Peter Lewis the journalist and critic, who died last week was one of the distinguished old time professionals of the written word who loved his metier, was meticulous in his work and who once said: ‘For those who suffer from it the compulsion to write is a mystery. Doing it is a misery, but not doing it is worse.’ He was referring to many of the great literary figures he knew, such as Arthur Koestler, John Betjeman, Anthony Burgess, Gore Vidal and Laurie Lee, all of whom counted him as a close friend.
I first met Peter in the late 1970s when I commissioned him to travel to Syria to write the text for a photographic book which Quartet subsequently published. In his autobiographical memoir, A Rogues’ Gallery, he chronicles my first meeting with him, as follows:
I had been summoned to the presence [My office then in Knightsbridge] to be despatched to Syria, then a little-known and peaceful country for which libraries stocked only one guide book written in the past thirty years. It was my task to remedy this want. If it was a want – for few tourists in those days seemed to have Syria on their map. ‘I want it big… I want it beautiful,’ he said, conjuring from the air the sort of book to be created by my prose and Robin Constable’s photography. ‘I have arranged for you to be looked after.’ He waved me from his presence like an ambassador bound for a faraway clime. And so effectively did his influence extend in the Middle East that we were received and travelled en prince. A chauffeur was at beck and call for the arduous journeys, even into the distant desert to Palmyra, the legendary capital where Queen Zenobia had defied Rome and left ruins far more extensive and impressive than its own emperors had, The publication party was on a scale equal to one of Weidenfeld’s, whom Naim, it seemed, regarded as the rival to be challenged,
A Rogues’ Gallery (published by Quartet) was written by a man whose sheer range of expertise was truly extraordinary and is an absorbing and enchanting gem, well worth owning. Peter will always be remembered as the best that journalism had to offer. We shall all miss him.