Simon Raven

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The cover of a collection of Simon Raven's writing, published in 2002

Simon Arthur Noël Raven (28 December 1927 – 12 May 2001) was an English novelist, essayist, dramatist and raconteur who, in a writing career of forty years, caused controversy, amusement and offence. His obituary in The Guardian noted that, "he combined elements of Flashman, Waugh's Captain Grimes and the Earl of Rochester", and that he reminded Noel Annan, his Cambridge tutor, of the young Guy Burgess.[1]

Among the many things said about him, perhaps the most quoted was that he had "the mind of a cad and the pen of an angel".[2] E W Swanton called Raven's cricket memoir Shadows on the Grass "the filthiest cricket book ever written".[3] He has also been called "cynical" and "cold-blooded", his characters "guaranteed to behave badly under pressure; most of them are vile without any pressure at all".[4] His unashamed credo was "a robust eighteenth-century paganism....allied to a deep contempt for the egalitarian code of post-war England"[5]

Biography[edit]

Birth, family and education[edit]

He was born on 28 December 1927[6] He was the eldest of three children. His father, Arthur Raven, had inherited a fortune from the family's hosiery business, and lived an idle life of leisure.[5] His mother Esther, née Christmas, a baker's daughter, was a noted distance and cross-country athlete who represented England against France in March 1932.[7] He was educated, first at Cordwalles preparatory school near Camberley, then as a scholarship pupil at Charterhouse, whence he was expelled in 1945 for homosexual activities[8] - this despite his cricketing and scholastic prowess. Amongst his school contemporaries were James Prior, William Rees-Mogg, Oliver Popplewell[9] and Peter May. After completing national service he entered King's College, Cambridge in 1948, to read Classics.

Although he possessed a first-class intelligence this was not matched by his application, and his university career was punctuated by regular crises over money, misbehaviour and an apparent inability to connect actions with their consequences. His first class intelligence garnered him in the event only an upper Second, a degree which would not normally have gained him a studentship to read for a doctorate. That it did so may be attributed, essentially, to his charm. He was awarded a Studentship (graduate fellowship) to study the influence of the classics in Victorian schooling, but this soon gave way to pleasure-seeking and his thesis was never seriously addressed.[10] In 1951, he married Susan Kilner, a graduate from Newnham who was expecting his child; the marriage was from duty, as he made clear, and afterwards, he studiously avoided her.[11] A son, Adam, was born in 1952. (The couple divorced in 1957.) Raven, his scholarship funds exhausted, withdrew from King's,[12] and attempted to earn a living as a writer, gaining a small income as book reviewer for The Listener. He also wrote a novel, which proved unpublishable because of its libellous nature, and only emerged almost 30 years later as An Inch of Fortune. Seeking a firmer livelihood, Raven decided to rejoin the army.

Army[edit]

During his National Service, Raven had served as an officer cadet in the Parachute Regiment, and was based in India during the final months of the Raj. He was subsequently commissioned into the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, before being seconded to the 77th Heavy Ack Ack (Anti Aircraft) Regiment at Rolleston Balloon Camp, where he saw out his service.[13] In 1953, after his King's College experiences, he secured a regular commission with the King's Shropshire Light Infantry (KSLI), serving in Germany and Kenya, before receiving a home posting to Shrewsbury. It was during this period, when he was still married to Susan, that he sent his notorious telegram to her in response to her telegraphic plea for money: "Sorry no money, suggest eat baby". Such a callous response suggests that he cared nothing for his wife and child, although in fact he was sedulous in providing for Adam's education and welfare.[citation needed] He enjoyed striking the eighteenth century attitudes underlying the telegram, but had sufficient sense of duty to belie them in private. Unfortunately, his Shrewsbury posting, under the command of a rather lax colonel, enabled him to pursue his passion for gambling at the local race meetings, and he was soon in severe financial straits. Faced with the prospect of a court-martial for "conduct unbecoming" he was allowed to resign quietly, to avoid scandal in the regiment.[14] This episode he later described with candour in Shadows on the Grass.

