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Eric Newby

I can still recall the day that David handed me his copy of Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958), and suggested I might like it.

I couldn’t put it down.

Newby was working in fashion when he engineered his escape to the 18,000-foot eminences of the Hindu Kush with a friend. His book is a hilarious and hair-raising account of their adventures. As their expertise in mountaineering had been hurriedly gained climbing a few hills in Wales, their gambits on precipices were usually life-threatening.

George Eric Newby, born in London in 1919 and educated at St Paul’s School, became an adventurer who wrote travel books. According to the Times, “his preferred mode of travel was overland, ideally on a bike with his wife, whom he had met during the Second World War. But in a world gradually shrinking under the pressure of adventure tourism, none perhaps was able so to capture the sheer delight of finding oneself for the first time in the untenanted wild places of the Earth.”

In Slowly Down the Ganges, Eric and Wanda's journey down the length of the Ganges begins rockily:

Two hundred yards below the bridge and some twelve hundred miles from the Bay of Bengal the boat grounded in sixteen inches of water. . . I looked upstream to the bridge but all those who had been waving and weeping had studiously turned their backs. The boatmen uttered despairing cries for assistance but the men at the bridge bent to their tasks with unwonted diligence. As far as they were concerned we had passed out of their lives. We might never have existed.

They all get out, including Wanda, who is wearing “an ingenious Muslim outfit which consisted of peg-top trousers of white lawn and a hieratical-looking shift.” Noting that “the bottom of the river is full of rocks the size of twenty-four pound cannon balls which were covered with a thin slime of green weed,” they begin to dig a passage, “lifting the great slimy stones and plonking them down on either side of the boat.” They run aground 63 more times in the first six days, but Eric and Wanda push doggedly on, a realistic and romantic couple alive to India. Newby describes their beautiful and difficult journey in prose Amazon reviewer James Marcus calls “lyrical yet laconic”, often amused, often amusing, and sometimes wise.