In 1957, as the British Empire entered the final throes of its death, a member of the British Office of Foreign Service and a sales representative from the garment industry set out for the former colony of Afghanistan. Their intention was to climb an imposing mountain in the remote wilderness with no experience between them to speak of. That sales representative was Eric Newby, and the book he would write about the journey, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, would eventually be described by William Dalrymple as “the book that virtually invented modern travel writing” (Hanbury-Tenison “50 Years”).
Upon publication, A Short Walk was well received by critics on both sides of the Atlantic. In the New Statesman, the book was described as “hilariously funny … highly readable” (Maxwell). The New Yorker also noted that it was “A very funny book.” Besides noting its humor, the Saturday Review referred to it as “immensely literate” (Wakin). The Manchester Guardian review makes note of an important thing to understand about A Short Walk, “Mr. Newby knows the whole thing is absurd” (Nicholson).
In the preface to A Short Walk, Evelyn Waugh cites an American critic who read the manuscript and remarked that it was “too English” (10). Waugh goes on to say the book “is intensely English,” though what he leaves unsaid is that very Englishness serves as a driving force for the text. In a way, by traveling to the remote and virtually unexplored region of Nuristan, Newby is traveling in time to another England – the England of the romantic myth of the British Empire. This myth lies at the heart of the Englishness of the text, and it is at odds with the harsh reality of the Empire and its long-term effect on the world it once ruled. Eric Newby is conscious of this conflict, subtly weaving it into the text, and it is from this very tension that the brilliance of the work emerges.
Waugh comments on the British tradition of travel: “The Scotch endured great hardships in the cause of commerce; the French in the cause of either power or evangelism. The English only have half (and wholly) killed themselves in order to get away from England” (Newby 10). It is a particularly interesting sentiment to open the text; it is a humorous observation in a dry, dark way, which sets the tone perfectly for the writing that follows. Yet it is also a deceptive statement, one that invites the reader to ponder whether Waugh’s intentions are purely facetious, or whether there is some willing self-deception involved. The fact is, while many British individuals may have gone abroad simply to flee the dull, dreary grind of day-to-day life in England, in general the English had far more base motives for their globe-trotting exploits. In fact, the English represented stiff competition in the fields Waugh attributes to the Scottish and French: commerce and power.
Beginning in the late 1500s, the British government pursued a dedicated policy of expansionism and colonialism. By the mid-1700s, England controlled a substantial number of overseas colonies, predominantly in North America. The American colonies’ “Declaration of Independence” in 1776 took significant chunk out of the British Empire as it stood at the time, but the English proved resilient (Sears 5).
The 1800s turned out to be a boom time for the Empire. During the later part of the century the major European powers carved up Africa, with Britain taking control of vast swaths of the continent (Hicks and Holden 249). India came under control of the crown in 1858, though it had been indirectly controlled since the 1600s in the form of the British East India Company. Under the British Raj, the area referred to as “British India” encompassed not only modern India, but several surrounding nations as well (Edwardes and Pree 135-147).
Located just outside of British India was Afghanistan, which the English invaded in early 19th century in an effort to block potential Russian expansion into the nation. Afghanistan proved to be a difficult colony to manage, with two major revolts coming after the initial war of conquest. The first revolt was quite successful, with the British authorities being driven out of Kabul after the murder of the chief representative of English commerce. 16,000 British casualties were incurred during this revolt, with some 3,500 men, women, and children fleeing Kabul, most to die from either exposure or attacks by locals. However, after taking back Kabul in the violent war of reprisal, most English could not ponder why they bothered to conquer and hold such desolate, poor country. By 1919 British rule had left the nation completely (Hicks and Edwardes 151-159).
Generally, though, the British proved quite adept at putting down rebellions and managing the indigenous populations of their colonies. Between Asia, the south Pacific, and Africa, the dawn of the 20th century saw the English sitting on the throne of the most extensive empire in world history (Sears 5).
This was all soon to change. By 1957, when the nation of Malay in south-east Asia gained independence from British rule, it was one of the last nations in the region to do so. The African nation of Ghana also achieved independence that year, and a wave of African nations followed suit. Around the world, after nearly 400 years of expansion, the sun was at last setting on the British Empire (“British Empire”).
This history of empire and the cultural mythology surrounding it are crucial factors in understanding Newby’s work. It is in 1957 that Newby and his companion, Hugh Carless, make their journey to the ever-chaotic Afghanistan while the final vestiges of the Empire are being swept away in Africa. As an Englishman born while the Empire still flourished and living through its demise, Newby can not help but confront the legacy of the Empire in his travel.
