Simon Raven was a writer, critic and dramatist.
He was born in 1927 and educated at Charterhouse and King’s College, Cambridge.
From 1953-7 he served in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry before embarking on a full-time writing career – publishing over thirty novels, including Alms for Oblivion, a series of ten written between 1967 and 1976.
Among his several volumes of memoirs are Shadows on the Grass (1982), The Old Gang (1988) and Bird of Ill Omen (1989).
He is also the author of several television scripts, including Edward and Mrs Simpson and The Pallisers.
I interviewed him in 1996. He died in 2001.
Your biographer, Michael Barber, speaks of your relish for ‘unacceptable truths’. What are these truths and what is it that makes them unacceptable?
These truths are absolutely obvious to everybody. For example, wars are unpleasant, death is inevitable, men are not equal. They are undeniably true and undeniably unacceptable. In the case of wars people think that since they are disagreeable they are not inevitable, and in the case of death, men have now become so vain that they believe that before very long there will be some elixir which will make them live forever. I myself don’t fear death at all; in fact I rather look forward to it, the only worrying question being the manner of one’s dying – that could be disagreeable. Those whom the gods love die young. They also avoid nasty diseases and decaying old age. That’s what the Greeks believed. They feared, not death, but old age.
I have the impression that your passion for the classics and your respect for the teaching of the ancients has shielded you to some extent against the realities of the modern world…would you agree?
They have certainly shielded me against a lot of nonsense that is spoken in the modern world. Both the Greeks and the Romans were full of direct and pithily expressed commonsense, much of which would be considered unacceptable today. Also the study of the classics is a very absorbing matter, involving quite a lot of concentration and hard work, which in itself shields one from all the follies going on outside. I hardly ever read a newspaper these days except for the racing sections. Newspapers contain so much sentimental rubbish and self-pitying whining about this and that, rape and murder, or photos of politicians in silly positions sucking up to rows of proletarian children. I just don’t have time for that. The trouble is that when the modern world does break through, which it is bound to do from time to time, it is uniquely unpleasant.
Do you watch television?
Only the occasional play or racing or cricket, but even then some piece of news will be thrust on me halfway through the programme. Why we have to have so much news, I don’t know.
You love cricket, don’t you?
Yes, indeed. I used to be moderately good at it, playing for Charterhouse in the same eleven as Peter May who subsequently became a very eminent cricketer. And since – as George Orwell put it – all modern men dislike cricket, this is a good reason for me to like it. People think it takes up too much time, or too much space which might be turned into houses, but what they really resent is that day after day you have this steady rhythm instead of the noise of builders making money; and that’s what I love. And of course it’s such a stately game and so decorative.
You are very grateful for your classical education and the civilized values which it taught you. I think you would be the first to admit that you have not yourself always adhered to these values. Is it enough to know them and to recognize them?
If you can know them and recognize them you’ve obviously gone a considerable way. Apart from Socrates, the only person I’ve ever heard of who’s actually practised what he’s preached is Jack Jones, a great nuisance-figure in the trade unions, but a man I’ve always admired, and absolutely deserving of the Companion of Honour. When everybody else was getting into the best hotels in Brighton or Blackpool there was Jack Jones staying in the bed-and-breakfast joint. But Socrates and Jack Jones aside, there are very few people who practise what they preach.
Socrates believed that if two individuals had a dialogue they might discover the truth, or something which could be called on their own truth. Have you discovered anything in your life which you could reasonably call the truth?
One truth I discovered from reading Lucretius and other classical writers is that there’s no point in being afraid of death. There is no afterlife, so why be afraid? Another truth, and one by which I set great store, is the need to avoid violence or unkindness, whether physical or verbal. One must neither savage an individual physically, nor be unkind verbally; it’s different with groups of people, because groups don’t suffer. The great thing I learned at King’s quite early on, even though I didn’t always regard it, was that one must not seduce people. Everyone says rape is wrong and seduction is all right, but seduction is not all right because it can actually be a form of violent unkindness. The great locus classicus for this is the French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a horrible and marvellous work which makes it plain that seduction even of the most gentle kind, can at the same time be the most extreme form of violence. And at all costs one must avoid violence, whether physical or oral, if only because one feels so guilty about it later on, though that’s not the only reason.
