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 (1962), 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 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 never-theless 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 Street premises, waiting for his duties to be enumerated? From a tiny booth under the resplendent carved stair-case emanated breathless confidences of the ‘I just don’t like the way he . . . No! The other one’s worse than he is’ variety, before a long, silk-clad leg slid sinuously round the door.
Half-mesmerized, as a snake charmer who has allowed one of his charges to gain control of the situation, I watched the leg in which muscles rippled sleek and powerful as a boa-constrictor’s . . . I began to experience that morbid sensation known to psychologists as the Death Wish. For a moment I could think of nothing more delectable than being crushed to pulp by this and its attendant member.
This tantalizing encounter was swiftly countermanded by a bracing welcome from the imposing Miss Gatling, Company Secretary, ‘baring her teeth with a sudden accession of bonhomie that was most alarming’, and the stern advice to ‘watch your step!’ with the siren under the staircase. The scene was set.
There is more than a touch of the surreal in Newby’s world. One of his early duties as junior member of the Mantle Department was to cut off lengths of material to supply the various orders, the first of which was for a wool georgette coat, model name ‘Desire’, to encompass a Mrs Bangle of Leeds. With the majestic dimensions of ‘Hips 62˝. Bust 58˝. Waist 55˝’, it was plain that this was no ordinary woman. ‘How did she get like that in wartime?’ Newby asked in wonderment, only to be told, ‘Bless you, Mr Eric, that’s nothing. We have much worse than that. It’s something to do with armaments.’
The vagaries of the customers were as nothing compared to the eccentricities of the staff, erratically presided over by Newby’s father. Something Wholesale is in part a hymn to this man, the unlikely hero of the piece. Already an elderly and irascible patriarch by the time young Eric was drafted in, he epitomized the Edwardian era of which he was one of the last extant examples. He was a chancer, an adventurer, even if most of his travels were undertaken to drum up more orders for day dresses in Budapest or to press a new consignment of overcoats on the Dutch. The demands of his business were never allowed to interfere, however, with his one great passion: for rowing, or sculling, or messing around in boats on the River Thames.
He lorded it on the river as he lorded it over the denizens of Great Marlborough Street: peremptory, autocratic and determined at all costs to have a good time, he spent his life adroitly getting out of self-inflicted scrapes, which included nasty tiffs with swans, swarms of wasps and other river users. Some of his greatest scorn was reserved for those who turned up in ‘the wrong sort of clobber’, an actionable offence to a man always impeccably turned out in white flannel trousers, white buckskin shoes and magnificent cream blazer, whatever the weather. This Edwardian rectitude in the matter of dress he applied to his business too, and with the aid of his loyal and long-suffering wife he managed to keep Lane & Newby going through testing times, when the impact of Chanel’s Little Black Dress and other thrilling Parisian innovations should by rights have knocked the whole business swiftly into receivership.
The owner of that silk-clad leg, on closer acquaintance, turned out to be Lola, a particularly seductive member of staff with no thought in her head beyond men, and in particular young men like Eric. Even his father acknowledged her charms – ‘That’s a finely developed girl you have in your department’ – before advising ‘A good long trot, then a rub-down and a cold bath’ to ward off the lusts of the flesh. Such measures were woefully inadequate, but intervention from on high came just in the nick of time, in the form of an invitation back to Italy where the faithful Wanda was awaiting him. It was Wanda who had helped Eric escape from captivity during the war, at great risk to both herself and her family, and he had fallen in love with this spirited and beautiful young girl, who, as he pointed out, ‘would have made short work of Lola’.
Eric still needed an income, however, and once safely married he was back again at Great Marlborough Street, where it was generally agreed he should make the transfer from the sultry charms of Lola’s Stockroom to the far healthier ambience of the Showroom, where Miss Stallybrass reigned supreme. There his chief mentor was the inscrutable Mr Wilkins, ‘impassive as a mandarin, almost bald and a complete mystery’.
It was in the company of Mr Wilkins that Eric thankfully escaped the premises. Twice a year visits were made to the buyers of department stores to flog the Spring and Autumn collections. These visits were referred to in reverential tones as ‘The Journey’, and were gruelling in the extreme. In addition to the physical demands of lugging vast numbers of garments from Edinburgh to Glasgow (or vice versa) and thence on daylight raids to the Borders, before trundling down through the great industrial towns of the North to Nottingham, there were the exacting emotional and intellectual demands of setting one buyer off against another, extracting the maximum tribute from both, yet somehow keeping them all happy. The stakes were high, the margins slim, the difference between success and failure a mere hair’s breadth – and all hinged on the fiendish mix of flattery, duplicity and sheer guile perfected over the decades by Mr Wilkins.
No résumé could possibly do justice to the split-second timing of this high-wire act and its ghastly blend of horror and hilarity. Mr Wilkins’s Scrooge-like stinginess put paid to even the few creature comforts that might have smoothed their passage through the nether-world of post-war third-rate Northern hotels, and his intransigence nearly drove Newby mad. He survived – just – and returned to London a wiser and much chastened man, where even his normally implacable father was moved to offer him a few days off.
It was a tribute to Newby père’s determination and dexterity that Lane & Newby staggered on well into the 1950s, when its nemesis came in the form of the tax inspector, and profits, premises and Mr Newby’s beloved supply of port were all swept away on a tidal wave of debt. By that stage, however, Eric had plans for an expedition to the Hindu Kush, and the rest is travel history. His Waugh-ish account of that adventure propelled him into a new career as a writer which he combined for many years with a day job as travel editor of the Observer. He was irrepressible to the very end of his long and active life: I was not at all surprised to hear that when he and Wanda eventually moved from their lovely but rather remote house in Dorset to a new home in West Sussex, Eric – well into his eighties by then – was busy digging out their new swimming-pool.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 57 © Ariane Bankes 2018
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 41: Something Wholesale