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The English Gentleman by Simon Raven

The English Gentleman (1961)

by Simon Raven

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This book is probably more about the author than its supposed subject matter, and as he makes clear, he does not count himself among the class of people he sets out to describe here. Simon Raven was a writer who delighted in his own bad behaviour, however he remained fascinated by the idea of the "Gentleman" and those who were. On one level what we have here is a semi-serious attempt to understand what social and historical factors produced the "Gentleman", what exactly he was, and how the changes in society led to his decline in more recent times. But on the other hand, a large proportion of the book is anecdotes from the author's life. These autobiographical stories usually describe an example of how he behaved in a very ungentlemanly fashion, in contrast to some other characters who did. Most of these have at least a tenuous link to the particular thing he is trying to illustrate in each chapter, and though they are not always of the utmost relevance, they are mostly quite amusing. This is not a serious academic work of social history or cultural commentary, however it does largely achieve what it sets out to do, and provides some light-hearted entertainment. ( )
  P_S_Patrick | Oct 16, 2017 |
Probably a book that only a dedicated Raven fan would bother to read, this extended essay about the qualities that make up the traditional notion of the "English gentleman" gives Raven every chance to unleash his inner fogey and fulminate against the modern world and the great unwashed. It's not quite as bad as you might expect, though - Raven is always witty and entertaining when he's writing about himself. Even though he doesn't claim to be a gentleman, the subject gives him plenty of scope to write about his experiences at school, Cambridge and in the army, so there's a lot to be enjoyed here once you've got past the rather sophomoric historical introduction.
Obviously, you don't have to agree with his conclusions. Broadly, his thesis is that the role of "gentleman" depended for its authority on the respect of the lower orders for superior merit (which, we are supposed to realise, the gentleman had implicitly). In the modern world (i.e. 1961), the lower orders no longer respect ability or talent, but only success and position (things they could have had themselves if the dice had fallen otherwise). As a result, the disinterested attempts at leadership of army officers, Cambridge dons and public school prefects are greeted with contempt by those who would in former times have obeyed their betters with respect and pleasure. Hmm.
As always with Raven, there's a good deal of winding-up and teasing of the critics going on (he's trying to provoke the narrow-minded into digging holes for themselves by agreeing with what he says), but you can't help suspecting that at least a bit of it is meant seriously. Raven would clearly have fitted in much better in the 1890s than the 1950s... ( )
  thorold | Jul 16, 2010 |
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Drake, he's in his hammock till the great Armadas come,

(Captain, art tha sleepin' there below?)

Slung atween the roundshot, listenin' for the drum,

An' dreamin' arl the time o' Plymouth Hoe. . . .

(Sir Henry Newbolt, Drake's Drum)
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I myself am not a gentleman.
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