Horrors and Hidden Money

D.A.N. Jones

  • Jackdaw Cake: ‘An Autobiography’ by Norman Lewis
    Hamish Hamilton, 214 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 241 11689 9

Would we buy a used car from Norman Lewis? He certainly seems to know a lot about them. There is a picture on the dust-cover of the young Lewis (he was born in 1918) proudly at the wheel of a Bugatti, and he describes, too briefly, his dangerous experience with such a machine at Brooklands in 1939, his last adventure in serious motor-racing. In the Thirties he used to buy second-hand cars in Italy, to be done up and sold in Britain. We might guess, from his novels and travel-books, that Lewis would make a persuasive salesman; but this ‘Autobiography’ might also persuade us that he is inclined to exaggerate. He has often written in a cool, unsurprised, almost entertaining way about gruesome events in four continents – like a Martian anthropologist, sometimes. It comes as a relief when he expresses astonishment or indignation: his traveller’s-tales are made more credible.

Since Jackdaw Cake is subtitled ‘An Autobiography’, between inverted commas, we might think of the book as ‘unreliable memoirs’. The first two parts of the book, about his childhood, are written in a strain of hyperbole, sometimes as pleasingly Welsh as Dylan or Gwyn Thomas. Before we reach the third section, about his pre-war adventures among Arabs, Cubans and Sicilians, we have been astonished by his weird boyhood in Carmarthen and Enfield, where his experiences seem scarcely less bizarre and exotic. We no longer think of him as a superior anthropologist heartlessly inspecting lesser breeds, for he has already played the Martian in Britain: perhaps all children are ‘Martian’. The fourth and final section of the book is mostly about his wartime experiences, as a sergeant in Intelligence. His friends, he tells us, when he announced his intention of becoming a writer, urged him not to bore his readers with war stories. So he wrote 14 other books before the celebrated Naples ’44, and now he ends his memoir with equally interesting war stories, largely about Algeria and Tunis, which are quite relevant to the preceding sections but take a slightly different tone. It is in the wartime section that he is most inclined to express candid surprise and indignation, though there is still real comedy (if sometimes black or sick) in his deadpan anecdotes of military follies.

The book begins with a hard stare at the scarred face of Lewis’s aunt, Polly, an epileptic who has just been patched up after falling into the fire again. The boy inspecting the face is young Norman, who has been brought from Enfield to Carmarthen, so that his grandfather can ‘make a Welshman’ of him. Living with the grandfather are three aunts, all of them ‘dotty’, one of them suspected by the police of writing poison-pen letters. Aunt Polly and Aunt Li do not talk to each other and Aunt Annie acts as intermediary. Aunt Li weeps a great deal but Aunt Annie has a permanent smile and likes to dress up as Queen Mary or a Cossack or a Spanish dancer – embarrassing Norman with this gear when she collects him from school. The grandfather does not talk to Norman but conducts loud, familiar conversations with God. He breeds dangerous gamecocks (frightening to Aunt Li, who kills one of them) and he keeps a mistress in the town, a French modiste, whom Aunt Li attacks, stamping on her hat. The three aunts are kind to other birds, though: every week they bake a cake to be shared by the thousands of jackdaws who infest the town, tapping at windows for food. From this cake Norman Lewis takes his title. Others might have offered the birds merely a can of worms – which indeed the book does sometimes resemble.

Another aunt in the neighbourhood is Aunt Lalla, who has a mad son of 14 with whom Norman must go for long walks while the idiot boy hits matchboxes along the road with his golf club in a shamefully ludicrous way. At Llanstephan on the coast there is Uncle Williams whose lower jaw was shot away during World War One: he wears a mask with a tube protruding from his right nostril to be fixed behind his ear, and down this tube Auntie Williams gently pours gruel to feed him, while she massages his throat. The residents of Llanstephan throw stones at miners’ families on the beach, for playing a gramophone on the Sabbath Day. Police call to inquire about poison-pen letters, the epileptic Aunt Polly attempts to hang herself and a doctor arrives with a contraption of buckles and straps – but it is Aunt Li who is sent away to a madhouse. Then Norman goes back home to Enfield, having been labelled ‘Dickie Dwl’ for his failure to learn Welsh.

Here he finds that his father, who keeps a chemist’s shop, has become a spiritualist medium and young Norman is brought into the séances, since he is held to be very gifted, psychically. He watches a visiting medium, Mildred Frogley, being exposed for counterfeiting a manifestation of ectoplasm by concealing 12 yards of chiffon in her vagina. His mother is a successful faith-healer, assisted by a Red Indian spirit guide and a lady from the court of Marie Antoinette. (Do they never come from less celebrated areas, like, say, the Windward Isles or the court of Henry III?) The father sells a popular placebo, made of garlic-flavoured water, and this helps to finance the spiritualist church in his back garden. Yet he despises the gullibility of those who buy patent medicines and such gadgets as ‘the Wonder Worker, a small spade-shaped bakelite contraption designed for insertion into the rectum’: all the leaders of Enfield society, including the Bowleses and ‘the fearful virago, Lady Meux, once a Gaiety girl’, were walking the streets ‘with these things stuck up their bottoms’. Lewis remarks: ‘Their gullibility, my father said, passed all comprehension. Yet he himself seemed to me avid for belief.’

