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Who was Simon Raven?

Novelists who achieve a cult status write, by definition, for a narrow and usually specialist readership, and while their books are not for everyone, they attract certain passionate partisans. One cult figure, the English novelist, journalist, and television writer Simon Raven (1927-2001), did not reach a mass audience or even attain a very broad readership among the upper middle class and the intelligentsia; but then, he never exerted himself very far to do so. "I've always written for a small audience consisting of people like myself," he remarked, "who are well-educated, worldly, skeptical and snobbish (meaning that they rank good taste over bad). And who believe that nothing and nobody is special?"

"People like myself": there are few of them left, for Raven was one of a breed that was dying in his youth and is now all but extinct. Not that well-educated, worldly, skeptical, and snobbish people have entirely disappeared, only that Raven's own type is no longer to be seen: his was not an earnest agnosticism but a robust eighteenth-century paganism. A civilized man should, he believed, "reject both enthusiasms and faiths, if only because of the ridiculous postures, whether mental or physical, which they require." This philosophy was allied with a deep contempt for the egalitarian moral code of postwar England with its namby-pamby unwillingness to offend. He himself suffered from no such diffidence.

Raven's offensiveness did not grow from bile or melancholy but from extreme high spirits. From earliest youth, he reveled in the role of outrageous provocateur and exuded what one of his school contemporaries, Gerald Priestland, recalled as a "Luciferian aura," "Brilliant when he could be bothered, handsomely copper-headed but with a world-weary slouch and drawl, [he] moved through Charterhouse trailing an odour of brimstone." Noel Annan felt him to be one of the rare "liberators" some of us are lucky enough to encounter during our lives: "Simon was one of those very assured undergraduates who by their example liberate their contemporaries from the shackles of family, school or class."

Raven was the author of thirty-four books (as well as many radio and television plays, essays, and reviews), but his reputation today rests almost entirely on his ten-volume roman fleuve, Alms for Oblivion (1964-1976). His undertaking has inevitably been compared with Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, also in ten volumes, as it deals with the same social milieu (but a generation younger) and touches on the same themes of time and mutability.
 I wanted to look at the upper-middle-class
 scene since the war, and in particular my
 generations part in it. We had spent our early
 years as privileged members of a privileged
 class. How were we faring in the Age of the
 Common Man? How ought we to be faring?
 . . . Would the high-minded lot stoop to
 conquer? . . . And what about their unscrupulous
 confreres? No Queensberry rules
 for them, so they had a flying start. But Fate
 has a way of bitching things up just when you
 least expect it.


Many of Alms for Oblivion's protagonists attended the same public school, served in the same regiment (the dashing and aristocratic Earl Hamilton's Light Dragoons), and read Classics or History in a more or less desultory manner at the same Cambridge college (Lancaster, a thinly disguised version of King's). The novels, which, unlike Powell's, jump back and forth in time, take the characters from school (Fielding Gray, 1967) to the Army (Sound the Retreat, 1971, and The Sabre Squadron, 1966), the "corridors of power" (The Rich Pay Late, 1964, and Friends in Low Places, 1965), scenes of international intrigue (The Judas Boy, 1968), student unrest during the Sixties (Places Where They Sing, 1970), the movie business and an excursion into American Philistia (Come Like Shadows, 1972) and finally to nemesis and impending age (Bring Forth the Body, 1974, and The Survivors, 1976).

English romans fleuves of the last century have tended to be elegiac, for obvious reasons. The horror of World War I, the breakdown of traditional society during the interwar years and its complete reinvention in the postwar period were deeply traumatic to the upper middle class from whose ranks so many serious novelists came. Siegfried Sassoon's and Ford Madox Ford's novel sequences record that trauma with bleak eloquence. A Dance to the Music of Time, subtly, and Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour, rather less subtly, lamented the end of what their authors perceived as a stable social order. Simon Raven tried, intermittently, to be elegiac too, for he bitterly regretted the decay of the ritualistic, male-oriented society in which he grew up and to whose institutions--public school, Army, cricket, university--he was romantically attached.

