Grub Street Irregular: Scenes from literary life, By Jeremy Lewis

A record of 40 years on the London literary scene summons the ghosts of once-famous, now forgotten players
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In Grub Street Irregular, Jeremy Lewis does a wonderful line in self-deprecation. He describes himself as academically average, insists that he possesses no artistic leanings, and claims to have attended only a "humdrum" public school (staff and pupils at Malvern School may rise up in protest). In a long list of other shortcomings, he also lets slip that he is "superhumanly flatulent", though this may more appropriately be described as a boast.

At one stage, Lewis quotes the historian A L Rowse, who once warned him against Cyril Connolly's "habit of self-deprecation... which La Rochefoucauld knew was only a way of recommending himself". In Lewis's case, it's difficult to believe that this is the real motivation behind his act of consistently putting himself down, as he appears so wholly devoid of calculation. Whatever the truth of the matter, Lewis's literary persona has served him well in two previous slices of autobiography, Playing for Time and Kindred Spirits, and does so again in this third volume of his adventures in 40 years on the London literary scene as a publishing and magazine editor, literary agent, reviewer and writer.

Like its predecessors, Grub Street Irregular is never less than enormous fun. It is full of what Lewis terms "hyperbolical gossip", and deft character summaries of the mainly forgotten, once larger-than-life figures, who formerly bestrode the literary world: men like Allen Lane, Tony Godwin and André Deutsch, and their female counterparts, Livia Gollancz, Norah Smallwood – whose withering sarcasm provoked "attacks of nervous diarrhoea" in one of her fellow directors – and Carmen Callil, whose behaviour is described as "equally alarming".

At the start of his career, Lewis observes a little mournfully, publishers were public figures. "They have long ago been elbowed aside by celebrity chefs, footballers' wives, telly personalities, and other heroes of a less literate age."

While Lewis's earlier instalments pursued a narrative line, beginning with the Trinity College, Dublin, graduate who hopped aboard a ferry to England to try his fortune in the London literary world, this latest volume is more a series of vignettes. Some of them have been shamelessly recycled from earlier appearances in magazines such as The Oldie and the London Magazine.

The opening section considers developments in the publishing world from the vantage point of Lewis's employment in six publishing houses, including Chatto and Collins. Lewis recalls a halcyon, not so distant, past when long bibulous lunches were the norm, and sensible advances, and editors wielding blue pencils, were the accepted order of things. (Not, though, when it came to Iris Murdoch's novels which were treated at Chatto as if they were Holy Writ. When D J Enright pointed out to Murdoch that a word used by her in her latest novel didn't exist, she shot back: "It does now, Dennis.")

From there, Lewis recalls his experiences as a biographer, most notably of Cyril Connolly. He recounts his battles with the literary widow par excellence, Barbara Skelton, "a notorious femme fatale to whom the adjective 'pantherine' was invariably attached"). With a truculence that just occasionally surfaces, Lewis admits that he has always regarded biography – and by extension biographers – as "inherently second-rate", and that he resents the "ludicrous claims" made on biography's behalf "by eminent modern practitioners".

There's a marvellous pen-portrait of A L Rowse at the end of his life. Propped up in bed at his house in Cornwall, Rowse denounces Lewis, who is there to interview him about Connolly, in a shrill, matronly voice, accompanied by "a curious high-pitched hoot", as a "second-rater... [who] thinks he knows all the answers", while making "a camp gesture with his wrist, like a railway signal returning to the horizontal". Frances Partridge, the last of the Bloomsberries, is described affectionately as "an animated walnut", while another historian, Richard Cobb looks "like a freshly skinned rabbit, red and blue all over and faintly clammy to the touch". Lewis pays tribute to two father figures, Alan Ross, esteemed editor of the London Magazine, and his old mentor D J Enright at OUP, and writes a moving account of a visit to Auschwitz, memorialising his father, who played a part in the relief of the concentration camp at the end of the war, as he does so.

A book so heavy with personalities could have done with an index (there's also an amusing failure in the copyediting when a previously unknown work called Summoned by Joy is attributed to C S Lewis). When the history of British publishing in the last decades of the 20th century is finally written, Jeremy Lewis's trilogy may be consulted as an elegy to life in the profession before the arrival of the big conglomerates. In the meantime, enjoy the polished cadences of his writing, and the uproarious laughter it produces.

Mark Bostridge's biography of Florence Nightingale is published by Viking in October