Heroes & Haberdashers
Eric Newby, Love and War in the Apennines
It was the winter of 1943 and young Eric Newby, later to become known for his jaunty accounts of his adventurous travels, was facing probably the hardest test of his life. Captured by the Germans in 1942 while on a secret mission to bomb a German airfield in Sicily and incarcerated in Northern Italy, he had escaped during the chaos of Italy’s surrender to the Allies and was on the run in the mountains.
This is the story he tells in Love and War in the Apennines, a book he dedicates ‘to all those Italians who helped me and thousands like me, at the risk of their lives’. During those long months on the run he was fed and sheltered by poor peasant farmers who hated the Italian Fascist militia as much as he did and risked torture and execution to help him. As well as being a spine-tingling escape story it is a fascinating picture of life in these remote mountain communities which at that time had changed little since the Middle Ages.
It is also the story of a love affair which lasted the rest of Newby’s life. After the war he returned to Italy to seek out a Slovene girl called Wanda, whose cool head and steadfast character had helped him for a long time to evade recapture and survive. As he tells us in an epilogue, after surmounting ‘every kind of obstacle’, they married in 1946. So, though his wartime experience in the mountains may have marked him for ever, Newby’s extraordinary story ends on an upnote. An irresistible book by an irrepressible man.
Eric Newby, Something Wholesale
Newby was in his late twenties when he returned home in 1945 after an adventurous war. Back in London, however, demobbed and demoralized, he bowed to pressure and joined the family firm.
Lane & Newby, ‘Mantle Manufacturers and Wholesale Costumiers’, occupied a warren of offices in Great Marlborough Street and here young Eric was put to work in the Mantle Department, cutting off lengths of fabric to supply orders for customers such as a Mrs Bangle of Leeds, whose majestic dimensions were given as ‘Hips 62”. Bust 58”. Waist 55”. Such figures would become a grim reality when he was forced to accompany Mr Wilkins, the head salesman, on one of his twice-yearly excursions to drum up orders from buyers in the great industrial towns of the North.
As Eric blundered his hapless way through the various departments, doing his best to repel the advances of Lola, the in-house model – ‘a girl so silly her silliness had a sexual quality’ – things were beginning to go wrong at Great Marlborough Street. Eric’s father, an Edwardian patriarch with a light-hearted attitude to accounting, had somehow managed to keep the firm going while sidestepping the more extreme changes in fashion. But he had been running up debts, and during the Fifties Lane & Newby finally collapsed under the weight of a massive tax demand. By this time, however, Eric was laying plans for an excursion to the Hindu Kush which would form the basis for an equally exuberant and entertaining book – and the rest is travel history.
A Romantic Escape
Love and War in the Apennines is a book of romantic escape, overseen by the suffering of war, which shows how it ripples out across society and into fragile human lives.Read more
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