But Raven was a little too cynical to pull off an affecting elegy. He was the Petronius of his generation, a cold-blooded satirist whose characters were compilations of various appetites and ambitions rather than living beings: if his novels were to be represented graphically, they would perhaps constitute a crude, cartoonish, somewhat pornographic decorative frieze rather than aspiring to the Poussinesque melancholy of Powell's elegant books. And the resemblance to Petronius extends to the personal as well as the literary, with Tacitus's description of the author of the Satyricon perfectly applicable to the unregenerate Raven: "By his dissolute life he had become as famous as other men by a life of energy, and he was regarded as no ordinary profligate, but as an accomplished voluptuary. His feckless freedom of speech, being regarded as frankness, procured him popularity"

Simon Raven occasionally wrote about his life, most notably in Shadows on the Grass (1981), a memoir which has the dubious distinction of being, in the opinion of E. W. Swanton, "the filthiest book on cricket" ever written. ("Can I quote you on that, Jim?," Raven asked eagerly.) But even more delightful is Michael Barber's The Captain: The Lift and Times of Simon Raven (1996), a wonderfully hilarious biography which is, rather sadly, better than anything Raven himself ever wrote. But since the persistence of the Raven cult is due more to Raven's personality than to his gifts, which were beguiling but minor, this is acceptable, and Barber more than does his subject justice. His affection for the disreputable writer is obvious, and it is impossible for his reader not to share it, for Raven, for all his vaunted snobbery, intolerance, and amorality, was essentially a sweet man.

Simon Arthur Noel Raven was the grandson of a Victorian industrialist who had made a fortune in the manufacture of socks. His father, Arthur, lived off this fortune and frittered it away over the course of his life until there was very little left for Simon and his two younger siblings. Raven describes his childhood as "middle-class, for which read respectable, prying, puritanical, penny-pinching, joyless."

His intelligence and precocious facility with the classical languages was evident very early, and he won the top scholarship to Charterhouse, where his academic success continued. Raven never ceased to be grateful for his classical education, which imparted not only a tremendous verbal facility, thanks to constant exercises in translation, but a comprehensive and multi-layered worldview. The upper layer, a schoolmaster's version of Hellenism that was propagated in the public schools, Raven described in the following manner in The Decline of the Gentleman (1961):
 First, the truth must be sought honestly and
 with intelligence on every level, and must be
 prized above convenience and even perhaps
 above freedom itself, because it is not made by
 man but exists independently of him.... One
 comes at the truth by logic, patience, and fairmindedness.
 From which it follows, by extension,
 that one should always be moderate....
 With moderation comes tolerance.... Being
 free meant that you were not "servile" i.e. ...
 that subject to the general good you did not
 have to do anything against your will and
 must not, as a point of honour, do anything
 for monetary gain.... Pericles expressed stern
 views about women: They should be heard of,
 he said, neither for good nor ill.... [T]he
 Greeks strongly disapproved of inflated pride.
 ... They took the view that anyone who became
 too pleased with himself or thought
 himself too clever would be punished by the
 gods with disgrace and ruin.


This simplified and sanitized Hellenism was developed for the purpose of civilizing crass public schoolboys, and designed to harmonize with Christianity: the Greeks were presented as proto-Christians, lacking only the knowledge of Christ to make them perfect. But there were layers beneath layers, and to those with sufficient intellect and curiosity the classical authors also delivered an unsanitized, definitely un- and antiChristian message, entirely subversive of public school values; Raven sucked this up greedily.
 Here was Horace, openly boasting of how he
 ran away from a battle. Tacitus, quietly equating
 enthusiasm with stupidity. Thucydides,
 grimly announcing that the only law of
 human affairs was "Necessity" Lucretius,
 recommending regular one-night stands as a
 way of securing immunity from passion,
 which was simply the unwholesome and
 ridiculous product of suppressed or thwarted
 lust. Catullus, advocating sex with women or
 sex with boys, whichever you fancy at the
 time, because there is no such thing as right or
 wrong in this context.... All of them insistent
 that you take what pleasure you can from
 this world because only superstitious fools
 believe in the existence of the next.


