by Robin Maugham
by William Lawrence
I lived and worked with the author and journalist Robin Maugham for the last ten years of his life. He was my friend, mentor and lover.
Not long before he died, he had told me that he needed to check into a nursing home for a routine operation.
One morning in late February, 1981, I’d taken the train to Hove where Robin was holed-up in one of the many hospices dedicated to the sick and elderly. I was expecting to see him sitting up in bed, diary in hand, catching up and planning the months ahead. I was expecting him to point to his ubiquitous bar of alcoholic beverages, carefully concealed in some cupboard and the first words on his lips to be his usual mantra:
“Do be awfully kind and help yourself to a drink. I do hope you don’t mind terribly, but I seem to have run out of ice.”
Robin Maugham checked into nursing homes with the same sense of grand optimism as if he were checking himself into the Ritz. There was always a coterie of friends flapping about in the wings, making the usual fuss, carrying books and notes and crates of replenishment. Robin surrounded himself with a whole troop of willing helpers - a leftover of having 12 servants on his old man's estate - in an idyllic house called, Tye, where he’d lived as a kid: secretaries, literary advisors, a cleaning lady, a cook - they were either on hand or at the end of a phone.
Also, during various periods of his life Robin had employed a Barrett, the name of the character from his novel, THE SERVANT. In certain ways my partner lived out in real time the life about which he wrote in his most famous book. His Barrett was there to mollify and control him, up to a point. It was a job I could not do and was not expected to do.
The last time I’d seen my partner he was on the doorstep of his house in Brighton with Barrett peering over his shoulder. Suddenly Robin had looked as if he wanted to tell me something vital. He gave a hesitant smile and then blurted out one sentence which I shall never forget:
“You’re my only grip on life, William,” he'd said.
I didn’t even have the chance to give him a departing embrace because Barrett was in the way. Our last farewell had been cut short – as if the doors had been slammed shut as his train had begun to steam out of the station, he gave me a last frantic wave goodbye.
When I arrived at the nursing home that gloomy afternoon in late February, I was shocked. Instead of the big “Hurray!” Robin lay unconscious in bed. And soon I realised that he hadn’t got long to live.
I found out later that the doctors had warned him that an operation could be risky but he had ignored their advice. For, once again, Robin Maugham was seeking oblivion.
What is little known about the writer is that not only did he suffer from numerous medical ailments, such as diabetes; arrhythmia; shrapnel in the skull from a tank explosion during WW2; he also suffered from a condition that has only recently been better understood, which professional psychologists now call, DID or Dissociative Identity Disorder. It is defined as a condition wherein a person’s identity is fragmented into two or more distinct personality states. In fact, Robin himself mentions the existence of an alter, who he calls Tommy, 37 times in his autobiography, aptly titled: ESCAPE FROM THE SHADOWS. In that book he details several incidences of complete black out. He describes the experience, thus: ‘During the periods of my attacks of amnesia, which sometimes last for twenty-four hours, it was the other half of my nature, the half which I called Tommy, who took over. From books on psychology I had discovered that this condition was known as ‘disassociation of personality. Two different characters now inhabited my body.’
Over the years, Robin had suffered from depression; I was aware of that fact; though I had no idea how deep his psychological trauma went, nor what had caused it.
Originally, Tommy had been the creation of his mama’s vivid imagination. He was a ne'er-do-well character, a little rogue she had invented to fill the bedtime stories which she told her little son, Robin, who she considered to be a rather docile, weak little boy who had appeared rather too late into the Maugham fray for comfort. Tommy was her opportunity to indulge herself with her own longing for freedom and for the unconventional.
Whereas Robin was terrified of his father, the aloof Lord Chancellor, Tommy could cock a snook at the old boy and get away with it without feeling the least bit of guilt.
When Robin first told me about the existence of Tommy, I put it down to too much vino and the pressure of work. I never really took it for real. It was only after I began to seriously investigate his life, and especially when I began my search for his lost notebooks in 1992, that the reality of his condition truly dawned on me.
Children have invisible friends, that's for sure, but when they get older they vanish. Tommy never did. For whatever reason, Robin held on to him. He would appear in his mind during his darkest hours.
As the years passed and his health declined further, Robin’s dependency on a servant became an of extension of his psychological dependency on Tommy. The relationship reached a kind of symbiosis where one could not do without the other.
