Thursday, 21 July 2011

"A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush" - the funniest of all travel books

I’m not generally a fan of travel books, which is why, although I’ve always known that Eric Newby was a travel writer, I’ve never actually got round to reading him. I must have seen A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush on shelves in bookshops, libraries and other people’s homes a thousand times - but the title has prevented me from even so much as glancing at the quotes on the back cover.

I’ve always assumed it would be one of those travel books in which the natives of some foreign land are made out to be noble, wise, saint-like, ever so “authentic” and in touch with the spirit of the earth as they practice clitoral circumcision, beat their wives whenever the fancy takes them, set their children to work at the age of five, regularly drink water from the stream they use as a latrine and die of disease around the age of 28.  

But, no – turns out it’s one of those splendid true-life accounts of posh Englishmen doing ridiculously brave and utterly pointless things in appallingly inhospitable places, surrounded by extremely dodgy and quite possibly homicidal foreigners. Other examples of this splendidly entertaining genre are Fred Burnaby’s 1877 classic, A Ride to Khiva, and Fitzroy Maclean’s wonderful 1949 book, Eastern Approaches, both of which concern travels in the less hospitable parts of the Russian Empire (and that’s pretty damned inhospitable!).

Eric Newby’s 1958 bestseller is as good as either of them: it’s possibly the best travel book I’ve ever read - it’s certainly the funniest and the most enjoyable. Our 36-year old hero chucks up his decade-long London job in women’s fashion (!) and, together with a diplomat friend about to take up a new post at the British Embassy in Tehran, sets off to climb a mountain in a remote corner of Afghanistan and to enter Nuristan, a region which hadn’t been visited by Westerners in 50 years. 

The Hindu Kush mountain range is about as hardcore as it gets. Newby and his companion prepare by taking mountain climbing lessons for a few days in Wales. 

I won’t go into the details of the deranged expedition (on which they were accompanied by a fairly shambolic collection of native porters) – you’ve probably already read the book – but will concentrate instead on the astonishing quality of Newby’s writing, in particular his powers of his description and his talent for comedy. By the way, I don’t mean that ghastly, forced, dismally unfunny sort of travel writing where our hilarious jester-guide travels across Belgium hopping on one leg or with a banana shoved up his arse, or the sort of lush “fine” writing which usually signals that our explorer is lusting after the local native boys. No - I mean totally unforced and natural comedy, an extraordinary eye for physical detail, and an ability to write like an angel. 

Here are a few examples of Newby’s rich talent: 

“I closed my eyes in a coma of fatigue. When I next opened them I was covered with a thick blanket of flies. They were somnolent in the cool of the evening and, when I thumped myself, squashing dozens of them, they simply rose a foot in the air and fell back on me with an audible ‘plop’, closing the ranks left by the slaughtered like well-drilled infantry.”

“From the rocks on either side marmots whistled at us officiously like ginger-headed referees.”

“His name was Abdulla, The Slave of God (it was unseemly, as he backfired like an early motor-car all the way up the valley).”

“The shallows… in which strange fish, like little brown sticks fitted with furry stoles, shrugged themselves along.”

“We set off; Abdul Ghyas with his awful head, Hugh with his stomach, myself with my feet and stomach. Apart from these ills, we all agreed that we felt splendid, at least we could feel our legs moving. ‘I think we’ve acclimatized splendidly,’ said Hugh with satisfaction. I found it difficult to imagine the condition and state of mind of someone who had acclimatized badly.”

“The track followed the line of the main ditch, never more than two feet wide. Along the dykes there were beds of thick greer moss, sedge, goldenranunculus, and bushes of wild pink and yellow roses were growing, all now, in the early morning, thickly covered in dew. Strung between the bushes the webs made by a very large sort of spider were as complex as wire entanglements and, when the sun rose over the hill ahead, they glistened like thick white cords. Only the limp and dying wild rhubarb that covered the lower slopes of the hill, like the flags of the losing side after a battle, imparted an air of melancholy to the scene.”

