British author Roger Lewis is adored by a small coterie of true conservative modernists and, it seems, despised by a much larger body of chatterati, mediacrats and the Leftist cultural mafia. Such polar reactions to this literary moralist, innovative biographer and wicked satirist explain much about the UK’s culture wars, so changed since the first half of the twentieth century. Parallels may also be drawn with American media-culture and public values.
Lewis, a 52-year-old Welshman transplanted to England, resembles a Victorian mill producing industrial quantities of good reviews, academic articles, biographies and satire. Most of the works by this former Oxford don, who has first-class degrees and honours from St. Andrews, Magdalen and Wolfson, are hallmarked by his distinctive modernism overlaying a vigorous conservatism, together reminiscent of T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis.
Like both, he is a revolutionary traditionalist who couples modern art-forms with timeless values: a concept understood by imaginative conservatives, not fully comprehended by their hidebound kinsmen who retreat from modernism in any form, and often loathed by what Lenin would today call Brit-culture’s Leftist true-believers, fellow-travellers from the BBC and similar media, and the useful-idiots of the unthinking chattering classes; in other words, much of the UK’s cultural Establishment.
Lewis has single-handedly reinvented the literary and show-business biography with his innovative lives of Sir Laurence Olivier, Peter Sellers, Charles Hawtrey and Anthony Burgess, turning an age-old formula into works of modern art.The very structure and style of each biography is tailored to his subject, reflecting how modern media figures create their own personae for professional and personal gain, and how, ultimately, the audience’s and the biographer’s perceptions contribute just as much to our understanding of these half-real-half-concocted figures as do the conventional dates and details of their professional and personal lives. A Lewis biography, echoing Yeats, will not “separate the dancer from the dance.”
So, while conventional bio-data are still researched and well-presented, Lewis’s epic “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” (which won him a Golden-Globe/Emmy for its American HBO dramatisation) tracks the neurotic, self-obsessed comedian over almost a map of Sellers’s tortured brain, in an enormously readable book with psychosis creeping in at the margins. The HBO film alludes to Lewis’s structure as, on-screen, the real-life Sellers slips into his own imagination and back again.
His biography of that literary poseur and 1970s chatterati icon, Anthony Burgess, augments exposure of the novelist’s pseudo-intellectualism and bald-faced lies with footnotes that look out of place in a non-academic bio, but which are fully intentional and pointed. Here, too, the unique structure and style of this biography comment subtly on its human subject, as cod-academic footnotes expose a pseudo-academic charlatan.
His life of Charles Hawtrey, a British comic actor much loved for his camp characters in the 1960s “Carry-On” series of low-budget film-burlesques, is almost a Victorian tale of moral instruction. Hawtrey, an Edwardian figure and the son of a more famous fin-de-siècle entertainer, was never satisfied with his comic popularity and considered himself to be a great but neglected serious actor in the Gielgud-Olivier tradition. He was as embittered by that as by his persistent and increasingly unsuccessful trolling of dockside bars to solicit young sailors, and he committed suicide by refusing surgery that could have saved him from gangrene. Cutting deftly between on-screen comedy and off-screen squalor, the structure of Lewis’s biography makes a moral and psychological point more powerfully and poignantly than prose didactics ever could manage.
Both Hawtrey and Sellers, beloved comics, were cruel, unhappy and haunted men who made life a misery for all who knew them; and both were driven by a similar selfishness, self-fixation or even sociopathy. They differed chiefly in that Sellers was an international success while Hawtrey saw himself as an unfairly-ignored victim of conspiracy, but their shared malaise was always the fixated self, the sick and overweening ego. Burgess, too, was a self-centred opportunist who fabricated his past for temporary advantage, so often that even his friends never knew the truth until Lewis sifted through the mountains of malarkey.While actors and writers are more susceptible to such daemons than are many of us, something similar has spread wide across our modern, navel-gazing age, where confessional media, pop-psychology, plastic surgeons and ubiquitous shrinks mint fortunes by feeding the self-obsession that leads to even more unhappiness. So, today’s exacerbated but still-Original Sin of selfishness (as Saint Augustine defined it) is a consistent theme throughout Lewis’s biographies, showing how the most thoroughgoing self-absorption leaves no room for any higher values. He is a moralist who has modernised his packaging beyond screeds and sermons, Tweets and text-messages.
