Books and bookmen

<strong>Grub Street Irregular: Scenes from Literary Life</strong>

Jeremy Lewis


Jeremy Lewis is remarkably self-deprecating, even by English standards. "As a child," he begins Grub Street Irregular, "I excelled at nothing, and little has changed since then." After listing some of his failings - cowardice, lack of artistic impulse, self-consciousness - he underscores his chronic ineptitude with a bathetic trumpeting of achievement: "I was, and remain, superhumanly flatulent, and adept at snarling farts that sent my sister, and later my schoolfriends, into paroxysms of mirth."

It is charming, of course, this slapstick self-abasement, and to bring it off takes skill, which Lewis obviously has - the reviews of Playing for Time and Kindred Spirits, his earlier volumes of literary memoirs, were almost universally ecstatic. His fans will welcome the new one, even if it is rather less polished - "an unashamed ragbag of pieces", as he calls it, "written at various times and with no chronological thread".

The quality of these pieces is uneven and there is a fair amount of repetition, but Lewis is an amusing and sympathetic guide to the London literary scene, in which he has spent most of his life, having been "sacked three times and spent nearly 20 years as a freelance writer and editor . . . worked for six publishers, two literary agents and three magazines, and written reviews, articles and obituaries for more newspapers and magazines than I can begin to remember".

As a publisher, he was particularly unhappy at Chatto & Windus, which was run successively by Norah Smallwood and Carmen Callil: "Raised voices, angry tirades, office vendettas and the cries of wounded underlings," he recalls, "were not conducive to hard or pleasant work, but it would be wrong to blame my failures as a publisher on the termagants in charge. I loved the social side . . . but I was never prepared to commit myself to it as fully as I should."

A comic high point was a visit by the eminent Bengali writer Nirad Chaudhuri, who was apparently obsessed by lavatories, and disapproved of the European style on the grounds that squatting to defecate was so much healthier. "I remember him springing on to one of the Chatto lavatories," writes Lewis, "to demonstrate how, making the best of a bad job, he always squatted rather than sat in the firing position."

Lewis was "a distressingly ineffectual literary agent", failing, for example, to see any merit in or find any buyers for the early work of Ian McEwan, and he seems to have been happiest on such magazines as the Oldie and the Literary Review, both of which were once owned by Naim Attallah, or "Tiger", as he liked to be known - another lavatory obsessive. There is a particularly ripe passage about Jennie Erdal's long service as Attallah's ghostwriter, churning out articles on lingerie and semi-pornographic novels. "Beloved," Tiger would tell her, as he insisted on yet another gratuitous sex scene, "we need the jig-jig".

There are innumerable walk-on appearances by such marginal figures as Brigadier "Honky" Henniker, a military historian who once embarrassed his publisher by bursting into song at the Athenaeum, and such grand ones as Lord Weidenfeld ("the most glamorous and intelligent of publishers, a worldly, empurpled Renaissance pontiff adrift at a Methodist meeting"). And Lewis devotes a moving chapter to Barbara Skelton, whom he came to know through researching his biography of Cyril Connolly, who was married to Skelton for a while.

Once a celebrated grande horizontale, invariably described as "pantherine", "Skeltie", by the time Lewis knew her, was vulnerable and isolated, but still sharp. After her death he found in her journals a reference to himself as "extremely jovial and easy to talk to, with a likeable tail- wagging charm". Anthony Powell also noted a certain dogginess, comparing him to a "floppy Labrador", while James Lees-Milne thought he resembled a Scoutmaster - which is rather what he looks like in David Hockney's portrait of him on the dust jacket.

A Rowse, who addressed him as "Jeremiah", urged him "not to go in for Cyril's habit of self-deprecation - very middle-class - which La Rochefoucauld knew was only a way of recommending oneself". Absurdly conceited himself, Rowse went way too far in the other direction, but he had a point. There is something boastful about Lewis's modesty, an element of the passive-aggressive. It is highly effective in the short term, but at book length I found it increasingly tiresome. One could also have done with an index.

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food