Wednesday, 25 July 2012

'Love and War in the Apennines' by Eric Newby

‘Love and War in the Apennines’ is a travel book which I picked up recently from a second hand book stall, in the military history section of all places (given I rarely read military history, I’m not sure how I spotted it, but I am glad I did). It is not even close to a military history book, but I can see how the mistake was made, as it is the author’s account of his time as a prisoner of war and his story of escaping and hiding out in the rural world of the Appenines in the autumn and winter of 1943.

Eric Newby is an acclaimed British travel writer who came to fame with his first book ‘The Last Grain Race’ in 1956, and particularly with his second book ‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’ which is considered one of the best travel books of all time. During the Second World War he was an officer in the Special Boat Service, and was on a mission to sabotage an airfield in Italy, when he was captured. The book briefly documents this mission, his capture and time as a prisoner of war, and then for the majority of the book he recounts his time on the run in the rural Apennines, being put up by kind, brave country folk, and staying in shepherd’s huts, caves and woodburners shacks. If you are expecting tales of gung-ho derring do, then you will be sorely disappointed.

For me, the book has a certain stature to it because of the time in which it is set and the enforced nature of the author’s travels. This is not the story of someone who set off on a journey of discovery to see the world and meet new people (though I’m not belittling those books, for there are many fine books of this ilk). I’m really rooting for the narrator and willing him along, enjoying the story. As well as a survival narrative it is a love story too, because along the way the author meets and falls in love with a woman who ultimately becomes his wife. It’s worth noting that the book only really gets going 50 pages or so in, once he has escaped into the countryside. Before that it has something of the feel of a war memoir, so if you’re not enjoying the first few chapters, I do urge you to persevere - it will be worth it.

What makes this book what it is though is the beautiful descriptions of a world now long gone, and a cast of wonderful characters, the likes of which have also now sadly all but passed from this world. As well as enjoying the overall story, I savoured every page, drinking in the sights, sounds and experiences the author so masterfully communicates to us through these pages. That is the mark of a truly great book. It is difficult to pinpoint any favourite moments, there are so many, but if I had to I’d probably pick Newby’s description of the storyteller cum-craftsman’s little cottage, where almost everything in it was made by his own hands. Or the shepherd’s hut and his many thick shirts, handmade before the industrial revolution from the wool of his ancesters’ flock. Erm, I guess you just have to read the book!

The book itself is a little over 200 pages, but the type is small and there are quite a lot of words on the page, so while not a long read, it will keep you going a while particularly if like me if you hang on every word and skip back to read a particularly haunting or beautiful paragraph. It is not a difficult read, and he sticks to the point and doesn’t meander off topic into art, history, literature and so on very much, except where it fits into the narrative (in contrast to some authors, who regularly and artfully deviate into all sorts of fascinating topics). Really highly recommended to just about anyone that likes serious travel books.