Simon Raven

Perhaps the least well known writer I am including in this series is Simon Raven. My view that he should be here is governed by my predilection for sagas, as begun most notably by Anthony Trollope in the 19th century, with the Pallisers, which was turned into a successful television serial in the seventies. The screenplay was by Simon Raven, who was in the midst then of his Alms for Oblivion series of novels, that covered a selective section of British society after the War. Before that there had been Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, which dealt with the period around the First World War, and then Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, which looked at the generation which grew up before the Second World War, and had to cope with a radically changed world afterwards.

Raven’s series achieved nothing like the same stature, perhaps because it dealt with what seemed a very small world. However, the worlds of the other writers of sagas had also been small, it is simply that, with each generation, the influence of that small world had lessened, as society became more diffuse. And, though Raven’s characters are more resolutely dissolute than those of his predecessors, I would suggest that he also draws attention to a characteristic phenomenon of the period after the Second World War, not exactly a decline in morals but rather the developing acceptance of the doctrine that anything goes. Within that framework, I should note, Raven does show several individuals striving to live up to their own idiosyncratic, if not necessarily high, standards.

His novels do cover an awful lot of ground, and deal with a number of important social and political issues. The Sabre Squadron, I think the most intense, deals with a British regiment on the Rhine in the early fifties, dealing with the fact that collaboration with former Nazis seemed the best way of dealing with the growing Communist threat. Mixed in with this is a sensational but not unconvincing account of efforts to develop nuclear power more expeditiously.

In Sound the Retreat Raven looks at the British withdrawal from India, where he had served just after the War. He deals head on with the possibility of Hindu-Muslim clashes, and shows a Muslim officer more concerned about this than the more realistic, or perhaps more cynical, British. The novel is full of unorthodox sex, including an ejaculation duel between the Muslim officer and the cadet who most strongly resented a native commanding them. The conclusion is also bizarre, with the officer, who had by now left the army and turned into an agitator, being killed by a cadet with whom he had had an affair – but his murder had in fact been suggested by another cadet accidentally promoted to become an officer, who had no qualms about abandoning the principles the rest of the regiment valued.

The Judas Boy, again exemplifying Raven’s predilection for homosexuality as well as female prostitutes, a combination often claimed to cover the gamut of British sexuality, dealt with the movement for independence in Cyprus. This agitation perhaps brought Britain face to face for the first time with both terrorism and the preference amongst some decision makers, supported by myopic American opposition to anything remotely left wing, to use right wing terrorist groups to overcome moderate but socially suspect political opposition.

Places where they sing, which I think first introduced me to Raven, dealt with the left wing student riots of the sixties, at what was recognizably King’s College at Cambridge, the most radical of elite educational institutions at the time. I remember thereafter a weekend with a friend whose father was in the British navy, which still had traces of the Raven approach to life, for instance at a Christmas party I attended where, in a haze of alcohol, there were reminiscences of Sri Lanka during the war, and an aunt who subsequently left her husband for an Englishman for whom she used to play the piano. My weekend I remember for reading Raven into the early hours, a tale of vampires in Cambridge, in a novel brilliantly entitled Doctors wear Scarlet.

Raven’s interest in the supernatural appeared in later books too. The Roses of Picardie dealt with the soul after death, and the realization that it died away unless it had experience of life to nourish it,while  Morning Star described the extraordinary psychological effect of a boy’s worries about sexuality as he grew up. This latter book belonged to a second series Raven wrote, The First Born of Egypt, about the children of the protagonists of the Alms for Oblivion series. However, either because Raven was old and out of touch with an advancing world, or perhaps because that world no longer had the influence that Britain had commanded even in the dying years of imperialism, his latter work did not have the power or impact of the earlier performances.

Raven based Fielding Gray, the main character in his saga, on himself. His own life was indeed the stuff of fiction, with expulsion in 1945 from his public school for homosexuality, national service, and then Cambridge – though Gray lost out on this, since his former headmaster had become head of the Cambridge college he was due to attend, and thought him morally unfit, not for the homosexuality, but because the boy he had seduced had committed suicide when feeling abandoned.

In Cambridge Raven’s idleness prevented him getting a first, despite which he was awarded a scholarship for a doctorate, which further idleness prevented him completing. Instead he married a girl he had got pregnant and, with nothing to do, rejoined the army, which was the inspiration for Gray’s military experiences in Germany. Raven himself had to resign, given mounting debts due to gambling, and then reached an agreement with the publisher Anthony Blond – who owned a house in Sri Lanka at one stage – to retire to Kent and write books.

He stuck by this agreement for over thirty years, without succumbing to his other excesses, and then moved to an almshouse meant for impoverished students of his old school. Meanwhile he had done well also as a writer of scripts for films and television, and even became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Though by this stage I did not read him much, I was informed of his career by a friend who actually visited him at the Almshouse, and found him subdued but still imaginative, worried about the direction the world was taking. The story reminded me of the last volume of the saga, The Survivors, which is set in Venice, where the Cambridge mathematician Daniel Mond, who had heroically tried to commit suicide in Germany in the fifties, so as not to reveal the secret of easy nuclear fission, finally dies. As a minor attempt at blackmail fails, because of a last happy discovery by the now dead mathematician, a minor character notices increasing pollution on the canals. That little detail is typical of Raven, throwing in observations on significant developments as the world moves on, while dwelling on the self-indulgent responses to each other of the influential inhabitants of his privileged world.