Both versions of Hellenism were to mold his character. He remained, from school days on, doggedly pagan, "ready" as he put it, "to back Greek reason against `revealed truth' any day of the week?' In all his novels he honored Greek themes--the irresistible forces of Retribution and Necessity are often given a central position, and he did not underestimate the power of the Furies--and understood that the gods must be placated; but he had little use for God the Father or His putative son: "Christ asked for everything he got" remarks Captain Detterling, one of the many characters in Alms for Oblivion who tend to serve as mouthpieces for the author's own thoughts. The best Raven was ever to say of Christianity was that Anglicanism at any rate is "a quiet and decent superstition, as they go, offering a wide choice in decoration and no poisonous enthusiasms."

Raven was a brilliant schoolboy but in no way a model one, for he took the advice of Lucretius and Catullus rather more literally than his masters would have liked. Sexually, he had catholic tastes, no inhibitions whatever, and scant respect for the moral code imposed by the school. He made countless conquests among the other boys and enjoyed "a number of experiences" as he later boasted, "far more erotic (and poetic) than the perfunctory grabbing and snatching and jerking depicted on Greek vases" Raven's school adventures are depicted in Fielding Gray, the most autobiographical novel in Alms for Oblivion, but x-rated as the novel is, the reality seems to have been even more so. In the end even the tolerance of Charterhouse's long-suffering headmaster was exhausted, and Raven, although he had won his First XI Cricket colors and a scholarship to King's, was expelled.

For a few weeks, he said, he felt "like Adam and Eve did when they had to do a proper day's work." Like his alter-ego Fielding Gray, he had hoped and expected to become "a wining and dining don. A witty, worldly, comfortable don." Would Cambridge still have him? He was now to learn one of the most important lessons of his life: "I got a commission, joined clubs and took up my place at King's as if nothing had happened. People just giggled when they learnt I'd been sacked for `the usual thing.' . . . One trembled in fear of the last trump and all that sounded was a wet fart."

With his compulsory term of military service impending, Raven joined the Parachute Regiment and was soon shipped to Bangalore as an Officer Cadet. In this capacity Raven set the pattern for his later behavior as an officer in the Regular Army: "He had this romantic, Edwardian view of what being a subaltern entailed" said Raven's Charterhouse and Army friend James Prior (later Lord Prior, longtime Cabinet Minister under Margaret Thatcher and the model for Aims for Oblivion's opportunistic Peter Morrison). "It was vital to look the part--carry a swagger stick and wear kid gloves.... You were there to lead your platoon over the top in the event of a fight. Otherwise, it was a case of `Carry on, sergeant.'"

But it was 1947 and the Raj was winding up its business in undignified haste; "One got a crash course in the sudden fall of Imperial greatness" Raven remarked. It was a richly symbolic historical moment at which Raven was given a ringside seat, and the novel it produced, Sound the Retreat, is the finest volume of Alms for Oblivion: full of irony, compassion (a rare quality in Raven's work), and featuring the strongest and most memorable character in the sequence, the colorful Muslim officer Gilzai Khan.

Raven duly took his place at King's in 1948. The post-war climate was anti-elitist and leveling, rife with progressive dogma, and King's was particularly "pink" in shade; one might have thought that Raven, with his rapidly hardening conservative attitudes, would have rebelled. Yet as he acknowledged, the college's very pinkness presented distinct advantages to himself: "Nobody minded what you did in bed or what you said about God, a very civilized attitude in 1948."

Raven was undiscriminating in his sexual tastes, and Cambridge offered these more scope than Charterhouse had done: one disgruntled Newnham girl was overheard saying, "I'm not going to bed with Simon ever again. One day it's Boris, then a choral scholar, then it's me, then it's back to Boris again. No!" Raven was a promiscuous bisexual who on balance favored boys and young men over women. Nevertheless, he managed to knock up a recent graduate, Susan Kilner.

This was a potential disaster, for he prized his independence above everything else. (Two of his early novels, Doctors Wear Scarlet [1960] and Close of Play [1962], feature characters who take this desperate need for personal independence to violent extremes.) So, as Raven remembers it, "I said, `Right ho, I'll marry you. That'll keep your family happy. But I won't live with you--ever.' Very caddish of me, I agree. But I knew, you see, that if ever there were a born bachelor, it was me. And Susan accepted this. She was a brick." Although he kept in touch with Susan and their son, Adam, for the rest of his life, and would eventually foot the bill for Adam's education, they did not seriously impinge on his resolutely single life.