Fifty years after you were sacked from Charterhouse, you moved to this almshouse here in London’s Old Charterhouse…does it seem as if you have come full circle?
Only in the sense that I am at leisure to read and reread all the books to which I didn’t pay enough attention in my hot youth. I don’t do much work now, and instead I spend the time studying the better work of better men, the Latin and Greek classics very largely, but also Italian, French and English classics.
The almshouse is intended for impoverished gentlemen…do you qualify in both counts, would you say?
I’m certainly impoverished, though I’ve never really been a gentleman. I’ve always been a cad, but I admire the qualities of a gentleman and I’ve always liked the idea of being one.
You are known to be keen on irony. Do you regard it as an irony that you have come back to an institution after a lifetime of being thrown out of institutions – school, King’s College, the army…
Yes, I do regard it as an irony, though I would make a slight correction to the business of being thrown out. I suppose it’s true that I was thrown out of Charterhouse, but I was reinstated as an old boy two years or so afterwards. And with King’s College, yes, I may have been thrown out, but it was more a case of just not renewing my studentship. I wasn’t getting on properly with my thesis because I was trying to write novels instead. As for the army, well, yes I was compelled to leave, but at the same time it was a resignation. There was no court martial nor was I cashiered at dawn with the drums beating, my sword broken and the buttons ripped off my uniform – nothing like that. I was just told to go and lose myself while they arranged the resignation.
How would you describe your feelings about institutions? Do you respect them still, or are you perhaps contemptuous of them?
I like some institutions, because they give one a sense of security and there is a logical structure to them. If you obey the rules which are generally not very demanding you will enjoy nothing except consideration. Above all I enjoy institutions because I find them so amusing. This was especially true of the army. A battalion of infantry, for example, is the perfect dramatic setting. There are about a thousand men and some forty or fifty officers, occupying the same space, doing the same things, and this inevitably makes for confrontations, intrigue, rivalries, sneaking and revenge. The place where I live now is very well run and most people are very agreeable, but nevertheless there are dramatic confrontations. This is because an institution offers an excellent framework for drama. Most of my writing has been concerned with institutions of one kind or another – school, army, university. Even close groups of friends almost qualify as an institution.
Reading the details of your expulsion from Charterhouse in your biography, there is no sense of large-scale scandal or disgrace attaching to it. In fact, you talk about people laughing when they heard you’d been sacked ‘for the unusual thing’. Even your parents seemed to take it rather well. How do you explain this?
Well, you only need to apply a little common sense to realize that if small boys play about with each other’s private parts, it’s no big deal. It was largely mutual masturbation and a little in the way of fellatio. There was no question of buggery, and even if there had been, it would have perhaps been all right. Except for the committed Christian – and here we come to the great big fly buzzing in this particular ointment – it’s obviously a matter of total indifference if two boys, one aged seventeen and the other aged fifteen, play about with each other, provided there is no unkindness or compulsion, provided it’s for mutual pleasure by mutual consent. There can’t be anything wrong with it, and nobody these days thinks that there is. But at Charterhouse in the 1940s and 1950s, Christianity prevailed – it still does, I dare say – and our headmaster, Robert Birley, a man I very much admired and loved, was handicapped by believing in Christianity. There’s nothing wrong with believing in Christ as a wandering preacher, since that is supported by history, but Birley also believed that Christ was the son of God and that he rose from the dead. Now, as far as I’m concerned, if you believe anything as silly as that, then there’s got to be something a bit wrong and it probably alters your sense of proportion – it certainly did in Birley’s case. He was a great man, a humane man who protected us against the war, and made sure we had a civilized life as long as we could till we were old enough to be called up. He did everything he could to make Charterhouse a cultivated and agreeable place, but he insisted that the tenets of Christianity be observed. And I wasn’t prepared to observe them.
Did you feel any sense of personal shame about what had happened, or did you just accept that you had broken the rules and you were being punished accordingly?
I was very angry with myself for getting caught out, but I felt no guilt over it. The outcome was inevitable, and within its own framework, i.e. the Christian framework, it was entirely just. What I did very much regret was having to leave the earthly paradise of Charterhouse for the suburbs of Sheffield.
