Obituary: Quentin Crewe

Jocelyn de Moubray
Monday 16 November 1998 00:02

QUENTIN CREWE was a traveller, writer and journalist but above all a man of extraordinary charm and resilience. Despite being relatively immobile for much of his life - he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at the age of six - he never ceased to look for novelty and to delight in people, places, ideas and humour, retaining throughout his life the optimism and curiosity of a young man.

He was born Quentin Dodds in 1922, the second son of Hugh Dodds and Lady Annabel Crewe, the daughter of the Marquess of Crewe, who was, as his grandson liked to say, the first Secretary of State for India to think it was worthwhile going to that country. His mother had five children by her first husband, Arthur O'Neill, who was killed in the First World War. His father had spent much of his life in Africa and had worked as a diplomat in Abyssinia for 13 years. During Crewe's early childhood his father was British Consul in Sicily before being transferred to the French Riviera when his friendship with Haile Selassie made it impossible to remain in Italy.

With his parents living abroad, the young Quetin spent much of his childhood in the care of various relatives in England, one of whom suggested when he was six that he should see a doctor to find out why he walked in such an odd manner and fell over so frequently. His mother took him to see a neurologist in Harley Street and was told that he had muscular dystrophy and would die when he was about 16. He was told that he would be fine when he was 16. As they left his mother announced: "Well, that's done. Now let's go and have tea with Cousin Nellie." The subject of his illness was never raised again and although Quentin was disappointed that nothing changed when he turned 16, he did not see another doctor until he was 18.

His father was very keen that he should be a sportsman and was continually trying to teach him to shoot, fence or ride, without any success. When Quentin went to the village on his bicycle his father would be waiting for his return. "Well did you notice?" he would ask, having taken impala and gazelle heads down from the wall and balanced them in the bushes which lined the drive. On being told that Quentin had not noticed anything in particular his father would be disappointed once more: "Well you wouldn't last long in the bush would you?"

At Cambridge he failed to study either law or economics but discovered his delight in people, in girls, and their singularities. He was falling over more than ever and took to walking with a stick, although he did achieve sporting success as a cox. In 1945 his family changed their name to Crewe when his mother inherited what remained of Lord Crewe's estates.

His first years in London were spent selling books, art exhibitions and tickets to New York and the Caribbean for the French Line, but were more engrossingly taken up by a passionate affair with Sarah Macmillan, the daughter of Lord Boothby and Lady Dorothy Macmillan. To recover from its ending he went to Lerici in Italy to read to the author and literary critic Percy Lubbock, whose eyesight was failing. Under Lubbock's influence he decided that he wanted to be a writer and his first articles were reviews for the Times Literary Supplement which Lubbock did not want to do.

Returning to England for the Coronation in 1953 he was invited to lunch by Boothby, together with John Junor, who had recently been appointed deputy editor of the Evening Standard. Junor commissioned him to write a piece about Prince Ranier's intention to hand over Monaco to Aristotle Onassis. Even if Junor's information turned out not to be correct, Crewe's piece had enough atmospheric details about echoing halls in the deserted casino to gain him a job as a leader writer on the Evening Standard.

At the Evening Standard he moved from writing leaders to giving accounts of London parties and being, briefly, helicopter correspondent. He spent a year travelling in the United States and the West Indies with his first wife, Martha Sharp, and having finally given in to the need of a wheelchair set off to spend a year in Japan. His first book, A Curse of Blossom (1960), describes living in Kyoto in the late 1950s.

After Japan he became one of the assistant directors of Jocelyn Stevens' Queen magazine. His transformation into restaurant critic was quite by chance. Someone had forgotten to make the usual listings and an empty half-page was filled with Crewe's account of lunching at Wilton's a restaurant in St James's, where he described how the aristocracy were served nursery food by waitresses dressed as nannies. He ended by saying that the prices, as befitted the clientele, were like death duties, aimed at capital rather than income. He thus started a new and lasting trend whereby restaurant reviews were as much about style and entertainment as about food.

