How We Met: Sara Wheeler & Jeremy Lewis

'Could he travel with me? He'd be too frightened about there being no lock on the lavatory'

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The Independent Online

Sara Wheeler, 50

A polar explorer, Wheeler's writing includes the acclaimed 'Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica' and 'The Magnetic North: Travels in the Arctic'. She lives in north London with her two children

The first thing I noticed about Jeremy was that he has hands like root vegetables; big and angular. We met at a publisher's party about 20 years ago, though I'd already read the first volume of his autobiography, Playing for Time, and had found it very funny and descriptive. It showed that we had a shared view of the world, with the same conviction of the sad absurdities of life. I liked him as a stylist, too, and had stolen some of his best descriptive phrases for my books.

At the party we discovered we had the same publisher and the same agent and it turned out he'd read my books, too. A few weeks later he reviewed one of them, saying I had "a fine descriptive eye", and proceeded to pick out all the descriptive phrases I'd nicked off him; it became a joke between us.

Having never been south of Seaford, Jeremy always seemed baffled when I disappeared for months on end to some inhospitable area of the Arctic or Antartic. But he loved sitting in his slippers in an armchair, reading my letters and emails. Most of all he seemed very anxious about the lavatorial arrangements and would quiz me in detail about them. Could I ever imagine bringing him with me? No absolutely not, he'd be too frightened about whether there was a lock on a lavatory.

I only really understand writers, so it's books that make our friendship tick. When I was writing my first book on the Antarctic the first draft was terrible and I had to completely rewrite it. Jeremy was the only one who really believed in that project, so I appointed him patron of the book – like the Duke of Edinburgh. He taught me the importance of selecting facts, not just whacking everything in. When it appeared on the bestseller list I think he was more pleased than I was.

In the old days we behaved very badly when we were together, gate-crashing literary parties and getting thrown out. We're too decrepit for it now – though the other day Jeremy did inadvertently fall into a bath at somebody's house after a good lunch. I don't drink at all now, so we hang out with a Horlicks instead.

Jeremy Lewis, 69

A book editor and biographer, Lewis's works have included a portrait of Graham Greene's family, 'Shades of Greene', as well as a three-volume autobiography, including 'Grub Street Irregular'. He lives in south London with his wife.

There was a drunken literary party in Bloomsbury in 1993, and there was this striking-looking, tanned (just back from Peru) woman with very dark eyes, short hair and a butter-coloured dress in a room full of grey suits; she was like an Amazonian parquet in a nest full of crows, and we gravitated towards one another. At the end of the party we staggered off to a pub to keep on drinking and the next day we met up again for coffee and swapped books we'd written.

She was one of those hard-working people who'd always wanted to be a writer and lead an interesting life. She had a drive to sample life and test herself. It's a quality I admire immensely.

When she went to the South Pole in 1995, she asked me to be the patron of it, even though I had no expertise or money. I felt heartbroken that she was away for so long – I shouldn't have, as I was a respectable married man – but I'd become so fond of her; I remember thinking that there'd be no one to crash parties with now.

During her seven months away she'd send me long dispatches about what she was doing. I come from quite a squeamish generation and she knew I was particularly interested in the lavatorial side of things, and she kept going on about sharing one with a seal.

She calls me a magnificent embellisher – but Sarah herself is a tremendous practitioner of that, too. In Terra Incognita, I appear in the story as an affable buffoon sitting at home in the suburbs who doesn't know anything about Antarctica. It's not quite true, as I have travelled, but I was quite happy to indulge in the joke.

I think both she and her writing style have changed a lot over the years. She's learnt to look more into herself and write about that – before, she was too self-effacing. And her book about the Arctic, The Magnetic North, fascinated me as it sums up how becoming older has altered her outlook. When she was younger and more idealistic she was more interested in the Antarctic as it was a virginal, more romantic place, while the Arctic was a sullied, polluted territory with more people. But now her interest lies with the Arctic as it is more compromised and complex and she talks about that being a manifestation of middle age.

'Access All Areas: Selected Writings 1990-2010', by Sara Wheeler, is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £18.99