Quietly speaking volumes

KINDRED SPIRITS: Adrift in Literary London by Jeremy Lewis, HarperColli ns pounds 17.99

AS Andy Warhol would have said, Jeremy Lewis was famous for five seconds. He was featured in an excellent television dramatisation of the Birmingham Six scandal: the campaigning MP Chris Mullin (played by John Hurt) rings his publisher and says, "May I speak to Jeremy Lewis?"

Well, that's it. The scene changes to something more exciting, but those few words would have made a great title, perhaps slightly doctored: Get me Jeremy Lewis, and Pronto. This book is not named after that piece of dialogue, largely because Lewis himself missed the programme and no one told him of the name-check.

A pity. The author of Kindred Spirits could have constructed a paragraph or three out of it. Since he coaxes an entire page out of the way in which Kingsley Amis made him a cup of tea, and five pages about having a slice of cake with the warden of All Souls, an actual televisual event would have loomed like a mountaintop in the flat landscape of his life. He is the exact opposite of those famous folk whose autobiographies reduce each achievement to a couple of lines of PR prose; in a one-and-a-half inch thick paperback, David Frost could spare only one-sixteenth of an inch to his entire time at university, tucked into a chapter about how he started in television.

This, by contrast, is Lewis's second volume of memoirs, covering his career, if that's the right word, in publishing and a short intermission as "England's most ineffectual literary agent". And the book is not an adjective too long. His strength is as a sometimes horrified observer, rather like James Stewart in Rear Window but without the window. He has a photographic memory - or possibly photographic imagination - for the down-at-heel decor of the publishing houses (publishing shed, in the case of the London Magazine) where he went through the motions of being an executive.

This is the real humour of observation: the staff who are the mainstay of the office and the oddballs who can bring an organisation to its baggy knees. He harks back to the time of doors and typewriters, before open- plan floors and VDUs. Lunch in those days lasted for most of the afternoon, while those kindred spirits of the title refer to both friends and what they had in their glasses.

This is the antithesis of Nineties laddism. No gamesplayer he, on or off the field. "Iron" and "John" are not his middle names. But he is also too old at heart to be a New Man; both his wife and daughters, to whom he is clearly devoted, have only walk-on parts in his account.

If there is such an institution as a Museum of Publishing hidden away in some dusty Bloomsbury basement, this will be the most consulted volume. Scholars will come for the latest research into Victorian sales figures and instead spend the afternoon with Lewis's anecdotes about turning up for a job interview with Andre Deutsch and being told he is exactly a day late. His words should be buried in a time capsule under the Publishers' Association premises and dug up to remind future print-free, interactive, CD-Rom generations what it was like to put witty words down on the page.

You will have deduced that this is no incisive guide to success in the world of publishing. He gives the impression that the books he published had more spine than he did. His single successful career move was being on the large side: he seems to have landed his first job by being hefty enough to heave filing cabinets up the office stairs without rupturing himself.

In fact, he surely must have been far more competent at his trade than he lets on. He once wrote an introduction to Diary of a Nobody; and I suspect him of being a Mr Pooter in reverse, wilfully underselling himself.

Certainly he is not always Mr Nice Guy. Although he has always been a non-combatant in the office jungle, he has a few missiles to hurl. If I were him, I should not like to bump into Carmen Callil, the ex-chatelaine of Chatto, in a dark bookshop. There are one or two arts producers who will not want him back on their programmes. The "vestal virgin" of Oxford University Press, a one-time colleague, may take a dim view. The next caller who asks, "May I speak to Jeremy Lewis?" could be a lawyer. This book will do as a character witness.

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