The book is essentially an extended examination of the notion of the British gentleman traveler and the mythology surrounding it (Holland and Huggan 32). The image of the gentleman traveler was synonymous with the very concept of going abroad at the height of the Empire, and Renato Rosaldo refers to modern travel writing that evokes such imagery as “imperialist nostalgia” (qtd. in Holland and Huggan 15).
Newby is not some barely closeted fascist, however, simply longing for the imperial power of days gone by. Rather, Newby depicts the image of the gentleman traveler and the past he represents as a haunting presence. Early in the text, after finishing a rigorous climb in Wales to prepare for the trip at hand, Newby and his companions encounter another climbing party. Atop the same rock, Newby says, “Sitting there on a boulder was a man in a bowler hat and white collar smoking a pipe” (39). Here, at the top of this rock, while undoubtedly sweating and panting, Newby sees before him the calm image of the typical English gentleman. His companions tell him they “saw the other party, but we didn’t see a man in a bowler hat” (39). Some might argue that this spirit of the Empire merely represents an inspirational influence, but the text as a whole hints otherwise.
It must be noted that Newby does not take his trip in the first place merely to engage in this examination – or at least, he certainly doesn’t present it that way. Rather, in Newby’s case Waugh’s remark about the English traveling “in order to [simply] get away from England” is spot-on. Newby’s decision to go an “expedition” (15) seems to stem as much, if not more, from frustration with his job in the fashion industry as from some adventurous compulsion. This desire to flee one’s home is common throughout modern travel writing and is quite understandable.
Paul Fussel observes exactly what it is the traveler longs to escape from: “the ugliness and racket of Western cities, from factories, parking lots, boring turnpikes, and roadside squalor” (153). Nicholas Howe argues that the English are uniquely suited to be travel writers due to their desire to escape their “insular, hierarchical, claustrophobic culture,” and as a result of growing up with “a vernacular literary tradition … that prized the individual adventurer who turned the literal journey into a spiritual quest; and an essayistic prose tradition … that admired a nonchalant, if careful discursiveness.”
Of course, not everyone who becomes frustrated with their life would choose to escape by climbing a mountain in the wilderness of Afghanistan. It takes a certain sort of personality to take on such a task, someone who needs to see things for himself and experience things firsthand. Newby indicates that he is just such a personality when he says, “It had taken me ten years to discover what everyone connected with it had been telling me all along, that the Fashion Industry was not for me” (15). This important early passage not only characterizes Newby as needing firsthand experience, but also as being rather stubborn. These are the very traits that make Newby perfectly suited to examine the notion of the British gentleman traveler, because these are among the very traits that make him the perfect gentleman traveler.
In examining modern travel writing, Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan identify three defining characteristics of the gentleman traveler persona: “amateurism, anachronism, and imposture” (32). In examining cultural mythology during the age of the Empire, John Gross and J.O. Springhall identify “manliness” and “character” as primary traits of the proper imperial gentleman (296). All of these ideas play into Newby’s work in one way or another.
The first and most obvious of these characteristics in A Short Walk is amateurism. The main focus of Newby and Carless’s trip is the climb of Mir Samir, a mountain 19,800 feet in height (22). With less than half a year until the journey, Newby has this to say on the subject:
But I had never climbed anything. It was true that I had done some hill walking and a certain amount of scrambling in the Dolomites with my wife, but nowhere had we failed to encounter ladies twice our age armed with umbrellas. I had never been anywhere that a rope had been remotely necessary. (22)
Considering the task at hand, the passage marks Newby’s expedition as “dangerously amateurish” (Holland and Huggan 33). Later, during the actual climb, Newby repeatedly reinforces the amateur nature of the operation. Describing the area where they stop to unload their horses and prepare for the climb itself, Newby sarcastically remarks, “In the chronicles of any well-conducted expedition [my italics] this would have been called the ‘base camp'” (140). Regarding a climbing technique that he and Carless developed through their own experience, Newby says, “That what we were doing is common mountaineering practice is a measure of our ignorance” (174).
Perhaps the purest example comes when, having already begun their day’s climb, Newby and Carless reach a severely vertical path they had planned to take through snow only to find that it is solid ice. Not wanting to go back, but unsure how to proceed, the comment is made, “Let’s have a look at the book” (182). Newby does not bother to attribute the statement to either Carless or his self. Likely he is aware that to add another word to the line would diminish its comedic impact.
The moment is an excellent example of humor emerging from the tension between myth and reality. The ideal gentleman traveler character would surely challenge such a climb despite a lack of experience – after all, he has manliness and character on his side. In fact, Newby and Carless have been recommended for a grant from the Everest Foundation for their climb by a man well aware of their mutual lack of experience on the basis of their “character and determination” (40). Newby then shows that stiff-upper-lipped traveler reduced to consulting a text book on a wind-swept mountainside before engaging in potentially life-threatening activity. This serves to remind the audience just how patently ridiculous the whole idea is – surely, mountaineering experience counts for far more than character.
