Love And War In The Apennines by Eric Newby
Both Harper Press $28.99
It was 1956 and Eric Newby, the man who would become one of Britain's most admired travel writers, was stuck in a fitting room with a designer, a model and a lady with a mouth full of pins.
Newby was a commercial traveller for his father's fashion firm, a career he drifted into after World War II, half of which he had spent as a prisoner of war and unsuccessful escapee.
It was a week before the Spring Collection and, as Newby later wrote in his classic travel-memoir A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush, "Things were not going well."
After a decade of doing a job he hated, and claimed he was never good at (which somehow I doubt), the collection almost broke his adventurous spirit. He announced his resignation and a grand plan to write travel books. He'd already published his début, The Last Grain Race, about racing around Cape Horn in a Finnish windjammer. But to write travel books, you must travel. Newby decided the way forward would be an "expedition".
"Can you travel Nuristan June?" he cabled his friend Hugh Carless, a British diplomat in Rio de Janeiro. As he sat watching the rehearsal for the collection, in the company of a buyer from New York, "about nine feet high and hidden behind smoked glasses in mauve frames studded with semi-precious stones", he got his answer. "Of course, Hugh."
Thus began an inept, dangerous, brave, often hilarious (to the reader) adventure, first revealed when A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush was published in 1958, going on to be hailed as one of the best travel books of the 20th century.
And now the legend of Newby (who died in 2006) is revived with the release of a new edition of Hindu Kush, along with eight other memoirs, including A Traveller's Life, Love And War In The Appenines and Something Wholesale.
It is at least two decades since I first encountered Newby, and devoured at least a dozen of his books. What a pleasure it is to rediscover how effortless and contemporary his prose is today: modest and humorous, with a striking gift for painting in words details of sky and mountains, flora and fauna. He also has an acute eye for human virtues - and foibles, not least his own.
Today, Newby and Carless would not survive the shortest of walks through Nuristan, now a province of Afghanistan near the eastern border of Pakistan. It is under Taliban control. But when our intrepid travellers ventured forth, the locals were slightly more benign. Then, the harsh terrain, bad food and foul water were the big hurdles.
Newby and Carless' goal was to climb to the top of Mir Samir (6000m high). "But I had never climbed anything," writes Newby. Shortly afterwards, when Carless arrived in England, he confessed to Newby: "You know I've never done any real climbing."
After a crash course in Wales, off they went, driving from Istanbul towards the Afghani border and encountering serious problems along the way, not least when Newby flung himself into a well of raw sewage to save what he thought was a "baby". The locals thought it was funny.
Newby and Carless' relationship was fractious from the start. It got worse as the miles, stomach upsets, accidents, bad weather, hostile locals and Newby-Carless rows ground on.
Love And War In The Apennines is no less remarkable but its tone is more sombre because it's about the fearful situation of being a prisoner of war, then a man on the run.
In August 1942, Newby was in the British Army's Special Boat Section, ordered to wipe out a German bomber airfield in Sicily. The exercise was dubbed Operation Whynot, such was the level of optimism about the outcome.
After rowing ashore from a submarine in the dead of night, Newby's small group inched along a wall next to a field. "Coming from this field was an appalling noise which sounded like a body of men marching along a road and we crouched behind the wall for what seemed an age ... until we realised that it was only a horse that was munching grass."
Within hours, after getting lost, Newby and his unit were captured and sent off to prison camp. He writes frankly about POW life: the cravings for food, the awful resilience of the English class system, the Brits' arrogance towards the Italian soldiers.
When the Italian armistice was announced - the Germans were still occupants - Newby and his mates simply walked out. Officially, they were escapees, targeted by the Germans. After some close shaves - Newby broke his ankle and was left behind in the countryside - with the aid of a feisty Slovenian girl called Wanda (whom he later married), he moved around the Apeninnes, sheltered by a network of Italian families who risked their lives to keep him hidden.
For much of the time, he was completely alone. His descriptions of the countryside and the weather are amazingly detailed and lyrical, as are his depictions of the people who came to his aid. Sometimes, it's a deeply emotional read, when fear, exhaustion and loneliness overwhelmed him and he admits to completely breaking down in tears at one low point.
He was eventually betrayed and recaptured. In Newby's understated style, the last paragraph reads: "Slowly now, we went down the mountain and around the outskirts of the village to where a number of cars and lorries were waiting and were driven away."
Reviewed by Linda Herrick