Jeremy Lewis joined The Oldie in 1996 and quickly became its life force. Well over six foot, with his Desperate Dan jaw and enormous shovel-like hands, he was an unlikely embodiment of the magazine, but he needed just such a frame to hold that enormous heart.
He was the most generous man I have ever known; his currencies were time and joy. His fruity voice always lifted a drinks party. I remember his standing up and frantically waving at me from the front pew of a particularly sad memorial service, as one might beckon a friend to one’s seat at a football match; such was his anticipation of the forthcoming carousing. If serendipity and charity were his stock in trade, a great deal of his own happiness was clearly derived from his happy marriage to Petra (‘Fox’), for whom he did the entire household's ironing, and their two devoted daughters, Hattie and Jemima.
Jeremy was a great man of letters but, unlike others who have fitted that accolade, he wholly lacked a self-regarding pomposity. His lifelong desire was to encourage people of all ages to write. He saw no hierarchy of talent: he believed that a doorman might pen as a good piece as a don. For him, it was a question of practice, and learning technique, which he was only too happy to share with readers at The Oldie’s memoir and journalism courses.
This total lack of snobbery ran through his life. In the Nineties, he had a few pints every Tuesday lunch with Les from the post room of Chatto & Windus, of which he had been a director. He brought that attitude to The Oldie, deriving as much pleasure from the rowdier ad sales teams as the more contemplative editorial department. He was genuinely interested in the mechanics of publishing; so he was interested in absolutely everybody who was involved, and nonchalantly made them feel good.
Jeremy was always keen to encourage readers to write, and often found gems buried in the pile of unsolicited articles. With that in mind, The Oldie will honour his memory every year by awarding the Jeremy Lewis Prize for New Writers of £1,000 for 1,000 words to an individual over fifty who has never been paid for an article by a regional or national magazine or newspaper or for a book by a book publishing company. We will be announcing the criteria in the next issue; the first prize will be presented at The Oldie Christmas party at the Garrick Club, this December. The winning piece will be published in the following issue.
JAMES PEMBROKE, @james_pembroke.
Photograph © Neil Spence photography.