Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Simon Raven

The novelist Simon Raven’s attitudes were shaped by his schooling, and many of his experiences at school reappear in his fiction. In May 1936 he was sent to Cordwalles School in Camberley, where boys aged between nine and thirteen were initiated into pre-pubertal group sex by the master who taught English and games, an ex-army officer.  In 1939, he was reported and had to leave, but the report was evidently not forwarded to the police, since he went on to found and run a school of his own. After the outbreak of the war, Simon Raven was moved to another prep school, St Dunstan’s at Burnham-on-Sea, before going on to Charterhouse in 1941. He was homosexually active and open at school, but he took the time in 1944 to dispose of his heterosexual virginity, at a cost of one pound, with a tart in the West End of London.
His great glory year, which he never bettered, was the next: the war had ended, Raven had won his First XI (cricket) colours, and he was having an affair with a beautiful boy (‘Alexis’ he later called him). In his 1961 book The English Gentleman, he wrote of how the affair fitted into the context of the boys’ classical education: ‘My attitude was measured against what I honestly believed to be the best possible frame of reference for such matters—the utterance and custom of the ancient Greeks’. These reminiscences, understandably, offer an intensely romanticised and eroticised representation of public school life—‘long hours of cricket in the sun (oh, those white flannels and the faint, sweet smell of sweat)’—which, in other moods or by other boys, could otherwise be recalled as brutal and exploitative. Anything, of course, can be endured and transformed if you are in love. Many years later, Raven recalled the most important details: Alexis had

A Greek beauty with handsome, regular features, classic torso and legs and the most beautiful uncircumcised cock I have ever encountered. The prepuce went slowly back leaving a slightly damp and sweet-smelling surface. I was only allowed to feel it and never saw it come. Pity.

There were copious compensations, however, which Raven took whenever the opportunity arose, and eventually he was caught—in the autumn of that same, best year.  In the ensuring scandal it was established that he had had sexual encounters with many other boys; but what did for him was the fact that one of them—just one—was two years younger than himself. (He was almost eighteen.) The school expelled him. 
Although he kept anticipating some kind of disgrace to emerge from this supposedly dire sequence of events, Raven found that being known to have been expelled from school on account of a homosexual scandal never damaged his career in the slightest. Indeed, he later came to feel cheated of the disgrace he felt he had deserved. In 1946, he joined the Parachute Regiment and shipped out to India; he was commissioned in May 1947 and the regiment returned home soon afterwards. In 1948, he went up to King’s College, Cambridge, the very place for a young man with his history and personal tastes. He soon found that he could do pretty much as he wished there, so long as no offence was caused the college porters and scouts. Not unpredictably, Raven, who had modelled his undergraduate mien on Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, became a protégé of George ‘Dadie’ Rylands. Although by this time the homophobic anti-aesthete F.R. Leavis was beginning to wield influence at King’s, there remained a rear-guard of liberal dons, Rylands among them, who were trying to re-establish the pre-war, pre-austerity days of the late 1930s. E.M. Forster, who had been back at King’s since 1946, was no flamboyant; but he was, of course, on the side of the angels. It was through him that Raven met J.R. Ackerley, who in 1951 started using him as a reviewer for the Listener. (Raven always wanted more out of Forster than he got. He later said of him, ‘Morgan Forster was a mean old number who never bought anyone dinner in his life’.) Raven was much liked around the place, but tended to be contrasted, to his detriment, with earlier figures to whose reputations he never had any intention of trying to live up. In his own recollection, people used to keep saying to him:

Why can’t you be more like Ant Blunt? He had a lot of fun like you, but he worked hard, he behaved nicely, he was a good socialist—you’re not, you’re just a beastly reactionary. Be more like Blunt.
Needless to say, Raven would extract every last ounce of pleasure from reminding those of them who were still alive of this when the good socialist was unmasked as the ‘fourth man’. A crucial difference between Raven and the favoured undergraduate type was, of course, that he had not come up straight from school. He had been an army officer and, reactionary though he undoubtedly was in many of his outspoken attitudes, his attitude to patriotism had always been coloured by a juxtaposition he observed, while still a schoolboy, at the beginning of the war:

The day I first understood what it was to love one’s country was when I saw, in a daily paper, a list of the probable runners at Newmarket adjacent to an account of a hideous defeat.