You apparently suspect William Rees-Mogg of influencing the headmaster in your expulsion. What grounds do you have for believing that?
As a matter of fact, I no longer suspect William. I did at the time because he was an enormous intriguer, then as now. He’d been a friend of mine from the beginning, and although he was a plain boy he managed to charm all the matrons who allowed him to stay in the nice war, library while the rest of us did PE. He was a great hypochondriac and he made absolutely certain that he never did anything disagreeable. He became the most marvellous gossip in the whole school. If you wanted to know anything you went to see William. He was also cultivated, though his judgements were rather marred by the fact that he was a practising Catholic. In time William intrigued his way into being head of the school, and I rather suspected him of betraying me in order to put his new found power to the test, but I now know this is not true. My chief suspects are a couple of masters at the school, now both long dead, both tiresome Christians, who got to hear rumours and encouraged the headmaster to conduct an inquiry.
In your book, An English Gentleman, you say that by becoming a writer one bade farewell at one to ethical restraint and to any kind of conventional status in society. Have those two factors been the cornerstones of your writing?
They were advantages that came with the trade. The point I was trying to make was that if one was a regular army man, or a don, or a schoolmaster, or a foreign office man, one had to observe the code, largely a Christian code – and this still applies. Writers did not have to observe a code, and I was very grateful for this.
Would it be fair to say that you had more or less abandoned ethical restraint before you took up writing, that a certain dissolution preceded your career as a writer?
That is true. I was much addicted to drink, also to casual sex, generally of a commercial kind, and I saw no reason against any of this. But I was already beginning to feel the necessity of not offering violence to anybody. It was borne in on me quite early that one must respect other people, not to be violent to them, not to rape them, and not to seduce them. I consider this to be quite a large ethical advance, something that not everybody seems to know about. Of course, one formulates these excellent rules for oneself, but it’s another thing actually to keep them.
You say that you don’t expect your novels to be remembered – indeed the title of your sequence of ten novels, Alms for Oblivion is a quotation from Troilus and Cressida, referring to the scraps which are ‘devoured as fast as they are made, forgot as soon as done’. Is this impermanence something you regret?
I would very much like some of my work to be remembered, but when I consider what has happened to better novelists in my own lifetime, it’s extremely unlikely that my own work will last. It would be tedious to go through many examples, but if you take a novelist such as Francis Brett Young who was very important in my parents’ day, whoever hears of him now? It seems to me that in order to be remembered as a novelist you have to be of supreme merit and also to enjoy a lot of luck. I could still hope in a corner of my mind not to be forgotten, but the omens are not good.
Is there anything which endures, or is everything alms for oblivion?
As far as literature is concerned, not everything is ephemeral, but if you go outside the scope of books, then everything is in flux – something the ancients knew and understood. What they found so nice about pleasure is the fact that it’s transient: it comes, it is enjoyed, and it goes. Pleasure without transience would not be pleasure. The rose is appreciated because it fades, the orgasm is appreciated because it’s very short and not easily repeatable, and so on. We know from classical literature that no cities and no men survive for very long. I believe in the permanence of nothing really.
Your writing is principally entertainment, and you believe that is the best possible reason for writing. Why do you deny any higher or more serious purpose?
I believe entertainment is the highest possible purpose. I like to entertain, and in order to make money you must entertain. Granted this, I am also quite keen to put an occasional element of serious reflection into my writing – thoughts about the things I’ve been mentioning, such as the transience of pleasure, the mutability of human affairs, the passing of man, and so on. I try to get all that in as part of the entertainment, since my aim is principally to amuse a certain class of intelligent people – and even if a theme is serious, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be entertaining. The whole question of the malice of the human race, for example, is something we have to consider, and all the old themes such as envy, spite, jealousy and human aspiration.
Have you always been able to be quite clear about the boundaries between fact and fiction or do they sometimes merge one into the other in your life?
They do merge. Even when I think I am absolutely clear about something, I am often very surprised by how wrong I am in fact. I once won £200 on a bet at Warwick racecourse, and I distinctly remember the horses coming round towards me in a clockwise direction. My own horse was in the lead and going to win. When I went to Warwick again thirty years later I discovered that the horses go round in an anti-clockwise direction and always have done. Well, if one can be wrong about which way a horse that won you £200 was going – in other words, a serious matter – one is unlikely to be strictly accurate about anything.
