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.

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