Jeremy Lewis, 1942–2017 - review by Sara Wheeler

Sara Wheeler

In Memoriam

Jeremy Lewis, 1942–2017


Like most good writers Jeremy Lewis enjoyed the art of embellishment. He once described finding the snapped-off head of a toothbrush inside a pork pie in a pub outside Dublin. Do you think that happened? The point, for Jeremy, was that the anecdote encapsulated something true about Ireland in the 1950s.

Jeremy was a dedicated literary man. His early career was spent working for several literary agencies and publishers (jobs from which he always claimed he got the sack), including André Deutsch and Chatto & Windus. Afterwards he began to write full-time, going on to produce nine books, among them lives of Cyril Connolly and David Astor. He contributed to many publications, including this one, where he was editor-at-large and was much loved. His own reading tastes were traditional: he loved Smollett (of whom he wrote a biography), Trollope and other Victorian heavyweights. He was also on the committee of the R S Surtees Society, celebrating the work of the lesser-known sporting writer of the 19th century, although, like many literary figures, Jeremy hated most forms of sport. Yet he venerated men of action. He worked for many years with the late Alan Ross at the London Magazine, and the pair of them drooled over the exploits of adventurers, though he and Alan invariably got their stories wrong. Jeremy’s beloved wife, Petra, remembers, as I do, the pair extolling the bravery of a literary agent we all knew who used to ‘ROAR around London on an ENORMOUS motorbike’. The vehicle was in fact a 50cc moped.

He wrote three volumes of autobiography, all comic and wonderfully enjoyable. Playing for Time (1987), the first volume, begins characteristically:

In the early summer of 1961, I was – to our mutual satisfaction – given the sack by the advertising agency for whom I had been working for the past nine months, initially (and very enjoyably) as a messenger boy, and more recently as an office worker of quite startling ineptitude; and – not for the last time – I relished the irresponsible, liberating thrill of being forcibly removed from a way of life that had become wretchedly uncongenial and for which I was all too obviously under-equipped. I was then nineteen, and a large, top-heavy youth with long fair hair bleached almost white by the sun, an outsize jaw, hands like freshly dug root vegetables, a fruity bass voice, horn-rimmed specs and a face that wore – or so it seemed to me – an expression of remarkable vacuity.

In an email he sent me when he was completing the third, he said he himself was ‘rocking with laughter’ on giving the typescript a final go-through. So we decided that Rocking with Laughter would be the title of the fourth volume. Sadly it never came. To my mind his best book was his biography of Connolly, written when he was in his early fifties. Jeremy kept himself off the pages, and yet he was there in every line.

Smuggling jokes into print was a favoured pastime. Shortly after I first met him, twenty-three years ago, he reviewed one of my books. I had enjoyed his first tome and stole three phrases from it – the highest accolade one writer can give to another. In his review, he wrote, ‘She has a sharp eye for a telling phrase’, then quoted the things I’d nicked off him.

He loved gossip and he loved a party. Last year he compered the Bad Sex Award, and even though he was already ill, he did a tremendous job, with laughter ricocheting off the walls of the In and Out Club in St James’s Square.

We will all miss him so very much. He was the most devoted family man and showed off about his daughters all the time in a way one couldn’t find boastful. Jeremy was quick to visit me in hospital when I had my first son. He brought us a teddy, and said to me, ‘I hope he gives you half the pleasure my children have given me.’ Requiescat in pace, my friend.

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