The Bowleses mentioned above were the rulers of Enfield. They were the wealthy descendants of Sir Hugh Myddleton who created the New River to bring water to London in the 17th century. Sir Henry Bowles was the permanent Tory MP: ‘he wielded huge and uncontested power, paid the lowest wages in the county and was understood to possess a harem of three young, gracious and well-bred girls.’ Sir Henry’s brother, Augustus Bowles, a distinguished botanist and painter, conducted weekly C of E confirmation classes for boys. Though homosexual, he offered an entertaining lecture about the facts of life, demonstrated by two antique French dolls powered by a steam engine to simulate ecstatic orgasms. The boys would cry: ‘He doesn’t understand, sir. Show him your jig-a-jig.’ When Norman Lewis remarks that ‘there was little British suburban respectability in Philippeville,’ we wonder if there was any in Enfield.

Lewis moves in with a Sicilian family in Gordon Street, Bloomsbury, where he marries a daughter called Ernestina. Her father, Ernesto, tells him of the old days in Palermo. The in-laws enjoy meeting Lewis’s family and one of them secretly adopts spiritualism after hearing Lewis’s father go into a trance during lunch, squealing ‘Oh, Mama, Mama!’ in a child’s voice. Lewis takes his wife to visit the aunts in Wales: they are together again, worse than before, for they have learned to do things in madhouses – mowing lawns and painting faces on acorns – and these things they do obsessively.

These are gobbets from the jackdaw cake, worms fresh from the can. I am reminded of the ‘sick jokes’ told by schoolboys in the Forties – ritual riddles like ‘Mother, mother, why am I walking round in a circle?’ ‘Quiet, or I’ll nail your other foot to the ground.’ Or the ritual chant about the man jumping from a burning building when his friends have promised to catch him: ‘And he jumped. And he broke his firkin neck. I ain’t laughed so much since my old mother caught her tits in the mangle.’ (This ancient punch-line was used quite recently by Daley Thompson to celebrate his Olympic victory.) When such stories are ploddingly told in Booker-McConnell prize-winning novels, by J.M. Coetzee or Keri Hulme, the books are described as ‘compassionate’ and the judges, at least, seem deeply moved. With Norman Lewis’s tone, especially in ‘non-fiction’, it is possible to provoke a different response – like the response of Denton Welch in A Voice through a Cloud when he observes a specialist’s treatment of a patient who has cut his head, falling in an epileptic fit. Norman Lewis is sometimes in danger of being commended with those nasty reviewers’ phrases, ‘heartless elegance’ and ‘urbane, unsentimental wit’, so detested by Denton Welch.

However, when Norman and Ernestina go travelling, there is often a political and economic excuse for the gruesome tales. They go to Fascist Spain, where starving peasants are massacred by police. They go to Ostend with Ernestina’s family, who are gambling for high stakes while pretending to be poor. This is a recurring theme in the book. Wales is described as ‘full of ugly chapels, of hidden money, psalm-singing and rain’. Later, when Lewis is in Cuba, at the outbreak of World War Two, he remarks: ‘Secretly, nothing could have caused more joy to the small percentage of Cubans who in reality owned the country than the news that war had finally been declared ... as a general rule, the only time when countries producing raw materials can expect a good or even fair price for their production is when a major war is being fought.’ Back in Ostend, Lewis is asked by his father-in-law, Ernesto, to go to Italy and seek permission for Ernesto to return to that country, from which he has been exiled because of his crimes and his subsequent work for the Unione Siciliana in New York. For this purpose Lewis visits ‘a powerful fascist hierarch’ who candidly displays his possessions, including ‘a finger-bone – one of many small relics gnawed under the pretext of a reverent kiss – from the embalmed body of St Francis Xavier’. The Fascist asks Lewis how rich Ernesto is. He says there is no means of knowing.

Travelling in the Balkans, Lewis met a successful author called Ladislas Farago, who was to make a million pounds, many years later, by pretending to meet Hitler’s deputy, Martin Bormann, in post-war South America. This, says Lewis, was ‘a minor spoof’, but something else Farago did earns stern condemnation. Farago became ‘one of President Nixon’s evil geniuses and an inspirer of his policy in Vietnam’. Yet Farago seemed a kind man (the only man Lewis had ever known to be ‘deeply distressed – on the verge of tears – at the plight of a fish on a hook’) and it was hard to believe that in the case of the Vietnam War ‘he could have perpetrated the cruel deceptions (for he knew and cared nothing about the Far East) by which the sufferings of the war were prolonged.’