You told your biographer that ‘late middle age is a time of bitterness and spleen, of envy, resentment and sulk’. Is that really how you see this stage in your life, or was it offered as a flippant exoneration of your behaviour?
Bit of both. I think that as one grows older one grows more bitter. I believe more or less in what the gentleman who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes believed: as one gets older one sees into the vanity of everything, and this makes one less agreeable and less charitable in many ways. This, of course, affects one’s attitude to other people and what one says about them, making one more trenchant and bitter.
Yet people maintain that serenity can come with old age…
Most certainly it can, but that is the last stage when you finally realize that nothing matters at all. Rather like my own attitude towards the content of newspapers – it’s all so stupid, so imbecile, so ridiculous, so sentimental, so sloppy, and much of it completely untrue, that it just doesn’t matter.
Have you yourself reached the stage of serenity, would you say?
Not quite. By constitution I’m a great warrior with a very short temper. I worry about bookings at resteraunts, I get angry with people who are late for the table which I have booked, and then if somebody annoys me, I lose my temper and say something very nasty indeed, and then almost instantly regret it and start to apologize and feel dreadful. But I think I’m getting increasingly philosophical.
If late middle age is as you describe, how would you characterize the other six ages of man?
Well, infancy isn’t worth bothering about. Childhood can be enjoyable, even if it’s corrupted. Adolescence is all spots and horror, and youth is disagreeable, a time of ambition and lust. Love is the most damaging thing for youth, because it uses up so much time which could be better spent. After youth things start to settle down; one gets a fairly mature view, and one begins to realize the absurdity of the whole thing. Late youth or early middle age is the time for getting steadily more stable, more tolerant, more amused, less serious in many ways, even more frivolous; one begins to realize how stupid the human race is, how greedy, and at the same time one realizes that stupidity and greed are probably the original sin. In the end, however, one realizes that none of it matters in the least, because very soon one will be dead, and so will everyone else for that matter; and with that a kind of serenity appears.
You seem to have had a rather uneasy relationship with money all your life, running up debts, robbing Peter to pay Paul, living off your wits to get by. Have you minded this very much?
I never wanted to collect huge sums of money and have lots of shares and lots of property and a huge bank account. I just wanted there to be enough – quite a lot, but no more than what was really enough to lead a fairly pleasant life and entertain my friends, and to go abroad when I wanted to. In order to do all of that I was prepared to beg and borrow, though not seriously to cheat. All the time I was at Cambridge and in the army I had to borrow and improvise. Although I enjoyed gambling, I was a bad gambler, but I wanted both to get money and have the pleasure of gambling. That went horribly wrong, but after the army I began to make enough money to satisfy these various wants of mine. I travelled and lived quite nicely for a time, but then things began to sink, my writing began to make less money, my luck ran out, my form ran out and public opinion was no longer on my side. In the mid-1980s money began to be a serious problem again, and has stayed so ever since.
Since gambling and an inability to control spending were the chief factors in accumulating debts, it could be said that your poverty was largely self-inflicted. Do you accept that?
Absolutely, without qualification. For most of the 1970s I was making a lot of money, and had taken my accountant’s advice and invested sensibly, I would now have a small fortune. But what’s the point of having a lot of money to die on? I’m just as happy here living the life of a poverty-stricken gentleman as I would be in a house I’d paid for, worrying about inflation, worrying about my investments. Although I don’t believe in Christ the son of God, I certainly believe there was a prophet called Christ, and the best thing he ever said was that a rich man cannot get into heaven. I like to think he meant that a rich man cannot have any happiness at all because of the constant worry. The thing about being poor is that you don’t need to worry; things can only get better.
