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Something Wholesale: My Life and Times in the Rag Trade (1962)

de Eric Newby

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Veteran travel writer Eric Newby has a massive following and is cherished as the forefather of the modern comic travel book. However, less known are his adventures during the years he spent as an apprentice and commercial buyer in the improbable trade of women's fashion. From his repatriation as a prisoner of war in 1945 to his writing of the bestselling 'A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush' in 1956, Eric Newby's years as a commercial traveller in the world of haute couture were as full of adventure and oddity as any during his time as travel editor for the Observer. 'Something Wholesale' is Newby's hilarious and wonderfully chaotic tale of the disorder that was his life as an apprentice to the family garment firm of Lane and Newby, including hilariously recounted escapades with sudden-onset wool allergies, waist-deep predicaments in tissue paper and the soul-destroying task of matching buttons. In addition to the charming chaos of his work in the family business, it is also a warm and loving portrait of his father, a delightfully eccentric gentleman who managed to spend more energy avoiding and actively participating in disasters than he did in preserving his business. With its quick wit, self-deprecating charm and splendidly fascinating detail, this is vintage Newby - only with a garment bag in place of a well-worn suitcase.… (més)
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When he left school, Eric Newby worked his way to Australia and back as an apprentice on one of the last generation of sail-powered cargo ships. Immediately after this he found himself plunged into equally adventurous military service in World War II. All of which didn't do much to prepare him for a civilian career after 1945. Offers to join expeditions to exotic parts of the world were slow to come in, so he gritted his teeth and joined the family firm, supplying ready-made clothes to the better class of provincial department stores.

In this memoir he tells us about that period of about fifteen years when he was working in the garment business whilst trying to get a toehold as a writer. We get amusing sketches of the archaic business world of Lane & Newby, Mantle Manufacturers and Wholesale Costumiers, and an affectionate portrait of the author's father, an Edwardian oarsman who often sounds like something out of J K Jerome, but seems to have had an acute eye for business (albeit with a blind spot for the bureaucratic obligations of postwar Britain). And of course there's a lot about the nightmarish world of fashion, where you have to decide months ahead of time what your fickle customers are going to want (or rather, what the store buyers are going to want on their behalf). In the Britain of the 1940s, with everything in short supply, and the French liable to change hemlines at a moment's notice, this was clearly no joke, even before they came up with the New Look...

Very much a period piece, but Newby knew what he was doing, and this is still an entertaining read long after almost everything in the commercial world it tells us about has become obsolete. ( )
  thorold | Jul 13, 2023 |
Captured by the Germans from rather more relaxed Italian prisoner of war camp, where he had met his future wife, entrained for the harsher camps in the colder climate of the north, there seemed to be little hope for our intrepid traveler and raconteur.

But this prisoner is Eric Newby, so of course incredible and funny things happen. On his release and relocation back to England the Army send him back into the very region of Italy where he had been imprisoned, so of course, ”Our Eric” casually collects his sweetheart, locates a region for one of their future homes and returns again to his home and marries the indomitable Wanda of his future travels and adventures.

From daring Commando – landing from rubber boats and raiding behind the enemy lines – crew-hand on the last of the windjammers to “flogger” of ladies dresses in his parents business in the Rag Trade Newby storms into his ever chaotic and always hilarious travelling. This book introduces the new reader of this splendid author to his wit, sheer audacity, and interest in history, archeology, countries, cultures and … constantly and totally without reservation of prejudice … people. This fascinating life led to over twenty equally fascinating books.

This rather seedy and already dying trade with the wholesale selling trips, traveling in crowded trains with a fellow ‘traveller’ fiddling his expenses so that they land up sharing rooms in seedy hotels Newby parleys into an hilarious series of ever more interesting escapades.

A very good read and recommended for the life and times it portrays.
  John_Vaughan | May 13, 2012 |
It is tough to imagine spending several years in Italian & German prisoner of war camps and coming home to England to sell woman's clothing. That is what Newby did in what was a dying industry in a changing era. His first wholesale selling trip to Scotland is hilarious as he recounts traveling in crowd trains and sleeping in seedy hotels to the antics of the store buyers to whom he had to sell his dresses. However, the most amusing parts of this book are his memories of his eccentric father. A quick fun read but also a portrait of a post war England. I read the book to find out how Newby tracked down his wife, an Italian partisan, who had rescued him from the Germans after his first escape from a POW camp but that was disappointingly covered in a couple of paragraphs. ( )
  lamour | Sep 11, 2009 |
An overview of the adventures of Eric Newby during his time as a commercial traveller working in the world of haute couture for the family firm of Lane and Newby, from his repatriation as a prisoner-of-war in 1945 until he embarked on his walk in the Hindu Kush in 1956. Last published in 1985.
  antimuzak | Apr 17, 2006 |
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The hero of this book, if it has one, is the man who, during the years it describes, was head of the dressmaking firm of Lane and newby - in other words my father.
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Veteran travel writer Eric Newby has a massive following and is cherished as the forefather of the modern comic travel book. However, less known are his adventures during the years he spent as an apprentice and commercial buyer in the improbable trade of women's fashion. From his repatriation as a prisoner of war in 1945 to his writing of the bestselling 'A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush' in 1956, Eric Newby's years as a commercial traveller in the world of haute couture were as full of adventure and oddity as any during his time as travel editor for the Observer. 'Something Wholesale' is Newby's hilarious and wonderfully chaotic tale of the disorder that was his life as an apprentice to the family garment firm of Lane and Newby, including hilariously recounted escapades with sudden-onset wool allergies, waist-deep predicaments in tissue paper and the soul-destroying task of matching buttons. In addition to the charming chaos of his work in the family business, it is also a warm and loving portrait of his father, a delightfully eccentric gentleman who managed to spend more energy avoiding and actively participating in disasters than he did in preserving his business. With its quick wit, self-deprecating charm and splendidly fascinating detail, this is vintage Newby - only with a garment bag in place of a well-worn suitcase.

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