Book Review: A decent sort of madness

The publishing business involves putting a book out there after a careful scrutiny of its contents and being convinced of a readership. Publishers back their books with a firm conviction and some books do cause them a great deal of happiness to publish and can raise a chuckle or two while the text is being read. The White Umbrella is one such book. It has the additional caveat of being published for a restricted market, South Asia only, which would also mean a restricted print run. The book may not make it to an all-time bestseller list but we are glad the publisher decided to include it in its list.

While the author Brian Sewell has been a renowned art critic for The Guardian, he is equally famous for being a confirmed animal lover.

The White Umbrella tells us about the extraordinary adventures of an eccentric Englishman and his donkey who decide to make an overland journey from Peshawar to London. The circumstances through which this came about are also extraordinary. Mr B a wiry man in his fifties was in Peshawar to make a documentary film on the ancient history of northern Pakistan along with a television crew from London. The crew consisting of a director and cameraman along with a young odd job person called Dominic were finding the filming a very tiresome process. Mr B a history buff was actually interested in finding some traces of Alexander the Great's historic march from Macedonia to Pakistan over two thousand years ago while the crew was more interested less in history and more in the sights and sounds of contemporary Peshawar. Within two days of arrival, the crew was not on talking terms with its presenter Mr B an epithet they applied to him to show their frosty relationship, and in the ensuing two weeks , the relationship had reached breaking point. Something had to “give” and it did.

One early evening when the dense rush hour traffic was moving at a snail's pace on a busy Peshawar road, Mr B suddenly opened the door and leaped down on to the road and sprinted away dodging cars lorries, buses and motorcycles.  This was extreme behaviour even for an eccentric Englishman, and the astonished crew stopped their white Land Rover and sprinted after him. It was the young and more agile Dominic who first caught up with him and by the time the slightly corpulent director and cameraman catch up with them, they find Mr B with his arm around a very young donkey dabbing with his handkerchief at four deep wounds on her back caused by a wicker saddle to carry heavy loads. Mr B was furious and declared that the donkey was far too young, less than six months old and far too young to carry loads. The crew tried its best to wean Mr B away from the donkey and get into the car. They had to drive to Islamabad and catch a flight to London the next day. A fierce argument ensued with Mr B determined not to leave the donkey and the crew particularly the director losing his temper. The director's threat to leave Mr B and make his find his own way home, is answered by 'please do. I will walk home with the donkey'. Finding Mr B adamant, the crew leaves him with Dominic returning to the car to fetch Mr B's knapsack and his umbrella. Now, no picture of an Englishman is complete without his 'broily' and this was no ordinary umbrella. It was of strong white canvas on a frame of metal ribs with a stock that could double as a heavy walking stick. It had been specially designed for him by James Smith and Sons (and grandsons, great-grandsons and more and more, from their first umbrella in 1830). Dominic left Mr B and the donkey reluctantly with a hug but not before telling Mr B that he would inform the Foreign Office “and Mrs B of course”.

Christening the donkey “Pavlova” after the famous ballerina on account of its long legs, Mr B and his ward do not quite walk all the way home. They travel by a variety of transport, trucks, buses and train through Quetta, Afghanistan, Persia, Turkey and the Balkans. Among the extraordinary people they meet, two truly stand out. One is Laetitia, the British Ambassador's wife in Istanbul who befriends Mr B, and personally escorts him across the Greek border and puts him on a train to Thessaloniki. We are not quite told Laetitia's country of origin but she was a true representative of her majesty's service.

The other is Hector, in a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, who stops to give him a lift and states the donkey was the main reason for him to do so. Hector is a bibliophile and collector of manuscripts and old books, and drives him across Belgrade and into France but not before spending a night in a medieval monastery. At Calais, they smuggle Pavlova across the Channel by a generous dose of sleeping pills and by unscrewing the front seat of the car and making her sleep in its well.

They finally reach Mr B's home in Wimbledon, greeted rapturously by Mr B’s dogs and perhaps less ardently by Mrs B who had long realised that animals always came first in their home.

The White Umbrella — The Englishman and the Donkey of Peshawar

By Brian Sewell

Speaking Tiger

Rs 299


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