Stalwart spinsters and brown paper
Patricia Craig enjoys the felicitous memoirs of a convivial publisher; Kindred Spirits: Adrift in Literary London by Jeremy Lewis HarperCollins, pounds 17.99
Saturday 29 July 1995
From the word go, Lewis feels himself ill-suited to the various publishing jobs he stumbles into: starting in one publicity department, moving on to another, producing copy to accompany a cardboard cut-out of a rabbit in trousers reading a book, acquiring a facility in blurb-writing, progressing to yet another office, this one next door to a firm of rat-catchers and insect exterminators, one of whose vans, "painted a pestilential mustard and featuring a scarlet rat sniffing the air and a couple of cockroaches waving their antennae", enlivens the pavement outside.
Publishing, at the time, still constitutes a distinctive and small-scale world, with its own regulations and its own glamour - even if this boils down to an atmosphere of gas fires, stalwart spinsters in cardigans working their heads off and getting scant credit, brown paper parcels of books delivered from the binders. Lewis gets to grips with all this, with his own, productively detached, attitude towards it; he makes a comedy of all its longeurs, upheavals and vexations. We can't but admire him for taking a stand against tedium and inflexibility. Not that he makes an issue of this, or of anything else; it's simply a temperamental quirk that predisposes him towards poise and understatement and makes his literary approach so enjoyable. He looks, he reflects, he records in as felicitous a manner as possible. He's on the side of conviviality, drive and an eccentric outlook. The memoirs of SOE men or of romantic travellers like Patrick Leigh Fermor hold considerable appeal for him; yet he never stops upholding the attractions of suburbia. Sometimes he is agreeably deadpan: a run-down of the publisher Andre Deutsch's early career includes the line, "After a spell as a bird-scarer in Shropshire ..."
As the title indicates, this is a book about friendships, as much as anything else, whether they stretch back to Lewis's days as a student at Trinity College, Dublin, or occur in the course of his removal from one office to another. It's encounters with kindred spirits that keep him going, and, thank goodness, they are plentiful and prodigious. He calls on the Warden of All Souls (whom he's never met) and promptly finds himself roped in to entertain a contingent of Japanese Housman enthusiasts, all expressing their views on the poet in unintelligible English. The Warden (whom he never meets again) proves a kindred spirit; as do the Grigsons, Jane and Geoffrey, who fall with gusto on the non-gourmet food supplied by the Oxford University Press canteen. London, Oxford, then back to London as a director of Chatto & Windus, where Lewis gets off to a bad start by inflicting an over-hearty handshake on the arthritic fingers of Norah Smallwood. This redoutable old lady becomes a kind of kindred spirit, as does her equally formidable successor, Carmen Callil - not as friends, exactly, but as autocrats whose foibles make exhilarating reading. Kindred Spirits is a perfectly judged memoir, elegant and funny, inspiriting and illuminating.
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