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.
In later life, he retired to the Charterhouse, and while there was featured as the subject of an episode of The South Bank Show. He is best know for is his Alms for Oblivion series of books, though he also gained considerable recognition for his TV work.
The following article, discovered in the Charterhouse scrapbook, details Raven’s extraordinary life.
LIBERTINE, WANDERER, scholar, rogue, debtor — none of these labels ever quite stuck to the writer Simon Raven, though he took full advantage of the seedy kudos they brought him. With his slanted eyes devilish eye-brows and in later years rugose cheeks, he had the air of a wickedly innocent Silenus, more than willing to admit his own faults and vices while keeping a sharp look-out for the fibs and evasions he expected of everyone else. His behaviour often reverted to apes, as though public-school bliss, whether in sport or bed or library, had entrapped his spirit for good. He liked, and was, a good gossip.
The highest pinnacles of literary achievement were not denied him; he denied them to himself — they would have diminished his life by occasioning too much work. His was a leisurely and not a powered disposition. But 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.
May of his 34 books, written for money or mischief, will live on as Gibbonian footnotes to his true achievement: using one 10-decker novel to lure the post-war mid-century into a web of lethal humour. He also did wonderful television, from adapting The Pallisers (1974) to Edward & Mrs Simpsons (1980).
In later years, by a fluke of fashion bizarre enough to have tickled him, Raven as a writer was not so much neglected or forgotten as taken for granted. Four years ago, with an air of modest nonentity, he cleverly kept Melvyn Bragg at bay on a South Bank Show meant to celebrate a life-time’s oeuvre a good deal racier than most and richer than many. In 1996, in Michael Barber’s amusing portrait, The Captain, he stepped forward as a snob with insatiable appetites, the cad of bisexuality, a classicist and cricketer always letting down himself if not the side. He liked to be a humble outrage.
The 10 volumes of the Alms for Oblivion sequence, published between 1964 and 1976, deal with a gathering cast of eccentrically self-centred individuals accommodating in often peevish or spiteful ways two of Raven’s pet adjectives) to the corruptions of a society that inspired in the author both disgust and desire. Over other attempts to pin down our century or love-lives, such as Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet or Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, these novels had the advantage of being less literary but more literate. Raven wasted not a syllable where rivals squandered lots.
What was more, his words were packed tight into taut plot. In The Sabre Squadron (1966) a moody character looks down on a country view that is “serene, civilised and seemly”. What Raven sought out, with recourse more to elegy than to satire, was a betrayal of that trio of values. And his very writing demonstrates the standard he required of others. “Read that novel of Anthony Powell’s you lent me,” says one character. “I didn’t realise you English could be so oblique.” Raven’s sentences never showed off, were rarely less than elegant, displayed a respect for brevity forged in the classics, and pleasured you. A.N. Wilson thinks this sequence “the jolliest roman-fleuve ever written”.
Many of Raven’s characters were modelled on school friends (Charterhouse his blacking factory) who later in life joined the Cabinet, edited The Times, battled for England (P.B.H. May), wrote for The Spectator (almost everyone, including Raven himself), started casinos like John Aspinall or zoos. Such adolescent twerps or prigs as grew into Lord Rees-Mogg, Lord Prior, Lord Thomas or Swynnerton or Anthony Blond are the spitting images of chaps in the books. When a Raven character is noted without disapproval as “not only a gentleman but a howling shit”, we recognise not only self-portraiture but a raffish credo gleaming out as a beacon of verity in a repulsive world. Not for nothing has the sequence been dubbed “Brideshead Revilified”.
Simon Raven was born into means in Virginia Water. His grandfather made a fortune out of socks and stockings in the Midlands and his scorned father spent it while indolently playing golf. His more athletic mother ran for England. Subsidised by hosiery, Simon proceeded from prep school to Charterhouse, from whose sixth form he was expelled less for homosexuality than for the bravura with which he practiced it.
A spell of National Service took him as an officer cadet to Bangalore in the year of India’s independence, whereupon Cambridge beckoned with a scholarship in Classics at King’s. He now continued to misspend his youth, little knowing that his sins were throwing up the right material to collect. He made a Newnham girl pregnant (the journalist Susan Raven) and after brilliant results in the Tripos was soon sent down for terminal lassitude; yet Cambridge remained the ideal. He then joined the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, only to be asked in disgrace to resign his commission, after serving in Germany and Kenya, when faulty choices at the table or on the track caught up with his bank account.
The rest of his life he worked hard on the page, and in his behaviours, to honour the institutions that had rejected or offended him, including marriage and fatherhood. Latterly he was still swapping notes with his friends on postcards of his son Adam’s vivid and vigorous paintings. His twenties were a write-off of the utmost delight and shame. He was rescued from iniquity, not to say penury, by the no less flamboyant Anthony Blond. Blond had financed The Feathers of Death (1959), only to find Raven in debt to the golfer for drinking the paternal brandy. Then he lost more than his shirt at Aspinall’s club. In 1959 Blond, chicly established as a publisher, promised him a weekly wage (rumoured to be £15), plus paying his dentist and tailor and vintner within reason, plus dinner nightly, if he quitted the fleshpots, lived in digs by the seaside, and wrote. Raven moved to Deal and within a year his imprisonment was forcing book (Doctors Wear Scarlet, 1960) after book (The English Gentleman, 1961) out of him.
Once established, and it lasted half a lifetime, Raven’s regime in Kent was both strict and luxurious. The mornings were occupied in serious and steady writing. After a modest lunch washed down only by beer, he spent the afternoon on correspondence and exercise, while the evening (“At dinner spirits rise like a Zeppelin”) was given over to wining and dining with proper amplitude.
When in London and in funds his habit was to install his taste for luxury in a discreet hotel tucked away to the rear of St James’s. Game went well with claret. In Dieppe, another favoured retreat, he occupied an elegant room at the Presidence, a mere step from the Casino; his fictional scenes at the tables are as tense as 007’s. In caustic review (1962) of Anthony Sampson’s Anato-
Below is a video of Raven interviewing his friend Kinglsey Amis.