In an article in the Listener in 1962 you gave an account of your addiction to gambling in which you spoke of ‘the treasury or terror, guilt and perversity’ which it entailed. You suggested that the principal motive for gambling in your case was the desire to be punished when things went badly, and the ‘almost sexual satisfaction’ to be derived from an evening of disastrous losses. If it is indeed sexual, it is surely masochistic…
Yes, I think it is. It is quite true that all those things accompanied my gambling, and there was definite sexual excitement, an erection in my case, though never orgasm. But I do know of several people who, when doing very badly, actually come in their trousers. That is partly to do with fear, I think. I can remember when I was a very young boy doing a long division sum for an exam and I couldn’t get it to work out. Time went on and I had no time left for other questions and I found myself becoming distinctly sexually aroused. I also remember getting a huge erection underneath one of Aspinall’s gambling tables when I was still allowed to go there. I now see that the only form of gambling which is really amusing is horse-racing. You can’t hope to win at horse-racing because you don’t know how the horse feels. That’s why hot favourites lose to 33-1 numbers, and a wail of self-pity goes up from the crowd. It’s my favourite thing, particularly if I’ve backed the 33-1 number. The point about horse-racing is that it is just fun, it’s an exciting spectacle, you don’t know what is going to happen, the colours are beautiful, the bad plays, there are blue hills in the background and so it becomes almost a cultural obligation to go to the horse-races. Toulouse Lautrec and Degas knew this, as did lots of fine artists. The gambling side is just fun; you know you’re almost certain to lose, but you also know that every now and again you have a streak of luck. Roulette, which I used to play a lot, is stylish in its way, but it’s mechanical. The odds at roulette are very fair, but with horse-racing it’s different. Sometimes the horse is constipated and has had a nasty journey. That’s why I always back a horse when I see it crap in the paddock.
Your attitude to sex seems to have been to regard it as something of a joke, too ridiculous to be taken seriously. Do you allow that it is a joke with sometimes serious consequences?
Indeed I do. As a boy I was constantly afraid I’d got the pox, and I was always hurrying off to the college doctor or the army MO with a slight pimple, fearing the worst. Afterwards there was the idea that one would go and sin no more, but of course one always did sin some more and one got these constant scares. That’s one kind of serious consequence. In the case of girls there was the fear of pregnancy, which was one reason I preferred boys. In fact the consequences often seem to serious and annoying to make sex worthwhile in the end. I agree with Chesterton: the pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous and the expense damnable.
When you were at prep school you were a victim of what it is fashionable to call ‘sexual abuse’ at the hands of a particular master…
I enjoyed every second of it…
You obviously didn’t see yourself as a victim, nor did you regard it as abuse; indeed you felt what you called ‘great erotic fascination’ with what went on. Is that how you most remember it, or do you think that is how it actually felt at the time?
It’s certainly how I choose to remember it and I think it actually felt that way at the time. One knew, of course, that there was something not quite right about it, but what made it feel more right than it probably was, was the fact that Colonel K, as I call him, was a very good schoolmaster, a very charming man, kind, pleasant, and representing the best of the prep-school system. He taught mathematics, English literature and geography with imagination and esprit. As regards sex, what he did was very pleasant, no two ways about it. Small children can be sexually excited, and certainly by the time I was nine or ten I was having a sort of orgasm, whereby the thing juddered about, and the whole business was very enjoyable. He played with the other boys too. Once one got used to the idea, it was all quite logical. His willie was obviously bigger and had hairs around it, and he was very tactful about how he actually came. So that one shouldn’t see the spurting, he used to come into a large silk handkerchief, but I was very curious and asked him if I could watch. It was infinitely enjoyable and I was never worried by it.
And you never reported him?
Why should I have reported him? He was a nice man, and God knows who might arrive in his place if he went. It wasn’t as if he was sodomizing the boys – just playing. That dreadful woman on television – I hope she’s not a friend of yours – Esther Rantzen, she will not draw a distinction between somebody who rapes a child and then slits its throat, and somebody who just goes twinky winky, thereby giving much pleasure. Well, she’s a silly cow. Please do quote me on that.
Do you believe this Colonel K kindled an interest in homosexuality, or do you think it would have happened anyway?
It probably would have happened anyway, though not perhaps till a little later, till one got to Charterhouse and found some boy to start one off. Colonel K got me started quite early, and one learned it was pleasant and amusing, and slightly tiresome when it was over, because one always felt a bit fed up after orgasm. One formed this attitude that sex was a splendid occasional thing, but there were lots of things which were even more fun. Reading, for example, because reading goes on and on, whereas sex is occasional and transient and swift.