Anachronism enters into the book not only through Newby’s own utter Englishness, but also in the remnants of the Empire that are encountered along the journey. For example, while still traveling to Afghanistan, Newby and Carless find themselves in Meshed, a city in Persia. Newby implies that for the most part Meshed is dirty, chaotic, and full of thieves – the sort of description that some readers might see as “imperialist nostalgia,” but most would have to agree is probably accurate. Set against this is Newby’s description of their lodging, the British Consulate-General, abandoned by the English in 1953:
The place was a dream world behind high walls, like a property in the Deep South of the United States. Everywhere lush vegetation reached out long green arms to destroy what half a century of care had built up … The Consulate building itself was lost and forgotten; arcades of Corinthian columns supported an upper balcony, itself collapsing … Behind barred windows were the big green safes with combination locks in the confidential registry. (56-57)
Even the world-view of the locals that still dwell in the Consulate, once loyal servants the Empire, is an anachronism. Newby says, “Apart from Hugh and myself, everyone inside the Consulate firmly believed that the British would return” (57).
Then there is the issue of imposture. There is a scene in A Short Walk where an entire village worth of men turns out to watch the English adventurers “performing … mundane household chores” (208). Holland and Huggan point out that the scene deflates the “bravura of the gentleman abroad,” essentially revealing the persona for the fiction it is, part of the Imperial posture designed to sell the notion of British superiority to indigenous peoples (35).
Before heading into the wilderness, Newby and Carless have to hire on local help for their expedition. The head of this group is Abdul Ghiyas, whom Carless has traveled with before. Here Newby evokes another imperialist notion when he describes one of the other locals as “cunning, intelligent, and the antithesis of the faithful retainer” (108). The idea of the “faithful retainer” is reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s “Gunga Din,” a poem about an indigenous servant of the Empire who is utterly loyal to the British, despite the fact that the soldiers insult and beat him (Kipling).
Kipling was a devout believer in the imperialist myth, coining one of the most enduring phrases to represent the outlook of the time, “The White Man’s Burden.” This meant that Europeans, and the English in particular, where superior to the darker skinned peoples inhabiting the “exotic” colonies of the Empire, and that it was the white person’s responsibility to govern such peoples and guide them away from savagery (Gross and Springhall 300).
This horrendous racism is an unavoidable issue when dealing with the culture and myth of the British Empire. When Newby’s writing distances the Europeans from their Asian servants, any defamation is directed squarely at the European, who lacks necessary knowledge and engages in pointless, if not downright stupid, activities. After alluding to Kipling in the description of the retainers, Newby repeatedly references the lack of real authority or status possessed by these two Englishman. He describes the first day of the caravan as “being under starter’s orders on a racecourse – only there was no starter” (110). Of course, Newby or Carless should be the starter, and the implication is that they barely even possess the illusion of authority.
On their first day of wilderness travel, Newby and Carless decide to carry some of their supplies on their backs “to toughen ourselves up” (111), rather than putting it all on their pack animals. The retainers are shocked, and when locals passing by shout “sag,” or “dog,” at them, Newby comments, “What we had not taken into account was the diminished social status that was accorded to a couple of Europeans plodding through Asia with heavy loads on their backs” (112). Both Newby and Carless understand exactly why such a practice would be derided, when after only an hour or so of walking they feel ready to collapse.
Despite their detailing of the dissection and deflation of the gentleman traveler myth, Holland and Huggan chalk up Newby as a peddler of imperialist nostalgia, coming out firmly in agreement with Rosaldo (46-47). They point to an intensely interesting and disturbing episode in A Short Walk, when Newby, his wife Wanda, and Carless nearly hit a man on the road outside of the small town of Bayazid. The old nomad had been “run … down from behind and his injuries were terrible” (49). Many people from the nearby town turn out to see what has happened, and shortly later the old man dies. The three are charged with murder and held for several days in a Turkish prison, before going to a trial that seems terribly stacked against them. Yet at the end, the Prosecutor drops all the charges, proclaiming the men totally innocent. He explains he is doing so “because M. Carless was gentlemanly in this thing, because you were all gentlemanly” (55).
