Jackdaw Cake

Norman Lewis


Jackdaw Cake

Norman Lewis


Norman Lewis moves from Spiritualist parents in Enfield to live with supremely dotty aunts in Carmarthen, whose baking of a weekly cake to feed the jackdaws gives the book its title.

Escaping his eccentric family by marrying the daughter of a Sicilian associate of the Mafia, Norman made a living as a wedding photographer and by dealing in cameras, while restoring and racing Bugattis for pleasure. Here we see his first journeys in Spain, Cuba and the Yemen, and a wartime spent in Algeria, Sicily and Italy, all of which acted as an apprenticeship for his career as one of the twentieth century’s greatest travel writers.

‘... as a witness to his own times – the good, the bad and the ludicrous – he is unmatched’ - Sunday Times
‘... this book, hilarious, tender, beautifuly written, is certainly one of Norman Lewis’s best.’ - Literary Review
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Jackdaw Cake: An Autobiography
ISBN: 978-1-906011-82-6
Format: 250pp demi pb
Place: Italy


Author Biography

Norman Lewis's early childhood, as recalled in Jackdaw Cake (1985), was spent partly with his Welsh spiritualist parents in Enfield, North London, and partly with his eccentric aunts in Wales. Forgoing a place at university for lack of funds, he used the income from wedding photography and various petty trading to finance travels to Spain, Italy and the Balkans, before being approached by the Colonial Office to spy for them with his camera in Yemen. He moved to Cuba in 1939, but was recalled for duty in the Intelligence Corps during the Second World War. It was from this that Norman Lewis's masterpiece, Naples '44, emerged, a resurrection of his wartime diary only finally published in 1978. Before that came a number of novels and travel books, notably A Dragon Apparent (1951) and Golden Earth (1952), both of which were best sellers in their day. His novel The Volcanoes Above Us, based on personal experiences in Central America, sold six million copies in paperback in Russia and The Honoured Society (1964), a non-fiction study of the Sicilian Mafia, was serialised in six instalments by the New Yorker.

Norman Lewis wrote thirteen novels and thirteen works of non-fiction, mostly travel books, but he regarded his life's major achievement to be the reaction to an article written by him entitled Genocide in Brazil, published in The Sunday Times in 1968. This led to a change in the Brazilian law relating to the treatment of Indians, and to the formation of Survival International, the influential international organisation which campaigns for the rights of tribal peoples. He later published a very successful book called The Missionaries (1988) which is set amongst the Indians of Central and Latin America.

Extract from Chapter One

WHEN I WAS FIRST pushed by my mother into the presence of my Aunt Polly, the bandages had only been removed from her face a few days before to expose a patchwork of skin, pink and white, glazed in some places and matt-surfaced in others, dependent upon the areas of thighs or buttocks from which it had been stripped to cover her burns. The fire had reached every part of her and she spoke in a harsh whisper that I could hardly understand. She had difficulty in closing her eyes. Later I found that sometimes while asleep the lids would snap open. It was impossible to judge whether or not I was welcome because the grey stripe of mouth provided by plastic surgery in its infancy could hold no expression. She bent down stiffly to proffer a cheek and, prodded by my mother, I reached up to select a smooth surface among the puckerings, the ridges and the nests of tiny wrinkles, and touch it with my lips.

In the rear, the second aunt, Annie, wearing long white gloves, holding a fan like a white feather duster, and dressed as if for her wedding, waited smilingly. I was soon to learn that the smile was one that nothing could efface.

Dodging in and out of a door at the back of the hallway, the third aunt, Li, seemed like a startled animal. She was weeping silently, and with these tears I would soon become familiar. I was nine years of age, and the adults peopling my world seemed on the whole irrational, but it was an irrationality I had come to accept as the norm. My father, who wanted to be an artist, and failing that a preacher, had been banished to England following irreconcilable personality clashes with my grandfather who feared and disliked such manifestations of the human spirit. Now, after years of an aggrieved silence, there were to be attempts to rebuild bridges. It was my grandfather’s ambition to make a Welshman of me, so my mother had brought me to this vast house, with little preparation, telling me that I was to live among these strangers for whom I was to show respect, even love, for an unspecified period of time. The prospect troubled me, but like an Arab child stuffed with the resignation of his religion, I soon learned to accept this new twist in the direction of my life, and the sounds of incessant laughter and grief soon lost all significance, became commonplace and thus passed without notice.

My mother, bastion of wisdom and fountainhead of truth in my universe, had gone, her flexible maternal authority replaced by the disciplines of my fire-scarred Aunt Polly, an epileptic who had suffered at least one fit per day since the age of fourteen, in the course of which she had fallen once from a window, once into a river and twice into the fire.