Writing career[edit]

At almost 30 years of age he had no career or prospects, but from his studies of the classics he had developed a lucid writing style, derived, as he said, from the Army's admirable instruction to be "brief, neat and plain". This, allied to his ready and disrespectful wit, was allowing him to survive precariously in journalism when, in 1958, he was employed by publisher Anthony Blond: "I had picked him up through Hugh Thomas who was editing a symposium for me, called The Establishment. Simon was billed to do the piece on the Army". Blond financed him while he wrote his first published novel, The Feathers of Death (1959). Blond was impressed enough to offer him a contract to continue writing for him, on condition he lived away from London, and paid off Raven's debts. "This is the last hand-out you get," he was told. "Leave London, or leave my employ". He moved to lodgings in Deal, on the Kent coast, and was paid (reportedly) a £15 wage by Blond.[15] As a consequence of this arrangement, during the remainder of his working life, Raven became one of Britain's most prolific writers in a range of genres including fiction, essays, personal reminiscences, polemics, theatre, screenplays and magazine journalism. He was at various times compared with Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Anthony Powell and Lawrence Durrell, but his voice was his own: "Raven came nearer than other novelists to exposing, in the grandeur of its squalor and the dubiety of its standards, the times he lived in and saw through".[16] His own view of his craft was less exalted; in the words of his writer-character Fielding Gray in the novel Places Where They Sing (1970): "I arrange words in pleasing patterns in order to make money".[17]

His mischievous and often cruel delight in the outrageous, and his lack of moralising or sentiment, are characteristics which pervade his writings. He also had a fascination for the supernatural, first manifested in his early novel Doctors Wear Scarlet, which features Balkan vampires (though they are practitioners of vampirism as a sexual deviation rather than an actual supernatural manifestation) and was cited by Karl Edward Wagner as one of the thirteen best supernatural novels.[18] The Gothic themes became stronger in later works such as The Roses of Picardie, September Castle, parts of the First-Born of Egypt sequence,[19] and the 1994 novella The Islands of Sorrow.

The listing of Raven's works below indicates a life of considerable industry, sustained for many years. Although he acquired an enthusiastic and loyal following, he was never a top-seller in terms of the mass market. Quoted by Brooke Allen: "I've always written for a small audience of people like myself, who are well-educated, worldly, sceptical and snobbish (meaning that they rank good taste over bad)".

His ten-novel sequence Alms for Oblivion is usually regarded as his best achievement - A. N. Wilson thought it "the jolliest roman-fleuve"[20] - though it is likely that he gained wider public recognition for his TV work, especially the adaptation of The Pallisers (1974) and Edward and Mrs Simpson (1978). As he grew older his rate of output lessened, and there was deterioration in its quality,[5] but he was still being published in the late 1990s, his last book being Remember Your Grammar and Other Haunted Stories, 1997, a collection of short ghost and supernatural stories.

In 1990 his book of anecdotes and reminiscences, Is there anybody there? said the Traveller (Frederick Muller 1990) had been withdrawn in the face of a series of libel threats, including a suit from his former publisher Anthony Blond.[21] Thereafter he planned, or at least threatened, to write a new work All Safely Dead, in which, safe from the laws of libel, he could "expose" various deceased luminaries from the British social, academic, political and literary scenes, but the book was never written.[22]

Later life[edit]

Throughout his life Raven pursued a hedonistic lifestyle which included eating, drinking, travel, cricket, gambling and socialising. He spent what he earned, and after 34 years in Kent at Blond's behest he finally moved to London on securing lodgings in the London Charterhouse, the almshouse historically associated with Charterhouse School. Here he led a quieter version of his former life. In 1993 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 1997 he appeared with Melvyn Bragg in a South Bank Show devoted to his career, in good spirits and without regrets. His health continued to fail, however, and after a series of strokes[23] he died in London on 12 May 2001,aged 73. A biography of Simon Raven, The Captain, written by Michael Barber, was published in 1996.

His son, Adam Raven, managed to build a successful career as an artist, despite having been diagnosed, at 25, with a bipolar disorder. On 22 June 2006 he was discovered dead in his cabin aboard a cruise liner, at the age of 54.

