A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Simon Raven is out of fashion now – in that trough of neglect where authors and their works languish for a while after they die (he died in 2001). But he was a legendary figure in his lifetime – a rebarbative character described as ‘[combining] elements of Flashman, Waugh’s Captain Grimes and the Earl of Rochester’. This was his first published novel, from 1959. The story is that the publisher, Anthony Blond, threw him a financial lifeline – a small weekly wage to enable him to complete it. That pitched him into the discipline of writing, and he went on to write a significant body of novels, including two sequences – Alms for Oblivion, and The First Born of Egypt – and numerous screenplays, including The Pallisers.
The Feathers of Death is a pure Aristotelian tragedy, played out in the closed world of an exclusive Army regiment. Lord Martock’s Foot is lovingly described by Raven as a unique mixture of a law unto itself and the epitome of military discipline and courage. A regiment of mounted infantry, somehow it has survived the modernisation of the British army with its anomalies intact, mainly because of a reputation based on recklessly decisive interventions in battles, from the Napoleonic wars onwards. They claim their traditions, they wear their unique dress uniform, the officers lead a way of life where the aristocratic pleasures of fine eating and drinking, gaming and sex in an exclusively male society are taken for granted, regulated within the highly elastic boundaries of a morally dubious paternalism. How this delicately poised society is shattered by scandal and tragedy, and how that scandal is precipitated by someone who seems fully integrated, but is essentially an outsider, is the subject of this novel.
We find the regiment on its way out to East Africa, to quell a colonial emergency in the fictional country of Pepromene (one of the slightly dislocating elements of the story is that this seems to be a colony in Africa with place names taken from classical Greek antiquity). Through the eyes of one of the officers, Andrew Lamont, we learn the defiantly independent history and manners of Lord Martock’s Foot, and meet its officers, on board the troop ship taking them to Port Ulysses. With hindsight, we see that this loose code of behaviour and relationships is in fact based on a complacency that discounts all risks. We see Lieutenant Alastair Lynch catch sight of Drummer Malcolm Harley, fall in love with him and seduce him, and the tragedy is set in train.
The indefinable, instinctive code of the regiment absorbs and neutralises this affair at first, but we see the tensions grow, between Lynch and his fellow officers, and Harley and his comrades. It is harder for Harley than for Lynch, and the author makes this clear in many subtle ways. With centuries of savoir-faire behind them, the colonel and senior officers can move to advise discretion, or still complaint. But as the emergency gets closer, Lynch has to lead a detachment into the hills to engage the enemy. Harley is under his command, and all that has been expertly managed and hidden is now exposed. The battle is marked by a catastrophic break in discipline, and only nerveless bravery by Lynch can save them from being wiped out. But the battle is a debacle, and a tragedy that the Regiment has to contain if it is to survive.
The Feathers of Death has everything – a fluent narrative voice, describing an extraordinary closed world, masterly story-telling in the description of the military engagement, a dramatic courtroom drama with a massive twist at the end. The narrator is at his most persuasive in describing the fantastical nexus of tradition, trust and code of honour that binds the Regiment together. He reels the reader into this extraordinary, exclusive world. When telling us who Alastair Lynch is, where he has come from, in terms of home and school and a pin-sharp location on the spectrum of the upper-middle class, Andrew Lamont becomes almost scarily omniscient, and at that point we can guess that Simon Raven has lent his own biography to Alastair Lynch.
So, why am I championing this novel, so full of elitism, violence and bad faith? Well, I consider it to be a finely constructed tragedy. Lynch, the tragic hero, has many fine qualities, not least the capacity he has to be loved by his friends. He is a complex character, and an outsider, whose refusal to stay within the elastic bounds of the regimental code is the mainspring of the novel.
But, also, I first read this novel when I was about 16, over 40 years ago. I found it in the local library, where I had been sneaking into the adult section for some time, having completely skipped the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ stage. There it was, under ‘R’ for Raven. What an intriguing title. I remember picking it up and reading the epigraph:
‘The wings of a man’s life are plumed with the feathers of death.’ Elizabethan seaman in a plea to his sovereign
I had to read it, I did so, and it has stayed with me vividly ever since. Looking back on it, what matters for me is that at 16, and from a sheltered background, the first fiction I read with a homosexual relationship at its heart was such a rounded, thoughtful narrative. It had no agenda. The novel was not a critique of homosexual love; Alastair Lynch was not portrayed as a villain because he was a homosexual seducer, but as a genuine tragic hero, a man with admirable qualities of bravery, generosity, amiability and a gift for friendship, but an abuser of power, who recklessly failed to avoid traps open beneath his feet and who took risks and involved his lover in those risks in ways he failed to recognise. As a novel, it is an extraordinary mixture of the reactionary, the humane, and the desire to shock. I think it was instrumental in forming my attitudes in a positive way. And it was published as a mainstream novel.
So now, why do I feel a tiny stab of disappointment that it has had to be rescued by the Gay Men’s Press (who have done us a great service by re-publishing it), and that it is described as ‘both a period gem and a lasting classic of gay adventure’? Does that mean that it is now confined to a genre where a 16 year old with an enquiring mind is vanishingly unlikely to stumble upon it and be made to think by it? Discuss!
Simon Raven: The Feathers of Death. Gay Men’s Press, 1998. (First published 1959.)
ISBN 9780854492749 pp196