He often said that if he hadn’t had a mental problem he would probably never have written a word and indeed it was this very pathology which provided much of the source material that drove Robin’s creative life. It was as though through his writing he could, at least for a while, dispel the demons that troubled him.
The theme of duality runs through many of his works; particularly so in his novel, The Man With Two Shadows, where his main character, an intelligence operative, struggles with the fear that he is somehow being taken over by another self and finally believes he is going insane.
However, it is with THE SERVANT that Robin Maugham comes into his own, so to speak. It is in this work that he somehow manages to separate the various warring factors of his own personality into a wholly believable world.
Yet, THE SERVANT is almost like the draft of a bigger novel. Its economy makes it seem almost rough and unresolved; but it is that very emptiness which begs us to answer its unresolved equations for ourselves; as the author himself could only try to fill the gaps which opened up before him in his own life. In this ironic way THE SERVANT is his most subtle and fulfilled work – it is also his most daunting. The New York Times hailed it as, ‘A masterpiece of writing’.
Robin Maugham sets his story amidst the depression of the 50’s. Tony, an upper-class gentleman has returned to England, shattered from the war – skilfully, we are not informed of its psychological impact on him; except in a brief and telling description, when he is attending an annual regimental dinner, the author suggests that, even before Barrett’s grip had tightened around him, a complete change in the young man’s character had already taken place.
‘Against the black of his jacket his face looked white and bloated. The curly fair hair which tumbled about his head seemed to have no connection with the mask it encircled, so that it looked like a golden wig stuck on the pate of and old actor. With a slow pompous gesture he adjusted his tie. His hands were trembling. Then he turned away.’
This is again repeated within various stage directorial notes in the recently discovered original 1958 version of his play, which clearly includes a rape scene when the character of Tony experiences some kind of traumatic shift in personality when he violently pins the young servant girl, Vera, down onto the table.
‘A shudder passes over him. Suddenly he takes her fiercely in his arms and kisses her brutally. She gives a little gasp of pain… She tries to draw away, but he is holding her tightly. He is breathing heavily. He is no longer watching her. His eyes have a withdrawn look – as if he were thinking of something in the past.’
Unlike Doctor Faustus, Tony does not sell his soul for worldly pleasure, he fumbles into the arms of his nemesis like a man with concussion. This is an echo of what takes place in another piece of the writer’s creative output, appropriately titled: Enemy, where the English and German soldiers do exactly the opposite of what they are supposed to do – they make, forbidden, subversive love out there in the wilderness; the two sides become one; each surrendering his power to the other.
Seen through this prism, Tony and Barrett are flip sides of the same coin. Their relationship is symbiotic. Further still, here the tale of ‘Gods and Monsters’ comes to mind. For Barrett, who is indeed Tommy, is only fulfilling the author’s ultimate desire for oblivion - for his weakness and failure.
Finally, like all works of this calibre, THE SERVANT, though it is placed within a certain period in history, it is in fact a classic parable as relevant then as it is today. For, that which serves us, that which we come to rely on so completely that our lives could not function without its intercession, is destined one day to rule over us, or even destroy us. And, as in the plot in the novella, the catalyst that makes us willingly give ourselves up to that which we may have once rejected, will most often be some tragic event which may affect us personally, or collectively; a plague, a war – which will inexorably make us feel that nothing really matters except our survival and with it our comfort from the storm, for then will we be eager to pay any price.
My investigation into the disappearance of my partner’s diaries has resulted in my autobiographical/biographical work, re-titled: SUNLIGHT, SEX ‘N JAMTARTS – a true story…
THE WRONG PEOPLE
by Robin Maugham
by William Lawrence
Robin Maugham’s first gay novel, THE WRONG PEOPLE, was published in 1967 under the pseudonym David Griffin – the same year the Sexual Offences Act became law. The book draws extensively from the writer’s travels in Morocco, where his story is set. The theme of the book is ‘The love that dare not speak its name’ – paederasty, the love that exists between an older man and a boy, when the boy has ‘all the hope and glamour of life before him.’ And the man has the intellect, the power, and in this case, the money.