Were Wyndham Lewis’s student, Marshall McLuhan, a biographer, he would have been an early version of Roger Lewis, intentionally blending the medium and the message; the real man, the manufactured persona, and the audience’s and biographer’s perceptions drawn from the silver screen and the stage-managed public space. McLuhan would have recognised the modernist integrity of a Lewis media-biography, reviewing an holistic commercial package as it is presented to consumers; an amalgam of person, product and marketing.
Lewis has invented a new medium in biography similar to what Eliot achieved with his pioneering mix of traditional values and modernist poetic forms. It is not, however, always as swiftly digestible as a concise poem or a modernist daub on a gallery wall; it requires a level of sustained concentration similar to watching a modern stage-play. Like the best modern drama, his gestalt biographies are innovative, original and full of meaning – direct and oblique – that cannot be wholly conveyed in any other manner or medium. This places the author’s structural originality on a level akin to Eliot or Ezra Pound in poetry, Brecht or Beckett on stage, Joyce‘s novels and many of the early modernist painters.
This new biographical genre should scrutinise some successful politicians who are also media creatures self-created; a Lewis treatment of Tony Blair or Bill Clinton would be well worth reading.Lewis’s innumerable reviews, restricted to Britain’s few quality periodicals of a conservative mien, are all good, clear and perceptive. But they are not normally where he hides his moral mischief, which appears in his social satire more than in his other work.Since Lewis’s biographies include the author’s unfolding perceptions of his subjects, put together they describe his own path to a moral vision and his transition to satire.
Sellers was a boyhood hero for Lewis, in his brilliant comic characters from the bumbling but arrogant Inspector Clouseau, to multiple roles in “Dr. Strangelove” and the rest. Lewis wondered what inspired such a clever chameleon. Hawtrey’s characters were cherished as part of the Carry-On team, and Lewis, as a 1970s undergraduate, was taken in by Burgess’s cosmopolitan literary pose. He spent five years of research revealing Sellers’s dark personality, later discovering the similarly corrupting self-centredness of Burgess and Hawtrey. From the shared moral flaws of his biographical subjects sprang his recent satires, suggesting that there can never be a true moral vacuum, and how a self-obsessed amorality only allows other, less virtuous, values to creep in unexamined.
Lewis’s 2009 book, Seasonal Suicide Notes, and his 2011 sequel, What Am I Still Doing Here, grew out of his annual private letters to friends, parodying the saccharine, self-aggrandising, round-robin, Yuletide circulars so common among the arriviste middle-classes in Britain and America. Lewis’s mockery turned the genre inside-out, and his friends insisted that his letters became books.
Reversing the self-exulting tone of the bourgeois letters, Lewis decries his professional failures and rotten reviews, his feckless children, his bibulous habits and his deteriorating health (his liver and spleen keep reappearing to the same infectious joy with which Dickens reintroduces his much-loved scoundrels and bores). His dwarfish Welsh relatives scuttle in and out as if from some Nibelungen cavern deep beneath Swansea, while commissioning editors only ring to cut his fees. His saintly wife escapes complaint, although as they reach the denouement of love-making she asks if a Volkswagen camper-van was on sale in
Even his rural exile, in what he calls “The Herefordshire Balkans,” is as remote, unfashionable and devoid of intellectual company as it can get, since Ovid decamped from Rome to the Black Sea.Great Malvern.
Lewis mingles his comically bleak existence with genuine but surrealist news items culled from the press to make silent, moral comment by proximity. These are always funny, and usually pillory the opportunistic, disingenuous, politically-correct culture now inescapable across Britain. A small-town dad tries to push through the crowds at the local public swimming pool to collect his children, calling in jest, “Sorry! Excuse me! Paedophile coming through!” and horrified officials close the pool.
Lurking behind his genuinely parlous health and critical neglect, plus debatable claims of poverty, hide the author’s holiday flat in the chocolate-box Austrian resort of Bad Ischl, intimations of frequent travel, and hints at his profound love for his wife and children. His happiness resides almost exclusively amid good art, family, close friends and those rare enclaves of tradition which still escape contemporary rot, from the corridas of bull-fighting Spain to Habsburg patisseries.
These are described but are left unexamined intentionally because, like any competent satirist, Lewis must choose between didactic outrage versus a moral alternative left unstated but implied. The former risks tiring his audience and flattening the comic soufflé; the latter reduces moral precision and relies upon the insight of a clever reader to know what he means. Lewis chose the second path, as any satirist must lest he become a mere sermoniser or pamphleteer.
