It remains one of the more surprising facts of life that the intrepid traveller Eric Newby, who by the time I knew him had the weatherbeaten cragginess of a man only happy when halfway up the Hindu Kush, should have carved out an earlier career astride the lower slopes of haute couture. Everyone has to start somewhere, however, and he put his first reluctant footprint on the fashion world as hapless gofer in the family firm of Lane & Newby, ‘Mantle Manufacturers and Wholesale Costumiers’, from which he rose, more by luck than by judgement, to the dizzy heights of Worth Paquin, later plateauing out into the sunny uplands of John Lewis in the incongruous position of buyer of Ladies’ Fashion.
Those early trials on the nursery slopes are the subject of Something Wholesale, a book the enjoyment of which is strictly in inverse proportion to the experience of its author, for Newby was
always the butt of his own best jokes, and never more so than when floundering in a sea of confusion and an element entirely uncongenial to him. There is a sense of foreboding from the first page as we begin to guess his unhappy fate: demobbed and demoralized in 1945 after an eventful war (some of it chronicled in Love and War in the Apennines), he is thrust by his exasperated parents into the hungry maw of the family firm, which proves an experience every bit as exacting as the conflict he has just thankfully escaped.
But the charm of this book lies in more than its droll evocation of ineptitude and eccentricity. There is an elegiac quality about it, a hint of nostalgia for a time when business could be conducted in a wholly idiosyncratic manner, reliant on relationships that were honed over decades of familiarity (and possibly contempt) but that were nevertheless indulgent of the vagaries of all concerned. Those days were already numbered and Newby records them in a tone of affectionate derision, but there is no doubt whatsoever that life at the sharp end is a whole lot duller now.
Who could compete these days with Newby’s first office encounter, as he stood uneasily in the panelled reception area of Lane & Newby’s Great Marlborough S
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