A repressed English schoolmaster, Arnold Turner, is on holiday in Tangier when he meets up with a wealthy Anglo-American, Ewing Baird, who lavishly entertains him, until finally, he provides him with a lover in the form of a Berber boy named Riffi – all the time tightening a subtle net of blackmail round his prey for the purposes of a risky plan to satisfy his own, personal appetite.
Robin Maugham had worked for British intelligence in North Africa during the 2nd World War. He could speak Arabic and he was well aware of the complex nature of the sex trade that existed throughout Africa and the Middle East. He had felt so strongly about the inhuman treatment of young children caught up in its grip that he dedicated his Maiden Speech in the House of Lords to the subject of Slavery.
The author had travelled to Sub Saharan Africa and bought a young man to show the world that the illicit transaction still took place. From this experience Robin Maugham had penned the book, The Slaves of Timbuktu (1961 Longmans Green & Co) ‘An impassioned and important free-lance crusade for human rights’, Daily Mail - which caused an international out-cry that resulted in the freeing of over two thousand bonded slaves and the closing down of several of the open markets en route to Riyadh.
Quintessentially, THE WRONG PEOPLE is a microcosm of the sex trafficking industry in which young children are smuggled across boundaries to fulfil the fetishes of indulgent Ewings.
In these apparently more illumined times, when the focus has turned from hostility toward homosexuality to hostility against paederasty, as if society requires an object of sexual guilt, we continue to insulate ourselves from cultural and psychological forces, no matter their origin, there is little if any discussion.
THE WRONG PEOPLE brings to our attention, not so much a particular period, though it does that with a smouldering reality, it informs us that, though the trade in flesh has no happy ending; there is a glimmer of hope, of salvation, and it is this that tips the balance in this work toward a treatise that is truly thought provoking – it is expressed finally in the love the young delinquent Dan has for his teacher, Arnold Turner; and that in the end the protagonist does the decent thing.
In the early 70’s Sal Mineo (REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) took a keen interest in producing a film of THE WRONG PEOPLE. Several scripts were written but none which satisfied the actor. Sadly, due to Sal Mineo's untimely death, the project was never completed.
However, at present a motion picture of THE WRONG PEOPLE is in planning with a British film company.
THAT PERFECT MAN
- in homage to Peter Chapman -
by William Lawrence
For many years I had the idea of trying to publish a manuscript which I had filed away in a corner of my office. It was the life story of my art teacher, Peter Chapman.
So, one day, I finally searched for it. I found a printed script and a copy in Word format on the hard drive of my first Trinitron Mac – which I’d lent him to encourage him to type it out.
Occasionally, Peter would ring me up, excited by a certain chapter in his life; and I’d go round to his flat and we’d work on a particular section. There were a few heated exchanges and it took him a whole year to complete the book – which he gave the rather harmless title, The Suburban Boy.
This is where I have to admit my failings. When he had returned my computer and passed me the printed manuscript, it became clear from his new introduction that he was in the last stages of pancreatic cancer. In shock I put the script aside. Not long after that he passed away.
Peter Chapman had been my teacher, mentor, lover, but most of all my friend.
Twenty-five years have passed since his death and now there I sat with his manuscript up on the screen of my new PC.
After the first chapter, I realised that no publisher would touch it. Peter was not a writer; his use of language was crude , his description of his sex-life disjointed; there was no narrative; he jumped from one scene to the next as it came into his head.
For some time I abandoned the idea of even putting it on Kindle, so bad was its form. When my editor, Alasdair Hutchison read it, he announced that in order for it to ever see the light of day, it would need to be completely rewritten – using the original story as the inspiration.
So, after a lot of wrestling with the difficulties involved in that task, one morning I woke up, remembering all that Peter had done to help me in my life and there and then I switched on my computer and began to type out the enclosed book, titled: THAT PERFECT MAN – in homage to Peter Chapman.
The reader should note that I have filled in gaps and broadened certain of episodes in Peter’s life with my knowledge of the man – which he had left sparse and often brief in his eagerness against the clock. Peter Chapman had been given two years to live - he was already in his fifth year when he started writing his book and was, as they say, living on borrowed time.
I only ask for his forgiveness if I have erred in my judgement and the readers forbearance for my indulgence; I can only hope that I have in some way lived up to my friend's sense of free expression.
Peter was correct about many things but in one in particular he was absolutely correct, some people would find his life story shocking. But, as he told me that last evening I spent with him:
“It’s all true, Bill.”