Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Something Wholesale

Something Wholesale, Eric Newby

This book, subtitled "My Life and Times in the Rag Trade," is part autobiography, part biography, part business history, and part travelogue. That is a lot of parts, some of which don't fit neatly together. Unfortunately, I think Eric Newby was trying to cover too much ground here, and the book sometimes feel a bit thin and disconnected.

The autobiographical sections cover his return to England after his years as a prisoner of war in Italy and Germany during World War II. I haven't read much from the point of view of British ex-servicemen of this period, and I wish he had written about this in more detail. He was very much at a loose end and clearly suffering from depression (if not post-traumatic stress), so with the best of intentions his parents pushed him into the family business, Lane and Newby. They were a firm of wholesale clothing manufacturers, and a large part of his job entailed taking models of the clothing they produced out on the road, visiting buyers for stores and shops, trying to get orders. This meant long weeks traveling by train, up into Scotland and then south towards London. Newby escaped whenever he could for excursions into the country-side, carrying along boots and walking clothes, but he doesn't go into much detail about his adventures. When not on the road, he was immured in the Lane and Newby premises in London, trying to learn the business (I found the business sections a little hard to follow sometimes).

One day he ran into an old army buddy who told him, "I've just seen Wanda. She wants to know when you're coming." Newby met Wanda when he was a POW in Italy, a story he told in Love and War in the Apennines. They had kept in touch after the war, but this reminder from his friend sent him off to join M.I.9, which got him to Italy and Wanda. He was actually there to locate those Italians who had assisted the POWs, to see if any of them needed assistance in their turn. I'm sure there were some great stories there, but Newby skips right over that period, jumping ahead six months to his return to England with his new wife. Wanda appears in two later chapters, one involving a disastrous holiday in Dungeness and the other the birth of their first child. I would love to know more about her experiences, an Italian citizen of Slovenian descent coming to England as a war-bride. I've read accounts of English and European women coming to the U.S. and Canada as war-brides, but never one going to England. I had to remind myself that this is her husband's book, not hers.

Something Wholesale is also Eric Newby's affectionate tribute to his father George, who was 45 when his first and only child was born. "We were separated by a great gulf of years, and when I was old enough to appreciate him the world which he knew and of which he was a part had passed away." This book tries to capture something of his father's character and his world, and I think those are its best parts. The senior Newby, who was apprenticed to the clothing business in 1887, at age 13, was also a sportsman all his life. He loved boats and rowing, though his son would classify it as obsession. Work, while financing boats and rowing, was something one did in the intervals. His son's accounts of their excursions reminded me both of Three Men in a Boat and of the Gilbreth family in Cheaper by the Dozen (though with ten less children). Unfortunately, his father's casual attitudes toward business taxes would eventually doom the firm. In 1953 they were presented with a cumulative tax bill of £17,000, due within the week.

After leaving the family firm, the younger Newby continued to work in the fashion industry for several years, while he also began his career as a traveler and a writer. The Epilogue is an account of a trip to Paris in January of 1985 with the editors of the British Vogue, for the spring fashion shows.

"In doing so I was partly inspired by nostalgia, partly by a genuine enthusiasm for fashion, which in spite of the very different way of life I have pursued since abandoning it, has never been extinguished in my, I hope, still fairly manly bosom."

It comes a bit oddly, thirty and forty years after most of the events in the book, but his enthusiasm for fashion is clear.

If this book doesn't measure up Love and War in the Apennines or The Great Grain Race, it was a pleasant read. There are some funny stories, some poignant ones, and Eric Newby is always good company.


  1. This does sound like lots of odds and ends all cobbled together, but I'm still intrigued. Your description of it as "part autobiography, part biography, part business history, and part travelogue" is perfect for me as I love all those things. Though it is hardly something to laugh about, I had to smile when I read that the family firm went under because of an outrageous tax bill. It seems like everything I've read lately touches on the ridiculous post-war tax rates so it is a subject often on my mind.

  2. Yes, having just read the Heyer biography, I was also thinking of the tax situation - it comes up in Thirkell's novels as well.

    Cobbled together is exactly right. If it had been presented as a book of essays, like A Traveller's Life, I wouldn't have minded the jumping around. I did enjoy the different chapters - and often wanted to read more - but it seemed to lack cohesion.


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!