Sunday, 20 September 2009

Footprints in the Air

Yes, this is a second post about Naomi Lewis, who died in July. But if you have a problem with that, just think about all the column inches you've read about Dan Brown this week - or at least seen from a distance. A lifetime of nearly a century's literary achievement weighed against a handful of badly-written, toshily-plotted novels that have somehow made the big time. No contest.

Naomi Lewis, whose memorial was held at the Art Workers' Guild this week, never made a lot of money. I don't know if she ever had a book in the bestseller lists. But from the second half of the '50s when she published her first book, swiftly followed by A Visit to Mrs Wilcox, to 2007, when her version of The Snow Queen was illustrated by Christian birmingham for Walker Books, Naomi Lewis was a class act.

The great and the good of the children's book world were there to celebrate her life and work, many of them bearing witness (that's how it felt) with anecdotes and readings. There were Margaret Meek, Elaine Moss, Brian Alderson, Pam Royds, Judy Taylor, Jane Nissen and Judith Elliott, all from earlier eras of Naomi's long reviewing career. But also Julia Eccleshare and Geraldine Brennan, who edited her for the TLS and TES respectively. And many editors and agents still working in the business, like Janetta Otter-Barry and Caroline Sheldon and Laura Cecil.

A very frail Russell Hoban, now in his '80s, surmised that a healed animal of some kind had "put a cross on Naomi's door" and there were many reminiscences of her rescuing creatures, especially pigeons. we even heard a BBC recording of Naomi herself talking about untangling pigeons' feet from the threads that cripple them in London streets.

There were memories of Naomi's flat in Red Lion Square from those lucky enough to get into it (Russell Hoban talked about how he and Leon Garfield had speculated about penetrating that inner sanctum but never succeeded). Antonia Robinson mentioned the tottering piles of books six feet or more high and the mazes she had to walk between them, sternly adjured "not to touch anything."

Naomi used to pretend to be a witch as often as a good fairy to the many children of her acquaintance and to be able to grant wishes. Sophie Herxheimer the illustrator re-told how a wish Naomi had given her mother, Susan Collier, as a teenager was used thirty years later to ensure the safe return of Charlie the cat, who had been missing for days. How pleased Naomi must have been to hear that story!

There were also many recollections of the creative writing courses for adults that she ran at the City Lit which continued informally after her official retirement. Students would just continue to turn up and find an empty room and Naomi would continue to teach them. No-one paid anything but she might acquire gifts in kind like a bag of apples. Naomi herself appeared hardly to eat and there were stories of many lunches to which people were invited in Red Lion Square or Conway Hall where no-one recalled any food being provided!

But when a meal was actually taken it would be strictly vegan for Naomi and woe betide a fellow guest who might want steak. "You may want one but you will eat it without my presence."

David Lloyd, her last editor, at Walker Books, imagined a heaven in which Naomi Lewis was taking tea with Hans Christian Anderson, on whom she was a world expert. She had gnomically informed David once that all pigeons were twins and he didn't know what to do with the information.

Her editors often found her maddening since she wrote over-length by about three times and was no respecter of deadlines. A.N. Wilson at the Evening Standard, Geraldine Brennan at the TES who waited in vain for seven years for a promised article, David Lloyd who expected a book on pigeons, Julia Eccleshare, who said she was "impossible and inspiring" in equal measure.

"What are you reading?" was always Naomi's first question whenever you met her, and her own knowledge of literature was both wide and deep. She wrote her first poem at six years old and her last at 97 - nearly a century of poems poured out of this remarkable woman.

The memorial event was skilfully put together by her brother Toby, who said touchingly and truly that he had know Naomi longer than anyone in the room - for about ninety years; her nieces Gina and Rae and her great-nephew Alexander, who finished the occasion by reading her poem "A Footprint on the Air."

Few people could have trod the earth more lightly and valued it more highly than Naomi Lewis. But she leaves an indelible impression for the many who knew her or even just met her occasionally.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Four guardians

Four very strong titles on the shortlist for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. Siobhan Dowd was on last year's shortlist too, with Bog Child, which went on to win this year's Carnegie Medal.
Sadly, Siobhan died in 2007, but that did not preclude victory for what her publisher called "the big one."

The Guardian is a pretty big one too and Terry Pratchett will be delighted to be on the shortlist with his Nation - something very different from his 30+ Discworld series or his books for younger children, such as Maurice and his Amazing Educated Rodents, which won the Carnegie Medal.

Mal Peet has won the Carnegie too, with Tamar, and was a Guardian judge last year. Now he is on the other side of the process, with Exposure, the third of his not-football-novels set in South America, this one drawing for inspiration on Othello.

Morris Gleitzman makes a worthy fourth contender, with Then, the sequel to Once. Holocaust novels have been fashionable (if it isn't distasteful to put it that way) since The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas but books like Gleizman's and Markus Zusak's The Book Thief are altogether more authentic novels.

The judges - Patrick Ness (last year's winner) Celia Rees and Andy Stanton, with Julia Eccleshare as Chair - have a hard task to come up with one winner out of such a shortlist. Their decison will be announced on 8th October.