At Hodeida he tells a particularly ghastly story about a public execution and then, as if wondering how to respond, he discusses his wife, Ernestina, whose ‘loss of satisfaction with life was symbolised by an increasing obsession with comedy in all its forms. Like so many in those days she had made a brief incursion into psychoanalysis, and been recommended to accept life as a spectacle.’ Perhaps it was this that persuaded her to take Lewis to Cuba, to stay with some friends of hers who ‘were fascists ... and had become hangers-on at “The Palace”, the name by which Batista’s ornate villa was generally known’. Lewis remarks: ‘On the first day by the purest of chance we had witnessed gross violence of the kind that was almost a national specialty. Thereafter, behind the mask of laughter, there were always small violences and tragic scenes in plenty, but soon we became inured to them – just as, by the coarsening of habit, a humane man may eventually come to tolerate the spectacle of a bullfight.’

It is on this 1939 Cuban expedition that Lewis begins to express indignation about the United States. New Yorkers, fearing war, were wearing large badges that said ‘Keep America Out’ and stewards on the boat to Havana kept admonishing him about ‘the dangerous likely outcome of British aggression’. He is angry, too, about the American manipulation of sugar quotas and prices: it is usually some form of master-race colonialism that brings on Lewis’s indignation. Surprise, too, manifests itself for the first time. ‘Amazingly, the problem, after I had straightened out my affairs, was how to get into the Army.’ He managed it, while Ernestina stayed in South America, sending him news about the local barbarities, until they drifted apart.

He was put into the Intelligence Corps, after being taught ceremonial marching in the style of Frederick the Great and how to ride a motor-bike, army-style, which caused many injuries since the machines were grossly defective, barely controllable. He became a sergeant, under the command of two very funny men, Captain Merrylees and Sergeant-Major Leopold, and they went to North Africa where they were beset by a crowd of Frenchmen, all informers denouncing other Frenchmen as pro-Germans. The French claimed the Arabs were all pro-German, but ‘what they really were was intensely and bitterly anti-French, after a century of intellectually planned subjugation.’ The French settlers’ main weapon was unemployment, but (as in Cuba) war and armies brought more employment, properly paid. The Arabs became more spirited and the French prepared to punish them, after the war.

There are plenty of horror stories about the French. One of them has evidently preyed on Lewis’s mind, for he has mentioned it bitterly in another book, and he refers to it three times in this one, with real indignation. Some Arab boys, aged 13, were brought in for questioning and a gendarme, ‘as a preliminary measure – and he told me this was always done – stamped on their toes with his heavy boots’. Sergeant Lewis got rid of the gendarme and arranged for the boys to take their ‘crushed and bleeding toes’ to Philippeville hospital. There are passages from his diary that express his anger at the time quite straightforwardly: ‘We are beginning to copy the attitudes of the French who are out to persuade us that Arabs don’t matter.’

He forms a club of influential Arabs to encourage friendship with the British. One of these Arabs he finds unsympathetic because of his set of photographs of an atrocity, photographs ‘so gruesome that they have even been turned down by Life. I cannot bring myself to feel any deep affection for a man who could concentrate on his photography at such a time.’ But it is this photographer who informs Lewis about a riot of Senegalese troops who have massacred hundreds of Arabs. Lewis finds that a wealthy and powerful settler called Fortuna, who had thrown in his lot with the British against the French, was partly responsible for the massacre, in collaboration with the Senegalese officers. This leads him to a discourse on the following ten years of French repression in Algeria. ‘In this huge final tragedy our section in Philippeville, succouring through ignorance and gullibility such gangsters as Fortuna, played its tiny part.’ Similarly when he gets to Italy he finds that ‘AMGOT – the Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories – largely officered by Americans of Italian origin, stood between us and justice and truth.’ They had replaced all Fascist-appointed mayors with the nominees of the Mafia, freshly released from gaol: the Mafia, which Mussolini had almost crushed, was now more powerful than it had been since the days of Garibaldi.

He obviously made his mark in North Africa. The Bey du Camp, the man who governed Tunis under the French, sent for Sergeant Lewis to tell him the date of the forthcoming invasion of Sicily (which British Intelligence did not know) and to assert that he was in touch with Sicilian dissidents who wanted to make the island a British protectorate. The Bey added that Tunisia was about to break relations with France, but not to become a republic: ‘We are not prepared to surrender our country to socialism. Instead we wish to become part of the British Empire.’ These are interesting stories and it is a fascinating book. We may hope that many of the horror tales have been exaggerated – and perhaps wish for a bit more of the honest indignation and a bit less of the worldly, stoical smile.