Despite the fact of having many male lovers, you’ve never favoured buggery. Has it just never appealed, or what?
It has never appealed to me, partly because the buggers I have known have been very disagreeable one way or another. Also it is, quite literally, a filthy practice. You wind up getting lumps of shit on the end of your whatnot. I was only buggered once, and it’s painful, very painful till you get used to it, and I never got used to it. I’m told some people find it intensely exciting after a bit, and the prostate does a lot of work for you if you’re being buggered. But I myself regard it as unaesthetic and rather repugnant, a view confirmed by those I know to be habitual buggers.
I think I’m right in saying that you regarded yourself as bisexual, which, in the 1950s, was not exactly fashionable. Being homosexual was accepted in a way that being bisexual was not. Did you really not have a preference?
Every now and then I tried to work out a calculus on this. I decided that boys were marginally preferable. On the other hand, with women I often favoured mutual masturbation, cunnilingus or fellatio, instead of actual coition. The whole matter of the mechanics was rather marginal because fellatio with a man was just as agreeable. And I thought that women could get rather tiresome; except for skilful prostitutes, they were always wanting to bring love into the whole thing, and make it serious and make it last. There’s a passage in Juvenal where he says, don’t get married, go to bed with a little boy, he won’t make constant demands for money, he wont be a bit sorry if you don’t want to do it, and he won’t nag during or afterwards. How right Juvenal is. Even Propertius, who was obsessed by women urges his friends to prefer boys. He likens boys to going down a gentle river in a boat and coming to a small harbour where there’ll be no trouble. As for women, he says that the trouble, the temper, the demands never cease. And I think this is right.
Did you ever wish that you were one thing or the other, so to speak?
No, I’ve been very happy being bisexual. It seemed to me the intelligent and civilized solution. It was the position taken up by all my favourite classical authors, and a lot of my favourite more modern authors, who, even if they themselves weren’t bisexual, certainly condoned the condition and sometimes actively approved it. It’s so matchlessly convenient to be able to help yourself either way if the opportunity presents.
By all accounts you had a number of homosexual encounters in the army…did your fellow officers turn a blind eye?
Well, some of my fellow officers were of course bisexual or homosexual themselves. And I was very discreet. But the main reason why there was no trouble was that I was pleasant to anybody with whom I had sexual connections, whether he was an officer or a private soldier. It’s only victims that shop a man, not people who are treated kindly. You don’t get reported as a rule, unless you get some terrible puritan who suffers from guilt. You have to be very careful about that. One or two of those army boys had puritan parents, ghastly low-church people, and that can spell trouble, particularly if they’re Baptists.
You have a reputation for misogyny. Does it have a rational basis? What I mean is, you obviously have quite strong feelings about the worthlessness of women, their ‘inability to act sensibly’, as you put it, but are these principally feelings, or are they part of a thesis, as it were?
Once again, these answers are not to be oversimplified. Like everybody else I’ve had a lot of experience of the foolishness of women, and the foolishness of men too. On the one hand, men tend to be sexually vain and greedy. Women, on the other hand, tend to be possessive and domestic. This is quite simply biological, since nature tells us that women are there to have babies; they are naturally possessive of men so that a family can be formed. This can make them in any any number of ways very tiresome. They don’t want their husbands to go out on a drunken evening or do jolly things like racing, because that uses up money which is meant for babies. I find this aspect of women particularly tedious. Also this business of wanting to be in on male things. Women have gone to endless trouble to penetrate male clubs. Well, if they want clubs, why can’t they have their own? After all, it’s very good for people to be able to get away from the opposite sex, for women as well as men. Why do they go to such lengths to go on ships, when they’re not needed on ships, they’re a perfect nuisance of ships, stirring up all kinds of trouble. It’s bad enough having men trying to seduce the cabin boys, so to speak, but when you’ve got a whole load of women there as well, you just don’t need it.
Have you yourself ever suffered from sexual jealousy?
I can put my hand on my heart and say honestly that I have never felt sexually jealous. In fact I often have great fun with boys or with women, discussing other boys or women they have been with – it can be sexually exciting sometimes. I regard sexual jealousy as one of the meanest and most absurd of human failings. Why be jealous? It’s irrational, unpleasant and causes endless trouble.
