Much more important to me than cameras..were my journals; because all that I have ever really needed to record what I needed to record has been in a notebook.
Eric Newby is one of the most celebrated English travel writers. Growing up between the wars close to the River Thames in south-west London, Newby was inspired to travel in part by hearing Apsley Cherry-Garrard (one of Scott’s party and the author of The Worst Journey In The World) speak at his school and by a set of books belonging to his father, the Children’s Colour Book of Lands and Peoples.
Newby began his travels in 1938 when he joined the crew of a four-masted Finnish barque which was still engaged in the Australian grain trade.
During the Second World War, Newby served in The Black Watch and the Special Boat Service. On operations with the latter in 1942, he gained his first experience of Europe, landing by dinghy on Sicily where he was captured and sent to a POW camp in the Po valley.
He subsequently escaped and during a period of hiding met his wife. He was recaptured and was detained until the end of the war when he returned to Italy and married, Wanda, the girl he had met while in hiding. He recorded his wartime experiences in Love and War in the Apennines, published in 1971.
Following the war, Newby embarked on careers in the fashion industry (in his father’s business and with John Lewis) and publishing. In 1956, his first book, about his experience in the last Grain Race, was published.
His most famous book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush was published in 1958. Evelyn Waugh was sufficiently impressed by Newby’s writing to contribute a preface for no fee.
A Short Walk contains what the Telegraph called “the most celebrated meeting between travellers since that of Livingstone and Stanley”, when Newby encountered explorer Wilfred Thesiger.
Contrasting his own amateurism with that of Thesiger’s professionalism, Newby recalls Thesiger watching him and his companion inflate their camping mattresses, an act prompting Thesiger to comment: “God, you must be a couple of pansies.”
In 1963 he travelled the length of the Ganges by boat with his wife, Wanda, his account of which was published in 1966 as Slowly Down the Ganges.
After that trip, he became travel editor of the Observer, a post he held for 10 years from 1964 to 1973.
The chapters in What the Traveller Saw are largely made up of journeys from that period. However, the book serves as an excellent sampler of those, as well as more famous journeys Newby undertook and which later became books in their own right.
The book begins with chapters on his last Grain Race experience and his wartime experiences in Italy. It also contains a chapter on his journey back to Europe after walking in the Hindu Kush and another on his Ganges journey with Wanda.
There is a great deal more to What the Traveller Saw. Newby, it seems, was fortunate enough to have been in the right place at the right time, whether visiting Kenya in the years soon after its independence from Britain or China at a time when it was relatively closed to tourism.
Newby was obviously someone who relished travel in all its forms, demonstrated in What the Traveller Saw by the wide range of travel experiences from places evoking the edge of the world (Lisbon, Scilly Isles, Ireland), the desolation of the Australian outback, the dense urbanisation of Japan and Hong Kong and the tropical comfort of Bali and Fiji.
His journeys always seem to open up possibilities; more walks and trips for which the present journey permits no time. His horizons are always expanding, the world becoming larger the more he travels.
However he travels, whether by sailing boat, ocean liner, train, canoe, plane or rowing boat Newby is an enthusiastic traveller and always appears to be enjoying himself.
Despite his taste for adventurous travel (see for example the chapter on the first descent by a European of the Wakwayowkastic, a tributary of the Moose River in Ontario), Newby is also cheerful visiting places well known to tourism.
Although not in thrall to the development of tourist amenities at Petra, he does not allow that to dampen his exhilaration at visiting somewhere he had been inspired to visit reading the Children’s Book of Lands and Peoples at the age of 8:
The Siq went on and on, down and down, a journey I wished could be prolonged indefinitely. Merely to go through it was worth the journey from Amman […] nothing can compare with that first vision of El Khazna, seen as one emerges from the darkness of the Siq.
No matter to Newby that he was not Burckhardt re-discovering Petra, surrounded only by Bedouin. His good cheer is a good example to bear in mind whenever the temptation to bemoan the presence of other tourists rises.
To Newby’s eye for detail, gentle humour and Englishness, this volume also adds a good selection of Newby’s own photography, a skill he developed while at The Observer.
In his introduction, Newby notes that many of the photos were taken during that period, which he describes of one of the happiest of his life, noting:
As a result, What the Traveller Saw essentially commemorates the past, and, in may cases, a world that has changed beyond all recognition.
It is fitting, therefore, that he ends this collection where it began, in Italy, with a 1988 piece written about Sicily, the place where his European travels began some 45 years previously.
Eric Newby died in 2006. Obituaries giving an overview of his career and life can be found in The Guardian and Telegraph. Eric Newby appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1982, which can be heard online here, (or using the embedded player below).