His remote English village provides a running moral contrast, a periodic dip-stick test of British normalcy. Prosaic and untouched by ideas, his neighbours nevertheless go quietly about their lives running shops, habituating the traditional pub where slot-machines and juke-boxes are banned, with people going to church but not all that often, youngsters courting and everyone following the soccer that leaves Lewis cold. Juxtaposed, encroaches the insanity imposed by politically-correct petty apparatchiks far away, Progressive media and the crack-up of the self-obsessed. At home the cultured author is a stranger in a strange land, but his villagers provide perspective and he never mocks them.
But few readers or critics look beyond his witty grievances, and that suits his strategy: were Roger Lewis, like C. S. Lewis, “Surprised by Joy,” then his discontent would collapse and so would his satire.
By replacing the arriviste round-robin braggadocio with comic frustration, Lewis mocks the morally hollow, self-congratulatory, chattering-classes including media-mavens, and exposes their opportunistic half-truths and lies. Admitted or denied, every life includes elements of dour, Lewisian dissatisfaction and decline, until the Grim Reaper plays the winning hand.
For a self-serving member of Britain’s intimate, arts-and-media cabal, however, one’s every utterance is calculated and buoyantly insincere, every casual acquaintance is intentionally misdescribed as a best-friend and every allied plonker is hailed as a genius (usually “an anarchic genius,” reflecting the chattering-classes’ unexamined, Leftist, scorn for tradition and order). So, when an intrinsically disingenuous, self-and-pals-promoting, materialistic, self-centred, valueless, ambitious, hype-generating (and often typical) BBC type and/or Groucho Club member reads these supposedly depressing but riotously funny tales of squalor, and peers into the mirror, he sees Lewis looking back at him and laughing. Lewis grabs his lapels, demanding to know if the Hollow Man’s much-vaunted successes, his exaggerated curriculum vitae and his “me wall” full of certificates and celebrity photos are only so much bunkum, shallowness and calculated self-promotion, or even self-deceit.
Lewis is the slave on the chariot, standing behind the hero of a Roman triumph, countering egotism by whispering that you too shall die. He is a Memento Mori, an Ozymandias, or Scrooge’s Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come pointing a bony finger at the grave. While people with historical, cultural and moral perspective can often laugh at the inevitable, no wonder that so many self-absorbed blatherskites and Progressive pecksniffs hate him, and someone disliking Lewis usually reveals a sort of person to avoid. Unfortunately, these same specimens tend to review books for Britain’s Left-Establishment media.
Roger Lewis makes a successful literary meal from ingredients resembling the forgotten complaints of the elderly Wyndham Lewis, who went blind living in a condemned building in London’s Notting Hill district which he wryly called Rotting Hill. He also resembles the author-painter in the culturally prescriptive and anti-egalitarian aspects of the latter’s radical modernist conservatism, views which Wyndham’s overt tracts of course made clearer. Lewis skewers bourgeois hypocrites, and by extension much of modernity, as Roy Campbell excoriated Bloomsbury’s decadent ideologues in his poetic satires, but Campbell bashed his victims head-on while Lewis takes one step back. The result, for anyone bright enough to appreciate it, may be the more piquant.
There is great quality and originality, but not structural novelty, in Lewis’s satire accompanied by unstated moral alternatives: Dean Swift did it long ago. But his gestalt biography is wholly original, as much so in its way as Eliot’s “1917 Poems,” where the modernist poetic style alienated some of the poet’s culturally-deaf conservative allies. Modernism and innovation make Lewis’s biographies less accessible to the dull or unwary reader, the type who expects a plodding, chronological tale, just as he may wonder where to look for the twee buggy and the covered bridge in a Kandinsky painting. Readers who expect a biographical cheeseburger, but get served up Boeuf Wellington, may account for his normally hostile reviews from the Amazon “booboisie.”
His humour is more accessible, although few reviewers have seen through the curmudgeonly laughs and the surrealist news-clips to recognise the satire within. The American playwright, George Kaufman, may have been correct when he said “satire is what closes on Saturday night,” or Wyndham Lewis and Roy Campbell who warned that satire becomes impossible in an age lacking traditional values, conventional morality and normative behaviour, against which satire must be contrasted. As an example, had Georgian Englishmen not been horrified at the thought of eating half-starved Irish babies, and had they not shared the author’s morality and so missed his implied call for humane policies to alleviate famine, then Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” would have been merely another option on the luncheon menu.
