Jeremy Lewis, Grub Street Irregular (Harper) 330pp. $49.99
Now in his mid-60s, Jeremy Lewis has been involved with the British publishing and literary world for over 40 years, working for six publishers, two literary agents and three magazines. He is perhaps best known as the biographer of Tobias Smollett, “the Grub Street incarnate”; Cyril Connolly, “the quintessential literary man” and Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books.
Lewis divides the book into four main sections. He begins with his editorial and publishing life; the second describes how he became “an inadvertent biographer”; the third covers overseas trips and the fourth is dedicated to “absent friends” such as the editor of The London Magazine, Alan Ross, the publisher André Deutsch and the poet and critic D J Enright.
He says “I have produced a book which is part memoir, part potted biography, part rumination on the vanishing world in which I spent my working life; it is an unashamed ragbag of pieces written at various times”. This last comment does not do justice to the jewels in this literary potpourri and also reflects Lewis’s very British self-deprecatory tone, which begins in the first paragraph, when he writes: “As a child, I excelled at nothing, and little has changed since then.”
Lewis believes that “like most writers, I tend to burnish and embellish”, as he highlights “the social side of publishing, the long lunches, the parties, the incestuous book trade gossip” in chapters titled “Rogues’ Gallery”, “Trade Secrets”, and “Odds and Sods”. The book would have benefited from an index, and from a more rigorous chronological approach, especially given the overlap in essays which have previously been published in British newspapers and magazines.
Lewis writes that “publishing and money-lending are the two great British businesses which have continued to flourish while all else has crumbled round them”. Perhaps given the 2008 financial crisis, he should revise that to publishing alone. Lewis’s “hyperbolic anecdotes” include numerous publishers, such as Lord Weidenfeld, whom he describes as a “worldly empurpled Renaissance pontiff adrift at a Methodist meeting”.
His pen portraits are well constructed and lively, such as the account of visiting the then very elderly Oxford historian A L Rowse in his Cornish bedroom. After describing their conversation, in which Rowse addresses Lewis as “Jeremiah”, Lewis takes his leave to the housekeeper downstairs only to be confronted by Rowse “clinging to the banisters … still in his pyjamas, his silver hair shooting from his head like a parakeet’s crest, his spectacles flashing fire”, asking. “Who are these people? Have they come to see … me?”.
Lewis describes his interactions with a young relatively unpublished Ian McEwan, although without actually naming McEwan. Lewis, then working as a literary agent, was less than keen about McEwan “who was determined to outrage middle-class opinion … by writing about picked portions of anatomy, incest etc”. More literary angst befell Enright and Lewis when working for Chatto and Windus, as they tried to edit Iris Murdoch’s literally purple ink prose in her later novels, “but by then it was too late. Her novels were treated as Holy Writ”.
His invitation to a literary gathering, “Como Conversazione: On Literary Biography”, at the wealthy philanthropist Mrs Drue Heinz’ castello at Lake Como culminates in Lewis acting like a “bolshie schoolboy”, as Lord Grey Gowrie and Irish historian Roy Foster “assumed the role of school prefects”. Lewis takes solace in Gowrie sweltering in the Italian heat in his “heavy lovat tweed suit” after Gowrie’s suitcase was sent by mistake to Glasgow.
In a long and moving chapter, “Battling with Barbara”, Lewis records his interaction with the famous “femme fatale”, Barbara Skelton, who had been married to Cyril Conolly, the subject of Lewis’s biography. Skelton had numerous lovers including Peter Quennell, Alan Ross, Kenneth Tynan, the painter Feliks Topolski and King Farouk of Egypt. Farouk, “a huge sawdust teddy bear badly sewn at the joints”, according to Skelton “beat her with his dressing-gown cord on the steps of his palace”. She said afterwards: “I would have preferred a splayed cane.”
Her husbands included Derek Jackson, a multi-millionaire Oxford Professor of Spectroscopy and amateur jockey (!), Cyril Connolly and George Weidenfeld. Jackson’s divorce settlement provided financial stability and allowed her to live in France, where Lewis became a sort of Jeeves to her female Wooster, hoping to gain access to her vast cache of letters from Connolly. Lewis writes that she was “[q]uick-witted, funny, and well-read, she could be alarmingly sullen, moody, and farouche: the important thing was to make her laugh, after which one’s sins of neglect were briefly forgiven”.
Lewis’s book takes on a more sombre tone towards the end in the chapters on absent, that is deceased, friends and a visit to Auschwitz. Lewis believes his father never recovered from his wartime experiences, which resulted in his eventual descent into alcoholism and family alienation. These sections of Grub Street amply reaffirm there is nothing irregular in the literary standing of Jeremy Lewis despite his protestations to the contrary.