Read A Traveller's Life Online

Authors: Eric Newby

A Traveller's Life

BOOK: A Traveller's Life

A Traveller's Life


My Fellow Traveller



Title Page


List of Illustrations


1. Birth of a Traveller (1919)

2. The Baby as a Traveller

3. Rings Around the Tombs in SW13 (1923)

4. Travels in Harrods

5. Westward Ho! (1925)

6. A Walk in the Sun (1925)

7. Journeys Through Darkest Hammersmith (1928–36)

8. Lands and Peoples

9. Mystery Tour (1927)

10. Something in West One (1936–8)

11. I Go to Sea (1938)

12. Snakes and Ladders (1939–42)

13. Love Among the Ruins (1942)

14. A Trip to Italy (1942)

15. Conducted Tours with the Third Reich (1944)

16. Götterdämmerung (1944–5)

17. Commercial Traveller (1946–54)

18. Travels in My Imagination (1947)

19. When Did You Last Cross the Oxus? (1956)

20. The Most Unforgettable Character I Never Met (1958)

21. A Visitor from Lhasa (1958)

22. MG Buyer (1960–3)

23. Down the Drain (1963)

24. A Princely Shoot (1963)

25. Lonely Islands (1964)

26. New York (1965)

27. A Walk on Broadway (1965)

28. Lawrence's Jordan (1967)

29. Treetops, East Africa (1967)

30. Orient Express (1969)

31. The Pera Palace Hotel (1969)

32. A Journey in the Wilderness (1971)

33. Wimbledon to Italy by Bicycle (1971)

34. Port-au-Prince (1972)

35. Leaving The Observer (1973)


About the Author


Also by the Author



About the Publisher


This book is not an autobiography. It concerns itself for the most part, as the title suggests, with my life as a traveller in however modest a fashion from the time I was born more than sixty years ago.

Some of these travels were in distant places, in what used to be referred to as ‘foreign parts'. But this is by no means true of all of them, and some of them were very near home indeed, for I agree with Ogden Nash's more or less unassailable definition of what constitutes a foreigner and what is a foreign part:

The place you're at

Is your habitat.

Everywhere else you're a foreigner.

If you can bring yourself to believe this, it takes a lot of the sting out of the cost of travel; and it is why I felt it reasonable to include my journeys through Harrods – a strange early adventure which befell me and my somewhat oversexed nurse while she was propelling me in a baby carriage through a London suburb – as well as an account of some equally bizarre excursions into the underworld
of the London sewers by night while working as a fashion buyer of dresses, retailing at ten guineas and upwards, for a chain of department stores during the day.

The somewhat episodic nature of the book is because one cannot continue going round the world for ever without intermissions in which one tries to make money, licks one's wounds, and re-equips oneself for further ventures. Even a traveller such as the Arab Ibn Battuta, born at Tangier in 1304 – perhaps the greatest traveller of all time who, in the course of his life, was estimated to have covered seventy-five thousand miles not counting detours, the only medieval traveller who is known to have visited the lands of every Muhammedan ruler of his time, quite apart from such infidel countries as Ceylon and China – was not always on the go, taking time off to get married here and there or to act as a counsellor of moderation to a mad potentate. In fact, travellers such as those who go into orbit and fail to come out of it, or travellers like the Jew who spat at Christ at the crucifixion and was condemned to wander the world for ever, can only be regarded as exceptionally unfortunate.

In his writings, the Venerable Bede compared the span of human life to coming out of darkness into a lighted hall and, having reached the end of it, finding oneself under the necessity of setting off once more into the all-embracing gloom. To me life has been more like one of those sections of
on the Italian Riviera, on which there are lots of tunnels, some long, some short, with sunlit open spaces of varying lengths between them for which the darkness leaves one temporarily dazzled and often unprepared.

Why do people travel? To escape their creditors. To find a warmer or cooler clime. To sell Coca-Cola to the Chinese. To find out what is over the seas, over the hills and far away, round the corner, over the garden wall – with a ladder and some glasses you
could see to Hackney Marshes if it wasn't for the houses in between, in the words of the old music hall song, the writer of which one feels was about to take off.