List of works[edit]

Novels[edit]

1. Early novels

Title Publisher Year
An Inch of Fortune Anthony Blond 1980*
The Feathers of Death Anthony Blond 1959
Brother Cain Anthony Blond 1959
Doctors Wear Scarlet Anthony Blond 1960
Close of Play Anthony Blond 1962
  • Note: His first novel, An Inch of Fortune, written circa 1951, was not published until 1980

2. "Alms for Oblivion" Novel Sequence

The 10 novels cover the period 1945 to 1973 and centre on a group of upper and upper middle class characters, forming a novel sequence, if a somewhat loosely structured one. The early novels are robust satires of the English upper set of the mid-1950s, but the later tend to a more detached and philosophical tone, becoming concerned with the occult and supernatural, and including strange happenings.

The titles in Alms for Oblivion are:

Title Internal chronology Publisher Year
The Rich Pay Late Fourth, set in 1955-56 Anthony Blond 1964
Friends In Low Places Fifth, set in 1959 Anthony Blond 1965
The Sabre Squadron Third, set in 1952 Anthony Blond 1966
Fielding Gray First, set in 1945 Anthony Blond 1967
The Judas Boy Sixth, set in 1962 Anthony Blond 1968
Places Where They Sing Seventh, set in 1967 Anthony Blond 1970
Sound The Retreat Second, set in 1945-46 Anthony Blond 1971
Come Like Shadows Eighth, set in 1970 Blond & Briggs 1972
Bring Forth The Body Ninth, set in 1972 Blond & Briggs 1974
The Survivors Tenth, set in 1973 Blond & Briggs 1976

3. "The First-Born of Egypt" Novel Sequence.

This sequence is a continuation of Alms for Oblivion. with many of the same characters, but with storylines tending to centre on the "next generation" and the introduction of darker, mystic themes. These books were written strictly for money, and received little critical acclaim,[5] but Raven had fun killing off many of the survivors from the earlier sequence, usually in absurd and/or humiliating circumstances.

The titles in The First-Born of Egypt are:

Title Publisher Year
Morning Star Blond & Briggs 1984
The Face Of The Waters Anthony Blond 1985
Before The Cock Crow Muller, Blond & White 1986
New Seed For Old Frederick Muller 1988
Blood Of My Bone Frederick Muller 1989
In The Image Of God Frederick Muller 1990
The Troubadour Hutchinson 1992

4. Other novels

Title Publisher Year
The Roses Of Picardie Blond & Briggs 1980
September Castle Blond & Briggs 1984

Essays, reminiscences and polemics[edit]

Title Publisher Year
The English Gentleman (see note) Anthony Blond 1961
Boys Will Be Boys Anthony Blond 1963
The Fortunes of Fingel Anthony Blond 1976
Shadows on the Grass Blond & Briggs 1982
The Old School Hamish Hamilton 1986
The Old Gang Hamish Hamilton 1988
Bird of Ill Omen Hamish Hamilton 1989
Is there anybody there? said the Traveller Frederick Muller 1990 (withdrawn)

Note: The English Gentleman was also published as The Decline Of The Gentleman

Other writings[edit]

(this table is not necessarily complete)

Title Publisher Year
Introduction to The Best of Gerald Kersh Heinemann 1960
Chriseis (Short Story) No details 1960
Contribution to The Vampire' (Anthology ed. Riva & Volta) Macmillan 1963
Places Where They Stay Anthony Blond 1970
Introductions to Trollope's "Palliser" novels Panther Books 1973
The Islands of Sorrow The Winged Lion 1994
Contribution to The Vampire Omnibus ed. Peter Haining Orion Paperbacks 1995
Remember Your Grammar and Other Haunted Stories The Winged Lion 1997
The World of Simon Raven (collected journalism) Prion Humour Classics 2002

He also wrote features and articles for: The Listener; Encounter; London Magazine; Spectator; New Statesman and other magazines and journals

Plays, screenplays, TV and film adaptations[edit]

Plays (this table is not necessarily complete)

Title Performance History Publication History
Royal Foundation No performance details Anthony Blond, 1966*
The Move Up-Country No performance details Anthony Blond, 1966*
The Doomsday School No performance details Anthony Blond, 1966*
The Scapegoat TV "First Night" series 1964 Anthony Blond, 1966*
Panther Larkin No performance details Anthony Blond. 1966*
The High King's Tomb No performance details Anthony Blond, 1966*
The Gaming Book TV Armchair Theatre series, 1965 Anthony Blond, 1966*
Sir Jocelyn, The Minister Would Like a Word TV Wednesday Play series, 1965 Anthony Blond, 1966*
The Case of Father Brendan 1968, London (no other details) No publication details
  • Royal Foundation and Other Plays, Anthony Blond 1966

