The Reading Room

A Traveller’s Life

Review of Eric Newby’s ‘A Traveller’s Life’…

In a literary world crammed with travel writers few stand as tall as Eric Newby CBE MC (1919-2006) Newby lead a life most of us would envy, he served in the Special Boat Section and the Black Watch during the Second World War where he was captured in Sicily in 1942. Newby managed to escape during the Italian Armistice and found refuge in the Apennine countryside with the help of a Slovenian woman called Wanda who would become his wife and lifelong travel companion.

I have known of Newby and his work for some years but only  recently read his wonderful ‘The Big Red Train Ride’, his  account of travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1977. Newby was at the heart of what I consider the golden age of travel, he was the travel editor for The Observer from 1963 until 1973 but disliked the approach to travel that  came with the job. A courteous man, he wrote amusing anecdotes and loved life. He enjoyed good food and wine and this is clearly evident throughout this book, and particularly so as he despairs of food in Soviet Russia in the late Seventies!

A Traveller’s Life is an engaging autobiography, short snippets of his  life from his earliest years through the war, his escape and recapture and the travel years with Wanda. It really is a book of Newby’s travel dreams coming true. He takes the Orient Express in 1969 wearing ‘the kind of fur-lined great-coats that are mandatory for travel in the Balkans in winter and also for residing in Istanbul’. Here his love of food and wine shines through as he recalls his dinner; Pate de Pistache, Langoustes Soufflées, Noisettes D’ Agneu Charmerereine, and Mousse Glacée which was washed down with a quarte of Chaume and Chinon. This, he said, took hours and easily qualified for the most expensive restaurant on a train in the world. I can feel the envy shooting through my veins as I type!

By 1972 he is in Port-au-Prince and retracing the footsteps of Graham Greene and his book The Comedians. Newby decides it wise to leave his  copy of the book on the plane given Greene’s persona non grata status! By 1972 the country’s loathsome dictator Papa Doc Duvalier had been dead a year and his infamous henchmen the Tonton Macoute, whilst still a presence, where less visible to Newby and his wife. In a nod to Greene’s book he stays at the same hotel, The Grand Hotel Oloffson: ‘From where we were sitting, down in a corner of the tropical garden where huge, rather rickety palm trees soared into the sky, we could see the swimming pool in which, empty in the novel, some minister or other had messily done away with himself. Now, full of water, it looked positively inviting’

It is a book which is easily read, it tempts the reader towards his other books and induces a sense of nostalgia for times and travels which, although less comfortable, seemed infinitely more exciting.

A Traveller’s Life by Eric Newby

First published by William Collins & Sons in 1982


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