This is not the damning moment for Newby that Holland and Huggan present it as. The problem with their conclusion lies in their summation of the incident: “Newby and Carless are in trouble with the law after accidentally running down and killing a local peasant on the road to Tehran” (46). Unless the authors are privy to some information about this case not contained in Newby’s book, this statement is inaccurate. Newby’s description of the incident reads: “Hugh was already braking hard … we waited for the smash but instead coming to a standstill only a few feet from whatever it was in the road” (49). The old nomad had already been run over by another vehicle when they arrive on the scene. Shortly thereafter, when the first accusation of murder is leveled, Newby and company respond, “BUT WE DIDN’T. WE FOUND HIM” (50).
Newby represents the entire affair, from the accident through the trial, as a tragic failure of communication. Holland and Huggan overlook this. They have either failed to properly re-read the text, or they have come to the conclusion that Newby is lying. Examining texts that play with the culture and myth of the Empire in any manner other than blatant damnation is a difficult proposition. In this case, Holland and Huggan seem to have fallen prey to the temptation to over-correct the wrongs of imperialist thinking by presuming Newby’s guilt for the very same reason the Prosecutor presumes his innocence. Taken either way, the logic is deeply flawed.
No doubt, such reasoning for the release of men otherwise believed to be guilty certainly casts a dark shadow on the gentleman traveler. Newby is conscious of this, and handles it deftly. He ends the chapter on the Prosecutor’s words, never commenting directly on his reaction. Rather, he leaves the reader to their own conclusions. At least, that is how it appears on the surface. Newby’s technique of presenting such a statement as the end of a chapter occurs several other times in the text, and always for the same purpose. The given statement is generally loaded with an absurdly extreme example of imperialist thought, and by placing it as he does Newby turns the words into an exclamation point of subtext. Another example of this is the previously mentioned note about Newby and Carless’s “character and determination” (40). The quote comes at the end of Chapter Three, in which Newby and Carless’s lack of capabilities has been made painfully clear.
However, it is not only at the end of his chapters Newby observes the absurdity of his heritage. During the midst of their climb, Carless needs to retrieve an aneroid to take a reading of their altitude. Newby sarcastically praises the device, calling it “as massive a testimonial to Victorian engineering as a cast-iron cistern” (184). When relating the history of how Nuristan was finally conquered and converted by British-supported Afghanistan, Newby talks of the Afghan leader Abdur Rahman:
To the British he had fully justified their selection of him as Amir of Afghanistan and, apart from the few foibles remarked by Lord Curzon, like flaying people alive who displeased him, blowing them from the mouths of cannon, or standing them up to the neck in pools of water on the summits of high mountains and letting them freeze solid, he had done nothing to which exception could be taken. (209)
In moments such as this and in his wry chapter endings, Newby is creating a subtle but powerful literary effect. It is when the most horrific or absurd legacies of the Empire enter the text that Newby’s tone is at its most matter of fact. Newby never comes out and condemns the imperialists, but the implication is clear. The reader is guided by the author to the only logical conclusion: that imperialism is insanity.
Howe contrasts the mode of modern travel writing against that of the past: “Contemporary taste seems more and more to prize a self-questioningly ironic stance that worries about cultural imperialism…” If this is true, and it seems to be, then Dalrymple’s assertion that A Short Walk “invented modern travel writing” hits the nail squarely on the head. But Newby’s book sits at an interesting point historically – at the same time Newby incorporates the ironic tone into the book, he also plays up the disastrous and pseudo-disastrous moments during the trip in a manner similar to “earlier travelers who worried about beasts of burden, restless tribes, and their dwindling supply of anti-malarial gin” (Howe).
This dichotomy is the product of two major factors. The first is simply timing. 1957 has already been illustrated as crucial turning point in the history of the Empire, with Ghana’s secession and the subsequent secession of all the African colonies – the beginning of the true end. The other, equally significant factor is the blurry role Newby fills, not simply in terms of imperialist gentleman versus modern thinker, but in the sense of traveler versus explorer.
The two roles are not entirely separate in attitude – both the traveler and the explorer exult in learning and observing new things (Fussell 153-154). Both also share in the impulse to escape from the drudgery of modern life, though it is here that the parting of ways occurs. The traveler commonly escapes to a pastoral setting, perhaps evocative of a simpler time, where he is free to wander the countryside and experience the local culture. The explorer also wanders the countryside and experiences the local culture, but he generally does so in a setting that borders on primitive, or is advanced but almost entirely without exposure to the culture from which the explorer hails. Often, the explorer lacks even a local culture to experience. Instead he finds himself in total wilderness, discovering the lay of the land and the local wildlife (Fussell 154).