Screenplays, TV and film adaptations (this table is not necessarily complete)

Title Type Year Notes
The Scapegoat "First Night" TV play series 1964 Adapted from own stage play
The Gaming Book TV Armchair Theatre 1965 Adapted from own stage play
Sir Jocelyn, The Minister Would Like A Word TV Wednesday Play 1965 Adapted from own stage play
A Soiree at Blossom's Hotel TV Wednesday Play 1966
A Pyre For Private James TV Wednesday Play 1966
Point Counter Point TV mini series 1968 Adapted from Aldous Huxley
The Outstation Episode of TV series 1968 Episode 11 of The Jazz Age
The Way We Live Now TV mini series 1969 Adapted from Anthony Trollope
The Creative Impulse TV dramatisation 1969 From W Somerset Maugham story
On Her Majesty's Secret Service James Bond film 1969 Credited with "additional dialogue"
The Human Element TV dramatisation 1970 From W Somerset Maugham story
Incense For The Damned (see below) Screenplay from own novel 1970 Adapted from Doctors Wear Scarlet
Unman, Wittering and Zigo Screenplay 1971 From Giles Cooper play
The Pallisers TV series (26 episodes UK) 1974 Adaptation from Anthony Trollope
An Unofficial Rose TV mini series 1974 Adaptation from Iris Murdoch
Sexton Blake and the Demon God TV series 1976
Edward and Mrs Simpson TV series 1978 From book by Frances Donaldson
Love In A Cold Climate TV mini series 1980 Adapted from Nancy Mitford
The Blackheath Poisonings TV play 1992 Co-writer with Julian Symons

Note: The US title for Incense of the Damned was: "Bloodsuckers"

References[edit]

  1. ^ Barber, Guardian obit.
  2. ^ This quotation was given prominence on many of the paperback editions of the novels, to promote sales
  3. ^ To which Raven is said to have responded: "Can I quote you on that, Jim?" (Brooke Allen article)
  4. ^ DT obituary quoted by Martin in NY Times obit.
  5. ^ a b c d Brooke Allen article
  6. ^ The place of his birth is not recorded; according to his biographer Michael Barber, it was in a private Welbeck Street nursing home in London. See "The Captain" p19
  7. ^ She became the second-fastest woman in England over 3 miles during the 1930s, with a time of 20'18, succeeding her younger sister Ruth
  8. ^ Michael Barber, The Captain. It is said that the stress of expelling Raven turned headmaster Robert Birley's hair grey
  9. ^ Popplewell, who became a High Court judge, became briefly famous in June 1998 when, during a case involving sprinter Linford Christie he asked: "What is Linford's lunchbox?"
  10. ^ Martin, NY Times; Brooke Allen article
  11. ^ Barber, Guardian obit
  12. ^ Hughes obituary says he was sent down for "terminal lassitude".
  13. ^ The Captain, p93
  14. ^ Barber, Guardian obit; Hughes, Independent obit
  15. ^ Obituary of Anthony Blond, Daily Telegraph, 1 March 2008. Retrieved on 4 March 2008.
  16. ^ Hughes, Independent obit
  17. ^ Quoted by Martin, NY Times obit
  18. ^ N G Christakos: "Three by Thirteen: The Karl Edward Wagner Lists" in Black Prometheus: A Critical Study of Karl Edward Wagner ed. Benjamin Szumskyj, Gothic Press, 2007
  19. ^ Howard Watson observes, in his article The Gothic World of Simon Raven (Dark Horizon, 2001) that by the seventh and final book of the "First-Born" sequence, the "extraordinary and absurd had become a regular, feature of the author's oeuvre
  20. ^ Literally, "stream-novel". Wilson is quoted from Hughes, The Independent
  21. ^ Blond,in a postscript to Hughes's Independent obit, says he was awarded £3000
  22. ^ Hughes, The Independent
  23. ^ On cause of death, Martin says this was "not announced", but both Barber and Hughes refer to strokes

Further reading[edit]

  • Michael Barber: The Captain: The Life and Times of Simon Raven, London : Duckbacks, 2001, ISBN 0-7156-3138-1

Sources[edit]