Byron Rogers

The man who could not tell the truth

Byron Rogers reviews Julian Evans' biography of Norman Lewis

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Semi-invisible Man: The Life of Norman Lewis

Julian Evans

Cape, pp. 320, £

This has to be one of the most courageous books ever written. Literary biography is a foolhardy venture anyway, a writer’s life being usually his own raw material, so he has usually written his own version, or versions, of this, however fragmentary, and, what is much worse, written it well, otherwise there would be no biographer. But what if he hasn’t told the truth, and not just once or twice, but not ever?

In 1985 Norman Lewis published his autobiography Jackdaw’s Cake, which I had looked forward to more than any book published in my lifetime. I would have looked forward to anything he had written, for I had just read John Hatt’s reprint of Naples 44, Lewis’s account of his experiences as a field policeman in occupied Italy, one of the very few books that had prompted something I thought had gone with childhood, the joy each night of looking forward to bed so I could resume my reading. But then it all went wrong. For the first chapter in the autobiography dealt with his childhood in the town of Carmarthen.

And while I knew nothing about Naples, Phnom Penh, Guatemala or any of the other exotic places he had written about, I knew a great deal about a town which, when Norman had finished with it, seemed more exotic than any of these. So when he wrote, ‘that the people living in Wales are mentally, temperamentally, generally speaking very different from those living in England, you might say almost as different as the Chinese’, I sat up very straight in bed. You see, I was brought up in Carmarthen.

Lewis wrote Jackdaw’s Cake in his mid- seventies, which was risky. Had he waited another 10 years (he would die at 93) he would have been safe, or safer. But in the 1980s it was still possible to meet people who knew the Lewis family of Wellfield Road, his grandfather, a tea merchant who kept fighting cocks, also a French mistress (who, off-duty, spread the clap through Carmarthen), and his three aunts, one of whom dressed as a Spanish dancer (and sometimes as a Cossack), another who had an epileptic fit every day, and a third so loopy she baked tarts for jackdaws. Or so Norman remembered. The only thing is, this was not the family that anyone else remembered.

King Morgan, a pharmacist of King Street (where one of the aunts, according to Norman, beat up the French mistress), remembered the aunts as very respectable, grand ladies in the congregation of the Tabernacle Baptist chapel, the minister of which, according to Norman, by industrious skulduggery got his hands on the whole Lewis fortune. King Morgan, who played the chapel organ, did not remember this, just as he did not remember the French mistress, or the clap epidemic, or grandfather Lewis’s financial coup in salvaging a cargo of tea from the bottom of Carmarthen Bay, which he then re-packaged under a fake royal crest. ‘Surely it would have been ruined,’ said the pharmacist.

Then there were the people of Llanstephan, a nearby seaside village, who stoned holidaymakers, according to Norman, that is, who seems to have overlooked the fact that the little front at Llanstephan was studded with parlours that had been transformed into tea-rooms to cater for these holidaymakers, presumably in the intervals between the stonings. Add to all this an uncle so disfigured by war he wore a black mask, and a cousin who played, without clubs or balls, a perpetual phantom golf in the streets of Carmarthen. And that is just Norman Lewis’s childhood.

Adult life followed, and an open marriage with the daughter of a Mafia chieftain who lived in Bloomsbury, of all places, though anyone who contracted an open marriage into a Mafia family, even in Bloomsbury, would surely not have lived to be 93. But that again is according to Norman. According to his biographer, but, for once, not Norman, he went on to have two more families which he ran in tandem. This seems to have slipped Norman’s memory.

Just as nowhere in his many writings do you find a reference to the fact that he was running a chain of very successful camera shops, the proceeds of which financed the wanderings of a man who, in a lovely phrase, the blurb to this book describes as ‘a suburban fugitive’, his father, a pharmacist, having settled in Enfield. He was on the run from so many things (‘the further I was from home the better it would be’), from his Welsh Baptist upbringing, his parents’ Spiritualist seances, his families, and his own business success. As you might expect, he loved, not just sports cars, but racing cars, several of which he owned and drove. Also guns, with one of which, a silenced rifle, he practised in his flat near Selfridge’s, then used to go poaching in the grounds of Balmoral, when he was visiting the family tucked away in Scotland, something which his son confirms.

But how much else is true? Was there really a gangster of a French colony in North Africa whom he saved from the guillotine, and who offered him the complete Roman mosaic which formed the floor of his cellar? And the wife of a préfet who, during a drunken lunch, politely offered to show a British sergeant her private parts? ‘Veux-tu voir ma belle craquette?’ You may find yourself humming that.

Norman Lewis was aware of his weakness for embroidery (‘I’m not a liar, countrymen, but my imagination sometimes takes control. Let it go a few years, and I’m never sure myself what happened’). John Hatt once came on him gloomily watching as the money poured out from the fruit machine he had been playing. ‘Oh dear, when I get home they’re going to say, “Norman, you’re lying again.” ’ He may have inherited this from his roots, for in the old Wales each village had what the writer D. J. Williams called its own Transparent Liar, a man who reigned in pubs and farmhouse kitchens, the fun being derived from the fact that his audience knew, and he knew they knew, that he was lying.

But Norman Lewis was also the man who first alerted the world to the destruction of its rain forests, and also to the treatment of the people who lived in them. So there is inevitably a tension, which Julian Evans explores in his biography, only he does so like this:

Writing of course deepens the moveable theme of memory — a written-down memory is not exactly the same as what was remembered, and memories change and reorder themselves over time (not to mention what was written down about them ) — and presumably it did not occur to Norman what we now know to be neurologically true about memory, that writing things down, taking notes, is also a form of not remembering. The brain surrenders memories remembered by the hand; so the act of writing offers a counterpoint to memory as well as an account of it.

This is a long and fascinating book. Unfortunately at times it can seem even longer. 


In our issue of 22 March, we published a review by Sir Peregrine Worsthorne of Stephen Robinson’s biography of Lord Deedes. The review was edited, against Sir Peregrine’s wishes, leaving the reader with the incorrect impression that Lord Deedes had called his colleagues a ‘stinking mob’. We carried a letter by Stephen Robinson on 29 March making clear that, in fact, Lord Deedes was referring specifically to the management of the company when he used this expression. We would like to apologise further to Sir Peregrine for the error.