Yet, in a Progressive world where all values are held to be equally valid, there can exist no source of outrage to be employed by the satirist: Swift’s essay would be meaningless to those who think that cannibalism is a “legitimate alternative lifestyle.” Britain is not yet devoid of discriminating values but its Progressive reviewers often are, or are hostile to values apart from their own.
Moreover, today it is difficult to satirise the arriviste bourgeoisie, and get big publishers’ advances and numerous reviews, when scholars, aristocrats and other bookish souls such as T. S. Eliot and Sir Rupert Hart-Davis no longer occupy the commanding heights of the literary world; when today’s publishers are multi-national corporate “suits” just as happy peddling condoms or cans of baked beans; when the vulgar rich at the helm of culture are self-satisfied, resentful of mockery and feel threatened by artistic and intellectual qualities that they identify only occasionally and cannot quite understand, yet feel no commercial need to understand; when the crass crack the whip. The hyper-commercialised, mass-market, television-celebrity-mad, modern world of British publishing has largely been created and run by what C. S. Lewis called Trousered Apes; reading the spreadsheets, picking one another’s nits, counting the bananas in the storeroom, and only occasionally wondering why they are not quite Homo Sapiens.
Yet Roger Lewis inspires fierce devotion from Britain’s remnant of imaginative conservatives, plus other perceptive artists who, although not conservative, at least appreciate his wit.
The late (but otherwise immortal) Ronald Searle waived the fee for his final artwork illustrating Lewis’s latest satirical book cover. Stephen Fry, perhaps no self-identified conservative but one of Britain’s best-loved wits and actors, calls Lewis’s humour “unremittingly glorious,” and Karl Marx’s biographer, Francis Wheen, calls Lewis “a magnificently bilious comic genius.” No mention is made of his post-modern biographies or the social satire behind his humour, but they love the laughs.
The (centre-Right) London Daily Telegraph identifies in his humour “a savage but cogent howl against contemporary culture,” touching upon his popularity among Britain’s small cadre of imaginative conservatives. These include the journalist and critic Quentin Letts, the humorist Craig Brown, the staunchly Catholic former Tory politician Anne Widdecombe and the Rt. Hon. Michael Gove, MP, who is the UK Minister for Education and the brightest star in cabinet. Gove wrote in a conservative newspaper, The Mail on Sunday:
There is only one writer alive today who is as mordantly funny as Kingsley Amis, as acute about human misery as Philip Larkin, and as brilliant in skewering pretension and vanity as both. His name is Roger Lewis… Nothing funnier or wiser has been published all year. If you love someone buy them this book. If they don’t appreciate the gift then purge them from your life.
Alongside Amis and Larkin one might include both Waughs; Evelyn the novelist father and Auberon, the arch-conservative, journalist-satirist son. The latter’s puckish (thus quite Lewisian) propensity to shock for effect charmed an uncommonly perceptive Leftist reporter from The Village Voice, when he told her that he carried lumps of coal in his overcoat-pocket to chuck at lesbians just because “it irritated them,” and he was safe from retaliation because “everyone knows that women can’t throw things properly.” Planning to vilify him, instead she published a love-letter to his contrarianism. A few perceptive Leftish writers, whose appreciation of wit overcomes any ideological myopia, are similarly enchanted by Lewis, but not many.
Reviews of Lewis in Britain’s Progressive Establishment media are few and hostile. The far-Left Guardian newspaper slammed Lewis’s Burgess biography as “an idle, fatuous, self-regarding book” with ad-hominems piled on top. On BBC television and radio he simply does not appear. Two Establishment grandee-critics, Alexander Walker and Sheridan Morley, never passed up a chance to savage Lewis, giving him far more attention than he deserved were he the non-entity that they claimed him to be. To them Roger Lewis was clearly what Wyndham Lewis defined himself as, “The Enemy.”
The roots of his unpopularity among British Progressives are normally five-fold, generating two typical responses. Either Lewis has gored a Leftist sacred cow or slain a childhood-hero to the chatterati such as Burgess, or their reviewers (like the Amazon “booboisie”) simply miss the innovative structure of his modernist biographies or are repulsed by his political incorrectness, in which cases he is reviled. Or, far more commonly, the Leftist culturati know full-well what he is up to, hate it because it skewers people resembling themselves and mocks their ideology, and they ignore him assiduously. One stumbles across reviews of Lewis in Britain’s Left-Establishment media not much more often than a publican serves up a pint of bitter in the Holy Grail.