Like the gentleman traveler, the English conception of the explorer has many roots in imperialist myth. The properly English explorer challenging the most savage and inhospitable reaches of the world was a common trope in popular Victorian writing, especially among works targeted at young boys. H. Rider Haggard crafted tales popular with both the young and old, and his frequent protagonist, Allan Quatermain, was the very definition of the intrepid imperialist “carrying the White Man’s Burden of Anglo-Saxon justice to the far corners of the earth” (Gross and Springhall 298). G.A. Henty wrote eighty plus (extremely) juvenile works between 1870 and 1902 that proved incredibly popular with the young male audience, in which the imperialist ideals of adventure, manliness, and fearlessness were communicated through his military protagonists and their school-boy sidekicks (Gross and Springhall 296-299).
Such works would still have been common fare among young, male British readers during Newby’s childhood, and doubtless he was conscious of this literary tradition during his writing. In the scene noted earlier where Newby consults a textbook in the middle of a mountain climb, it is the bold explorer that is being parodied alongside the gentleman traveler.
This role only truly enters the text in the latter half, however. During the early legs of the journey, Newby is less the explorer and more the traveler. The presence of Wanda serves as a sort of benchmark for this role; once she departs the company in Tehran, things become progressively more rustic and dangerous. In a similar manner, Carless represents the idea of the explorer, with Newby caught between the two. While she is still with them, Wanda provides the impetus to dwell in places, taking the less urgent stance of the traveler.
Early in the book, Newby and Wanda travel to Istanbul, where they are scheduled to meet up with Carless. After some initial difficulties dealing with local taxi drivers and hotels, the couple ends up at the Pera Palace. Describing this hotel, Newby says, “…we never saw anyone. There was a restaurant where we ate interminable meals in an atmosphere of really dead silence. It was the hotel of our dreams” (45). While the desire to escape from the clamor and constant social interaction of modern culture is shared by the traveler and the explorer, the Newbys’ sentiments about the hotel are clearly those of a traveler. An explorer would not care much about hotel restaurants or about how “the beds had big brass knobs on and were really comfortable” (44).
It is in this very hotel that Wanda and Carless provide the perfect example of how they represent these two different roles, and the conflict between them. On his and Wanda’s first night there, Newby describes the pair as exhausted and hopeful that Carless’s arrival would be delayed. They have no such luck:
Early on the following morning he was battering on our door. He had just arrived by air and was aggressively fit and clean. Between his teeth was a Dunhill pipe in which some luxurious mixture was burning; under his arm was a clip board full of maps and lists. His clothes had the right mixture of elegant and dashing. He was the epitome of a young explorer [my italics]. We knew what he would say. It was an expression that we were to hear with ever-increasing revulsion in the weeks to come.
‘We must leave at once.’ (43)
Newby makes explicit that the explorer is associated with a sense of urgency, likely the combined effect of a wariness of danger and a desire to get wherever it is one plans to explore before someone else does. By contrast, the traveler wants to enjoy the locale at a more leisurely pace. Wanda, representing this role, insists on slowing things down so they can see Istanbul – “Only Wanda had the courage to answer. ‘Three days,’ she said” (44).
Ultimately, though, Newby spends the bulk of the journey with only the explorer Carless to influence him. This is appropriate, considering their destination, “Nuristan, ‘The Country of Light,’ is a mountainous territory in the north-east of Afghanistan” (85). In fact, after leaving Kabul to venture into the wilderness of Afghanistan, Newby begins to self-identify as an explorer (95). Nuristan turns out to be an ideally suited place for Newby to make such a transformation. After crossing the mountains into this remote country, Newby and company encounter “dozens” of Nuristanis who “race” out to see them (195). As it turns out, Newby and Carless are “the first Europeans to come over the pass” (197).
Just because Newby begins to think of himself as an explorer does not necessarily mean he thinks he is going to be a very successful one. His mood swings between periods of optimism and profound pessimism throughout the book, especially after the real exploration has begun. After enlisting their local help and preparing to set out for the mountain, Carless notes that Newby is being especially quiet. Carless asks if Newby is having more of the gastro-intestinal difficulties that have been plaguing him for the better part of the trip, Newby replies, “Nothing like that. I just feel as though I’ve been sentenced to death” (110).
A particularly intriguing scene of “exploration” involves the language of the Nuristanis. During the mountain climb, Newby studies an old text by an officer of the Imperial military on the Kafir language spoken in the region. Newby is rather disturbed by the Nuristan he “discovers” via the English translations of the Kafir phrases:
“Shtal latta wos ba padre u prett tu nashtonti mrlosh. Do you know what that is?”
It was too late to surprise Hugh with a sudden knowledge of the language.