“…girls beautiful but unforthcoming, drawing their headcloths tightly across their faces and turning their backs as we approached in such a manner that we began to feel ourselves the vanguard of a whole cohort of sexual maniacs come to this paradise to violate and destroy. Perhaps one of the most disagreeable features of fanatic Islam is its ability to make people of other faiths feel impure in thought, word and deed.”

“This time it continued to rain steadily. Looking out of the window on to a river in spate and mountains shrouded in mist, I experienced a sensation forgotten since childhood; the same mixture of cosiness and despair that I used to feel looking out from a seaside hotel on a wet day.”

While Newby’s companion tries to get on with Hound of the Baskervilles, Newby drives him mad by reading out helpful phrases from Notes on the Bashgali (Kafir) Language by Colonel J. Davidson of the Indian Staff Corps:

“Some of the opening gambits the Bashgalis allowed themselves in the conversation game were quite shattering. ‘I saw a corpse in the field this morning’, and ‘how long have you had a goitre?’, or even ‘My girl is a bride.’

“Even the most casual remarks let drop by this remarkable people had the impact of a sledgehammer. ‘Thy father fell into the river.’ ‘I have nine fingers; you have ten.’ ‘A dwarf has come to ask for food.” … The country seemed a place where the elements had an almost supernatural fury: ‘A gust of wind came and took away all my clothes’, and where nature was implacable and cruel: ‘A lammergeier came down from the sky and took off my cock.” Perhaps it was such misfortunes that had made the inhabitants so petulant…”

Eric Newby is, of course, English – gloriously so:

“All the time the negotiations were going on Aruk and a ruffian wearing a red scarf lay about in a dark corner fondling one another; a manifestation of affection that revolted us all…”

“Mustering this sad, mutinous little force, I drove them before me up the Linar gorge, cursing the lot of them. It was not difficult for me to work up a rage at this moment. All of a sudden I felt that revulsion against an alien way of life that anyone who travels in remote places experiences from time to time. I longed for clean clothes; the company of people who meant what they said, and did it. I longed for a hot bath and a drink.”

As our heroes, completely wrecked, approach the end of their partially successful expedition, they meet the legendary explorer Wilfred Thesiger coming the other way. Thesiger tells them about the rudimentary surgery he performs on tribesmen who don’t trust their own doctors:

“Do you do it? Cutting off fingers?”

“Hundreds of them,” he said dreamily, for it was very late. “Lord, yes. Why, the other day I took out an eye. I enjoyed that.

“Let’s turn in,” he said.

The ground was like iron with sharp rocks sticking up out of it. We started to blow up our air-beds. “God, you must be a couple of pansies,” said Thesiger.

And that’s how this most entertaining of books ends. What a masterpiece.


  1. Another great travel writer,up there with Newby, is Patrick Leigh Fermor whose 'A Time of Life' set in pre world war 2 is a masterpice.
    Saturday, July 30, 2011 - 07:03 AM

  2. I was always put off in the past by Leigh Fermor's mannered and overblown prose style but prompted by this post I've just decided to give Between the Woods and the Water another go this holiday. If I were Paddy, I might have had a thing or two to say about the choice of Dirk Bogarde to play me in the film of my autobiography but I imagine the royalties paid for a trip or two.
    Monday, August 1, 2011 - 10:34 PM

  3. Scott -- try "Love and war in the Apennines" also by Eric Newby. A wonderful combination of a (shambolic) war story and great romance. Autobiographical and true. -- Nick
    Wednesday, August 3, 2011 - 03:12 PM

  4. Southern Man, like Ex-KCS, I have to admit I’ve always found Leigh Fermor a bit too rich for my taste – maybe you have to be a lover of Greece to appreciate him. I’ve always felt a bit guilty that I didn’t enjoy his stuff, as so many people of taste evidently do.

    EX-KCS – for the sake of selling film rights to an autobiographical work, I’d be happy to be played by Marcus Brigstocke, let alone Dirk Bogarde – I am that tawdry. I’d be interested to hear if another go at Leigh Fermor changes your mind.

    Clackers – I see that L&WITA was made into a film in 2001. I intend to read the book and look out for the movie.
    Sunday, August 21, 2011 - 07:26 PM