Getting In Early

Robin Maugham, author of “The Servant” and nephew of Somerset Maugham, wrote his life story in his early middle age because “most writers leave it until senility sets in before even starting on the autobiographies.”

In an exclusive interview with Gay News he said: “I chose this time to write about my life because I think many people leave their autobiographies too late. Either their mentality’s gone or their energy’s sapped. Anyway, they’re insipid.

“I found it terribly hard to write about my sexuality. It was worst writing about the girl I married. I sent off the manuscript to her, and she sent it back to me and said I’d been terribly hard on myself.

“I think the normal person, male or female, is bisexual. I do think far too many people label someone as queer whereas they are bisexual. I would like to think that I have done some tiny little bit to make things better in England.”

Many of Robin Maugham’s works attack the English Establishment, but he’s very much a product of English society.

He says: “Surely it’s possible to be pro-England and anti-Establishment.

“Like many young men who were conscientious objectors during the war, I went off to fight for England. I feel that sort of patriotism.

“But I feel it’s more than silly that I’m only allowed to spend 90 days a year in the country one loves.”

During 1972 Robin Maugham was allowed to stay in his beloved mother country for only 20 days. He says: “I love England and it’s terrific in summer to see all those boys … and girls … wandering around in those marvellous clothes they have these days. But the country has some silly totting-up system, and because of an operation I had here and my two heart attacks, I’m not allowed to stay here more than 20 days this year.”

When Gay News met Maugham he was on his way out again. This time to Ibiza – where he does most of his writing – with his unpretentious entouragette of Peter Burton (who was Jeremy’s best friend, once) and Michael Davidson, who wrote The World, The Flesh and Myself (an early gay book, a sort of Around the World in 80 Boys).

Robin Maugham doesn’t do much writing in England these days, if only because his 90 day sojourns aren’t long enough to keep the author of the Servant among other things, busy. But his autobiography had to be written in Ibiza, he found.

“I found it a lot easier to write about my life at a distance from English society, especially the bits about my homosexuality.”

To save his old friends and their lawyers trouble and distress, Maugham invented “Jim” as a name for his lovers in the autobiography

What was life with Jim like? Maugham answers: “I thought of the device of Jim, so I used Jim, and Jim became almost real. Peter and I felt we knew him in the end.

“Christopher Isherwood in a letter to me says Jim was one of the best things I’ve written.”

The middle-aged man hung on the swivel chair is the nephew of Somerset Maugham, as well as being an author in his own right. “I was influenced by the people around Willy as much as by Willy himself. There were E.M. Forster, G.B. Stone and Harold Nicholson, with whom I had a deep relationship.

“Willy was a very good man and friend earlier on, but in his declining years he became a bit of a monster, and that’s what everyone remembers him as, unfortunately.

“When I had my first novel published at the age of 19, he switched from helping me to almost a positive dislike.”

The reason why Robin Maugham prefers to work in Ibiza is encapsulated in a sentence of Harold Nicholson’s he quotes: ‘Most English writers have a constant nursery governess looking over their shoulders.’

The governess who cramps English writers is English society, and “the English establishment is changing again, in its usual way. Not by revolution but by evolution.

“But it hasn’t changed much yet. Some female said in The Sun that my book was disgusting and obscene. I can only take that as a compliment.

“When Willy published his first novel in 1897 a writer for Vanity Fair wrote, and I’m translating from Spanish now, ‘Mr Maugham must abandon this type of wrok. He has put his nostrils in the gutter and come out with filth.’ That may not be strictly accurate but it’s a translation of a translation.”

Many of Maugham’s books are travel books. That’s why there’s so little about places in his autobiography. He says: “I’ve been bored very, very seldom, largely because I have had amusing friends.”

Life in Ibiza is ordered for Maugham and his circle. He says: “I get enormous satisfaction from working fast, and every time I finish a book I always feel I’ll never be able to start another.

“I go to bed at what you might call a ridiculously early hour, so I can get up and write early.”

Peter Burton, who’s been silent until now, says: “Do you remember when we celebrated New Year at five in the afternoon?”

He does. The taxi arrives to take him to the airport. The last question, what was the most difficult part of your life to write about?

Maugham says “The end. Writing the end had tears streaming down my face.”

Robin Maugham’s autobiography Escape from the Shadows is published by Hodder and Stoughton. £3.50.

Light in the Shadows

Robin Maugham’s autobiography “Escape from the Shadows”. Published by Hodder and Stoughton at £3.50.
ALSO “Testament: Cairo 1898” his latest short story published by Michael de Hartington Publishers.

Robert Maugham belongs to that legion of writers who have emerged from the English right wing establishment, and who while holding on to their traditional political and social values and ideas of sexual propriety, have managed to write brilliant books which seem to invalidate them, “The Servant” being the most famous of these in Maugham’s case. This seems terribly schizophrenic and this is just what he is as we learn from quite early on in his autobiography, when lie introduces us to “Tommy” who all through childhood and adolescence is the rough, tough, games playing, fucking girls Robin, and later on a daring soldier, war tactician, captain of a tank regiment, personal friend of Churchill. In between times the other Robin is homosexual, a musician, scholar and eager to emulate his famous uncle Willie and become a famous writer. Thus he has a tremendously varied life and his book is fascinating reading.

The “escape from the shadows” is his gradual departure from fearing and hiding his homosexuality, from which he has now almost escaped, his father a stem lawyer, who was obsessed with the idea that his son must follow his profession, and his uncle William Somerset Maugham, who wasn’t nearly so great an influence in Robin’s life as one would suppose. More so it was the people Robin met on his visits to his uncle’s chateau: Harold Nicholson, T. S. Eliot, Noel Coward and many others. One almost feels at some points in the book that he’s indulging in name dropping, what with his long passages on Churchill and Gilbert Harding et al, but he’s not being a William Hickey; he is pointedly honest about these people and their weaknesses and difficulties, rises and falls.

It becomes clear in the last sad chapter that he has written his autobiography at the comparatively tender age of 56, because he believes he is dying. He has diabetes and a heart condition; he is lonely and lives only to write, his boyfriend Jim whom he met in what he persistently calls a “queer” club, who lived with him for 20 years has gone. He seems drained of the vitality which made him surge through so many different avenues of life when he was younger.

This book is compulsive reading if you have enjoyed Robin Maugham’s work, or if you are interested in his uncle W’s work or the host of famous literary and political figures he has come into contact with and about whom he writes both honestly and entertainingly. And of how a man who has the advantages and freedom money and upper class privilege can buy, has to struggle with his sexuality for so long.

“TESTAMENT: CAIRO 1898” tells the story of a young soldier, who, while in hospital after being injured, finds himself in a bed next to a young, sensitive, sixteen-year-old who, needless to say, he falls in love with, with shattering results. He knows the boy is gay because they visit a brothel together and he can’t get an erection with a girl, and of course the boy is friendly and charming to him and he is absolutely sure that he is going to want to go to bed with him. After an age, this opportunity comes and after one caress, the boy struggles, screams and pushes him away – all our nightmares. At this point our hero, saddened and angry, pays a young Arab boy to sleep with him, and of course they fall in love. It sounds dreadfully corny, and I suppose it is, but so beautifully, feelingly, skilfully written, that I completely forgot to treat it as an entertaining fantasy, and took it absolutely seriously.