English writer Simon Raven (Photo by Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

I miss the Simon Ravens

Twinkly-eyed twentieth century mischief makers have crashed out of fashion

Artillery Row

I am fortunate to count amongst my eclectic circle of friends a brace of middle-aged, misanthropic homosexuals who suggested to me one day when I was moaning about something — performative corporate “allyship”, perhaps, or our hopeless government — that I should read Simon Raven. 

He transitioned from elfin youth into portly rake

Raven was one of those twinkly-eyed twentieth century mischief makers who have crashed out of fashion. He was a product of Charterhouse, from which he was expelled for licentious activity, and the Army, from which he resigned pending a court martial for gambling. His novels chart — in crisp, elegant, acerbic prose — the post-war decline of the British upper-middle class and, with it, the decline of Britain. His most famous work is Alms for Oblivion, a ten part roman-fleuve written between 1964 and 1976, and set between 1945 and 1973. Journalism and plays also abound, as well as a multitude of pot-boilers (Raven had a fascination for vampires, which crop up, more camply than erotically, in a number of his lesser works). But Oblivion is the masterpiece.

The key theme is transience. The transience of England, yes — certainly the England that fluttered Raven’s soul as, frankly, it flutters mine perhaps (no, probably) it never really existed. But also the transience of everything, or at least everything meaningful. Beauty. Youth. Pleasure. A golden summer’s afternoon. A decent game of cricket. This pulse of sentimentality may be subsumed at times by the comedy, the pantomime grotesques, the colourful set-pieces, the drawl and snark, but it’s what fuelled Raven. “The soul of the devil and the pen of an angel”, a phrase often associated with him, is only half accurate. The old fruit was, I think, a romantic at heart — but the object of his lifelong romance was a time and place, an attitude, rather than an individual. His brief marriage to Susan Kilner ended in predictable ignominy. When his wife contacted him, shortly after the birth of their son, seeking funds, he telegrammed back curtly: “Sorry no money: suggest eat baby”.

Influenced by Latin poets such as Horace and Catullus, Raven embraced the life of an “indifferent queer” — indeed, he was openly bisexual, though dismissive of contemporaries who made “a production of it”. He joined the Reform Club: apathetic about the club, he enjoyed visiting the prostitutes in the massage parlour opposite, where he could get a super “housemaid’s wank”. In later life, as he transitioned from an elfin youth into a purple-cheeked and portly rake, his indiscriminate libido calmed. By thirty-five, he “preferred a good dinner to a good fuck”. His delight in shocking, however, never left him. 

In a less permissive society, deliberate transgressions are far more shocking — and far more enjoyable

One of the compensations of a less permissive society — or, at least, a society in which un-Christian behaviour is neither celebrated nor sanctified by politicians and the law — is that deliberate transgressions are far more shocking and, therefore, far more enjoyable. A successful wag needs to operate within a wider system of beliefs and expectations that he or she can pick at and degrade. It is amusing to ponder what Raven would make of Britain now.

“I arrange words in pleasing patterns for money” is the kind of attitude that most writers would baulk at. But writing is a profession: writers, ultimately, do have to make money to exist. While Raven deplored “money-grubbers”, he was keenly aware of this, and for many years enjoyed a settlement with his publisher that paid him a weekly salary, rather than lump-sum advances which he’d be unable to resist frittering away on alcohol, sex and gambling. 

“Old men do not forget,” Raven wrote, in Shadows on the Grass. “But their memories do a lot of editing. Especially in respect of the deeds and misdeeds that they did on the bright fields of their youth.” One senses that Raven never quite left those fields — and his final years, spent at an almshouse for old Carthusians, present the kind of neat, circular epilogue a writer of his quality deserves.

I miss the Simon Ravens of this world. They were a British tradition, of the old sort: whimsical, sharp, self-deprecating, rather than ironic. (Why must everything be ironic now? From scones and jam to the “platty joobs”, everything British — and particularly English — has to be drenched in sickly-sweet, postmodern irony; the real flavours obliterated by Blairite ketchup.) Evelyn Waugh was a roughly equivalent figure, though arguably less subversive, and definitely less rude — but an effective gateway drug. More broadly, Anthony Powell, Auberon Waugh, James Lees-Milne, Christopher Isherwood, art historian Kenneth Clark and his miscreant son, Alan, satirists Peter Cook and Willie Rushton — all seemed to be hewn from similar material.

Such figures may have left the public square. But I hope, somewhere, they are sprawled louchely around a cricket pitch, warm in the smile from a long lost August’s sun.

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