Why have I travelled? Difficult to answer, that is when not engaged in the equivalent of selling Coca-Cola to the Chinese (large size dresses in Leeds), or travelling as a sailor or a soldier. Partly, undoubtedly, for amusement and sheer curiosity and partly, as Evelyn Waugh wrote in the preface to a book I wrote which described a journey through the Hindu Kush, to satisfy ‘the longing, romantic, reasonless, which lies deep in the hearts of most Englishmen, to shun the celebrated spectacles of the tourist and, without any concern with science or politics or commerce, simply to set their feet where few civilized feet have trod'.

Birth of a Traveller
(December 1919)


– On the 6th December at 3 Castelnau Mansions, Barnes, SW13, to Hilda Newby, wife of Geo. A. Newby – a son.

In this extravagant fashion – altogether it cost 50p ($1.95),
at a time when Lady Secretaries with shorthand and typing were earning around £3.50 ($13.65) a week – my arrival was announced on the following Tuesday, 9 December, in
The Times
and the
Daily Telegraph
, two of the daily newspapers my father ‘took in' at that period. The other was the
Daily Mirror
, then a rather genteel paper, which he ordered for my mother, but never looked at himself, and which she passed on to the cook/housekeeper when she had finished with it. From then on it was also passed on to a nurse.

As an event my birthday can scarcely be said to have been one of great consequence except to my parents, their relatives and friends. What is perhaps more interesting, and I hope the reader
may think so too, is what sort of day that now far-off Saturday in December 1919 turned out to be, and what was going on in the world beyond the windows of that first-floor flat in which I was born facing the Metropolitan Waterboard's reservoirs and filter beds by the Thames on the Surrey side of Hammersmith Bridge.

At 3.45 a.m., the ghastly hour I chose, or rather the doctor chose, for my arrival – I had to be hauled out by the head – conditions must have been pretty beastly in Barnes. It was a dark and stormy night, with a fresh wind from the west whose gusts would have been strong enough to blow clouds of spray from the big reservoir (which was opposite our flat by the bridge and which has now been filled in to make playing fields for St Paul's School) over the pavement and right across the main road (which was called Castelnau but which all the inhabitants knew and know to this day as Castlenore) as it always did when the wind was strong from that particular quarter, sometimes, but rarely at 3.45 a.m. wetting unwary pedestrians and people travelling in open motor cars.

And it was certainly dark, although the moon had been up for more than thirteen hours and was only a day off full. It would be nice, more romantic, altogether more appropriate for a potential traveller, to think of myself arriving astride the Centaur, and, Sagittarius being in the ascendant, perhaps carrying the latter's arrows for him, as we moved across a firmament in which ragged clouds were racing across the path of a huge and brilliant moon; but it was not to be. It was ordained that I should be a child not only of darkness but of utter darkness, of ten-tenths cloud.

It was not much of a night for the distinctly grumpy, and, from what I subsequently gathered from my mother, very pompous Harley Street gynaecologist to be out, summoned from his residence in Hampstead to this distant and unfashionable address at
2 a.m. by my father, using the telephone which he had had installed expressly for this contingency. On the other hand, it could have been colder. At 4 a.m. the thermometer at Kensington Palace, a couple of miles away on the other side of Hammersmith Bridge, registered a temperature well above freezing in the 40s Fahrenheit.

This ‘specialist' subsequently performed an operation on my mother so incompetently and, so far as there was any possibility of her having any more children, so definitively, that years later the operation became the subject of a highly critical article in one of the medical periodicals in which my mother was referred to as Mrs N and the surgeon as Mr X, by which time he was dead and beyond the processes of the Law. That night he travelled to Barnes in what my father described to me when I was old enough to be curious about the circumstances of my birth as ‘an electric brougham'.

The driver of such a machine sat outside, perched high up on a box, fully exposed to the elements – which would have been necessary if he had been driving a horse – while the passengers were accommodated in its leather upholstered and buttoned interior in considerable comfort. And, in fact, the effect produced by one of these contraptions, which looked as if its horse had bolted without it but was still moving forward by the force of gravity, steered by its gloomy, peak-capped driver with a wheel on a vertical column (gloomy because for most of his life he had probably driven horse-drawn broughams and regarded this development as an affront to nature), was highly comical. And when I eventually travelled in an electric brougham, aged five, on a night of thick pea soup fog and torrential rain in December 1924, from my grandparents' house in Winchester Street, Pimlico, back to Hammersmith Bridge, with my mother and father and an uncle and aunt, all warm and dry and full of food inside, while the driver was drenched with rain and half asphyxiated by fog on the
outside, I laughed till I cried, all the way shrieking, ‘He hasn't got a lid on!'

