Magazine article The Spectator

The Man Who Could Not Tell the Truth

Magazine article The Spectator

The Man Who Could Not Tell the Truth

Article excerpt

SEMI-INVISIBLE MAN: THE LIFE OF NORMAN LEWIS by Julian Evans Cape, £25, pp. 320, ISBN 9780224072755 £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

This has to be one of the most courageous books ever written. Literary biography is a foolhardy venture anyway, a writer's life being usually his own raw material, so he has usually written his own version, or versions, of this, however fragmentary, and, what is much worse, written it well, otherwise there would be no biographer. But what if he hasn't told the truth, and not just once or twice, but not ever?

In 1985 Norman Lewis published his autobiography Jackdaw's Cake, which I had looked forward to more than any book published in my lifetime. I would have looked forward to anything he had written, for I had just read John Hatt's reprint of Naples 44, Lewis's account of his experiences as a field policeman in occupied Italy, one of the very few books that had prompted something I thought had gone with childhood, the joy each night of looking forward to bed so I could resume my reading. But then it all went wrong. For the first chapter in the autobiography dealt with his childhood in the town of Carmarthen.

And while I knew nothing about Naples, Phnom Penh, Guatemala or any of the other exotic places he had written about, I knew a great deal about a town which, when Norman had finished with it, seemed more exotic than any of these. So when he wrote, 'that the people living in Wales are mentally, temperamentally, generally speaking very different from those living in England, you might say almost as different as the Chinese', I sat up very straight in bed. You see, I was brought up in Carmarthen.

Lewis wrote Jackdaw's Cake in his midseventies, which was risky. Had he waited another 10 years (he would die at 93) he would have been safe, or safer. But in the 1980s it was still possible to meet people who knew the Lewis family of Wellfield Road, his grandfather, a tea merchant who kept fighting cocks, also a French mistress (who, offduty, spread the clap through Carmarthen), and his three aunts, one of whom dressed as a Spanish dancer (and sometimes as a Cossack), another who had an epileptic fit every day, and a third so loopy she baked tarts for jackdaws. Or so Norman remembered. The only thing is, this was not the family that anyone else remembered.

King Morgan, a pharmacist of King Street (where one of the aunts, according to Norman, beat up the French mistress), remembered the aunts as very respectable, grand ladies in the congregation of the Tabernacle Baptist chapel, the minister of which, according to Norman, by industrious skulduggery got his hands on the whole Lewis fortune. King Morgan, who played the chapel organ, did not remember this, just as he did not remember the French mistress, or the clap epidemic, or grandfather Lewis's financial coup in salvaging a cargo of tea from the bottom of Carmarthen Bay, which he then re-packaged under a fake royal crest.

'Surely it would have been ruined, ' said the pharmacist.

Then there were the people of Llanstephan, a nearby seaside village, who stoned holidaymakers, according to Norman, that is, who seems to have overlooked the fact that the little front at Llanstephan was studded with parlours that had been transformed into tea-rooms to cater for these holidaymakers, presumably in the intervals between the stonings. Add to all this an uncle so disfigured by war he wore a black mask, and a cousin who played, without clubs or balls, a perpetual phantom golf in the streets of Carmarthen. …

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