Eric Newby

b. 1919 – d. 2006

Eric Newby was a prolific writer of travel books, totaling twenty five. The most famous of these was A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and Love and War in the Appenines detailed his ordeal as an escaped Prisoner of War, sheltered by a Slovenian woman called Wanda whom he later married. During his time as travel editor for the Observer, Newby also became a photographer. He was awarded a CBE in 1994.


Eric Newby remembered – by Ariane Bankes

My first memory of Eric Newby is of a man with such a spring in his step that he not so much walked as bounced along the corridors of Collins, the publishers where I worked and became his editor. With rucksack on back, craggy, good-looking face, penetrating blue eyes, lopsided smile and bark of a laugh, he was always a welcome sight, even when we were locked in editorial combat over just in what detail he would record a particularly rain-sodden and bungalow-strewn stretch of his latest trip, by bicycle round Ireland (in low gear). My maxim of ‘less is more’ did not strike a chord with a man who had suffered every inch of the way. ‘But I rode each one of those bloody miles, and I want everyone to know it,’ was his indignant rejoinder. So, to take the heat out of the whole procedure, he suggested we score as in a game of tennis, and thus we lobbed our way through the text with exultant cries of ‘Advantage Newby!’ when he was up a point after what had appeared a stalemate at deuce.

Though not one of his classics, the result was a bestseller, such was his reputation by the mid-1980s and the affection in which he was held. His sharp and self-deprecating humour, his sheer charm on the page and the vigour of his writing were all there, so much so that a ten-year-old boy I know was entranced: ‘It’s about this guy and his girlfriend who cycle round Ireland – it’s really cool,’ he told his mother, only to learn to his astonishment that the author of this escapade was not far short of 70.

Eric Newby’s life was in many ways a boy’s adventure story. Perennially youthful, he was a restless, resourceful optimist who flew fairly close to the sun and relied on his considerable wits to get him out of any little spot of bother along the way – indeed invariably to turn it to his advantage. Born into a conventional milieu in Barnes and educated at St Paul’s, he made his first break for freedom at eighteen, abandoning his job in advertising to sign on to a four-masted Finnish grainship, Moshulu, on its ballast voyage from Belfast to Australia and back, heavily laden, via Cape Horn. The hapless gofer he portrayed himself as in advertising showed such mettle on board that he impressed even the most hardened old salt among the crew, and this remarkable voyage was recounted in the first of his many books, The Last Grain Race, written while employed by the couture house Worth Paquin in 1955.

It seems bizarre that this rugged adventurer and decorated war hero should have spent nearly two decades working in the fashion industry (latterly as central buyer for ladies’ dresses at John Lewis) before becoming travel editor of the Observer from 1964 to 1973, but Newby by then was married with two children, and had to provide for them. His tremendous generosity masked an underlying insecurity about money which never left him, even as a bestselling author, and in addition the fashion business supplied a rich vein of comedy which he readily exploited in Something Wholesale and in the opening chapters of his classic A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. It was the latter, the very name of which epitomised Newby’s droll, understated and quintessentially English blend of amateurism and eccentricity, that put him on the map, as it were. The account of this ill-fated expedition to climb Mir Samir in the bracing company of diplomat Hugh Carless is reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh, who was indeed cajoled into writing a preface, a classic Newby coup.

Love and War in the Appenines was more serious, and told the tale of his wartime escape (after service in the SBS, for which he was awarded the MC) and precarious survival in the mountains, thanks in large part to Wanda, the indomitable Slovenian beauty who became his wife and companion on many of his travels. Thereafter the pace of publication accelerated, as his precious notebooks filled with accounts of his many journeys, and he was invited to edit anthologies of others’ travels as well as his own. He was awarded a CBE in 1994. Newby was incidentally an outstanding photographer (as demonstrated in What the Traveller Saw), with an innate sense of composition and an eye for the telling human detail. It was this essential humanity and humour that rendered his books so vivid, and made him enduringly popular as a writer and chronicler of the world.