This is not an ironic observation. He speaks as a soldier, though not one who saw action in the war, and as an addict of the turf. To him, the juxtaposition did not mean that race-goers were, so to speak, dancing on the graves of the defenders of their liberty. On the contrary: he meant that the continuation of the Newmarket routine was precisely what the fighting men were dying for. By choice he would have gone to Newmarket, by duty to the battlefield.
Raven’s sex life was both varied and, if need be, mercenary. According to his biographer, ‘if he thought it was in his interests to sleep with someone old enough to be his father, e.g. a celebrity like John Sparrow, he would generally do so’. By now he was sleeping with women as well as men. As he said to Hilly, Kingsley Amis’ first wife, ‘Well, dear, when I’m with a chap it’s his willy, and when I’m with a lady, it’s mine. D’you see?’ (Whether there was anything more than a single ‘willy’ involved in each bout is not clear.) One of his girlfriends became pregnant in 1951. After failing to organise an abortion, they got married on 15 October; but he refused to live with her, and they went back to their separate lives. With mounting debts, uninterested in the research he was supposed to be doing at King’s, and finding that his income from reviewing was insufficient to live on, he decided to go back into the army. He joined the King’s Own Shropshire Light Infantry in May 1953. Two years later, he went out to Kenya with the regiment. Among his more obvious achievements there was the setting-up of a rudimentary brothel for his men. He, meanwhile, had an affair with a young private—‘a bit of a misfit’, as he called the boy, ‘but attractive in a butch sort of way’. When Raven returned to England, to the Training Battalion at Depot, he set about ensuring that the chefs, the Mess waiters (always chosen for their looks) and the best sportsmen were never sent out to Kenya. When his army career did come to its premature end, the crisis was precipitated not by sexual scandal but by debt, and he was allowed to resign before the regiment get around to cashiering him.
Between April and June 1958, Raven wrote his first novel, The Feathers of Death, while staying at his parents’ house; by October he was working on his second.  On 25 January 1959, the publisher Anthony Blond, himself homosexual, invited ‘every homosexual bookseller in the country’ to celebrate publication of The Feathers of Death. Knowing he had happened on a hot property, Blond paid Raven a retainer but forced him to get away form the attractions and distractions of London.  So Raven moved to Deal, in Kent, where his younger brother Myles taught in a prep school. (Poor Myles was homosexual but only once tried to act on it: he put his hand on a boy’s knee. When the boy coolly responded ‘And what does Mr Raven want?’ he retreated—forever.)  In 1960 he published an essay on ‘The Male Prostitute in London’ in Encounter; it was said to have been ‘well received on the Stock Exchange’. In 1962, Raven conceived of the Alms for Oblivion series. And although he never possessed a television set himself, Raven did become a successful writer for television. His main achievement in this field was the 26-part adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which the BBC transmitted in 1974. In 1971, Raven travelled to Australia on a cricket fans’ package tour to watch the Ashes campaign. He carried with him a letter of introduction to Patrick White, who cooked him dinner.  It was apparently a long evening, at which the group of diners became increasingly drunk and quarrelsome.
For a long time, Raven worshipped Anthony Blond’s younger lover Andrew McCall—who had published a spirited and racy novel called The Au-Pair Boy in 1970—and when Blond and McCall separated, McCall moved to live near Raven, who was then grieving over the loss of his brother. (Myles had died at the age of forty-five.) The enjoyed a close relationship but only rarely stayed together under the same roof. One such occasion was a stay at Tony Richardson’s villa in the south of France. They continued to see each other, in one way or another, until 1984.

Main source: Michael Barber, The Captain: The Life and Times of Simon Raven (London: Duckbacks, 2001). See also Simon Raven, The English Gentleman: An Essay in Attitudes (London: Blond, 1961), pp.112, 115.

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