John Horder on

Grub Street Irregular by Jeremy Lewis
(The Harper Press)

Jeremy Lewis has alway been addicted to embellishing anecdotes or stories, preferably of the tallest impossible literary sort, as far as I can make out. He is like the Malvern public schoolboy that he once was, who is addicted to doughnuts and cream cakes. He cannot get enough of them into his mouth at the same time, even if bought at Tesco’s rather Fortnum’s.

Take what he comes up with about my much maligned and touch-deprived relative Mervyn Horder (the second Lord Horder), an eccentric who had twice been prosecuted as a result of sending naked photographs of himself through the post in the Sixties, and latterly the Managing Director of Duckworth’s, the publishers, in Covent Garden. This is recorded in the third volume of his literary Tall Stories:

When Jeremy met Mervyn in a pub in Camden Town where Beryl Bainbridge also used to meet him regularly, he "must have been in his early eighties by then: he was wearing a skimpy bathing costume, rubber flip-flops and a vest, and had shaved and wa ed his legs for the occasion."

A sentence or two later, after conferring with his beloved mentor on such all- important matters, Alan Ross, the poet, editor of The London Magazine, and cricket journalist for The Observer, he concluded: "I suspect the flippers and the goggles were (Mervyn's) own embellishments."

Not so about the goggles. Mervyn was a keen motorcyclist, who specialised looking like Toad in The Wind of the Willows when the latter was on the verge of taking up with some mad new invention like the motor car. In this instance, as in many others in these 330 pages, Jeremy found it impossible to tell apart the embellished from the real.

Mervyn's half-page obituary, when it appeared in The Daily Telegraph, included a sulky photograph of him complete with goggles, but without the rubber flip-flops. In another context entirely, it feel to Dennis Enright, the poet's lot, and Jeremy's after him, when both were working for that old warhorse, Norah Smallwood, at Chatto and Windus, the publishers, to try to edit Iris Murdoch's novels.

On one of two occasions, Jeremy comes out with the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: "I always felt that Chatto had done her a great disservice by not insisting on editing her later books, but by then it was too late. Her novels were treated as Holy Writ.....As Dennis soon discovered, she was not prepared to be edited in any way". End of story.

The most heart-breaking chapter is the last in which Alan Ross, as a result of many years of depression dating from horrific experiences in the Second World War, attempts suicide, and eventually dies.

In the last sentence Jeremy sums up the whole book: "Dennis and Alan had been my mentors and my friends, the two men I loved and admired more than any others in the literary world, father figures standing in for the one I had lost". After a lifetime or more of embellished literary anecdotes, he might remember T.S. Eliot's infamous saying in Four Quartets: "In my end is my beginning".

John Horder © world copyright 2009