It is high summer but in the early mornings you can already sense the first thrilling signs of autumn, the perfect reading season. What a good moment to revisit the enjoyably cruel England of Simon Raven, as described in his matchless series of novels Alms for Oblivion. It is pagan, unjust, beautiful, funny and evocative. It encompasses the melancholy era of national decline, from the last trumpets of empire to the seedy, garish concrete and glass squalor of Ted Heath’s fevered age. It is funny, bitter and full of a surprisingly uninhibited love of this country. It is interested in history, patriotism, courage, money, food, drink and sex, not necessarily in that order. Much (though not all) of the sex takes the form of unadorned lust. Unlike so much modern fiction, it does not more or less ignore the great issues of its time, but plunges boldly into them. I think of it often, even when I am not reading the books: vicious, lithe, boozy, treacherous Angela Tuck, Maisie the principled whore, Tessie Buttock and her grubby, cosy hotel off the Cromwell Road, ruined, ravaged Fielding Gray, brave, beautiful Hetta Frith, honourable Peter Morrison, a last and lingering survivor of the age of chivalry, and devious Somerset Lloyd-James with his lisp, his shameless greed and his yellow bald bonce. There are dozens of others, hilarious, tragic, left-wing and reactionary, cultured and philistine. They carry on for all time, a little like Dickens’s characters, whether you are watching them or not.
Raven’s world, so remote from – yet so similar to – the land in which we now live, is accessible through nine brief and pungent books. I advise skipping one volume, Come Like Shadows, which falls well below the standard of the rest. In fact few of his other books are up to much.