It was my mother, who was in a position to feel the full force of the specialist's grumpiness, who told me about it. However, why he was grumpy when he was being paid so highly for something he had contracted to do,
was treated to whisky on his arrival and champagne on my arrival, as well as chicken sandwiches, is not clear. Presumably the nature of his job must have accustomed him to working at odd hours, like lighthouse keepers and policemen. His grumpiness, however, was as nothing compared with that of another telephone subscriber to whose number my father was connected in error before getting through to the specialist, the work of one of the operators at the Hammersmith Exchange, whose fruity ‘SORRRYY YOU'VE BEEN TRRROUBBLED!' did nothing to convince the wretched man, dragged from his bed at two in the morning, that anyone was sorry at all.

It would not have been much of a night for the homeless poor, their clothes stuffed with newspaper, who slept rough on the towing path down by the river all through my early childhood, and who would certainly have been there that night. Most of them were regulars. Some were terrifying-looking women; some were ‘tramps', the first ‘real' travellers I can remember seeing, pointed out by my nurse. But not many of them would have been tramps because most tramps were too solicitous of their personal comfort to share the appallingly draughty, unspeakably filthy but more or less rain-proof camping place used by these unfortunate outcasts, up against the reeking abutments under Hammersmith Bridge, only about fifty yards from where, a boisterous baby, I was now giving tongue. But on this particular night with a high spring tide some time after midnight (high water at London Bridge was at 12.12 a.m.) their pitch would have been a couple of feet under
water for an hour or more, and they would have been sleeping among the bushes down towards Putney, or up against the trunks of the huge black poplar trees that grew along the towing path opposite Chiswick Mall further upstream to which normal spring tides did not reach.

Some of these men and women drank methylated spirits. If they became violent, they were ‘taken into custody' by the police. This usually meant that a couple of unfortunate constables, sometimes one alone, had to strap the prisoner, male or female, who by this time would probably be striking out, biting and scratching, to a handcart and then wheel it a mile or more up Lonsdale Road from the Boileau Arms, which everyone called, and still calls, ‘Ther Boiler', to Barnes Police Station with the occupant roaring loudly enough to wake the dead. If more than one person had to be taken into custody, a Black Maria was sent for.

When it dawned, the day was even more rumbustious than the night. And when the sun rose, just before eight o'clock, like the moon, it remained invisible. Thunderstorms visited many parts of the country, accompanied by hail, sleet or snow and west or north-westerly winds which reached gale force in high places. In Lincolnshire, the Belvoir Hunt, having ‘chopped a fox' in Foston Spinney (seized it before it fairly got away from cover), ‘were hunting another from Allington when scent was totally swept away by a tremendous rainstorm'.

‘Flying Prospects' on my birthday were not good, according to
The Times
. It is now difficult to imagine that a pilot, or even a passenger, might actually buy a newspaper in order to find out whether it was safe to ‘go up', but it must have been so, otherwise there would have been no point in publishing the information at all. ‘Unsuitable for aviation or fit only for short distance flying by the heaviest sort of machine' was what the communiqué said. ‘Sea Passages' were equally disagreeable. The English Channel was
rough, with winds reaching forty miles an hour, and there was extensive flooding in France.

But if the weather was disturbed that Saturday, it was as nothing compared with the state of great chunks of Europe and northern Asia. In spite of the fact that the advertising department of
The Times
had chosen this particular Saturday to announce ‘PRESENTS SUGGESTIONS FOR THE GREAT PEACE CHRISTMAS', on it Latvians were fighting Germans, on whom they had declared war a week previously on 28 November, and so were the Lithuanians. In Russia, on the Don and between Voronezh and Kirsk and in Asia, beyond the Urals, along the line of the Trans-Siberian Railway, where typhus was raging, Bolsheviks and White Russians were engaged in a civil war of the utmost ferocity. Meanwhile, that same Saturday, while their fellow countrymen were destroying one another, with their country in ruins and becoming every day more ruinous, Lenin and Trotsky and the 1109 delegates of the Seventh All-Russian Congress of Soviets passed a resolution to the effect that ‘The Soviet Union Desires to Live in Peace with All Peoples'. On that day, too, Lenin told the Congress that ‘Communistic Principles were being utterly disregarded by the Russian peasantry.'

