Founding Oldie editor Richard Ingrams remembers Jeremy Lewis
Large, genial and avuncular, Jeremy Lewis was the kind of right-hand man every editor dreams of. ‘Jezza’, as we always knew him in the Oldie office, joined the magazine in 1997, and was afterwards described as ‘commissioning editor’, though neither of us ever did very much commissioning.
He came to the office once a week, whenever there was a spare desk for him to squat at, and otherwise was available at home for copy-editing and proof-reading. He loved office life (having once compiled an anthology on the subject), and his weekly visits were keenly anticipated by all of us. He was game for anything, he never missed an office outing and he even modelled a nightshirt for the fashion column.
Jezza was a survivor from the old world of publishing – the world before independent publishers with nice offices in Great Russell Street were swallowed up by giant foreign conglomerates, spelling an end to long lunches with plenty of gossip and drink followed by a snooze in the London Library. The new digital age, which prized celebrity memoirs and ‘bonkbusters’ above all else, had little use for the likes of Jezza.
Their loss was The Oldie’s gain and, thanks to his many years in the trade and his sociable disposition – no book launch, no memorial service was complete without him – he was friends with a great many authors and brought a good few of them into The Oldie. I remember, in particular, Mordecai Richler, David Hughes, Alan Ross and Francis King, all of whom became regular contributors.
What made The Oldie a bit different from other magazines was the amount of unsolicited material we used. In the early days, when funds were limited, this policy may have been dictated by economic necessity, as we were in no position to pay the kind of fees that big-name writers would expect.
One of Jezza’s most valuable services was to wade through the so-called ‘slush pile’ of unsolicited material, a task he carried out with great conscientiousness. Much of it was dross but he read it all the same and, as we never used rejection slips, sent a hand-written card to the would-be contributor. The card was so tactfully worded that he was quite often thanked for his kind rejection.
The reward was to discover amid the dross the occasional masterpiece – like the long memoir of Rebecca West by her live-in companion; or the saga of an Australian reader who had spent years trying to test the accuracy of a schoolboy book of the world’s wonders which claimed that the deer botfly was the fastest flying insect in the world. (It wasn’t.)
Jezza’s literary judgement was impeccable. He would often see the merit in a piece that was not particularly well-written and was able, with a few excisions and re-wordings, to transform it into something publishable (‘I’ve given it a good haircut,’ he would report back to me). The lucky writer might well be rewarded with a Jezza seal of approval – ‘Amiable Cove’, ‘Good Old Boy’ or ‘Game Old Bird’. Anyone who complained or pestered was likewise damned – ‘Terrible Windbag’ (a favourite Jezza expression), ‘Prickly Old Queen’ or, in extreme cases, ‘Fiend in Human Form’.
As readers of his three very entertaining memoirs will be aware, Jezza liked to portray himself as a well-meaning but bumbling amateur, prone to getting into scrapes or being outwitted by less-scrupulous contemporaries.
This was not altogether a pose. He never overestimated his abilities or hankered after a higher place in any of the organisations for which he worked. He was a genuinely humble man and, lacking the ‘illness’ which Lady Macbeth tells us goes with ambition, seemed permanently to be in high spirits.
Even in his long battle with painful cancer, he never lost his admirable determination not to succumb to self-pity. It is customary, I know, in such a context as this, to use the word ‘irreplaceable’ but, in Jezza’s case, it is nothing but the mot juste.