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Somewhere there’s an echo of R.L. Stevenson and his patient plodding Modestine. Brian Sewell, possibly reinvented as Mr B for the purposes of the book, dashingly rescues a donkey in distress out of Peshawar’s traffic mayhem. The fact that he is part of a documentary film crew doesn’t perturb him at all—he abandons the crew blithely on a moment’s impulse, determined to
rescue the donkey from a burdened life unbefitting for a creature so young. Pavlova, as he christens her for her long legs, is barely out of foal-hood and no larger than an Alsatian.
Mr B charts out a plan to walk 20 miles a day and so cover the distance from Peshawar to London, in between retracing the footsteps of Alexander the Great, if he can. However, he is forced to revise the schedule when he is told by a pharmacist that the delicate Pavlova can cover no more than five miles and is too frail to carry his luggage.
The result is a charmingly old-fashioned tale of a man with a recognisably British white canvas umbrella who manages somehow to get himself and his donkey across various borders travelling in various kinds of transport. Of course, ultimately there isn’t much walking involved since Mr B is lucky at falling into the right company. Pavlova and the umbrella win the hearts of people, who generously link them up with vans and trucks going in the right direction or book them on trains. Though he does meet an interesting cast of drug smugglers, carpetbaggers and ambassadors and has to wash a lot of dirty linen. He also finds the ideal rug in Isfahan and a blue-tiled hammam that he plans to recreate in his home in London—when he eventually reaches it. But how he does is another tale altogether and the tiles never do materialise.
Sewell’s book is a novella with delightfully quirky illustrations by Sally Ann Lasson. The White Umbrella, despite its gentle idealism, is certainly not a children’s book because many of the references will be unfamiliar to the average child and also because some of the endings are not happy. Certainly, Sewell is better known for his art criticism in England and for the 83-year-old this is new ground—however, his stated intention was to introduce children to the world around them.
The White Umbrella is designed to appeal to an audience familiar with Fortnum & Mason hampers and Coutts where the Queen banks. Even the white umbrella from James Smith & Sons—which perhaps doesn’t deserve as much attention as it gets in the title since after a while it vanishes, losing its pristine attraction. The book also has its context in a horsier Britain than the current one, a place in which a young donkey can visit a plush supermarket by capsule lift and be encouraged to do so by the owner since its presence attracts children and makes for better sales. For the fans of Beverley Nichols and the gentle world of scholar gypsies with quotes from Omar Khayyam and Shelley, however, there is contentment in store.
The White Umbrella: Carrying Pavlova from Peshawar to London by Brian Sewell
Speaking Tree, Rs 299
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