I Came, I Saw
by Norman Lewis

Picador, MacMillan: 1996
391 pp., $18.95
ISBN: 0 330 34005 0

Review by Ann Skea

Ann Skea is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE Press, Australia)

This book has been published at least twice before and now re-appears, with some additional pages, to complement a second autobiographical volume (The World The World) published last year.

In 1985, the title of the book was Jackdaw Cake-- the name of a rich, iced cake baked in a weekly ritual by Lewis's dotty Welsh aunts and fed (in the kitchen) to flocks of noisy jackdaws. Like the cake, the book is full of rich and varied ingredients and, also, of characters every bit as eccentric, bizarre, funny and tragic as Lewis's aunts.

Lewis is coy about his age, but he must have been in his late twenties when World War 11 began, so his childhood memories are of a world which has largely vanished. One hopes, at least, that Welsh villagers no longer throw stones at day-tripping miners, but Lewis is such an inveterate collector of human idiosyncrasies that he would still, no doubt, find some equally odd behaviour in present-day Wales to write about.

Here, Lewis collects anecdotes from his childhood, adolescence, first marriage, war service and his early travels to Cuba, North Africa and Italy. He is justifiably well-known for his travel writing, and his clear, easy prose, his eye for detail and his ability to get below surface appearances, all bring the people he describes to life. But these are historical documentaries, interesting cultural background material, but without the immediacy and current relevance that more recent travel-books have for the armchair traveller. And the long section on Lewis's war service as an Intelligence Officer in the British Army is funny but seems stereotyped - we have had so many other accounts of military madness, chaos and incompetence since Lewis first wrote his.

For those who remember the era Lewis writes about, this book will be delightfully nostalgic. For others, it is enjoyable, light reading which will confirm all the national caricatures (English, Welsh, Italian, Arab, French) that we secretly like to believe in but which show no more than that humans are odd, unpredictable creatures with very strange habits, especially when viewed by an author intent on amusing his readers.

More from the author...

Books by Norman Lewis at Amazon.Com

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