I never went back. But we did see some remarkable things in Libya.

I can’t leave without asking you: do you still have the Rolex that got thrown into the vat of hot stew towards the end of your Hindu Kush trip?

Yes, I have (Newby shows it to me—it’s on his wrist). This is the only thing of my past that I’ve got now.

 


 

Michael Shapiro is the author of A Sense of Place. He has biked through Cuba for The Washington Post, celebrated Holy Week in Guatemala for The Dallas Morning News, and floated down the Mekong River on a Laotian cargo barge for an online travel magazine. His work also appears in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, several national magazines, and The Best Travel Writing 2005. Some of his stories are archived on his web site, www.nettravel.com.

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