From Socialist Review, 15 November-14 December 1980: 10, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Simon Raven was expelled from his public school, Charterhouse, for homosexuality; he failed to complete his postgraduate studies at Cambridge University because of idleness; and he was discreetly thrown out of the Army (and warned off the Turf) for gambling debts. He is, then, a man who knows some of the main institutions of the ruling class from the inside. If he has been excluded from them, it is not because he has any principled opposition to them, but solely because they have imposed limits on his self-indulgence. Raven’s writings – especially Alms for Oblivion, a cycle of tea novels – may help us a little in drawing the map of Tory Britain.
I recall, shortly after the Lewisham anti-NF demonstration in 1977, watching a late-night by-election programme on television. The Labour representative, a somewhat intense ‘intellectual’, was demanding that SWP members be put in concentration camps or psychiatric hospitals. The Tory, however, was Angus Maude (now a close associate of Thatcher), and he was taking a much more affable, relaxed line, confident that everything would ‘blow over’. Perplexed by this paradox, I realised that the only way I could make sense of it was to see Maude as Raven’s Captain Detterling.
Detterling is a fixer, a man whose relaxed cynicism is based on a pragmatic willingness to bend almost any principle, but who is never shaken in the belief that privilege in general, and his own very considerable privilege in particular, is absolutely justified and assured. As one of his friends puts it, he is ‘callous, cowardly, corrupt and viciously smug’.
Raven gives us a whole gallery of Tories. Four of the nine key characters in Alms for Oblivion are Tory MPs, and three achieve ministerial status. Not that he writes ‘political novels’ in the normal sense. We never actually see any of his
MPs in parliament, and indeed they are so busy with blackmail, indulgence in sex, drink, cricket and expensive meals, and lining their own pockets that one wonders how they ever find time to attend parliament. For Raven politics is mainly intrigue and backstairs manoeuvring. If you’re fed up with reading the Tory press pontificating about the re-selection of Labour MPs, give yourself a change by reading Raven’s account of a Tory selection in Friends in Low Places.
Alms for Oblivion gives us ten novels, each self-contained, but all interlocking with the rest. There are nine main characters, and at least a hundred minor ones. Raven is an ingenious and skilful narrator, and much of the charm of the work derives from the way that half-forgotten characters reappear in new settings, and minor incidents that pass unnoticed suddenly acquire significance. What makes Raven an excellent storyteller, always able to exploit a detail or an accident, is his Tory view of history. In his own words ‘Human effort and goodwill are persistently vulnerable to the malice of time, chance and the rest of the human race.’ In other words, all efforts to change the world are futile.
The individual destinies traced in the cycle are intertwined with twenty-eight years of British history. The cycle opens with a memorial service to celebrate the end of World War II; it ends in the summer of 1973, just a few months before the Middle East war finally brought the post-war boom to an end.
What Raven chronicles over this period is the declining world role of British imperialism. The institutions that Raven knows and dissects are inescapably tied up with imperialism. The public schools trained colonial administrators, and the army kept ‘order’. Yet history has condemned British imperialism.
So deeply is Raven entrenched in the British imperialist dream that some of the novels are based on the absurd fantasy that the United States actually organised such anti-British liberation movements as EOKA in Cyprus. Above all, Anthony Eden’s Suez adventure in 1956 is the point at which the utter bankruptcy of British imperialism is revealed; two of the ten novels are focused on the Suez events.
But the old gang are determined to survive the decline of Empire. To do so they have to adapt themselves to a changing world. How they do so is suggested symbolically in an incident that comes in the earliest novel, Fielding Gray, and shows just how important sport is for moulding the ideology of the ruling class. At the end of a tightly balanced cricket match the batsman simply stops the ball dead at his feet. With the approval of the opposing captain he picks up the ball to throw back to the bowler, who then appeals. The umpire (Somerset Lloyd-James, future blackmailer and Tory MP) gives him out, declaring ‘No one can give a player permission to break the rules’. The bowler had breached all the conventions of gentlemanly play; but the rules are unbreachable. This might provide the moral for all Raven’s work – you may, indeed you will have to, break the conventions, but the rules are sacred.
So Raven traces the way in which the old ruling group, the products of the public schools and Oxford and Cambridge, adapted themselves in the fifties and sixties to the changing pattern of British society. The Marquis Canteloupe, whose ancestor was in charge of the other-rank brothel at Agincourt, makes a fortune from turning his stately home into a profitable company called Cant-Fun. The whole milieu is a parasitic one – the army, education, politics, publishing and advertising. Productive industry never soils Raven’s pages.
Raven undoubtedly owes much of his success to the lurid accounts of sexual activity in his novels. At times one feels that with each novel there is a frantic search to find a variant even more esoteric than those in previous volumes. By, the time we get to Sasha Grimes, who can only make it by miming the crucifixion, we begin to wonder if it’s really worth bothering.
But behind the sensationalism, Raven applies the same principles to sex as he does to politics. At first sight he is tolerant and broadminded. Many of his (male) characters are bisexual. Fielding Gray, the central figure and obviously in part a self-portrait of Raven, is haunted through his adult life by the only person he ever loved, his school-friend Christopher Roland, whom he drove to suicide.
But if the conventions may be handled laxly, the rules remain. None of his characters would dream of ‘coming out’. Raven knows well that on occasion the sexual double standards of the ruling class as in the Profumo case of 1963 – can have an explosive force to shake the credibility of the elite.
Finally, Raven offers us a mirror in which we can see ourselves as Tories see us. For there are socialists in Raven’s world. Their values are perceived as alien and threatening.
The worst novel of the cycle is Places Where They Sing, dealing with the student movement of the late sixties. Here Raven lurches from the grotesque (a girl who in the heat of sexual ecstasy shouts ‘Marx, Mao, Marcuse, Fidel, Che’) to reactionary fantasy (everything is blamed on the mysterious outside agitator Mayerston). Thus Raven shows us, not only the twists and turns of the Tory mind, but also its fatal blind-spots.
Last updated: 19 March 2010