Norman Lewis, a revered British travel writer whose crisp storytelling took his readers where tourists rarely ventured, died Tuesday in Saffron Walden, Essex, outside of London. He was 95.
Lewis, who also wrote novels, memoirs and investigative pieces, had a wide readership around the world, although he didn't achieve the fame that many thought he deserved. But he never asked for more than the freedom to keep moving, which he continued to do long after he might have been expected to exchange his walking shoes for slippers.
His accounts of the odd places in the world were far from the flowery descriptions of scenic sights one might expect of a travel writer, often focusing instead on the hard circumstances of the people he observed quietly and usually anonymously. Over time, his writing, though it could be humorous, also contained the elements of a lament for lost times.
Asked at age 85 if he were seeking an unreal world, Lewis replied, "I'm hunting for one that is disappearing, certainly. What I am doing, selfishly, is making the best of it. I'm enjoying this position. 'Apres moi, le deluge,' but I don't make the deluge. I'm enjoying it while it's here."
The popular travel writer Pico Iyer called Lewis "the last word in wry elegance, stiff upper lip and the spirit of adventure."
"He wrote with the kind of virtues -- attention, affection, great style and unflappable spirit -- that were, at their best, what made Britain once so powerful around the world," Iyer told the Los Angeles Times on Friday. "And he passed on to all of us, especially travelers of a younger generation, the joy and excitement of traveling out of the familiar and into the great world."
Graham Greene once called Lewis "one of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our century." Former New Yorker Editor William Shawn serialized Lewis' look at the Sicilian mafia, "The Honored Society," in 1964.
Of his lifetime of work, Lewis was most proud of a lengthy piece he did in 1969 for the Sunday Times of London exposing the genocide of Amazonian Indian tribes in Brazil. The article caused an international stir and led to the formation of Survival International, which supports tribal peoples.
"It is the only thing I have done that has actually changed anything," Lewis said.
The experience in the Amazon changed him from someone out to seek adventure to someone also committed to rectifying wrongs.
Flocks of Jackdaws
Lewis was born June 28, 1908, in North London, the son of a pharmacist who sold a questionable elixir and later became a spiritualist medium; his mother became a faith healer.
His three older brothers died as children, and Lewis was sent off at age 10 to live in Wales with three "slightly mad" aunts who baked cakes for the flocks of jackdaws that frequented their garden. He called his first autobiography "Jackdaw Cake;" it was later expanded and reissued as "I Came I Saw."
His parents couldn't afford to send Lewis to college, so he started off his professional life in business. He had a knack for it but never liked it. Among his many endeavors were selling hundreds of umbrellas recovered from a lost and found, taking wedding photographs and selling cameras -- his most successful venture. At one point, he had a string of eight camera shops.
But the only thing he enjoyed about being in business, he told the Guardian of London in 2000, "was getting away from it." He used the money he made to begin his travels; decades later, when asked about his first trip, he said that it was "probably Spain."
"Thereafter, a place could not be too remote," he added.
His first book, published in 1935 was "A Spanish Adventure," written after Lewis and his first wife, Ernestina, moved to Spain. But he preferred to think of "Sand and Sea in Arabia," published in 1938, as his first real book.
The family of the free-spirited Ernestina, whose father had been forced out of Sicily for reasons never fully explained, provided an inspiration for "The Honored Society," which, after appearing in the New Yorker, was published as a book. The couple, who had one son, later divorced.
Lewis' wartime experiences in the Intelligence Corps in Algeria, Tunisia and Naples were recounted in the widely admired "Naples '44" (1978), which William Dalrymple, in the Sunday Times of London, called "unquestionably one of the greatest books to emerge from the Second World War."
Among Lewis' more than two dozen other books are "The Missionaries," an account of what Christian fundamentalists did to tribes in the Pacific and Latin America; "A Dragon Apparent," about Indochina before the Vietnam War; "Golden Earth," about Burma; "Voices of the Sea," about a Spanish fishing village after World War II; and "An Empire of the East," about Indonesia.