Sunday, 22 February 2009

Eric Newby, a typical Englishman

As someone who voluntarily used six months of his life in prison to make a point about the possession and potential use of weapons of mass destruction and preached a Gandhian form of non violent protest, I have always had an unhealthy interest in war films and soldiering. Comes from my maternal grandfather being an adventuring soldier who failed to see a battle, or fire a weapon in anger (I suspect), and failing the National Service call up medical because without my short sight glasses I sat on the doctor as he performed a hearing and sight test of his devising.

I still enjoy the occasional blood and guts epic but these days I feel less guilty if it's about the exploits of Prisoners of War. It was quite a find to discover a film about the life of Eric Newby, whose Walk in the Hindu Kush I had started to read as a young man, and I vaguely knew that he been an established and well liked travel writer.

He wrote a book about how he came to meet his wife and a film for TV is said to have been loosely based on the work was re-shown Wednesday 22nd a month after his death at the age of 86 years.

I hope, he, his wife, son and daughter liked the film which I found simple, beautiful in parts, capturing the dilemma and conflicts of Italians and of escaped POWs, and I hope something of the flavour of the real man. I thought it was time exceptionally well used and that my life had become richer for the experience.

As I was to do subsequently on innumerable occasion the starting off point for finding out about man ad if the film was anything like what happened in his life was Wilkipedia, which has done for knowledge and information what MySpace has evidently achieved in bringing like minded souls together from across the universe.

Eric Newby "was born in 1919 with an upper class background educated at St Paul's School and with memories of shopping with his mother at Harrods. On leaving school he worked in advertising which he disliked, and signed on as a raw recruit as an apprentice seaman on a four masted vessel in what became the last competitive sails to Australia.

War saw him enlist as an officer in the London Scottish, The Black Watch, but he then transferred to the special Boat section which carried out sabotage operations on the enemy coast. Unfortunately on a mission to blow up planes, they found them guarded by substantial number of troops (this I suspect is more like truth of most special ops when intelligence relied on the carrier pigeon). The team then failed to get back to the prearranged rendezvous point with their canoes and were picked up by an Italian fishing boat after eight hours at sea and became prisoners of war, ending up at a POW camp at Fontanello near Parma.

After the Italian surrender, the fellow prisoners were able to get out of the camp but had to leave Mr Newby behind in the prison hospital because of a badly broken ankle. He was rescued by an Italian doctor who smuggled him into another hospital run by nuns while there he befriended Wanda, a Slovian, from an area ceded to Italy after World War 1 when her parents had been dispossessed. When his ankle was better she arranged for him to be cared for by peasant families in their primitive cottages in the remote Apennine Mountains. He was subsequently betrayed and recaptured, spent the rest of the war in POW camp in Germany, and after his demob he returned to Italy to find Wanda who he married and lived together for over fifty years."

Newby could be said to have been a quintessential English man, the Obituary writers have in fact gone on to show what people in general are like and that all racial or national stereotyping is not just dangerous but nonsense.

"On returning to London with his bride Mr Newby tried to make a living in advertising in the Rag Trade but he was always a writer and adventurer. On impulse he joined an expedition to the Hindu Kush Afghanistan which established him as writer, but not immediately. having to earn a living as a Buyer with John Lewis until 1963, (I must remember to write about how I nearly came to be a buyer with Heal's) when for the next decade he became a travel writer with the Observer, and produced several books on the Last Grain Race, on his experience in the rag train and as a POW."

"His wife accompanied in many of his trip, including three months on the Ganges where she was laid low with food poisoning and this was also made into a book.

For thirty years they had a home in Tuscany but the advent of TV changed his life Towards the end of their lives they lived in Dorset and in Surrey. He became a fellow of the Royal Geological Society in 1975 and a CBS in 1994 He died in October of this year aged 86 survived by his wife, a son and a daughter."

I hope I have made the point about quintessential English folk, because although he served his country as a soldier and was awarded the Military Cross, was a romantic and stayed married to someone from middle Europe and lived for part of his life in the Mediterranean. He enjoyed adventure travelling around the world and he had no truck with ageism cycling across the UK when in his seventies from Dorset to Scotland or vice versa called around the world in 80 years. Good on you Eric and all those who made you what you became.

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