The Literate and Rowing Lewises – I

A witty, entertaining and well-written book.

27 May 2020

By Göran R Buckhorn

While enjoying the book Grub Street Irregular by Jeremy Lewis about literary life in London, Göran R Buckhorn is happily surprised to find a few rowing connections.

Incarcerated at the Buckhorn Châtelet due to the plague – only going out for walks and getting extra exercise by zigzagging from one pavement to the other each time I meet one of my bemasked neighbours – one plus in all this gloom, I find, is enjoying the time to read books. And not only books on rowing!

I finished one of these books the other day, Grub Street Irregular: Scenes from Literary Life (2008) by Jeremy Lewis (1942-2017). The author might not be familiar to a lot of people, not even in his homeland, Britain. Lewis was a man of letters; he worked as a publisher and literary agent, but it was first later in life that he thrived as an editor, reviewer and biographer, and became, as a friend of his wrote after he died in 2017, at the age of 75, ‘one of the best-loved figures in the London literary world’. He worked at the magazines Literary Review and The Oldie and penned three autobiographies: Playing for Time (1987), Kindred Spirits: Adrift in Literary London (1995) and Grub Street Irregular. Added to these are the biographies: Cyril Connolly: A Life (1997), Tobias Smollett (2003), Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane (2005), Shades of Greene: One Generation of an English Family (2010) and David Astor: A Life in Print (2016).

Going back to the book at hand, Grub Street Irregular took a long time for me to finish. Not because it was boring – no, on the contrary, it was one of the wittiest, most entertaining and well-written books I have read in a long time. I re-read sentences, paragraphs and whole pages just for the pleasure of reading Lewis’s words over and over again; I was trying to soak up every ingenuity from each of his words on the page. It might be my background in publishing, albeit in Sweden not in Britain, that made me take Lewis’s book to heart. Like Lewis, I remember the book launch parties, but I’m sorry to say that I experienced fewer liquid lunches than he. (Now, looking back at my time as an editor in Sweden, how ironic that the name of the publishing company was – Corona! )

Jeremy Lewis, 2016

Lewis had a way with words that made me think that anyone would love his writing and this book. To give you one example: Lewis was once approached in the 1990s by The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent to go to the French capital to interview a man called Stuart Preston for the publication. Preston, who was called ‘the Sergeant’, had arrived in London in 1943 with the U.S. Army. When the war was over, he had stayed in London and moved back and forth between Paris and London. Lewis had never been a great admirer of the American magazine, but when he was asked to write for it, ‘I was tremendously chuffed, and felt I had made it at last. I boasted about it to all my friends, dropping the news casually into my conversation; my reservations about the magazine disappeared overnight, only to resurface when my commission fell through,’ Lewis writes. Later, Lewis and his wife Petra were invited to a friend’s house to meet the Sergeant. This is how Lewis describes him:

I don’t remember anything he said, but I liked him at once, and found him a most touching figure. He was, as [Evelyn] Waugh and [James] Lees-Milne had mentioned him all those years before, very bald, and his head seemed to balance on his neck like a poppy on its stem. His shirt was several sizes too large, so emphasizing the scrawniness of his neck; his fawn lightweight suit, on the other hand, was several sizes too small, riding up his sleeves, exposing long stretches of black sock and drawing one’s attention to his feet, which were shod with those huge, boat-shaped, kidney-coloured lace-up shoes one associates with East Coast Americans of the old school. The knot of his tie seemed larger than most, with the result that the two ends were out of synch, with the wider, kipper-shaped one at the front far shorter than the skinnier one at the back. I couldn’t decide whether he looked more like a very old, bleached-looking tortoise or a gangly prep-school boy who had grown out of his suit but not into his shirt.

Barbara Skelton

Lewis was a people’s person which is clearly shown in his way of handling the people he talked to who had known the subjects of his biographies. It also helped that he was truly a funny and humble man. Lewis loved gossip and a good, long lunch – especially with his friend Alan Ross, the poet, cricket writer and editor of The London Magazine, a publication Ross took over from John Lehmann (son of rowing coach and writer Rudie Lehmann).

One of the persons Lewis interviewed for his biography Cyril Connolly was Barbara Skelton, whom he befriended. At her time, she was a well-known novelist, femme fatale and jet-setter, who once was married to Cyril Connolly. The marriage didn’t last long as both Connolly and Skelton were notoriously unfaithful. Among Skelton’s many lovers were King Farouk, theatre critic Ken Tynan and – here is another rowing link – the artist Feliks Topolski, father of the famous Oxford oarsman and coach Daniel Topolski.

Daniel’s father, Feliks Topolski, self-portrait, 1959.

I didn’t expect to find any connections to rowing in this book, but Lehmann and Topolski proved not to be the only two in the book. When Lewis writes about his father, George Morley Lewis, whom he never mentions by name, he notes:

As a young man he had everything to hope for. Tall and well-built, he was good-looking, clever and athletic. He had a big-featured face, with large, round eyes, a granite jaw and thick, wavy hair brushed back from his forehead; he had the most beautiful hands I have ever seen, with long, spatulate fingers that seemed to tilt upwards at the end. He was Welsh on both sides, but after an expensive English education he had put all that behind him. He had spent his childhood in Bedwas, a grim little mining town in Monmouthshire, and grew up in a large, dark red Edwardian villa with stained glass in the front door.

Lewis continues to write about his father that he was ‘[t]he apple of his parents’ eyes, he was sent to prep school in Hereford, and then on to Malvern [College], where he did well academically and on the games field, and won a scholarship to Pembroke, Cambridge, to read medicine.’ Then Lewis drops the bomb: ‘He rowed in the victorious Cambridge boat in 1936, the only product of his riverless school ever to do so, and because in those days Boat Race oarsmen became short-lived national heroes, his photograph was plastered all over the papers.’

Göran R Buckhorn continues his story about the 1936 Cambridge Blue George Morley Lewis tomorrow.

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