Notebook: Deepest jungle, somewhere out East, not far from Ongar

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The Independent Online
MOVING easily, Norman Lewis leads the way to the jungle's edge. 'You've got to go as far as the Mato Grosso or equatorial Africa to see anything like this,' he says. We are in Essex, east of Ongar. Norman Lewis is 85.

A man of delights and ironies and amusing revenges, is Lewis. The jungle at the bottom of his garden is one; an ever-thickening, untouched acre that is his riposte to the cereal hedge killers of East Anglia. Another is that this great travel writer, sympathetic chronicler to primitive peoples around the globe, looks and sounds exactly like a man who should be sitting by the side of a north London bowling green, murmuring 'nice wood'.

It could have been so: Lewis was brought up in Enfield, Middlesex, where his father was a chemist. But Lewis senior was also a medium given to gurgling at the dinner table and giving utterance to the deep tones of a friendly American Indian spirit guide. One of Lewis's most vivid early memories is the sudden shining of a torch at a public seance followed by the exposure in the Daily Mail of a medium called Miss Mildred Frogley, who had developed the remarkable ability to conceal 12 yards of chiffon in her vagina and pass it off, and out, as ectoplasm. His chances of a normal childhood were further hampered by a lengthy stay with three mad aunts in Carmarthen.

So no bowling club for Lewis. He became, in unlikely turn and combination, wedding photographer, racing driver and traveller. The last he remains: tomorrow night Channel 4 is showing a film of his latest trip and cause, the oppressed tribes of Indonesia, bedevilled by Christian missionaries and a Muslim government.

Missionaries, hot for souls and their own satisfactions, have long been a Lewis target. In Indonesia they have persuaded people of a stone-age culture to embrace Christianity for fear, as the tribespeople told Lewis, of burning in Hell. Now they wear ballpoint pens through their noses and Donald Duck T-shirts.

Lewis is not an admirer of Christianity: 'A charming and reasonable and self-effacing Middle Eastern cult', reinvented for imperial ends by Constantine and Justinian. He has just discovered that for all these years he has been an Epicurean, following a 'cautious, subtle and observant search for reasonable, justifiable satisfactions', such as friends, family, writing, and his jungle. After Enfield and ectoplasm, you can no more persuade Lewis of the afterlife than you can convince him of the virtues of English suburban life.

Lewis disdains the English way, the English contribution, politely but implacably. Press him for anything worthwhile that the English have achieved, and he can manage only the literature, whose beauty from such seed puzzles him. In the manner of the classic English traveller, Lewis finds the modern world antipathetic, and England more so. He prefers Celts and Latins. He hates the Government, and thinks it corrupt. Point out to the author of an acclaimed work on the Mafia that this seems a bit thick in comparison to, say, what we know of Italy, and Lewis is unembarrassed. 'Yes, but English corruption is without vision,' he says. Lewis is pleased with that one.

Ask him why he lives here and Lewis is still unembarrassed, talking about the need to have his family, about him, thinking wistfully of Spain, setting for his remarkable description of life in a Costa Brava fishing village, Voices of the Old Sea.

Enthusiasm is the key to longevity, says Lewis. He contracted a bad bout of bronchitis in Indonesia, but is now fully restored and working on the sequel to his other pieces of autobiography, Naples '44 and Jackdaw Cake, which revealed the mad aunts and mediums, together with his first wife from a Mafiosi family living in Bloomsbury, who left him for a Guatemalan. 'Nobody believes it,' says Lewis. 'People say, 'Norman, you're a liar'.' But he has a letter from a cousin in Australia confirming the childhood. 'Nobody believes her, either.' Lewis talks about how witnesses to events always differ, and usually get the number of people involved wrong. 'I'm better than that.'

The book of his Indonesian experiences will be published in the autumn. His travel writing remains more acclaimed than his novels, of which he is proud. For a long time, even the travel writing was ignored.

'I'm devoid of regret,' says Lewis. 'I just don't allow regrets in, so far as is possible, to breach my personal environment.' An epitaph? 'I'm too involved in life to bother about epitaphs.'

(Photograph omitted)