In my mid-twenties, having given up hope of a literary career, or any sensible career for that matter, I did what many desperate men do: I trained to become a lawyer. Unfortunately, I had failed to heed Laclos’s advice that ‘our intentions make blackguards of us all’. And not for the first time. My undergraduate life at Cambridge had been dogged by the kind of procrastination that meant I was forever turning over a new leaf. Even when I went to the University Library – being a bibliophile, a far more frequent occurrence than attendance of lectures – I would be sidetracked by an interesting volume (or three) that had caught my eye in the catalogue but had no bearing whatsoever on my weekly history essay. I would frequently emerge from the library not having written a word, yet curiously well versed in the history of Argentine cricket or the poetry of Alan Hollinghurst.
This time, however, I was determined to succeed. I mustered up an impressive amount of faux enthusiasm and forced myself to mug up on the more esoteric aspects of contract and tort. Needless to say, the façade did not last very long. Within weeks, I was scouring Dillons (as it was then) in Gower Street for something to distract me. I had read Simon Raven’s brilliantly wicked cricketing memoir Shadows on the Grass – once described by E. W. Swanton as ‘the filthiest book on cricket ever written’ – whilst at school, but had never thought to pursue his infamous ten-volume roman fleuve, Alms for Oblivion. Now here was my chance: I hungrily purchased the complete set.
And so for a blissful fortnight – made even sweeter by the fact that I should have been concentrating on my legal studies – I immersed myself in a dashing upper-middle-class saga of privilege and corruption, chicanery and moral degeneration; in a demi-monde populated by dons and conmen, entrepreneurs and gamblers, tarts-with-hearts and male whores, officers and g
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In my mid-twenties, having given up hope of a literary career, or any sensible career for that matter, I did what many desperate men do: I trained to become a lawyer. Unfortunately, I had failed to heed Laclos’s advice that ‘our intentions make blackguards of us all’. And not for the first time. My undergraduate life at Cambridge had been dogged by the kind of procrastination that meant I was forever turning over a new leaf. Even when I went to the University Library – being a bibliophile, a far more frequent occurrence than attendance of lectures – I would be sidetracked by an interesting volume (or three) that had caught my eye in the catalogue but had no bearing whatsoever on my weekly history essay. I would frequently emerge from the library not having written a word, yet curiously well versed in the history of Argentine cricket or the poetry of Alan Hollinghurst.This time, however, I was determined to succeed. I mustered up an impressive amount of faux enthusiasm and forced myself to mug up on the more esoteric aspects of contract and tort. Needless to say, the façade did not last very long. Within weeks, I was scouring Dillons (as it was then) in Gower Street for something to distract me. I had read Simon Raven’s brilliantly wicked cricketing memoir Shadows on the Grass – once described by E. W. Swanton as ‘the filthiest book on cricket ever written’ – whilst at school, but had never thought to pursue his infamous ten-volume roman fleuve, Alms for Oblivion. Now here was my chance: I hungrily purchased the complete set. And so for a blissful fortnight – made even sweeter by the fact that I should have been concentrating on my legal studies – I immersed myself in a dashing upper-middle-class saga of privilege and corruption, chicanery and moral degeneration; in a demi-monde populated by dons and conmen, entrepreneurs and gamblers, tarts-with-hearts and male whores, officers and gentlemen, politicians and fully paid-up shits. (It is hardly surprising that Raven was once described as having ‘the mind of a cad and the pen of an angel’.) Shadows on the Grass proved to be the perfect introduction to Raven’s oeuvre, for it is his roseate view of his improvident youth that provides the material for much of his work. His is a world of the public school, the ’Varsity, the officers’ mess and the St James’s club: all establishments that reinforce the notion of upper-middle-class privilege, the myth that those who shelter within their confines can escape the morality that governs others. Paradoxically, this was not the case with Raven. His tragedy lay in the fact that, when it mattered most, he could not help but foul his nest. He later attempted to redress the balance either by basking in the glory of his misdeeds or by taking his frustrations out on his characters. This passage from Shadows on the Grass, where Raven reflects on his dishonourable discharge from the Army, typifies his style:
As the train slunk out of Shrewsbury Station bearing me away to my ‘tour of the Balkans’, I walked through to the Dining Car for lunch. In those days important trains to and from the Western Midlands produced a four-course meal, which I now enlivened by calling for a bottle of Nuits St Georges: for it is to be taken for granted, as Trollope somewhere remarks, that ruined men always have enough ready money about them to eat and drink very handsomely . . . In short, I decided to commence ‘Man of Letters’. But meanwhile, as the train carried me to my new life, a tear or two might be shed, a smile or two indulged, as I briefly recalled the traumas and fiascos of old.As a young man, Raven had been caught out once too often: expulsion from Charterhouse for what used to be termed ‘the usual thing’; slacking at Cambridge when faced with a dry dissertation on the influence of the classics on the Victorian public schools; and resignation from his regiment, the King’s Own Shropshire Light Infantry, for unpaid gaming debts. Finally, fearing the Fates might have caught up with him, Raven had no choice but to write. Fortunately he found salvation in a new institution, Anthony Blond Ltd. Blond, ever the outré publisher, who was beginning to earn himself the nickname ‘spot-cash Blond’, trusted his instinct and commissioned Raven to write a first novel on the basis of a proposal. With an allowance of £15 a week, Raven took himself off to his parents’ home in Norfolk and completed The Feathers of Death in ten weeks. His return to London, however, was marred by excessive drinking and gambling. Fed up with having to provide Raven with a series of handouts (on top of the advances) to keep his creditors at bay, Blond finally gave him an ultimatum: that he leave either London and his rackety existence, or his employment. In Blond, Raven knew a good thing when he saw one. And so, in 1961, he moved to Deal in Kent, where his brother was teaching at a preparatory school, and stayed for thirty-four years. During that time, Raven’s output was prodigious: twenty-five novels, four volumes of memoirs, four of belles lettres and a book of plays. Moreover, an excellent ear for dialogue helped him pen a number of high-profile screenplays, including The Pallisers, Love in a Cold Climate and Edward and Mrs Simpson. He truly became a man of many literary parts. In attempting a sequence of novels, Raven hoped that it would bring him some kind of financial security; and if things went well, even a claim to a literary reputation. He was also looking for a sizeable canvas:
I wanted to look at the upper-middle-class scene since the war, and in particular my generation’s 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 confrères? 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.The timing was right: C. P. Snow was nearing the end of his eleven-novel Strangers and Brothers, while Anthony Powell had just published the seventh instalment of his duodecalogy A Dance to the Music of Time. Alms for Oblivion (published between 1964 and 1976) could give them both a good run for their money. And over the years it has, whilst also being the basis upon which Raven’s reputation has come to rest. The series covers the period 1945 to the mid-1970s, though unlike A Dance, Alms for Oblivion was not published chronologically. Raven had initially written Fielding Gray (1967), a schoolboy novel set in 1945, to start the series off. He was, however, dissuaded in no uncertain terms by his publisher: ‘I’m sick of your f***ing schools. Go and write a novel about London.’ This Raven did, though he made sure Blond paid him for his trouble first. Fortunately for him, Blond was an astute publisher. He realized that readers would be far more interested in the characters’ schooldays once they had a sense of them as adults. Thus the sequence opens with The Rich Pay Late (1964) and Friends in Low Places (1965), both set in the corridors of power around the time of Suez in 1956, though they clearly evoke the scandal-ridden Conservative government of the time they were published. The Sabre Squadron (1966) and Sound the Retreat (1971) deal with the Army in Germany and in India at the time of Partition respectively. The Judas Boy (1968), possibly the weakest in the series, is set against a backdrop of international conspiracy, while Places Where They Sing (1970) is Raven’s attempt at a campus novel, focusing on Sixties student unrest at Cambridge. Come Like Shadows (1972) is based on his experiences as the scriptwriter for the Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and the last two volumes, Bring Forth the Body (1974) and The Survivors (1976), deal with retribution and the onset of old age. Nevertheless, it is from the disenchanted tone of the epigraph that Alms for Oblivion takes its lead:
If there is one theme which will dominate the series, it is that human effort and goodwill are persistently vulnerable to the malice of time, chance, and the rest of the human race.Nowhere is this more clearly realized than in Fielding Gray, one of Raven’s most powerful and skilfully narrated novels. Here we witness the fall of Raven’s eponymous hero (and alter ego) and the first glimmerings of the malignant star that will dog him throughout the series. It is the spring of 1945 and, following the German surrender, a perfect summer beckons – cricket, leisure and an anticipated scholarship to Cambridge. Gray believes he has ‘only to step outside into the evening sun, and on all sides the world would lie serene about me, to bring me knowledge, sing my praises, yield me joy’. But – in true Ravenesque fashion – the Furies have it in for Gray when he takes up and seduces the impressionable Christopher Roland. Once the fickle schoolboy passion wanes, Roland finds himself rejected. He seeks solace, is arrested for importuning soldiers, and shoots himself. The school, of course, looks to Gray. Gray’s life at home fares no better – his philistine father berates his intellectualism and would rather see him work for an Indian tea plantation run by a conman called Tuck than have him ‘sit on [his] behind in Cambridge for three years’. When Mr Gray dies while in bed with the young Mrs Angela Tuck (a sexually voracious antiheroine, who passes through the beds of many of Raven’s main characters), his son’s plans for a leisurely don’s life look certain to materialize. Unfortunately, Mrs Gray now takes up her husband’s mantle and uses his affair with Roland to check her son’s ambitions. No one, not even his concerned schoolmasters, can help him. His plight is exacerbated by the repellently self-serving and ambitious Somerset Lloyd-James (one of Raven’s principal figures of hate, loosely based on a Charterhouse contemporary, who has to wait until the penultimate volume for his comeuppance), who has a hand in Gray’s expulsion. The end of the novel finds Gray alone – having lost his place at Cambridge and the friendship of his school friend, Peter Morrison – listening to the tolling of a church bell, which he assumes rings for death ‘and for Fielding Gray’. The rest of the sequence is played out along similar lines, except on a much grander and gamier scale. Raven seems determined to draw back the curtain on debauchery, perfidy, corruption and cant, both in public and private life. Whether it be the Houses of Parliament, the City, the Army, or the gaming dens and brothels of Mayfair, no institution is safe. Although Raven is renowned for both his salacity (Marguerite Yourcenar once commented that he was ‘flawed’ by it) and his paganism (he was after all a classicist), redemption is a central theme of his writing. Moral problems are raised and answered through human thought and action dramatized as class conflict. A sense of human solidarity, reminiscent of George Eliot and Conrad, pervades even his nastiest human relationships. Ultimately, duty and loyalty are at the centre of his scabrous upper-middle-class world. Reading Alms for Oblivion, one is reminded of Cyril Connolly’s theory that both the glories and the disappointments visited upon public schoolboys are so intense that they come ‘to dominate their lives and to arrest their development’. This certainly seems true of Raven. He often voiced his amusement that he had not ended up in the ‘gutter’, as many of his acquaintance had foretold. Quite the contrary: he had made a success of being a novelist, though he remained unassuming, thinking his work strictly Second XI stuff. When Raven died in 2001, it was with sadness that I read the obituaries. (I had come to know him in the interim.) He was, they recorded, ‘perverse’, ‘seedy’, ‘wicked’ – a ‘bounder’, a ‘rogue’ and a ‘cad’: all easy labels to use but wholly reductive. Save for two obituaries, which chose not to mention it, Raven was defined by an infamous telegram. ‘Wife and baby starving send money soonest,’ someone has supposedly cabled him. ‘Sorry no money suggest eat baby,’ he had supposedly replied. Did he? The story is apocryphal, and yet so good it has become accepted as truth. Even so, while none of these salacious portraits quite captured the man’s geniality, he would not have been displeased by them. He was shameless about propagating his own myth – and at times naïve as to the cost both to himself and to others – believing that the length of column inches was a reminder that one had stayed the course.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 8 © Andreas Campomar 2005
About the contributor
Andreas Campomar finally became a City solicitor, only to be persuaded by the wonderfully idiosyncratic Anthony Blond to change career. He now works in publishing and counts Anthony Blond, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy and Anthony Powell among his authors. Nevertheless, he continues to turn over new leaves.