- A Last Sight of Lewis
I first climbed the steps from the street near Notting Hill Gate in mid-November 1956. Every evening thereafter until I left London about a week later I would climb it again; Wyndham Lewis was especially glad of an evening visitor, after his day of writing.
Writing? Not painting, because he’d been blind for five years. “Milton had his daughters,” he’d announced back then; “I have my dictaphone.” But it was literally writing that he’d soon returned to. In the blue armchair from which he dominated the flat’s major room, on a huge pad of paper, pen in hand, he wrote. His technique was to clutch the top of the pad’s left side with his left hand, then, starting three fingers’ width down, to write until his ballpoint bumped off the right edge. Back to the left, come down three fingers, and repeat. That way he got perhaps five lines on a page, so widely spaced that, waver though they might, they were unlikely to intersect. The page completed, he tore it off and dropped it face down on the floor to his left. His wife Froanna (from “Frau Anna”; she’d been christened Anne) would gather up the day’s work for typing. That was how seven books got produced. (Some odd repetitions have been noticed in The Human Age. They survived because reading the entire final typescript back to the author took much longer than it would have taken him to read it by himself. Inevitably, he now and then forgot he’d “already said that.”)
On my second or third visit, November 18th, a Sunday, his seventy-fourth birthday was celebrated by the three of us. Life being “too short to travel first class,” there was champagne and pheasant, rather for us two than for him. Offered more champagne, [End Page 195] he shouted “NO!!!” so sharply Froanna felt moved to venture, “You mustn’t mind Wyndham shouting. It’s just . . . High Spirits!” Actually it was blindness, by which, late in life, he’d been deprived of something most of us don’t realize we depend on vision for: a knowledge of how far away are the people we’re talking to. Geoffrey Bridson, of the BBC, told me of a lunch in a mid-London oyster house, where the blind Lewis imparted confidences in a voice audible “as far as Piccadilly Circus.”
His own work seemed to him thin and remote. He chanced to mention Time and Western Man: “That’s a book of mine.” Mainly, I’d give him things to respond to. I’d flown from America. “Were the hostesses pretty?” I described the dilemma of a young British poet I’d recently met, wondering if he should visit America. “Tell him by all means to go to America.” (I did, and he did; it was sound advice.) I’d lunched with Eliot, who’d given me the address of a tailor on Albemarle Street. “That’s an expensive street.” His most memorable riposte followed my recital of Eliot’s performance before a succession of cheeses: a native American’s parody of British connoisseurship, done for an overseas visitor whom he’d typecast as Huck Finn. I’ve described it in The Pound Era; here I’ll just repeat Lewis’s response: “Oh, never mind him. He’s like that with everybody. But he doesn’t come in here disguised as Westminster Abbey.”
“In here” was the terrain the blind man commanded, a flat doomed for razing any day, to make room for a deluxe tube station. Lewis claimed to have staved that off during his lifetime by adroitly planted newspaper interviews. Four months after our last talk he was dead. His last words are said to have been “Mind your own business,” in response to a nurse’s query about his bowels.
All through the doomed flat, bell pushes had been disconnected. Wires hung loose above nameplates that threatened to fall. On my last day, I removed one that hung aslant from a single screw. It says simply, “Wyndham Lewis. Studio A.” Better with me, I thought, in the land...