His first marriage had by now ended, and in 1961 he married Angela Huth and walked for the last time, down the length of the aisle at St Bride's Church in Fleet Street. The couple lived in Wilton Crescent and entertained a set who included George Melly, Dudley Moore, Sandie Shaw, Bill Wyman, Peter Sellers, Arthur Koestler, Jocelyn Stevens, Bernard Levin, Kenneth Tynan, Princess Margaret and Tony Armstrong-Jones (who devised a specially modified wheelchair for Crewe).

Crewe's career as a journalist prospered. He was film critic and gossip columnist for the Daily Mail and in 1964 started to write a regular column for the Sunday Mirror. His columns included a series illustrating the effects of apartheid in South Africa; these views were explained away by the South African authorities on the basis that "crippled in body means crippled in mind". Crewe resigned from Queenover a special South African advertising supplement.

He had already made his first desert expedition in 1966, visiting the Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter, in Saudi Arabia to observe the vanishing life of the nomads as described by his friend Wilfred Thesiger in Arabian Sands. In the company of Jeremy Fry and various guides, cooks and drivers supplied by King Faisal he succeeded in crossing the border into what was then the East Aden Protectorate, on the way passing through desert marked on Western maps as unexplored territory.

The return journey was enlivened by the madness of the interpreter, Abdullah, who being unused to the uncertainties of desert life became unbalanced, attacked members of the party and came close to cutting his own throat. Doped up with morphine and stitched up by Fry, Abdullah was returned to civilisation alive.

Crewe's fascination with nomads and with people who possessed certainties and codes of life that were complete and rational in themselves but totally opposed to Western ones, remained, and after ten years living and farming in Cheshire with his third wife Sue Cavendish, in 1981 he set out on an 18-month journey through the Sahara. The idea was once again to observe and record a way of life which was disappearing. At the beginning there was some pretence of method and organisation, however, once the original party had dissolved to a group of five it came to resemble a team of lotus eaters more than a military expedition.

A characteristic decision was to leave Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, and head north in the hope of reaching an excellent restaurant in southern Morocco in time for Christmas. On the Mauritanian coast the desert comes down to the sea, which is itself darkened by teaming shoals of fish. Unfortunately near the border there are also minefields, and one of the expedition's trucks was destroyed. Crewe was thrown out of the vehicle but landed relatively unscathed, only to be interrogated by the military in the nearby town of Nouadhibou. After days of repeating the same answers he was arrested for allegedly claiming that Mauritania did not exist and was only released after swearing three times to the existence of the Mauritania in the presence of the town's senior officer.

Part of Crewe's delight in desert life and Africa was undoubtedly the combination of respect and interest he excited. Only an important man would travel with four young people to wheel him around and look after him. Left alone in any oasis or town he would soon attract a circle of inquisitive admirers. For him it was almost a political creed to be open- minded and to look for the best in people and there was a succession of head men, local officials and dignitaries who were delighted by his attention.

They did not always understand his questioning. At a wedding in Walata, Mauritania, he asked the host how much he paid his servants? It was a matter of general hilarity that, apparently, the English paid wages to their slaves. He recounted the journey in In Search of the Sahara (1983).

Crewe continued to work as a journalist, to write about food, good living and travel. He also stood up for underdogs and argued that disabled people are not very different from anyone else. He wrote about India (The Last Maharaja, 1985) and the West Indies (Touch the Happy Isles, 1987) and lived in Kenya and France as well as in England. He retained his enjoyment of life, his interest in other people and the young, his sense of humour and his love of fine food and drink. Like all truly social people he was able to adapt to the manners of those with whom he found himself and his attraction for and interest in girls never dimmed.

In his autobiography, Well, I Forget The Rest (1991), Quentin Crewe says that Patrick Lindsay, the aviator and auctioneer, had a theory that on the stroke of midnight he was able to leap from his chair priapic and triumphant. Whilst declining to discuss his successes, he adds, "It seems as good a theory as any".

Jocelyn de Moubray

Quentin Hugh Dodds (Quentin Crewe): writer and traveller: born London 14 November 1926; married 1956 Martha Sharp (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1961 Angela Huth (one daughter and one son deceased; marriage dissolved), 1970 Sue Cavendish (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire 14 November 1998.

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