At the end of his undergraduate career Raven was awarded the Studentship (that is, graduate fellowship) he coveted. But extended scholarly endeavor turned out, perhaps not surprisingly, to go against his nature. "Scholarship was one thing, drudgery another. I very soon concluded that nothing would induce me to read, let alone make notes on, hundreds and hundreds of very, very, very boring books?'

How then to make a living? Raven was by now earning a small income reviewing books for the Listener, under the aegis of the legendary J. R. Ackerley, but his first novel had been rejected, business ("money-grubbing") was beyond the social Pale, and schoolmastering was impossible, "because I was on every blacklist in existence" He ended up joining the Regular Army with backdated seniority, attaching himself to the smart King's Own Shropshire Light Infantry.

Raven spent three years in the Army, serving in Germany (his experiences there would go into The Sabre Squadron) and in Kenya against the Mau Mau (a conflict which, fictionalized, became the backdrop for his first novel, The Feathers of Death [1959]). He looked at the British Army, even in its decline, in a highly romantic light: "although there was more in him of Alcibiades than Achilles" comments Barber, "he retained a sentimental attachment to the Homeric ideal."

It became rapidly apparent that he was far too lazy to make a decent field commander. "I loved the Army as an institution and loathed every single thing it required me to do," he later said. A brother-officer remembers that "Captain Raven settled down to organize his life, believing that ability to delegate authority was the true mark of a leader of men. He speedily delegated 100% of his?" His most significant achievements were to effect an improvement in the food, and to set up "a rough and ready knocking shop" for the men. A middle-class man trying to lead an upper-class life, he ran up massive debts and had to leave the Army hurriedly: he would later recreate his ejection from the cozy Regiment into a cold world in his 1959 novel Brother Cain.

"And so, at the age of thirty" Raven wrote in The Decline of the Gentleman (1961), "I had successively disgraced myself with three fine institutions, each of which had made me free of its full and rich resources, had trained me with skill and patience, and had shown me nothing but forbearance and charity when I failed in trust" He now fell back on his last resource: writing. "For in a literary career there was one unfailing advantage: No degree whatever of moral or social disgrace could disqualify one from practice--and indeed a bad character, if suitably tricked out for presentation, might win one helpful publicity."

He embarked on a rackety, hand-to-mouth Grub Street life, described fairly faithfully in the early career of Tom Llewellyn, the unwashed intellectual in Alms for Oblivion. He enjoyed some success, but his weakness for gambling, drinking, and overeating quickly took control of his life, and physical deterioration followed apace. J. R. Ackerley provides a memorable portrait of the prematurely aging Raven:
 A disaster has happened to him, I fear [Ackerley
 informed E. M. Forster]; he has got
 plump. His one-time crowning glory, that
 abundant Titian hair, crinkles thinly and gingerly
 now above a fat pink face, with creases
 of fat about the eyes.... Suede boots, and a
 loose, short, shapeless, not very clean camelhair
 coat--or would it be called duffle? He
 looked like the kind of person who asks for a
 light in the Long Bar of the Trocadero and to
 whom one replies with only a regretful mutter
 as one edges away.... He has his intelligence
 still, and indeed his charm and warmth of
 manner, but I did not accompany him to his
 homosexual club.


Raven seemed set on a course of complete self-destruction, but salvation now appeared in the guise of his publisher, Anthony Blond. "This is the last hand-out you get" Blond told him. "Leave London, or leave my employ." Blond offered his feckless client generous terms: if he would move at least fifty miles from London, Blond would pay him a steady 15[pounds sterling] and settle the following bills: dentist, tailor, nightly dinner at a restaurant and, within reason, wine merchant. Raven obeyed without a moment's argument, moving to Deal, in Kent, where his brother Myles was teaching at a preparatory school. He was, to his own surprise, immediately happy.

The removal from London revealed a surprising side to Raven's character: the steady worker. The rake who lived for pleasure disappeared and was replaced by a worker bee of extremely regular habits. He would write all morning, read in the afternoons, dine at a nearby hotel and spend the evening at the local pub with Myles and his schoolmaster friends. Under this regimen he produced a huge quantity of work.