Every day, usually in the afternoons, she staged an unconscious drama, when she rushed screaming from room to room, sometimes bloodied by a fall, and once leaving a menstrual splash on the highly polished floor. It was hard to decide whether she liked or disliked me, because she extended a tyranny in small ways to all who had dealings with her. In my case she issued a stream of whispered edicts relating to such matters as politeness, punctuality and personal cleanliness, and by being scrupulous in their observance I found that we got along together fairly well. I scored marks with her by mastery of the tedious and lengthy collects I was obliged to learn for recitation at Sunday school. When I showed myself as word perfect in one of these it was easy to believe that she was doing her best to smile, as she probably did when I accompanied her in my thin and wheedling treble in one of her harmonium recitals of such favourite hymns as ‘Through the Night of Doubt and Sorrow’.

Smiling Aunt Annie, who counted for very little in the household, and who seemed hardly to notice my presence, loved to dress up, and spent an hour or two every day doing this. Sometimes she would come on the scene attired like Queen Mary in a hat like a dragoon’s shako, and other times she would be a female cossack with cartridge pockets and high boots. Once, when later I went to school, and became very sensitive to the opinions of my school-friends, she waylaid me, to my consternation, on my way home got up as a Spanish dancer in a frilled blouse and skirt, and a high comb stuck into her untidy grey hair.

Li, youngest of the aunts, was poles apart from either sister. She and Polly had not spoken to each other for years, and occupied downstairs rooms at opposite ends of the house, while Annie made her headquarters in the room separating them, and when necessary transmitted curt messages from one to the other.

My grandfather, whom I saw only at weekends, for he worked in his business every day until eight or nine, filled every corner of the house with his deep, competitive voice, and the cigar-smoke aroma of his personality. At this time he had been a widower for twenty-five years; a man with the face of his day, a prow of a nose, bulging eyes, and an Assyrian beard, who saw himself close to God, with whom he sometimes conversed in a loud and familiar voice largely on financial matters.

A single magnificent coup had raised him to take his place among the eleven leading citizens of Carmarthen, with a house in Wellfield Road. It was the purchase of a cargo of ruined tea from a ship sunk in Swansea harbour, which he laundered, packaged in bags dangerously imprinted with the Royal crest, and sold off at a profit of several thousand percent to village shops and remote farming communities scattered through the hills. This had bought him a house full of clocks and mirrors, with teak doors, a wine cellar, and a wide staircase garnished with wooden angels and lamps. After that he was to possess a French modiste as his mistress, the town’s first Model T Ford, and a valuable grey parrot named Prydeyn after a hero of the Mabinogion, too old by the time of my arrival to talk, but which could still, as it hung from a curtain rod in the drawing room, produce in its throat a passable imitation of a small, squeaking fart.

My grandfather had started life as plain David Lewis but, swept along on the tide of saline tea, he followed the example of the neighbours in his select street and got himself a double-barrelled name, becoming David Warren Lewis. He put a crest on his notepaper and worked steadily at his family tree, pushing the first of our ancestors back further and further into history until they became contemporary with King Howel Dda. For a brief moment the world was at his feet. He had even been invited to London to shake the flabby hand of Edward VII. But on the home front his life fell apart. The three daughters he had kept at home were dotty, a fourth got into trouble and had to be exported to Canada to marry a settler who had advertised for a wife, and the fifth, Lalla, an artist of sorts, who had escaped him to marry a school teacher called Bennett, and settled in Cardiff, was spoken of as ‘eccentric’.

This was Welsh Wales, full of ugly chapels, of hidden money, psalm- singing and rain. The hills all round were striped and patched with small bleak fields, with the sheep seen from our house – as small as lice – cropping the coarse grass, and seas of bracken pouring down the slopes to hurl themselves against the walls of the town. In autumn it rained every day. The water burst through the banks of the reservoir on top of Pen-lan, sent a wave full of fish down Wellfield Road, and then, spilling the fish everywhere through Waterloo Terrace, down to the market. What impressed me most were the jackdaws and the snails on which the jackdaws largely lived. The snails were of every colour, curled and striped like little turbans in blue, pink, green and yellow, and it was hard to walk down the garden path without crushing the underfoot. There were thousands of jackdaws everywhere in the town, and our garden was always full of them. Sensing that my mad aunts presented no danger, they were completely tame. They would tap on the windows to be let into the house and go hopping from room to room in search of scraps.

