Some books are a delight to read and Brian Sewell’s novella The White Umbrella: The Englishman and the Donkey of Peshawar falls fair and square in this category. A quaint and charming yarn, it’s a good read in these trying times.The late Sewell, famous art critic/columnist/author/media personality, was clearly a lover of animals, with his dogs playing a starring role in his memoir. In this book, that privilege goes to a long-legged young donkey named Pavlova… yes, after the renowned Russian ballet dancer, in case you were wondering.
The main character, Mr B, is a whimsical Englishman who rescues a baby donkey from the streets of Peshawar. To the understandable irritation of his colleagues, who are on the point of returning home, Mr B refuses to part ways with the donkey. He insists he will walk back to England from Peshawar, and that is how Mr B and Pavlova embark on their incredible, rollicking journey.
They make their way through some fascinating places on their long voyage home, and both Pavlova and the reader are given a potted history of the places visited, places Mr B is already familiar with. Zahedan and the house with the most exquisite tiles, Isfahan where Pavlova is introduced to the craftsmanship of the world famous carpets, Dogubayazit where Mr B climbs Mount Ararat and tells Pavlova the story of Noah’s Ark, are just some of the interesting story stops they make.
In actual fact, Mr B and Pavlova travel to all these places by different kinds of transport and therefore there is minimal walking, which is convenient because as Mr B informs us, young donkeys cannot walk long distances. The transport varies from ‘people carriers’, a dusty beat-up truck, a Mercedes-Benz van and finally an old Rolls-Royce, all of which is described with much wit.
In a time where the minority community is being othered, it is heartwarming to read a book that does quite the opposite. From a wise pharmacist in Peshawar to a poet who is a singer and doubles up as a driver, or a helpful carpet seller, the characters have all been drawn with a compassionate eye. In this book, even the rogues are not outright villains.
And what of the white umbrella of the title? It was a favourite possession of Mr B, a sturdy feat of engineering, apt for all seasons. The book benefits immensely from Sally Ann Lasson’s simple but striking black-and-white illustrations.A mixture of fable/travelogue/history lesson all packaged most engagingly, this is a little gem.