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.


Lucy Coats said...

A beautiful piece, Mary. There was indeed something otherworldly about Naomi. I saw her last about 18 months ago at an Orion party, more like a little blackbird (with a robin's bright eye) than ever. I love to think of her in Heaven with HCA and all the other spinners of fairytales. I believe she was half-fairy herself, really. She and Alison Uttley (who I met at the very end of her life) had a good deal in common in that respect.

catdownunder said...

Kalimera from Downunder. (That is almost the limit of my Greek!) I am prowling in via Nicola's Blogoffee although it is now Saturday here. I had to take a catnap in the middle of the party. I have seen you around though and wanted to put a tentative paw around your door.

Nicola Morgan said...

I commented already but you're maybe monitoring so I'll wait to see if you rouse from your Grecian slumbers to post it - if it hasn't arrived, i'll try to remember what I said ...

Nicola Morgan said...

Ah, well that went up straightaway so my earlier comment must have vanished. All I said, I think, was that I'd never met Naomi but your "brought her alive" to me - lovely.

Katherine Langrish said...

Lovely post, Mary - you make me wish I had been so fortunate as to have met her.

Mary Hoffman said...

@catdownunder Kallimera to you too - though maybe it's kallispera where you are? I have a glad-to-be-back-from-cattery lilac tortie Burmese on my lap, so typing is difficult.

I did check e-mails a couple of times in Athens, Nicola, but not Book Maven. Glad I did now, though.

Yes, to both you and Katherine; it was a privilege to know Naomi, even slightly.

gillian hammerton said...

Naomi was a totally brilliant and amazing writer especially expert on Hans Christin Anderson.She was also a woman of great intellect with her priorities festering in the right places concerned with all species having no truck with cruelty.I knew her for well nigh 30 years and she could always surprise me with her wit and intelligence and introduced me to Prima Levi who she adored.She was an archtype a strong willed woman of her own will and intent.Read her amazing poems.

David Warren said...

I recall the lady quite vividly even though I only met her once back in about 1956/7. I lived next door but one to Gina and Rae (who were my best friends at the time). Naomi was there as a guest of Cath and Toby for a short break. I was introduced to her and it was explained to me that she was "a famous writer and newspaper columnist". She struck me as a very kind person, but one who could not suffer fools gladly. A person who was obviously highly intelligent and yet was able to comunicate with children on their own levels. My remaining memory is of a person who was extremely private and was quite happy with her own company.
She was a lovely person.

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