“In Bashgali it’s ‘If you have had diarrhoea many days you will surely die.'” (169)
Considering the aforementioned gastro-intestinal problems, his concern over such a passage is understandable, although the moment still retains a darkly humorous tone. The scene foreshadows a wonderful moment of true discovery that occurs shortly after Newby has crossed into Nuristan itself. A young Nuristani joins the company for their day’s travel after communicating with them in Persian. Newby attempts one of the Kafir words he has learned, and the young man, immediately recognizing what Newby is attempting responds with the correct Nuristani equivalent. The two excitedly exchange terms, and ultimately delve into the realm of syntax (205). The tone Newby adopts during the scene makes it clear that he is overjoyed by this exchange. But does this exploration of language truly mark out Newby as an explorer? Not necessarily. As noted, both the traveler and the explorer “exult in learning new things.”
Newby’s transformation into the explorer never really turns him into the intrepid figure of imperialist myth, but it does allow him to join in the grand tradition of complaining cited by Howe. Newby notes that Abdul Ghiyas has a marked “distrust of the Nuristanis, an apprehension I was beginning to share with him” (202). The Nuristanis become the “restless tribes” of Newby’s expedition, though Newby does not reduce them to a simple caricature in his writing, as the imperialist explorer would generally do. There is an enigmatic moment of tension with some Nuristani villagers in which the expedition’s lives may have been threatened – or they may have just been given a friendly warning. While meeting with the chief of one of the villages, Carless and Newby are surprised to find the men of the village armed with rifles. Carless mentions that he “didn’t think you [the Nuristanis] were allowed to have rifles.” “‘No,’ everyone replied happily and ambiguously [my italics], ‘we’re not; but in Nuristan there are many robbers'” (222).
Newby also engages in extensive complaints about the state of his stomach, to the point that when Newby says in that same Nuristani village “we discovered we both had dysentery” (224), there is a humorous, matter-of-fact tone implicit in the statement. This sickness also relates to a great turnabout of the explorer’s tradition – in the later part of the book, the native guide, Abdul Ghiyas, all but takes charge of the expedition. This happens because, as Newby frequently points out, “We had no strength to argue with him” (201, 211, 225).
While such complaining has its place in the myth of the imperial explorer, Newby’s transformation is ultimately illusory. In reality, he is merely a traveler forced to deal with the hardships of exploration, a fact that Newby himself drives home through the final scene of the book. In this scene, Newby and Carless encounter Wilfred Thesiger, a legendary British explorer. Carless had been informed before the journey that Thesiger would be in Afghanistan at the same time as he and Newby, and the pair had hoped for such a meeting. Newby’s decision to end the book with this meeting is indicative of the impact it had on him, and of the great literary effect of the scene. Thesiger proves to be exactly what Newby is not, and it is this difference that ultimately detaches Newby from the imperialist tradition and places him firmly in the modern world.
One would be hard-pressed to find someone with a more overwhelmingly imperial pedigree than Thesiger: “son of the British Legate in Addis Ababa, nephew of a viceroy of India, educated at Eton and Oxford, colonial officer in the Sudan, wartime service with the SAS in the North African desert, officer of the Desert Locust Research Organization” (Howe). Newby’s own initial description of their encounter acknowledges the nearly mythic proportions of the man:
Coming towards us out of the great gorge where the river thundered was a small caravan like our own. He [Carless] named an English explorer, a remarkable throwback to the Victorian era, a very brave man [my italics], who had twice crossed the Empty Quarter and, apart from a few weeks every year, has spent his entire life among primitive peoples [my italics]. (252)
Here Newby revives the fundamental imperialist notion of the danger and backwardness implicit in all cultures not European. Newby describes Thesiger himself as “a great, long-striding crag of a man, with an outcrop for a nose … forty-five years old and as hard as nails.” Newby also notes that Thesiger is wearing a tweed jacket, “of the sort worn by Eton boys” (253). This again evokes the sense of elitism and aristocracy that was so fundamental to the British Empire. The great explorer even seems to have found servants from the imperial past, as the head of Thesiger’s local team comments, “The power of Britain never grows less” (254).
Set against this depiction of Thesiger is a description of Newby’s own company:
We had been on the march for a month. We were all rather jaded; the horses were galled because the drivers were careless of them, and their ribs stood out because they had been places only fit for mules and forded innumerable torrents filled with slippery rocks as big as footballs; the drivers had run out of tobacco and were pining for their wives; there was no more sugar to put in the tea, no more jam, no more cigarettes and I was reading The Hound of the Baskervilles for the third time; all of us suffered from a persistent dysentery. The ecstatic sensations we had experienced at a higher altitude were beginning to wear off. It was not a particularly gay party. (252-253)
In drawing a parallel between his caravan and Thesiger’s, Newby seems to suggest that while post-imperialists may benefit from an awareness of the absurdity, arrogance, and intolerance inherent in the imperial world view, they are rather less successful at enduring the hardships that come with exploration. Newby quotes the explorer – “‘Can’t speak a word of the language,’ he said cheerfully” (253) – illustrating a deep difference between his and Thesiger’s view of travel. The reader is reminded of Newby’s excitement at learning the Kafir language earlier in the text. Thesiger clearly would care nothing for such an exchange, and in quoting the explorer, Newby unveils the blissful ignorance of the imperial outlook. Newby goes on to suggest that there is something deeply sadistic about this imperial throwback, and therefore about imperialism in general, when he describes Thesiger as looking off “dreamily” while talking of having to amputate his local servant’s fingers (255).
