Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Literary crushes, and chapters in a traveller's life

A Traveller's Life, Eric Newby

I have a new literary crush.  Does anyone else get those?   It might be an author, or a character, or even a historical figure.  It leads to spending as much time as possible with the crush (which usually means buying lots of books), trawling the net for their life history, and going on and on about it to friends who are probably thinking, "There she goes again."  Sometimes the crush settles into long-term relationship (Peter Wimsey, Lymond, Terry Pratchett, Abraham Lincoln); sometimes I wake up one day and realize that the magic is just gone (Elizabeth George, Julia Spencer-Fleming). 

Last year's set included Elizabeth von Arnim, George Templeton Strong, Cornelia Otis Skinner's family, and Ulysses Grant.  I met my latest, Eric Newby, thanks to the TBR Double Dare.  I'd had his book Round Ireland in Low Gear on the TBR stacks for years and never got around to reading it until now.  I added A Traveller's Life last year, just from the back cover blurb:
"Eric Newby's life of travel began with strange adventures in prams, forays into the lush jungles of Harrods with his mother and into the perilous slums of darkest Hammersmith on his way to school. Such beginnings aroused his curiosity about more outlandish places, a wanderlust satisfied equally by travels through the London sewers, by bicycle to Italy and through wildest New York."
Newby writes in the introduction, "This book is not an autobiography."  The first chapter comes closest, telling the story of his birth in 1919, and placing it in a very specific context: what people were doing, how they were living, where they were working and shopping and what they were earning, particularly in his corner of southwest London.  From there, the book becomes a series of episodes centered around travel, moving chronologically through his life.  It was published in 1982, five years before Round Ireland, and the last chapter is dated 1973, when Newby left his position as travel editor of The Observer.

Like any book of short stories, some chapters are stronger than others.  I enjoyed the early ones about his childhood and school days.  Two chapters cover his apprenticeship in 1938-1939 on a grain ship sailing round-trip from England to Australia.  I don't think two short chapters can do justice to a voyage like that, and in fact Newby wrote a book about the trip, The Last Grain Race (currently sitting in my shopping cart on Amazon).  There are chapters on his World War II service in the Middle East, including time as a prisoner in Italy (Love and War in the Apennines, already awaiting the end of the TBR challenge), his celebrated travels through the Hindu Kush (which inspired his first book) and down the Ganges, and his varied career choices (like his father he worked in the fashion industry, before turning to journalism, which he also chronicled in a book).  In his later years, he and his wife Wanda bought and restored a house in Tuscany.  The book he wrote about their experiences apparently started what I think of as the "Year in Provence" trend.

Newby definitely wasn't one for the safe packaged tour.  The penultimate chapter recounts a trip to Haiti in 1972.  Even more perilous was a trek one year earlier, to the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula (home of the marvelous Biblical texts discovered by the Sisters of Sinai).  Travel through the desert was dangerous enough, but tensions were high as Egypt and Israel clashed over Sinai.  Though there were only eight monks in the monastery at that time, Newby felt the pull of the place: "The longer I remained within the walls of the monastery . . . every day I became more disinclined to leave it. . ."

I feel equally disinclined to part company with him, and I'm already looking forward to the next chapter.


  1. Okay, I really, really need to start reading Newby! Love and War in the Apennines has been on my to-read list for far too many years without me ever coming close to reading it (mostly because no library I've belonged to has ever had a copy, despite having all of his other works).

    And you are certainly not alone with your literary crushes. I fell for Anthony Trollope and Angela Thirkell in a big way last year.

  2. How strange that they are missing just that one! Unfortunately for my lack of willpower, Amazon has lots of his books in inexpensive Lonely Planet paperbacks (not that I'm endorsing, though I think I will be buying some).

  3. Oh, I love literary crushes! I am crushing on Mary Stewart right now. Love her!
    Eric Newby sounds like the perfect person to live vicariously through. I'm not very adventurous so I love reading about people who are.

  4. He's just good company - and so is his wife, Wanda. And you're right, it's completely vicarious adventure!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!