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Simon Arthur Noël Raven (28 December 1927 – 12 May 2001) was an English writer, prolific in many media, but noted for his controversial lifestyle as much as for his literary output.
Expelled from Charterhouse School, he was commissioned in the infantry in National service, before studying at King's College, Cambridge. Unable to earn a living as a writer, he rejoined the Army, but soon resigned, rather than be court-martialled for ‘conduct unbecoming’ on account of his gambling debts.
Declaring that he wrote only for people who shared his own standards, he never attracted the mass market, and had to be rescued by publisher Anthony Blond, who paid him a regular wage on condition that he stayed out of London and concentrated on his writings, many of which Blond published. The arrangement lasted for over 30 years.
Raven is remembered for his ten-novel sequence Alms for Oblivion, and the TV series The Pallisers (1974) and Edward and Mrs Simpson (1978).
Birth, family and education
Born on 28 December 1927, 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. 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. 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. Amongst his school contemporaries were James Prior, William Rees-Mogg, Oliver Popplewell 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 - or, more likely, unwillingness - 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 personal charm, which gained him credit with the Fellows responsible for awarding scholarships. 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. 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. A son, Adam, was born in 1952. (The couple divorced in 1957.) Raven, his scholarship funds exhausted, withdrew from King's, 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.
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. 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. 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 because of a "disastrous sequence of slow horses". Faced with the prospect of a court-martial for "conduct unbecoming" he was allowed to resign quietly, to avoid scandal in the regiment. This episode he later described with candour in Shadows on the Grass.
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. 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". 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".
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. The Gothic themes became stronger in later works such as The Roses of Picardie, September Castle, parts of the First-Born of Egypt sequence, 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" - 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, 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. 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.
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 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.
Raven's 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.
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". E W Swanton called Raven's cricket memoir Shadows on the Grass "the filthiest cricket book ever written". Typically, Raven's response to this was to ask Swanton's permission to quote this opinion on the book's jacket. 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". His unashamed credo was "a robust eighteenth-century paganism....allied to a deep contempt for the egalitarian code of post-war England"
List of works
Alms for Oblivion series
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 First-Born of Egypt series
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, but Raven had fun killing off many of the survivors from the earlier sequence, usually in absurd and/or humiliating circumstances.
Essays, reminiscences and polemics
Note: The English Gentleman was also published as The Decline Of The Gentleman
(this table is not necessarily complete)
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
Selected screenplays, TV and film adaptations
Note: The US title for Incense of the Damned was: "Bloodsuckers"