Do you have an underlying fear of women? Do you feel threatened by them in some way?
Only when they try to take friends of mine away and marry them. That is a bore, and in that sense they’re great destroyers of friendship. I no longer have any fear of women because I have long since been impotent, so I’m not going to get any of them pregnant, a fear I had for a long time after the one bit of trouble I had. The only fear I have nowadays is that they will interfere with pleasant arrangements, with friendships, with days at the races.
I interviewed Barbara Skelton just before she died, and she told me that she was extremely thankful no longer to have the sexual urge, that she felt at peace with herself in a way she had not before. You say that you’re impotent now, but do you still have a kind of sexual urge?
I have bisexual fantasies, but I’m very glad not to want to do anything about them, because sex takes up time that can be used for other matters. It’s costly, and even dangerous these days.
While you were at King’s it came as something of a shock when your girlfriends Susan Kilner announced she was pregnant. The prospect of marriage appalled you, yet you caved in under pressure ‘to do the decent thing’. Was this not uncharacteristic behaviour – I mean, to do what was expected of you?
No. I was afraid that her parents might make a row and that I might as a consequence lose the studentship I’d just got, and that I would be expelled. Obviously something had to be done, but it was very much on my own conditions. I never lived a day under the same roof with Susan after we married. It was on my own terms that I married her, and the whole thing quietened down very nicely, largely because of her great good sense and cooperation.
Do you think your son was psychologically damaged by this arrangement?
I don’t see why he should have been. He always knew where I was, even if he didn’t see me very often, and I’ve always been on friendly terms with him. He’s now well over forty, and we go racing together quite often, and we travel abroad together sometimes. He’s a very good driver and a good chap to have on a trip, as long as he doesn’t drink too much and ask for all the most expensive things on the menu.
How do you rate yourself as a father?
Not high, because I was never there when I should have been. It wasn’t a great priority with me at that time, or ever. There were always books to be written, and other things to be done, so domesticity was very low on my list. Not that I’m against being a father. I’m against domesticity; that’s my real hate.
Cyril Connolly famously remarked that there was no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall, something that you were aware of quite independently of Connolly. Was your difficulty with fatherhood to do with the feeling that it was incompatible with creativity, or did it go much deeper than that?
I simply felt that it meant being in one place the whole time with two people, the child and its mother, and this entailed inconvenience and constriction. It also meant spending many, and I resent the amount of good pleasure-money which children tend to absorb. The pram in the hall also meant rows and trouble. I’d heard my own parents rowing, and I decided then that married life was not for me. Sod marriage, is what I felt.
If we can talk about love as opposed to sex, you seem to have found love a difficult business…
The trouble with love is that once again it constricts you. I’ve only been in love a few times in my life, once with a woman whom I still see from time to time, and twice with boys when I was at Cambridge. I was conscious each time that it was a terrible nuisance, because it was preventing me from doing all the reading I wanted to do. With the woman it was settled fairly quickly; we both fell out of love but continued to enjoy each other’s company. We used to meet very occasionally, and there’s nothing like meeting once every two or three years to keep interest and sexual enthusiasm alive. It’s a brilliant scheme, and I’m not sure I shan’t claim to have invented it.
You told your biographer that love was a disease against which you have been immunized by classical literature and personal experience…
This is true now and was probably true then, but whether it was true when I had these affairs, I’m not sure. During the infatuation stage it was very tiresome; in fact you could say that all love is infatuation.
Was it your experience that sexual relations were spoilt by love in some way?
Yes, because if you really loved somebody you were terrified of disgusting them or doing anything they disliked. Love makes you very vulnerable and that’s the whole trouble with it. I finally learned that love is a tiresome, messy, time-wasting, value-confusing nuisance.
You obviously favour the Greek and Roman attitude towards pleasure, namely that pleasure is transient, but you also believe it is enhanced by the envy and disapproval it arouses in others. Why does that appeal to you so much?
It amuses me when other people are envious or disapproving. The two things I really despise are disapproval and envy, so when I see that a pleasure of mine is arousing these emotions in others, it’s a decoration of the whole thing, and it gives me additional pleasure.
