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Norman Lewis
Telegraph expat website, October 2010

Norman Lewis had the knack of being in the right place at the right time. None of the novels that he poured so much energy into creating (and which sold in their hundreds of thousands in their day) are now read, but much of his non-fiction work is still in print and includes half a dozen books of continuing delight and endearing worth. Honoured Society is a sympathetic investigation into post-war Sicily and the re-emergence of the Mafia; A Dragon Apparent his account of South-East Asia just before it was submerged by the Vietnam war and his journey through Burma, Golden Earth, catches that enchanting land before it fell under the iron heels of the generals. Voices of the Old Sea is a haunting requiem for the Spanish coast (indeed arguably for the whole coastline of the Mediterranean) caught before it was buried forever under the concrete monstrosities of package tourism.

His acknowledged masterpiece is Naples 44, a book which chronicles the survival of that city as the tides of war swept through southern Italy and left the region barren, broken and on the point of famine. It seems to reach beyond the brilliantly observed particulars of southern Italy at that time, to speak for all mankind, and its struggle to survive through the most testing periods of adversity. Norman, using his diaries and his field notes, wrote Naples 44 some thirty years after the harrowing events which he witnessed at first hand as a sergeant in the intelligence corps. This period of slow digestion seems to have been necessary, allowing him to bring an extraordinary sense of compassion and dignity to the finished work, so much so that he has virtually banished himself from the narrative. This is often the hallmark of a great work of a travel writing, when the writer no longer needs to paint themselves as the heroic narrator, but looks out to speak on behalf of the unsung. And compared to many of the larger-than-life personalities of his contemporary travel-writers (men such as Paddy Leigh-Fermor, Wilfrid Thesiger, Gavin Maxwell, Peter Fleming) Norman Lewis indeed casts barely a shadow. That is how he would have liked it. He was always discrete and secretive and at times, an almost invisible, observer. His origins were very different from the well-educated, upper-class backgrounds of practically all the other great travel writers of his day. What he had in common with these gentleman was a taste for adventure, a delight in gadgets and some element of involvement with the intelligence services – in his case some twenty years. He was also a crack shot and a determined and successful lover of women – to the extent that at one period of his life he was running three separate ‘establishments’. If it wasn’t such a corny old chestnut, I would claim him as a real James Bond. He’d have to be played by Michael Caine though, to get the right nuance on the man.

Norman Lewis was born in Enfield, one of the dullest of the outer suburbs of north-east London, where his father ran a chemist’s, albeit with an eccentric hue for he was also the spirit-medium of a local spiritualist chapel. Norman was a brilliant child, but also an inattentive scholar, who avoided university, preferring the greater thrills of the entrepreneurial trader, buying up wrecked sport’s cars (especially his beloved Bugattis) to be reconditioned, whilst setting up a chain of photographic shops that specialized in Leica cameras. He made his own mafia connections, through falling in love with a beautiful young Sicilian, before trying his hand as a freelance spy. His first mission seems to have been a ‘sponsored cruise’ along the coast of Yemen. He was entirely self-taught as a writer, and in later life evolved into a brilliant, outspoken, campaigning journalist, writing for the Sunday Times, yet he never lost his own deceptively modest, droll and hesitant voice, half Welsh, half Essex in tone. To find out more, you will have to start with Naples 44. If his style and take on life appeal, as they do to me, follow that with his other great books before progressing to Julian Evans’s absolutely first rate biography, ‘Semi invisible man, the life of Norman Lewis’.

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