His motto was "Art for art's sake, money for God's sake" and not all of his large output was of the highest quality. He took on the daunting task of producing a second roman fleuve for instance, The First-Born of Egypt, only for financial reasons. It was a continuation, of sorts, of Alms for Oblivion, but Raven had long since run out of ideas and material and was excruciatingly bored during the writing process ("How can I go on with this?" he frequently asked himself. "Please God, let me win a football pool"); the boredom shows, badly, in the final product. But somewhere along the way Raven had acquired a professional attitude, and his television plays, notably the BBC adaptation of Trollope's Palliser novels and other adaptations of books by Iris Murdoch, Nancy Mitford, and Aldous Huxley, were very fine indeed. He possessed in fact a natural gift for adaptation, a technical skill he likened to translating in and out of Latin.

In middle age he preferred, by his own admission, "a good dinner to a good fuck." When in funds he enjoyed treating his friends to expensive meals, paying the bill with a flourish: when out of them he never economized too radically. A friend remembers him, in dire straits, saying "Well, dear, I'm going to be hellish mean. I'm not going to take anyone out to dinner." "What about you?" said the friend. "Are you going to go on taking yourself out to dinner?" "Oh yes, dear, I'm not going to be miserly."

Raven spent his last years in Sutton's Hospital, an alms house for impoverished old gentlemen, long connected with Charterhouse, which gave precedence to "decrepit or old Captaynes either at Sea or Land" and "Souldiers maymed or ympotent." It was hard to get a place there, and although at this point Raven was certainly "ympotent" he was neither decrepit nor maimed. But he managed to talk his way in, and so ended his days contentedly enough, in yet another all-male club.

Although he readily and even happily admitted to being no gentleman, Raven revered the gentleman as an ideal and mourned his passing, for the modern age, he believed, had rejected the gentleman and everything he represented. "Gentlemen can now only behave as such, or be tolerated as such, in circumstances that are manifestly contrived or unreal" he asserted in The Decline of the Gentleman: in anachronistically hierarchical institutions, that is, like the military.

He illustrates this contention in the career of Peter Morrison, one of the protagonists of Alms for Oblivion. Morrison has all the trappings of the gentleman, certainly. The eldest son of an old East Anglia family, Morrison inherits substantial estates, distinguishes himself in the Indian Army at the time of Independence, enjoys a happy and monogamous marriage, and serves for many years as a Conservative M.P., eventually becoming Minister of Commerce. Yet he is subtly, without even knowing it himself, a hypocrite and an opportunist, and always manages to further his own interests while leaving his "honour"--a flexible term in his case, as in most of ours--intact. "Oh, he likes to do the right thing" observes Detterling; "to be seen to do the right thing, and even to believe it himself, if he possibly can. But he's got a lot of shit in his tanks."

Morrison's antipode is the Machiavellian journalist and politician Somerset LloydJames (thought by many readers to resemble Raven's former schoolfellow Lord ReesMogg). Lloyd-James also comes from a "good" family and has received a gentleman's education, but unlike Morrison he feels no obligation to uphold the gentleman's creed: he is openly unscrupulous and grasping, relishing the brute struggle for power and influence. A practicing Catholic, he habitually resorts to Jesuitical casuistry in dubious justification of whatever shady deal he might have in mind at the moment.

In their early thirties, the two men compete for the Conservative candidacy for the Parliamentary seat of Bishop's Cross. Morrison is in every way the superior candidate--apparently: three years previously, during the Suez crisis, he had resigned from Parliament because, while he disapproved of the government's actions, he didn't want to show a lack of support for the Army, to which he remained loyal: it was a complicated matter of personal conscience, in other words, surely commendable, showing rare delicacy in a politician. But while Morrison congratulates himself, others can see behind the facade of high principle. Fielding Gray castigates Morrison as "a pompous, self-satisfied prig. All this prate about duty and honour and loyalty, and not a row of beans to show for it." Sir Edwin Turbot, a Whitehall power-broker, opines that "Lloyd-James is pretty foul, I grant you that. But he does things. He doesn't sit around moaning about his honour." And the political grandee Lord Canteloupe, one of Raven's finest and most robust creations, frankly prefers working with a "howling shit" like Lloyd-James: "For the great thing about shits," he reflects, "was that they got on with it (provided the price was right) and didn't ask damn silly questions."