The critical reactions of the cultural Left have changed since the 1920s and 1930s, in both Britain and America. The artistic and literary clash of the day, chiefly over modernism, was thus perhaps more honest and less ideologically-driven than it is now. Men of fine-arts and letters such as Wyndham Lewis, and poet-critics such as T. S. Eliot and Roy Campbell, were figures of the Right but they were given exposure and sometimes even acclaim by their opponents, for their innovation if not for their underlying values.
That personal decency, artistic honesty or professional courtesy is largely dead, while it seems that ideological vetting and the tyranny of political correctness may simply condemn their outcasts to a gulag of silence. However, there are at least three possible explanations for a decline in critical toleration, and all may be partly correct.
It may be that critics overlook structural innovations to modern art because there are so few examples compared to the first half of the last century; exhibiting an unmade bed or pickling sharks are innovations, but they are not structural innovations such as, say, Cubism or abstract painting, Pound’s Cantos, Joyce’s Ulysses or Lewis’s biographies, all of which alter an art-form to enable it to say more than the preceding formula, or to deliver a different mix of messages. As well, structural novelty occurs more easily in visual media than in prose, making the latter harder to create and to recognise: like him or not, the graffiti-artist Banksy is structurally innovative in his use of images, messages and public space, while we may have waited since Joyce for structural innovations to the novel.
It may also be because British editors are no longer schooled in art and literature; nowadays they usually have an MBA or a degree in “media studies.” So editors, and their reviewers, may instead rely upon a more easily-learnt Progressive ideology or even just memorise its shorthand, political correctness, and photocopy a list of approved artists for permanent reference. This would better explain the Establishment’s disregard for Lewis’s biography and satire both.
Or, in what is a small and incestuous demimonde, the cultural enforcers of the Progressive mafia nowadays have the numbers, the muscle and the swagger to get away with brute suppression.
Journalist Christopher Booker cites Britain’s Progressive orthodoxies, ranging from climate change (where many emails have been leaked on eco-Establishment attempts to silence climate-sceptics) to support for the Euro (doubts only permitted recently), to the UK’s Law Society cancelling a debate on marriage, he writes, “on the grounds that it was ‘contrary to our diversity policy…espousing as it does an ethos which is opposed to same-sex marriage’…Though the society happily hosted a meeting recently to promote assisted suicide which, unlike marriage, is still against the law.”
Similarly, the office of a marriage-registrar recently removed a chaste, Victorian painting of Romeo and Juliet, fearing that it would offend single-sex couples. British Christians often lose their public and private sector jobs, these days, for discretely professing their faith, even for wearing a tiny cross on a necklace, which the Progressive gauleiters say may offend non-Christians. In this regard, Britain’s Conservative Party-led government is fighting in the European courts to defend the right to persecute Christians, not to protect them. Such affronts make daily fare for Britain’s conservative newspapers.
There seems to be little room for doubt that traditional values have been targeted for silencing and eventual extirpation by a hostile Progressive Establishment which includes the leaders of the major political parties; the ever-polite British middle-classes are cowed into reluctant submission and only a tiny handful of Christian clerics, a few brave allies from other faiths, and conservative columnists dare to object. Silencing traditional values in moral art would be a logical part of the process.
“Politically correct orthodoxies,” Booker explains, are “taking over the institutions that represent the commanding heights of our society, and using them ruthlessly to ensure that no dissenting voices are heard. Any view contrary to their dogmas becomes what Orwell called, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, a ‘thought crime’.”
This may be achieved, not with rooms full of Stalinist censors, but by merely setting an ideological agenda and depending upon the inmates to police one another across a culture of political correctness vigorously applied. In the end, the KGB and the STASI rarely needed to exile a dissident scholar to a janitor’s job in some dismal backwater such as Gorky; they had too many ambitious people keen to do their work for them in return for a small promotion or a periodic pat on the back. Similarly, how Humbert Wolfe described 1920s reporters today fits much of Britain’s media world, the national and local public sector, so-called civil society, big corporations and so forth:
You cannot hope to bribe or twist
(Thank God!) the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.
This is no news to Roger Lewis. Whether he gets the widespread critical understanding, exposure and popularity that he deserves depends upon the degree to which imaginative conservatives can win two battles: routing the forces of cultural Mordor so that Western decline can be reversed, and eclipsing the half-conservatives who scorn culture and care only for the economic nostrums of materialism. Roger Lewis remains, however, a great literary artist, a kindred spirit of T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis and Roy Campbell, and a largely unacknowledged champion of Eliot’s “Permanent Things.”
Books by Roger Lewis the topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.