Who would have thought that the adventurous traveller and decorated wartime hero Eric Newby had started his working life in the rag trade? But that is the story he tells in this characteristically jaunty and very funny book.
Newby was in his late twenties when he returned home in 1945 after an adventurous war. He had escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy and had fallen in love with his future wife Wanda, who had saved his life when he was hiding out in the mountains – an episode he later memorably described in Love and War in the Apennines. 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.
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