Weekly the great ceremony took place of the baking of the jackdaw cake. For this, co-operation was forced upon my three aunts, as the ingredients had to be decided upon and bought: eggs, raisins, candied peel and sultanas required to produce a cake of exceptional richness. Li did the shopping, because Polly was supposed not to leave the house and Annie was too confused to be able to buy what was necessary, put down her money, and pick up the change.

Each aunt took it in turns to bake and ice the cake and to decorate the icing. While they were kept busy doing this they seemed to me quite changed. Annie wore an ordinary dress and stopped laughing, Li ceased to cry, and Polly’s fits were quieter than on any other day. While the one whose turn it was did the baking, the others stood about in the kitchen and watched, and they were as easy to talk to as at other times they were not.

On Saturday mornings at ten o’clock the cake was fed to the jackdaws. This had been happening for years, so that by half past nine the garden was full of birds, anything up to a hundred of them balancing and swinging with a tremendous gleeful outcry on the bushes and the low boughs of the trees. This was the great moment of the week for my aunts, and therefore for me. The cake would be cut into three sections and placed on separate plates on the kitchen table, and then at ten the kitchen windows were flung wide to admit the great black cataract of birds. For some hours after this weekly event the atmosphere was one of calm and contentment, and then the laughter and weeping would start again.

Polly did all the cooking, and apart from that sat in the drawing room, watched over by the parrot Prydeyn, crocheting bedspreads with the stiff fingers that had not been wholly spared by the fire. Li collected the instructions and the money left for her and went out shopping, and Annie dressed up as a pirate, harlequin, clown or whatever came into her head. My grandfather worked incessantly in his tea-merchant’s business in King Street, returning as late as he decently could at night.

On Sunday mornings, like all the rest of the community, he was hounded by his conscience to chapel, but in the afternoon he was accustomed to spend a little time with the Old English Game Fowl he bred, showed and – as the rumour went – had entered in secret cock fights in his disreputable youth. They were kept in wire pens in the back garden, each cockerel, or ‘king’ as it was known, separately with its hens. Show judges used to visit the house to test a contestant’s ferocity by poking at it through the wire netting with a stick to which a coloured rag had been attached; any bird failing to attack being instantly disqualified.

The comb, wattles, ear-lobes and any loose skin were removed from the head and neck of these birds and there was frequently a little extra trimming-up to be done. Experience and skill were called for to catch and subdue a king in his prime and sometimes, like a Roman gladiator, my grandfather used a net. Once the bird was tied up and the head imprisoned in a wooden collar, he set to work in a leisurely fashion with a snip here and a snip there, using a special variety of scissors – known as a dubber – designed for this purpose.

The game cocks often escaped from their pens and strutted about the back garden on the look-out for something to attack. It was my Aunt Li and I who were their usual chosen victims. They had enormously long legs – so long that they appeared to be walking on miniature stilts. My grandfather and my Aunt Polly knew how to handle them and carried garden rakes to push them aside if necessary, but Li and I went in great fear of them. This they probably sensed, for any king that had managed to break out had the habit of laying in wait well out of sight until either of us came on the scene, when he would rush to the attack, leaping high into the air to strike at our faces with his spurs.

In the end Aunt Li and I formed a defensive alliance, and this brought us closer together. We based our strategy on cutting down the birds’ numbers. Unlike normal chickens the game fowl laid only a few small eggs and had a short breeding season. Polly looked after the brooding hens and chicks, kept separate from the kings, and Li’s method was to wait until her sister was out of the way, either while having or recovering from a fit, then take several eggs from the clutch under a sitting hen and drop them into boiling water for a few seconds before putting them back.

This promised to ease the situation in the coming year but did nothing to help us in our present trouble, so my aunt bought a cat of a breed supposed locally to be the descendants of a pair of wild cats captured in Llandeilo forest about a hundred years before. She brought it back in a sack one night, kept it in an outhouse without feeding it for three days, and then let it loose in the garden. At this time there were two or three game cocks at large, and the scuffle and outcry that followed raised our hopes, but in the morning the kings were still strutting through the flower beds ready for battle with all comers, and of the cat there was nothing to be seen.

As confidence and sympathy began growing between us, my Aunt Li and I took to wandering round the countryside together. Li was a small woman, hardly any bigger than me. She would wet me with her tears, and I would listen to her sad ravings and sometimes stroke her hand. One day she must have come to the grand decision to tell me what lay at the root of her sorrow. We climbed a stile and went into a field and, fixing her glistening eyes upon me, she said, ‘What I am going to tell you now you will remember every single day of your life.’ But whatever she revealed must have been so startling that memory rejected it, for not a word of what was said remains in my mind.