Idealism and realism are at war throughout Alms for bt Oblivion, with Raven reserving all the heavy artillery for use against idealism. ("Idealists are far more dangerous than criminals" says the mathematician

Daniel Mond, the only character in Alms for Oblivion who can be said to represent the Good. "Criminals stop when they've got what they wanted. Idealists never stop because they can never attain their ideal.") Lord Canteloupe, the personification of appetite and greed, is the series's great realist, for better and for worse. He makes his first appearance in Friends in Low Places: having turned the grounds of his Stately Home into a profitable theme park, in the manner of the Duke of Bedford, he receives an offer to advise the government on a project for morally uplifting public entertainment. His ideas on the subject are worth quoting:
 "Now what about this? Government-sponsored
 caravan sites for holidays. Make a filthy
 mess of some well-known beauty spot--they'll
 love that--and then publish a lot of balls
 about The People enjoying its Rights in the
 Countryside, that kind of blab. Jam the
 bloody caravans as close together as possible-you
 know how they love being
 crowded--make a song and dance about
 being good neighbours, give a prize for the
 best behaved family, and perhaps throw in
 compulsory P.T."


Lord Canteloupe is manifestly not a gentleman: he is an aristocrat, a class for which Raven shows little mercy. "Whereas the gentleman always seeks to deserve his position" Raven observed, "the aristocrat, disdainful and insouciant, is quite happy just to exploit it." A rare (and refreshing) bird among conservative English authors of the last century, Raven displayed no romantic nostalgia for an aristocracy in picturesque decline.

Alms for Oblivion contains quite a number of selfish aristocrats, like Canteloupe, and pseudo-gentlemen, like Morrison: what it does not contain are very many real gentlemen. In fact these are so thin on the ground that one is tempted to wonder whether in Raven's scheme of things the genuine article actually exists, or is, instead, merely an intellectual abstraction. A few characters fit the bill in the moral department, but none of them, significantly, is an English gentleman in the traditional sense: Daniel Mond, a Jew; the Muslim Gilzai Khan; Tom Llewellyn, of lowly Welsh origins; Piero, a teenaged Italian prostitute. Fielding Gray, who claims to live by the code of officer and gentleman, is far too tainted a character to qualify as the latter.

Raven's Weltanschauung--what one friend called his "Regency, cynical, materialistic outlook"--made for some fine comedy, but its limitations became evident when something more was called for, real emotion or strength. He always maintained that his classical education had inoculated him against love. He was probably right, but the resulting immunity did not always work to his advantage. The lack of love harms his writing: all his books share a tiresome coarseness and a tendency to sentiment. No one in all the enormous cast of Alms for Oblivion is the least bit emotionally affecting, except for the gallant and witty Gilzai Khan. As for the female characters, they are all of one type, the slavering nymphomaniac: Raven's was a man's world, and he could see women only as unwelcome intruders.

At one point in the sequence Raven has Fielding Gray articulate his professional creed.
 "I never said I was an artist. I am an entertainer....
 I arrange words in pleasing patterns
 in order to make money. I try to give good
 value--to see that my patterns are well
 wrought--but I do not delude myself by inflating
 the nature of my function. I try to be
 neat, intelligent and lucid: let others be `creative'
 or `inspired.'"


Is this how Raven saw his own writerly task? For the philosophy is spurious, of course: entertainers, if they are any good, must also be artists, and a lack of creativity or inspiration is just as fatal to their results as it would be to a more artistic (unentertaining?) writer. Raven too often makes the reader feel that he is simply setting up some formal and hypothetical situation and then inserting his characters into it.

Michael Barber compared Raven's work with a ball at Versailles: "all that pomp and glitter and finery while the chamber pots overflow in every corner." Raven's fascination with smut for its own sake is undoubtedly entertaining, but in the end it contributed to the work's one-dimensionality. His friend Christopher Moorson thought the novels were like a weird combination of Henty and Huysmans. "Reading these," he observed to Anthony Blond, "is like eating your way through a cake which is made of chestnuts, and covered with layers of cream and treacle." To which Blond replied: "Yes, and covered with shit, my dear."

Brooke Allen reviews books regularly for The New Criterion and other publications.
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Author:Allen, Brooke
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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