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.