Dress Down Sunday: Something Wholesale, part 2

Something Wholesale by Eric Newby

published 1962


Something Wholesale DD 1

[Eric Newby works in the family business: wholesale clothing for women]

Although she was employed to put the coats on and therefore had no need to undress at all, Lola spent an extraordinary amount of time stripped down to her underpants or else half inserted into one of her dresses – a writhing mass of arms and legs, like a female Laocoon. As a result she was always in a state of unreadiness for the simple chores with which Miss Stallybrass entrusted her.

‘Lola!’ Miss Stallybrass used to shout in her fruity voice and Lola used to pout and say ‘Bother!’ and toss her head, the most wilful girl in the whole of Lane and Newby’s.

Some minutes would elapse before Lola was ready to appear in the showroom and when she did so she received a good scolding from Miss Stallybrass…

‘You’re in the wrong business,’ Mr Wilkins used to observe with relish on these occasions to no-one in particular, expressionless behind his spectacles. ‘You’re wasting your energy putting them on at all. Huh, Huh, Huh!’

commentary: It wasn’t possible, obviously, to confine my thoughts on this book to the one entry. Previous one here. You have to bear with me while I have more to say, though judging by the comments on the first blogpost that will be fine: so many people love this book.

There’s a way in which Eric Newby just wrote the same book over and over: that’s not to undermine his achievements, but in his travel writing, his memoirs, his books about wartime experiences and this look at the clothing business – well, all the basics are the same. He is very amusing, he has an eye for a telling anecdote, he has a self-deprecating charm and the whole thing is highly enjoyable. In Something Wholesale, remembering the war, he describes his selling trips as daylight raids into the hinterland.

After you finish one of his books you wonder how much he polished up the anecdotes, or even invented them. I’m not sure everything he writes would stand up to fact-checking, but that’s fine – he’s working in an area of hyper-realized truth, and will obviously say anything for a good story. And that makes him tremendous fun to read – you can polish this one off in an afternoon. It tells the story of a relatively short time he spent going into the family wholesale business, before it becomes obvious that there is no future for the company. He is learning the trade, ready to take over from his father, and this involves hilarious trip to see the buyers: terrifying businesswomen whose appearances, feuds and unreasonable demands are laid out in fine detail here.
She was a powerful-looking woman of about 50 dressed in what I was later to recognize as a buyer’s cold-weather uniform: a Persian lamb jacket that was almost completely square, sheepskin boots worn over patent-leather shoes, and an incredible hat with bits of Persian lamb on it, the leftovers from the sacrifice that had produced the coat, and a ‘little’ black dress.

Something Wholesale DD 2

The book is a tiny ray of light on a lost and forgotten world: as well as being an entertainment, it is a sociological document of the highest order…

See earlier post on Something Wholesale here.

Girl admiring herself is from 1949, Clover Vintage Tumbler

Persian lamb hat from Kristine’s photostream.


  1. I love that snippet you shared, Moira! It's witty, and it's a vivid description, too. Little wonder you think so much of Newby's writing. You have a well-taken point, too. Even if Newby's work doesn't stand up to fact-checking, that doesn't necessarily mean the stories aren't terrific, and well worth reading. It certainly sounds as though this one is.

    1. For sheer good-hearted entertainment he is hard to beat. I think he must have been a very nice man in real life...

  2. I now have it from the library, so I will get to it very soon, I hope. There have been loads of book recommendations across my blog reads lately. So many books....

    1. So glad you have this one, and I hope will you enjoy. I know what you mean though. I am at the moment trying to knuckle down: clear some of the unread books in the house, and not buy any more.... but it's hard.

  3. I am definitely interested in reading something by Newby. Maybe I will wait until the book sale and see if there is anything there.

    That first image is very nice.

    1. It's a lovely picture isn't it? And I do recommend Newby, he is gentle and charming whatever he writes about.


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