Instead, he survived to produce 25 novels, including Alms For Oblivion (1959-76), a 10-volume saga of English upper-class life, numerous screenplays, eight volumes of essays and memoirs, including Shadows On The Grass (1981) – “the filthiest book on cricket ever written,” according to EW Swanton – and The First Born Of Egypt sequence (1984-92), which contains requests such as “Darling mummy, please may I be circumcised?” and “Please, sir, may I bugger you, sir?”
How to explain this total one-off character, who combined elements of Flashman, Waugh’s Captain Grimes and the Earl of Rochester (though, unlike Rochester, he died an unrepentant pagan)?
The key lies in Simon’s love of the classics, which he would read in the original every day. The long hours he spent as a boy “translating this way and that, from Greek and Latin into English and vice-versa”, taught him to write with clarity, precision and wit. He also learned about retribution, a common theme in his books, and about necessity – “what has to be, has to be, and there’s no point in kicking up a fuss about it.”
Above all, he learned that “we aren’t here for long, and when we do go, that’s that. Finish. So, for God’s sake, enjoy yourself now – and sod anyone who tries to stop you.”
The story of Simon’s early life reads like a Victorian cautionary tale gone wrong. He is the golden youth whose high promise is betrayed by his base appetites, so that one door after another is closed to him.
The eldest of three children, he was brought up in “respectable, prying, puritanical, penny-pinching, joyless” middle-class homes in Virginia Water, Surrey. His father, whom he loathed, had inherited the family hosiery business and did not need to work; his mother, who Simon approved of, was a baker’s daughter and a nationally-successful athlete, as was her sister Ruth (obituary below).
He later claimed to have been “deftly and very agreeably” seduced by the games master at Cordwalles preparatory school, near Camberley, but acquired his Luciferian reputation as a scholarship boy at Charterhouse school, before he was expelled in 1945 for serial homosexuality. According to his contemporary, Gerald Priestland, he “trailed an odour of brimstone”.
At Charterhouse, Simon also encountered Peter May – “brilliant batsman, but oh so dull!” – Jim (later Lord) Prior and William Rees-Mogg, who warned him that hell was like a bad tooth that got worse and worse for eternity.
Mogg is the scheming Catholic opportunist, Somerset Lloyd-James, in Alms For Oblivion, while Prior is Peter Morrison, an MP who touches pitch yet is undefiled. The sequence also contains a portrait of the headmaster, Robert Birley, an exacting Christian moralist who tried, unsuccessfully, to save Simon’s soul. It was said that after expelling Simon, Birley’s hair turned grey.
After national service in the Parachute Regiment, during which he was sent as an officer cadet to Bangalore and commissioned, Simon arrived, in 1948, to read English at King’s College, Cambridge, where he immediately felt at home. “Nobody minded what you did in bed, or what you said about God, a very civilised attitude then,” he said.
He modelled himself on Rhett Butler and the suave cads George Sanders used to play. But there was also a streak of recklessness in him that reminded Noel (later Lord) Annan, then assistant tutor, of Guy Burgess as an undergraduate – “they were both scamps who by their example liberated their more timid contemporaries”.
Debts and dissipation over-shadowed Simon’s last two years at Cambridge. In 1951, he married Susan Kilner, a fellow undergraduate who was expecting his child; afterwards, he studiously avoided her, and they were divorced in 1957. After failing to submit a single word of his fellowship thesis, he withdrew from King’s, and, desperate to flee “the pram in the hall”, successfully applied for a regular army commission.
After three jolly years with the King’s Own Shropshire Light Infantry (KSLI) in Germany and Kenya, where he set up a brothel for his men, he was sent home to be training officer at Shrewsbury.
Alas, officers in the KSLI were expected to represent the regiment at local race meetings – a prescription to go bankrupt, which, within a year, Simon did. Fortunately, the regiment cared more for its good name than for army regulations, and he was quietly allowed to resign rather than face a court-martial for conduct unbecoming.
In civvy street, Simon’s only asset was his pen, a far more potent instrument than his unwieldy sword. Even so, the road back to solvency was a long one, and he would never have got there without Anthony Blond, an enlightened publisher who paid him weekly in cash, and picked up the tab for his evening meal and a percentage of his liquor.
There was only one condition: Simon had to live at least 50 miles away from London. So, in 1961, he went to Deal, in Kent, where his brother Myles taught at prep school – and, to everyone’s surprise, remained there for the next 34 years.
Much as he admired fine writing, Simon had a very prosaic view of his craft. In the words of Fielding Gray (1959), the “disreputable” novelist who is his alter ego: “I arrange words in pleasing patterns in order to make money . . . I try to be neat, intelligent and lucid; let others be ‘creative’ or ‘inspired’.”
He wrote anything and everything: novels, essays, memoirs and reviews; film scripts, radio plays, television plays and television series, including the 26-episode The Pallisers (1974). And if Alms For Oblivion, his bleak history of the class of ’45, remains his finest achievement, some of his pithiest work was done during the 1960s for the Spectator, in whose pages he mocked traditional moralists and trendy egalitarians alike.
Simon had no taste for possessions. In Deal, he had a succession of digs, his only requirement being a landlady who would cook him breakfast and, if required, high tea. His considerable earnings went on food, drink, travel, gambling and sex – he said that one of the unsung advantages of belonging to the Reform Club was the presence opposite of a massage parlour where you got “a good housemaid’s wank”.
He was a generous host, for whom the pièce de resistance was the arrival of the bill, the bigger the better. No matter how much he had eaten and drunk the night before – and his capacity for alcohol was prodigious – he would be at his desk at 9.30 the following morning.
Tall, slim and beautiful as a youth, Simon soon lost his looks and his figure. He did not repine, rating a good dinner higher than good intercourse. Sexually indiscriminate, he preferred the company of men, and believed that a writer, like a soldier, was better accommodated than married with a wife. It was entirely appropriate that he should end his days in the masculine fastness of Sutton’s hospital, an Elizabethan almshouse in Charterhouse Square, London.
Simon devised this epitaph for himself: “He shared his bottle – and, when still young and appetising, his bed.” He is survived by Susan and their son, Adam.
Simon Arthur Noël Raven, writer and dramatist, born December 28 1927; died May 12 2001
- Fresh-faced Minnie Driver, 50, showcases her toned physique in a vintage style bikini during beach day in Malibu with fiancé Addison O'Dea
- Trumped out: why the fringe can't keep up with 2017
- Many birds feature in our art and songlines. But I’m #TeamWedgeTail
- Love Island's Olivia Attwood wows in a plunging gown with daring thigh-high slit as she and busty BFF Amber Davies make glamorous arrival at the NTAs
- Here's The Entire Smash Bros. Ultimate Roster Recreated In Animal Crossing: New Horizons
- Which football clubs have statues of people who did not play for them?
Simon Raven have 1346 words, post on www.theguardian.com at May 16, 2001. This is cached page on Europe Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.