Saturday, 18 May 2013

Robin Maugham

When Robin Maugham was a teenager, his uncle’s lover, Gerald Haxton, invited him to Venice—Robin was not far away, in Vienna, at the time—with the intention of sleeping with him.  It turned out that the uncle was in on the plot.  Reflecting on the incident years later, in his memoirs, Robin Maugham wrote: ‘To this day I do not know whether Willie [Somerset Maugham] had planned that Gerald should seduce me—perhaps because he loathed my father...  Or perhaps it amused him to think of his own lover having his own nephew.  Or perhaps he hoped that once I had been seduced by Gerald I would be ready to accept his own proposals of love.  In either case I felt shocked and disgusted’.  On another occasion, over dinner, uncle Willie gave Robin the following advice: ‘You are quite an attractive boy.  Der-don’t waste your assets.  Your charm won’t ler-last for long’.  One thing was certain in the younger man’s mind: he was not going to waste his assets on the likes of his uncle or his uncle’s lover.  Another piece of avuncular guidance gives a sense of why the older Maugham became rather distant, not only from his own nephew, but from younger generations’ ways of approaching the things that matter.  Willie said to Robin: ‘Money ... is a sixth sense, without which you can't make the most of the other five’.  Not that younger people, the nephew included, did not regard money as offering short-cuts to many pleasures; but the equivalence of money and the senses was felt, pretty much, in earnest by Willie.  He knew he could buy people.  He could send out for them from the fastness of the Villa Mauresque.  The relationship with Haxton was central to this economics of flesh.  As Robin Maugham expressed it, ‘Gerald was Willie’s pander; Willie was rich enough to keep him’.  Not only did this eventually leave Somerset Maugham in a poor position to comment on human relationships; it also prompted him to think that he could falsify his own, and to believe he would be believed.  According to the nephew, late in life, after Gerald Haxton’s death, ‘Willie had somehow managed to persuade himself that he had never been queer’.
            After Cambridge, Robin Maugham was trained in tank warfare at Bovington Camp in Wiltshire.  By his later account, ‘A homosexual atmosphere seemed to hang as heavily over Bovington as the low rain-clouds in the sky’.  He met the man, or one of the men, who used to beat and bugger Lawrence of Arabia when he was living at Cloud’s Hill, nearby.  Like Lawrence, Maugham was in a position to mix military life with with socialising in a completely different social stratum: a weekend at Checkers with the Churchills, for instance, enlivened by the arrival of Noël Coward for Sunday lunch.  Maugham, who had recently been invalided back to England from the Middle East with head injuries, passed out and had to be driven back to London by Coward.  After the war, Maugham worked in intelligence, using journalism as his cover.  His friend and mentor Harold Nicolson—‘who had become a kind of godfather to me in my struggle to become a writer’—introduced him to Guy Burgess.  Burgess was four years older than Maugham, and had preceded him at both Eton and Cambridge.  Maugham could see that Burgess was unstable and unpredictable already; his heavy drinking contributed to an exhibitionistic tendency which could only mean trouble.  As just one example, Maugham recalled that ‘At a large dinner party in Tangier he startled all present by giving the names of the head of each department of the British Secret Service’.
            Burgess used to like quoting E.M. Forster’s remark about hoping, given the choice, he would have the courage to betray his country rather than his friend.  Nobody who knew Burgess, however, could be entirely sure that he would not betray either for the sake of some short-term gain.  Wondering—as so many wondered—why the intelligence services kept on Burges and Maclean when, not only in retrospect but at the time, they were such obviously unreliable characters—Robin Maugham came to the same conclusion as others: ‘Because in those days our intelligence service was run by an “Old Boy” network and backed up by an Establishment of crypto-queer ambassadors’.  On the day of his defection, Burgess rang W.H. Auden on Ischia to ask if he could go and stay.  Auden later said to Maugham, who had been introduced to him by Michael Davidson: ‘I know exactly why Guy Burgess went to Moscow.  It wasn't enough to be a queer and a drunk.  He had to revolt still more to break away from it all.  That’s just what I’ve done by becoming an American citizen’.
            Maugham had met Michael Davidson in Tangier in 1947.  Davidson later sailed with Maugham and his lover, on their yacht Clio, to Capri to pay homage to the venerable Norman Douglas.  The latter made no bones about his sexual ideal: ‘I’ve always loved a very large possession attached to a very small boy’.  Robin Maugham seemed intent on collecting the older queer cultural figures.  In Tangier on another occasion, he arranged to meet Gerald Hamilton—Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris—in Dean’s Bar.  Now approaching seventy, Hamilton was ‘one of the most unprepossessing people’ Maugham had ever met—if hardly more so than back in the Berlin days in the 1930s—but when he spoke he became the character who had fascinated so many, including the young Isherwood.  Needless to say, his performance began with the customary claim, ‘I seem to have left my wallet behind at the hotel’.
One of the nicer ironies of Hamilton’s life is that he sat for the body of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square.

Source: Robin Maugham, Escape from the Shadows (London: Robin Clark, 1981), pp.88, 89, 104, 105, 190; 116, 179-80, 182; 182, 203; 198, 205.

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