This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Oh, What a Lovely Century by Roderic Fenwick Owen (Sphere, £20)
Anne Glenconner calls Oh What a Lovely Century, “a wonderful journey through twentieth century history”. It is not a journey you will find in most accounts of the period, but the young, moustachioed, army officer on the cover of this book seems to have had a gay old time, in both senses of the word.
Roderic (Roddy) Fenwick Owen was born in 1921 and died in 2011, and kept diaries amounting to over a million words which he privately published in three volumes called Funny, Living and Loving. These sources were edited down to 200,000 words with Owen’s permission with the proviso “that nothing be cut on the grounds of decency”.
In the mid twentieth-century, a confident Eton and Balliol man with little money but the right connections could go where — and usually do what — he wanted. Fenwick Owen had great confidence in his position in the world, even if he took a course that most of his peers would have found unconventional.
His life’s aim was to look for bizarre experiences. As a young child while lying on his parents’ bed he decided to crawl under the sheets to inspect his father’s genitalia which he describes in detail, “there were these fleshy things hanging down irregularly, though without much hair, as he wasn’t a hairy man”.
He was particular about male body hair. In 1952, at the Vic-Wells ballet ball, he picked up a swarthy “pirate” who was “hairy in all the right places and muscular, with a soft/hard manner uniquely his own”. It is later hinted this was Sean Connery: “I don’t mind of a bit of skylarking Rod but let’s keep the lights out.”
Fenwick Owen wanted to be a writer, much to the shock of his family of Lincolnshire landowners who believed it was something only to be pursued when the weather was too bad for cricket, shooting and fishing.
The life of a country gentleman was not for Roddy; he recalls with horror being “blooded” as a foxhunting initiation rite. He liked shooting but hated the organisation of it in the name of sport. His family was steeped in the military but he decided to become a conscientious objector — until his aunt had a “word” and he was seconded in to the RAF.
After the war, he managed to get a publishing deal to write a biography of the Marshal of the RAF, Lord Tedder, and took the opportunity to follow him to New York to interview General Eisenhower. There, he stayed with an Oxford friend in the apartment below the studio of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner — to his later regret he declined an offer of a Pollock picture, at the time calling it “a frightful daub”.
Preferring a different experience of New York, he headed to the bath houses of Harlem where he picked up Hart, a dancer with Martha Graham. He subsequently went to the Middle East in pursuit of his on-off lover Irish Nick. In Abu Dhabi he became court poet to the Sheikh.
The book is long and in less skilful hands it could read as a travel diary about meeting and sleeping with interesting people
Despite extensive editing, the book is still too long and in less skilful hands it could read purely as a travel diary about meeting and sleeping with interesting people. But Fenwick Owen beguiles with perceptive and amusing insights. Often he betrayed and dismayed his class, writing, “I only commanded respect from those who knew nothing about me”.
His social libertarianism appeals more to the modern reader. “I can’t think why you have come all this distance simply to study Arabs,” remarked the ruler of Bahrain’s economic adviser, Sir Charles Belgrave, when he declined to join him and his family for cocktails, tennis and cards. While volunteering at a hospital for the wounded during the Second World War he willingly took on the most unpleasant job, becoming known as the “King of Sluice” who had to flush away post-operation pus and body parts. Yet, when circumstantially advantageous, he was not shy about putting on an Old Etonian tie.
Fenwick Owen was brave and determined, batting off unhappiness with camp wit. When his father eloped with his beloved governess he wrote that the “desertion caused me very little grief. I missed our chauffeur more, having conceived a passion for uniforms.” About being gay, he jokes that silly Wolfenden spoilt it all when he made it legal, but it can’t have been much fun fearing that he might be arrested and imprisoned as were many of his friends.
He later admitted gratitude to Wolfenden for allowing him to share a bed and a life with Giancarlo, who he met in his forties and stayed with until the latter’s early death. Surprising his family to the end, Roddy’s funeral address was given by Rabbi Lionel Blue. They had met at a bath house sauna.
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