No disrespect to Jeremy Lewis, this third amiable volume of autobiography or his hopeful sponsors at the Harper Press, but it is extraordinary that books like this still get written. Here we are, after all, in the age of the Waterstone’s three-for-two, the novels of Miss Keri Katona and the cheery philistinism of the man at
Hodder Headline who declared that if the public wanted cookery and celebrity memoirs then that is what he would publish for them, yet still, apparently, there is a market for garrulous book-world memoirs fanatically absorbed in what the literary editor of the New Statesman said to his assistant around the time that Hillary climbed Everest.
This is an exaggeration, but not much of one. Grub Street Irregular’s tone reveals itself from the very first paragraph, in which Lewis maintains that as a child he excelled at nothing, was debarred from organised sport by ‘cowardice, short-sightedness, physical ineptitude and a total absence of team spirit’ and displayed ‘no artistic leanings whatever’. It is the Ferdinand Mount tone, the Michael Holroyd tone, the Richard Cobb tone, so characteristic of gentlemanly English memoir-writing, in which the note of modest self-deprecation not only clangs away like a Geiger counter but altogether fails to convince. At any rate, coming across Lewis’s proud proclamations of his uselessness as agent and publisher, the mortal funk he fell into at one of Mrs Drue Heinz’s conversazioni and so on, I didn’t believe a word of it. No one, it might be said, makes a living out of literary journalism for 20 years without a certain inner steeliness.
As a long-term attendant on the literary scene, Lewis’s tastes are profoundly esoteric. Eternally beguiled by such superannuated denizens of the Bloomsbury undergrowth as Derek Verschoyle, literary editor of this magazine at around the time of Macdonald’s National Government, or Charles Fry, the satanic lynch-pin of B. T. Batsford & Co, who announced to the bookseller Heywood Hill’s wife Anne that he had slept with three of her cousins, two male and one female, he often seems to be engaged in a trial of strength with his editor to see just how far he can go in piling up recherché detail about people hardly any one has heard of. Come the advent of a character named John Holroyd-Reece, born Hermann Reiss, founder member of the continental reprint firm of Albatross Verlag and described by one informant as ‘the worst rogue he had ever met in publishing’, I began to suspect Lewis of making some of his quarries up.
Meanwhile, the rambling progress along the book world’s frayed outer margin continues. Turfed out of his desk at Chatto & Windus in the late 1980s after one row too many with Carmen Callil (one looked for a full-length portrait of this legendary publishing termagant, but for some reason Lewis steers clear) he proceeds through a kind of infallible homing instinct to part-time berths on the London Magazine and the Oldie. The eye trained on the succession of editors and writers met along the way is by turns avuncular and shrewd, but always sartorial, and the description of Peter Gunn, author of Naples: A Palimpsest (‘he was clad in a well-cut olive-green tweed jacket with a faint orange over-check and leather patches on the elbow, well-ironed mustard-coloured cords, highly polished chestnut brogues, a Tattersall-check Viyella shirt, and a black silk knotted tie’) would do credit to a police detective.
Lewis’s other great specialism is the éloge: the portraits of, among others, Alan Ross, David Hughes and D. J. Enright are little masterpieces, precisely evoking not only the subject’s physical characteristics but what it was like to be in a room with them or, in Ross’s case, have them criticise your short stories. Similarly, his brisk diagnosis of what went wrong in the 1980s, when British publishers allowed themselves to be trampled into quiescence by a tribe of predatory agents and retailers, is spot on. Throughout, though, the question of who exactly Lewis is writing for remains. Checking a reference in the final volume of Anthony Powell’s journals, shortly after I had put the book aside, I came across Powell’s account of a telephone conversation with Lord Denning. Discovering that Powell lived in Nunney, Denning (wafting ‘waves of genial egotism down the line in accents of a stage peasant’) recalled that he had an ancestor called Newdigate Poyntz, a poet, who had lived in Nunney three centuries before. As this recitation continued, Powell reflected that he ‘must be one of the few people in the country prepared to listen with comparative interest to this sort of thing’. I felt much the same about Grub Street Irregular.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 5, 2008