John Hillaby Reviews Jackdaw Cake (1985)

About the Author

John Hillaby (24 July 1917 – 10 October 1996) was a British travel writer and explorer. His real impact on the literary scene came in 1964, when he published Journey to the Jade Sea, an account of his 1,000-mile walk with a camel train through northern Kenya to Lake Turkana. The book set the pattern for his later books, Journey Through Britain (1968), an account of his walk from Land's End to John o' Groats, Journey Through Europe (1972) and Journey Through Love (1976). - The London Standard, Wednesday, October 9, 1985—21

Lewis gunner

By John Hillaby

George Orwell says somewhere that autobiography is to be trusted only when it reveals something dreadful. Almost any sort of life when viewed from the inside consists largely of a series of defeats.

By that tally alone, Norman Lewis’s book is a tremendous slice of grim-stuffed autobiography. If you didn’t know the author’s track record you might wonder how this gaunt, hawk-nosed slow-burn managed to overcome so much to become what he is today: a prince among travel writers dedicated to causes of injustice.

The title needn’t detain us. It’s very Welsh. It’s the bible thumpers’ repudiation of earthly lusts. But Mr Lewis, thank God, is very Welsh. And lusty, too, differing only from thousands of his fellow countrymen in being able to put his Celtic intuitions to unblinkered use.


Born in Enfield, he was shipped off to more than barmy relatives in Carmarthen to help him tide over Job-like succession of family tragedies. His own two brothers died rather dreadfully. His father an intelligent, likeable man ‘had the sight’. At most inappropriate times (such as his son’s wedding feast) he was apt to go into a trance to get spiritual messages from above or below.

In very Welsh-Wales “full of ugly chapels, of hidden money, psalm-singing and rain”, his randy grandfather “blooded” fighting cocks by inducing them to eat their own clipped-off head appendages. And he kept a parrot reduced to making small squeaky farts of protests.

Hideously scarred Aunt Polly, an epileptic, alternated between falling into the fire, the river or, once, from a window; and all Aunt Li could do was weep and pray. There were their seaside neighbours who stoned the poverty—stricken, holiday-making miners families, for poverty was the wages of sin, was it not?

Back in Enfield, Mr Lewis grew up; he raced old Bugattis and married the daughter of some eccentric Mafiosi before he started to tour the world on the trail of the oppressed from China to Brazil by way of Vietnam.

In North Yemen we have him awaiting the pleasure of the Imam Yahya. The delay had arisen because a prisoner awaiting public execution was reluctant to gratify His Majesty with the customary confession. It was brought about by tying up the man’s penis before they forced him to drink a great deal of water.

But it is as an Intelligence officer with the Allied forces in North Africa, Italy and, later, in Russia that the author’s terrible story achieves its delayed orgasm. What infamies were perpetrated there in the name of victory? He tells us, plainly.

The author’s style is very much his own: lilting Welshified English until the narrative is suddenly punctuated with Lewis gunning and lightly buried explosives. Lewisite, of course.