Is pleasure distinct from happiness, would you say?
I think there is no such thing as happiness. People talk about happiness, but they really mean content. People have a particularly good patch, and things go well for a number of reasons, and they are then what is known as happy. But that’s never going to last for long, because happiness is essentially something that vanishes. The thing to do is to be content. Descartes said the secret of happiness, by which he meant content, is never to hanker after something you can’t have, and to make yourself appreciate what you know you can have.
Do the higher pleasures – for example, intellectual pursuits, or poetry perhaps – come closer to happiness?
Oh yes, because they’re always there and you can take them up again if you want to. They’re available if needed, and they don’t answer back. Also, the fact that one has had to use one’s brain does accord a degree of self-satisfaction, which very much qualifies one for content.
About twenty-five years ago you said: ‘The English, by and large, are the last decently behaved people in the world.’ Do you still believe that to be true?
I do, despite all the nonsense that goes on. The great danger is so-called political correctness which could make Nazis of us all in the end. All the informing which goes on, and all the silly judgements which interfere and undermine. I don’t think it’s too bad in England yet, and on the whole we’re still a very decent, tolerant lot.
You also said that decency has nothing to do with morality. Can you explain what you meant by that?
One can do something which is regarded as immoral – as Colonel K did – in a decent, kindly way. Decency, after all, is a combination of kindness and tolerance and good humour. Many sexual acts are rated immoral but can be done decently.
Do you admire virtues in others which you conspicuously lack?
I admire moral courage and unselfishness, both of which I conspicuously lack. I do admire them, but I know that they’re beyond me.
You never had much time for religion. How much were you influenced by your study of the classics which advocate living this life to the full because only the superstitious believe in any kind of afterlife?
The classics had a great deal to do with it, and also the people among whom I was educated. Most classical authors just accepted the pagan religion as a rather decorative and poetic thing; they didn’t actually believe it, but in so far as they did, it was a fun thing. The poles were very wide, and you could do almost anything you wanted.
Are you dismissive of Christianity chiefly because you find the idea of a merciful God absurd, or is there more to it than that?
The idea of a merciful God is absurd, particularly when you consider what he has inflicted on his people. I’m a deist in that I believe in a first cause, but there my own religious belief stops. My god is really just a scientific cause. As for the rest, Swinburne was right: ‘We thank with brief thanksgiving/Whatever gods may be/That no man lives forever,/That dead men rise up never;/That even the weariest river/Winds somewhere safe to sea.’
In your own obituary, which you were invited to write some years ago, you complimented yourself on your loathing for what Orwell called ‘smelly little orthodoxies’ and what are sometimes called ‘modern sensitivities’. What would you include on your list?
The whole bother about race – that’s one smelly orthodoxy. I’m perfectly prepared to accept the fact that I need to call anybody of any creed or race equal, but I see no reason why they should be subjects of special consideration. Why on earth should they be? They’ve got to put up with things like anybody else. The whole business of equality can be solved by decency and common sense, instead of all this going round making doctrinaire fusses and having special institutions. The Race Relations Board does nothing except make trouble. Another orthodoxy I have nothing to do with is this matter of equal opportunities for women. If women are as good as men, then let them have the job by all means, but don’t make a great sort of fuss about it and say there’s got to be a quota. That’s a big smelly orthodoxy. And as far as I am concerned, Christianity is another. Belief in Christ is not necessarily smelly, nor is belief in God, but Christianity as it stands is most definitely smelly, from the clap-happies to the most severe Catholics. There are inquisitors in our midst; they may not have heated tongs, but they are inquisitors just the same.
One of your collection of memoirs is called Bird of Ill Omen – a reference to the bird of your name and the way it is thought to be unlucky and bring trouble wherever it goes. Is it too psychoanalytical to suggest that subconsciously you might have tried to live up to your name?
One might of course be the catalyst of certain unpleasant occurrences, but never intentionally, and all the instances in that book were entirely accidental. For example, one of the main stories concerns a colonel who got shot by one of his own ambushes. My only involvement with that was proximity; I had nothing actually to do with it. I have mostly been involved in tales of ironic calamity, which I have not caused directly. No, I think I can let myself off there. Bird of Ill Omen was merely a convenient title.