It is in the final line of the text that Newby places himself firmly in the role of traveler rather than explorer, by way of an admonishment from Thesiger. Preparing to sleep for the evening, Newby and Carless inflate their air-beds, to which Thesiger says, “God, you must be a couple of pansies” (255). The comment serves as punctuation for the scene, a final illustration of vast distance between the worlds of Thesiger and Newby. The former is tough, capable of handling all the hardships that the country can throw at him, yet he is also lacking in intellectual interest or sympathy for those he travels among. Newby, on the other hand, barely survives his experience with the wilderness and is very quick to point out every difficulty along the way. But he also displays a genuine interest, even excitement, in his encounters with local culture. Newby may only be a traveler in the physical world, but he is surely an explorer in the intellectual world.
The distinction between Thesiger and Newby separates the two not only in terms of role (traveler or explorer), but also serves as a literary demarcation of a changing world. Thesiger wrote about his travels as well, but by emphasizing the manliness and endurance he possesses after having deflated these values throughout the work, Newby draws a clear line between the past and future of English travel writing. Thesiger may be tougher, but he represents an old world that is fading away. Newby even refers to Thesiger as a throwback, furthering the implicit metaphor. Newby, then, represents the new world that is replacing the old, a new world that will have to grapple with both the successes and failures of the past, as well as the long-term implications of imperialism’s short-sighted world-view.
The importance of Eric Newby and A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush should not be underestimated. The work ushered in a new age of travel literature. It is an age in which humor often comes from the darkest and most horrendous difficulties of travel. It is also an age in which the specter of the past and the sins of imperialism provide fertile ground for literary exploration. Some may see Newby as sympathetic with the legacy of the British Empire, but a close examination of the text proves this untrue. Rather, he understands that there is no way to separate his self entirely from this legacy; therefore, Newby finds that the best way to take the imperialist myth apart is from the inside out. In this pursuit he proves remarkably successful. The result is a text that is not only intellectually and philosophically engaging, but also wildly entertaining. Such works are rare, and Newby deserves tremendous praise for his accomplishment. He is an author that every student of travel literature should read, and his Short Walk is worthy of study for a long, long time.
Baehr, H.W. New York Herald Tribune Book Review. 29 Mar. 1959: 3.
Bernhut, Stephen. “In uncertainty, we can find opportunity.” Ivey Business Journal 66.3 (2002): 3. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCOhost. Haddon Heights Public Library, Haddon Heights, NJ. 13 Mar. 2007. .
This editorial from a business journal encourages its readers to read A Short Walk, and to adopt Newby’s habits in dealing with uncertain and chaotic situations.
Booklist. 55 (1959): 449.
Bookmark. 18 (1959): 172.
“British Empire.” Wikipedia. 5 Mar. 2007. .
This is a user-edited encyclopedia entry on the British Empire. It covers a basic timeline of the Empire, examines its general economic impact on the world of the time, and provides some context for how the Empire has affected the contemporary world.
Douglas, W.O. New York Time Book Review. 19 Apr. 1959: 7.
Edwardes, Michael and Barry Pree. “A Clash of Cultures.” The Horizon History of the British Empire. Vol. 1. Ed. Stephen W. Sears. Columbus: McGraw-Hill, 1973. 135-147.
This essay provides an overview of India under the rule of the British Empire. It explains the evolution of the Imperial government and the fundamental conflicts between British and Hindu culture.
“Eric Newby.” Contemporary Authors Online. InfoTrac. Haddon Heights Public Library, Haddon Heights, NJ. 13 Mar. 2007. .
“Eric Newby.” Economist 28 Oct. 2006: 97+. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. Richard Stockton Coll. of NJ Lib., Pomona. 3 Mar. 2007. .
Fussell, Paul. “Travel, Tourism, and International Understanding.” Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays. New York: Summit Books, 1988. 151-176.
This essay looks at the importance of travel writing, and of travel in general. It contrasts travel against tourism, and highlights how travel can help develop a better dialogue between cultures.
