Like Mel Brooks’s character the Two Thousand-Year-Old Man, Peter Lewis has met everyone of consequence. Though he doesn’t mention being an eyewitness at the Crucifixion, he was told by T.S. Eliot that working in a bank was quite nice (‘I never thought about poetry in the day’). Frankie Howerd wanted Lewis to give him a massage (‘I have this trouble, a hernia, you see. Gives me a lot of discomfort’); Diana Dors confessed to him that she’d rather watch television than go to orgies (‘but I had to become a sex symbol on tiger rugs and in mink bikinis’); and Samuel Beckett made his excuses and fled (‘Sorry, I just have to go to the lav’).
Lewis, a venerable freelance reporter, attended CND rallies with Bertrand Russell, located Sean O’Casey as a recluse in Torquay, and, like Mel Brooks claiming he’d dated Joan of Arc, all Lewis’s Christmases came at once when he comforted Judi Dench after she’d been ditched by John Neville: ‘We took a long, memorable walk in the Warwickshire woods.’ The precise extent of these memories is chivalrously not divulged.
Particularly agreeable are Lewis’s asides — pepperings of asperity to remind readers that here we have a highly intelligent and observant man. Of Anthony Burgess: ‘You could not say he strove to be liked’; of Richard Harris: ‘He wasn’t quite as great an actor as he thought’; of David Frost: ‘He harboured illusions of being gifted as a comic performer’; and of Esmond Rothermere: ‘He had one undoubted gift — for making the wrong decision.’ If his editors won awards, he sacked them.
Lewis is caustic about press barons and their executive minions, holding them largely responsible for ‘the dumbing down which had started and wasn’t going to stop’. He is also right to point out that the hacks themselves must shoulder some of the blame, as they allow themselves to print ‘vile infelicities’ and fail to defend freedom of speech with any robustness.
It’s all done by bloggers and computers anyway. But Lewis began his career, it would seem, as a colleague of Dickens, Gissing and Cruikshank. He recalls the days of chinagraph pencils, ‘the smells of ink and hot metal’. Compositors were always on the fiddle, Cockney copy-boys fetched articles scratched with nibs on sheets of foolscap and editors were served luncheon by liveried servants. When the rotary presses got under way in the basement, ‘the whole building stirred like a ship putting to sea’.
Keith Waterhouse used to say that for him western civilisation came to an end when a lunch companion said, ‘No wine for me. I have to be back in the office by two.’ Lewis also regrets the passing of the golden age of Fleet Street boozing and smoking, when publishers and senior columnists would keep calling for more claret throughout the fuggy afternoon. ‘Today, I seldom recognise my country,’ he laments. ‘I would like it back.’
The joke is that for all the sparkling water and priggish puritanism now prevailing, the quality of books and newspapers has declined sharply. Indeed, the late Sir David English was to tell Lewis that he was more than happy to see ‘a loss of quality’ if circulation figures picked up. Profit was no longer a secondary motive — and a modern version of Bernard Levin (movingly profiled here), who’d proudly proclaimed that ‘I have spent my adult life fighting, with words, to stem the tide of evil’ — well, such a talent would no longer find employment, let alone be esteemed. What is commissioned now are features on ‘Why I Don’t Have An Issue With My Teenage Daughter Getting Waxed’.
Courageous, humorous and kindly, A Rogues’ Gallery is also important because there must be few writers left who can eulogise John Betjeman, Laurie Lee and John Mortimer from personal experience. Lewis spent time with Vivian Merchant, who was deliberately drinking herself to death after Harold Pinter ran off with Antonia Fraser — a scene like something out of Henry James. Only Peter Lewis will have heard Ralph Richardson say ‘a rat has an IQ of 25. Some dogs are a mere ten’, or have seen John Gielgud, during the war, notice the barrage balloons and sigh, ‘I do feel sorry for those boys up there. It must be terribly cold and lonely.’
Lewis is a literary gent from a world that has vanished, where there was respect for the written word, where reflectiveness and manners were prized, where the point and purpose of the arts was that they required something — some effort — from the audience, where powers of discrimination mattered and conformity was looked at quizzically, even scornfully. P.G. Wodehouse, self-exiled in America, asked Lewis, ‘I suppose there’s no such thing as butlers now?’ A joke — but a joke with lots of layers.