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.
Informed by a pin-sharp eye and a self-deprecating persona, Newby's literary style was inspired by the comic portrait of the Englishman abroad presented in the writings of Alexander Kinglake, Robert Byron and Evelyn Waugh. In a preface to the book that made Newby's reputation, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958), Waugh identified the central elements of this humorous tradition: 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."
George Eric Newby was born in Hammersmith, west London, on December 6 1919.
His 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.
His tearful bride was a former dress model at Harrods.
Young Eric grew up in Barnes, overlooking the river. From the start, his father passed on to him his own escapist tendencies, notably by reading to him from Arthur Mee's The Children's Colour Book of Lands and Peoples.
Eric was also inspired to travel by hearing a lecture at his school, St Paul's, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of Scott's party and the author of The Worst Journey In The World.
One of his father's frequent fiscal crises, and Eric's persistent failure to pass algebra, saw him removed from St Paul's at 16. He joined an advertising agency, where he spent much of his time riding a bicycle around the office. He was mercifully released from this when his employers lost the Kellogg's account, and in 1938, aged 18, he signed on the four-masted Finnish barque Moshulu, engaged in the 30,000 mile-round grain trade between Ireland and Australia.
Newby later recounted his experiences in his first book, The Last Grain Race (1956), which gave a vivid description of the claustrophobic life of a sailing ship's crew.
It gave notice of his powers of observation, his unforced prose and his taste for the ridiculous. One memorable set-piece describes Newby's attempts at dentistry in a swaying fo'c'sle after an alcoholic Christmas lunch, with most of the molten gutta-percha spilling down the throat of the ailing seaman.
Newby also survived several close encounters with death, being once almost swept overboard in a hurricane, the rope stripped from his grasp by the sea "as though a gentle giant had smoothed his hands over my knuckles."
In 1940 Newby joined the Black Watch, serving in India before volunteering for the Special Boat Section, then operating out of Alexandria. In August 1942 his detachment was sent to sabotage a German airfield at Catania in Sicily. This highly dangerous mission, unpromisingly codenamed Operation Whynot, was designed to aid the passage of the Pedestal convoy, bound with vital oil to Malta.
When Newby landed from his dinghy it was the first time he had set foot in Europe. The operation was not successful — no one had thought to tell the SBS men that there were 1,000 German troops at the airfield — and Newby was captured by fishermen after failing to rendezvous with the waiting submarine.
He was sent to the prison camp at Fontanellato, in the Po Valley. The camp's hierarchy, he later wrote, resembled that of a public school, divided into the "socially OK and the rest", its kindly headmaster the prison commandant. With his connivance, the prisoners broke out into the countryside after the Italians surrendered in September 1943, Newby hobbling on a broken ankle. He related his subsequent adventures in perhaps his best and most original book, Love and War in the Apennines (1971).
Having been initially helped by his future wife, Wanda, Newby 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.
The book is studded with exquisite descriptions of weather and landscape, notably an epic climb to the high point of the range. From there Newby saw the whole sweep of the Alps round to the Dolomites and down to the Ligurian Sea.
He was betrayed and captured after five months, and spent the rest of the war at camps in Czechoslovakia and Germany.He was demobilised in 1945 with a Military Cross, belatedly awarded for his bravery during the Sicilian raid.
Newby then worked for MI9, which was helping those who had shielded escaped prisoners. This allowed him to return to Italy and win Wanda Skof for his wife. They were married in the Bardi Chapel of the Church of Santa Croce, Florence, in 1946.
Newby afterwards undertook other intelligence work, including the chance identification of Central Asian missile sites while returning by air from the Hindu Kush.
After the war, Newby spent 10 years in his father's dressmaking firm, later recalling his time in Something Wholesale (1962). Although his imagination was engaged by the trade's creations (one memorable horror he christened "Grand Guignol"), he was not suited to the grind of routine and responsibility.
Nor did he enjoy the financial uncertainties of business. Once he and his father took a taxi to a meeting with the Inland Revenue; they returned home by bus.
Newby worked for the couture house Worth Paquin from 1955 to 1956 and then, while starting to write, for the publishers Secker & Warburg for three years. He then returned to fashion as the central dress buyer for John Lewis.
In 1963 he and Wanda were the first to travel the 1,200 miles of the Ganges by rowing boat, a journey described in Slowly Down the Ganges (1966). Newby later made the first descent by a European of the Wakwayowkastic, a tributary of the Moose River in Ontario.
Thereafter he was travel editor of the Observer from 1964 to 1973, and wrote several more books, often travelling with Wanda. His later output, however, including The Big Red Train Ride (1978), On The Shores of the Mediterranean (1984) and Round Ireland in Slow Gear (1987), fell markedly away from the exceptional standards he had set with his early work.
He seemed to have a gift for distilling the accidental experiences of his youth, but not for searching out new ones.His later writing was often amusing, but lacked freshness, its tone and observations perhaps too professional.
For many years Newby lived in Dorset but he had latterly moved to Surrey. He tended to play up his unworldiness for interviewers, but was actually rather practical, happily pocketing renewals by film companies of their options on Love and War in the Apennines. He was a highly accomplished photographer; among several collections of his images are What the Traveller Saw (1989) and Learning the Ropes (1999), the photographs of his time aboard Moshulu.
Eric Newby was appointed CBE in 1994. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Geographic Society.
He is survived by his wife and by their son and daughter.
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