Godsell, Geoffrey. Christian Science Monitor. 9 Apr. 1959: 11.
Gowran, Clay. Chicago Sunday Tribune. 29 Mar. 1959: 4.
Gross, John and J.O. Springhall. “The Mystique of Empire.” The Horizon History of the British Empire. Vol. 2. Ed. Stephen W. Sears. Columbus: McGraw-Hill, 1973. 295-301.
This essay gives a general overview of the culture of the British Empire at its height in the late 1800s. It examines how the earlier history of the Empire had influenced the way British children were raised at the time, and how that in turn influenced the continuing history of the Empire.
Hanbury-Tenison, Robin. “Eric Newby 50 years after his short walk.” Geographical 78.1 (2006): 60-64. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. Richard Stockton Coll. of NJ Lib., Pomona. 3 Mar.2007. .
This article gives a brief treatment to Newby’s life and includes a small interview. It gives some context to the importance of Newby’s work, especially A Short Walk.
Hanbury-Tenison, Robin. “Happy endings.” Geographical 69.4 (1997): 47. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. Richard Stockton Coll. of NJ Lib., Pomona. 3 Mar. 2007. .
Hanbury-Tenison, Robin. “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush.” Geographical 78.1(2006): 86-86. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. Richard Stockton Coll. of NJ Lib., Pomona. 3 Mar. 2007. .
Hicks, Jim and David Holden. “The Imperial Scramble.” The Horizon History of the British Empire. Vol. 1. Ed. Stephen W. Sears. Columbus: McGraw-Hill, 1973. 249-255.
This essay explains the rapid European colonization of Africa in the late 1800s, and highlights Britain’s role in it. It explains the economic forces driving this expansion as well as the general perception of Africa in English culture at the time.
Hicks, Jim and Michael Edwardes. “Warfare on India’s Borders.” The Horizon History of the British Empire. Vol. 1. Ed. Stephen W. Sears. Columbus: McGraw-Hill, 1973. 147-159.
This essay explains the conflicts in Burma and Afghanistan that British forces were involved in during the 1800s. It sketches out the important personalities, major battles, and statistics of these conflicts.
Hogan, William. San Francisco Chronicle. 3 Apr. 1959: 31.
Holland, Patrick and Graham Huggan. Tourists with Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998.
This book is an in-depth, scholarly examination of the foundations and conventions of modern travel writing. The authors examine cultural, psychological, and literary aspects of such writing, focusing on a narrow group of authors in each chapter.
Howe, Nicholas. “Deserts, Lost History, Travel Stories.” Southwest Review 85 (2000): 526-539. Literature Resource Center. InfoTrac. Richard Stockton Coll. of NJ Lib., Pomona. 3 Mar.2007.
This essay examines the travel writings of several British explorers. The tales come from lands considered “exotic” to British readers, and the article highlights how British culture contributes to good travel writing.
Kipling, Rudyard. “Gunga Din.” Bartleby.com. 2 Apr. 2007.
Kipling’s famous poem is about a native Indian servant who loyally brings water to British Imperial soldiers.
Kirkus. 27 (1959): 162.
Maxwell, Gavin. New Statesman. 56 (1958): 735.
McLaughlin, Richard. Springfield Republican. 14 Jun. 1959: D4.
The New Yorker. 28 Mar. 1959: 35.
Newby, Eric. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Preface by Evelyn Waugh. Oakland: Lonely Planet Publications, 1998.
The story of Newby’s journey to Afghanistan with his friend Hugh Carless, Waugh’s introduction lends an air of authority to the text, as well as addressing the very English nature of it.
Nicholson, Geoffrey. Manchester Guardian. 14 Nov. 1958: 6.
Nixon, E.B. Library Journal. 84 (1959): 1264.
Ray, Cyril. Spectator. 23 Jan. 1959: 127.
Robb, Kenneth A., and Harender Vasudeva. “Eric Newby.” British Travel Writers, 1940-1997. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1999. 223-234.
Sears, Stephen W. “Introduction.” The Horizon History of the British Empire. Vol. 1. Ed. Stephen W. Sears. Columbus: McGraw-Hill, 1973. 5.
This introduction provides a quick overview of the origins of the British Empire. It gives a very basic context for the essays throughout the rest of the text.
Scoggin, M.C. Horn Book. 35 (1959): 322.
Time Literary Supplement. 14 Nov. 1958: 659.
“The traveler’s eye.” Travel Holiday 173.2 (1990): 58. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCOhost. Haddon Heights Public Library, Haddon Heights, NJ. 13 Mar. 2007.
Wakin, Jeanette. Saturday Review. 13 Jun. 1959: 37.