At 84, Frederic Raphael writes with the freshness and vigour of a young man starting out
Socrates thought the unexamined life was not worth living, a maxim that Frederic Raphael, classicist by training and Hellenist by inclination, has taken to heart throughout his long and distinguished writing career. He has pored over every aspect of his long life (he is now 84 but writes with all the freshness and vigour of a young man just starting out) in his published notebooks, memoirs, novels, and television, radio, stage and film scripts, rather like a painter obsessively reworking a self-portrait and showing no inclination to call it a day.
Going Up is the second volume of his autobiography — the first, A Spoilt Boy, took us up only to the age of 18 — and centres on his four years at Cambridge, which in turn provided the inspiration for The Glittering Prizes, the BBC television drama series which captivated the country in the mid-1970s. (Raphael helpfully identifies some of the friends and dons who provided the basis of characters in the series. Some were flattered, others offended.) Like the highly professional freelance writer that he is, Raphael recycles and reworks his material: some familiar stories and anecdotes are lifted from A Spoilt Boy (2003) and Personal Terms (2001), his notebooks from the 1950s and ’60s. In turn, some of the material from Going Up reappears, reshaped as fiction, in his latest novel, Private Views, published simultaneously. You do feel you’re getting to know Mr Raphael quite well.
His precocity was evident both personally and professionally. Before going up to Cambridge in 1950, he spent what was then not called a gap year working for the Sunday Express, in those days a national institution, an interlude which furnishes some good stories and taught him to write simple, intelligible prose in short sentences, a priceless legacy demonstrated on every page of this delightful book. His gap year also saw him fall for a bright and pretty Jewish girl, Betty “Beetle” Glatt (you can’t get more kosher than that), a London University graduate three years older than him. Theirs has been a lifelong love affair, the early years of which are evocatively described, catching the atmosphere of a 1950s romance so perfectly that one almost feels as if the relationship is being directed by François Truffaut.
Raphael’s ambivalence about his own Jewishness is a constant theme, as it is through much of his work: resolutely non-religious, he is proud of being Jewish yet does not wish to be defined by it; he just wishes the world would leave him alone, but it won’t — anti-Semitism pops up in the unlikeliest places, such as the Cambridge University Appointments Board or the Cambridge Footlights, and the more it does the more Raphael feels obliged to fight it, being a man who never shirks a confrontation, often to his own cost. Anti-Semitism, indeed, became something of an obsession. Switching from classics to moral sciences, as philosophy was then called at Cambridge, he wanted to develop a theory that anti-Semitism “could be shown to, if not proved, to be nonsensical and, in a revised public language, might be rendered literally unspeakable”. If he ever proved to his own satisfaction the first part of his proposition, it did not, alas, lead to the realisation of the second.
His initial ambition to be an academic star was undermined by his facility at knocking out scripts and lyrics. He was swept up for the Footlights by Leslie Bricusse, before long a major figure in West End musicals, and his writing path was set. Another Footlights figure was Jonathan Miller, who left Raphael unimpressed: “Jonathan seemed not to need friends, but was readily accessible to admirers.” A similarly waspish remark, in his Varsity column, about an American graduate called Robert Gottlieb, had long-lasting consequences. Gottlieb became a major figure in American publishing and took his belated revenge on Raphael, himself no mean grudge-bearer, “by scorning my novels in the US, for which he could be forgiven, though not by me”.
Raphael goes on to describe his early years as a freelance, seeking to distance himself from the showbiz career Bricusse tried to tempt him to follow in favour of the more serious writing to which he rightly felt he should be devoting himself. His latest novel is set in the 1970s, a glum decade marked by economic collapse and the fall of various sinister City figures who had made dubious fortunes in post-war Britain. One such is a central figure here, linked in a kinky relationship with a beautiful and mysterious young woman artist, for whom the hero falls. Indeed, there’s a lot of kinkiness around, befitting the era: a sub-plot involves a very lightly disguised Kenneth Tynan (also encountered in Going Up) and his penchant for female flagellation. All in all, a spanking read. One chapter is only one word long. You can’t get more concise than that: Raphael’s old Fleet Street masters would have been proud.