That day, too, much nearer home, while I was taking my first nourishment, as it were, in the open air, French Army units with heavy guns were rumbling across the Rhine bridges in order to force the Germans to ratify the peace treaty which they had signed at Versailles in June; and in the same issue of
The Times
which carried the headline about ‘THE GREAT PEACE CHRISTMAS', there were other headlines such as ‘GUNS ACROSS THE RHINE' and ‘WAR IMMINENT', although who was to fight another war with millions killed and wounded, armies in a state of semi-demobilization, and millions more dying or soon to die from sickness and starvation was not clear. Nevertheless, that
weekend, the only thing, theoretically, that stood between the protagonists and another outbreak of war, was the Armistice, signed in a French railway carriage parked in a wood, thirteen months previously, so that, equally theoretically, it would simply have meant carrying on with the old one. That weekend, too, the Americans quitted the peace conference.

There was, altogether, a lot about death in the papers that Saturday. It was as if Death the Reaper, an entity embodied by cartoonists in their drawings as a hideous, skeletal figure, and it would have been difficult to have lived through the last five years without thinking of death as such, had become dissatisfied with his efforts, had once again sharpened his scythe and was already cutting fresh, preliminary swathes through the debilitated populations of the vanquished powers, as if the great influenza epidemic, which reached its peak in Britain in March 1919, and which altogether killed more people in Europe than all the shot and shell of four and a half years of war, had not been enough.

In Britain, that Saturday, things were rather different. Bank rate was six per cent, exports were booming. On Friday, the US dollar closed at $3.90 to the pound. The only disquieting news that morning, and that was more or less a rumour, was that there was a possibility of a number of pits being forced to close in the South Wales anthracite fields.

Altogether, for many people that Saturday, life seems to have gone on much as it had done before the Deluge. Giddy and Giddy, House Agents, offered a luxuriously furnished town house, facing Hyde Park, with thirteen bed and dressing-rooms for £26.25 ($102.40) a week. Harrods announced Laroche champagne, 1911, the last vintage generally available (shipped) since the war, at £6.50 ($25.35) a dozen. Very old vintage port (Tuke Holdsworth) was £4.50 ($17.55) a dozen. Not advertised in
The Times
or the
Daily Telegraph
, but still listed in Harrods' enormous current catalogue,
(and for some years to come) under ‘Livery', were red plush breeches for footmen.

Domestic servants were still comparatively inexpensive, although more difficult to find, than they had been before the war. That Saturday Lady Baldwin, of 37 Cavendish Square, advertised for a housemaid, ‘five maids and a boy kept, wages £28–£30 ($109–$117) a year'. And there were vacancies for live-in under nurses, at £25 ($97.50) a year, the price of a high-class baby carriage of the sort that my mother had acquired for me.

That Saturday, too, wholesale garment manufacturers, at what was, and still is, known as ‘the better end of the trade', the sort of firm my father was a partner in, were advertising jobs in their workrooms for bodice and skirt makers at around £2.50 ($9.75) for a five-and-a-half-day, forty-nine-hour week (8.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. week-days, 8.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. Saturdays), £130 ($507) a year, which made the 50p spent on announcing my birthday seem hideously extravagant.

That Saturday some London fashion houses, including the then ultra-fashionable Lucile, in Hanover Square, were advertising for ‘Model Girls', in emulation of Paul Poiret, the Parisian designer, who had just returned from the army and for the first time showed clothes on living models.

A sketch in
The Times
that Saturday shows that clothes were good-looking, if not positively saucy. Dresses, according to their fashion correspondent, were ‘
, sometimes dangerously low', in brilliant colours, with tight, mid-calf-length skirts. Jet was high fashion for the evening: embroidered on coloured velvet, used for making girdles and shoulder straps. Feathers, which had been used for years for making headdresses for evening, were being replaced by flowers, ‘as little like nature as possible?', although another couple of years were to pass before the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act became law. The ultra-fashionable were already wearing the long, skimpy
jerseys which were to become a sort of hallmark of the 1920s; but there was nothing about them in the papers the day I was born.

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