Rupert Croft-Cooke

The following is a short piece, adapted from the article I wrote for the magazine Slightly Foxed, about my favourite writer, Rupert Croft-Cooke (1903 – 1979).

I came across the book quite by chance one bitterly cold February day in the early eighties, in a junk shop disguised as a bric-a-brac emporium in the Brontë village of Haworth. It was a tatty copy of The Drums of Morning by Rupert Croft-Cooke, without a dust-jacket and bearing the faded sticker of the Boots’ Lending Library – and it launched my fascination with a writer unjustly neglected during his life-time and now, sadly, almost forgotten.

Croft-Cooke was a staggeringly prolific wordsmith, producing over thirty novels, as many detective novels under the name of Leo Bruce, and more than thirty works of non-fiction on such diverse subjects as Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, Kipling, Buffalo Bill, Victorian writers, the circus, criminals, religion, gypsies, wine and cookery. His 1938 book, Darts, was surprisingly the first volume ever published on that subject. In addition, he wrote a couple of hundred short stories, some of which were collected in three volumes, as well as numerous plays and poetry, articles and essays.

But his finest work was his twenty-seven volume autobiography, known collectively as The Sensual World. The first two books in the series, The Gardens of Camelot, and The Altar in the Loft, describe his birth in Edenbridge, Kent, in 1903, and his idyllic rural childhood – a brilliant evocation of the late Edwardian era swept away by the events of the Great War. The Drums of Morning, the third book in the series, charts his late adolescence from 1917 to 1921. He recounts his public school education first at Aldenham and then at Wellington College, his later experiences as a teacher in Liverpool, and details the events that would shape his anarchic and rebellious character in the years that followed.

As a would-be writer in my early twenties when I discovered Rupert Croft-Cooke, I found the mixture of evocative nostalgia for the long-gone post-Great War era, and his burning passion for literature and the desire to become a writer, quite apart from his altruistic world-view, utterly compelling. Over the course of the next few years I managed to track down the remaining volumes of The Sensual World, brought out by a total of nine different publishers between 1937 and 1977. I followed Croft-Cooke’s travels and travails as he taught in Argentina in the twenties and, on his return, supplemented his meagre writer’s income by running a bookshop and teaching, while living precariously in London, Kent, Sussex, Cornwall, the Cotswolds and Switzerland. In the thirties he spent months travelling with gypsies and with Rosaire’s circus, experiences which found their way into his memoirs, The Moon in My Pocket and The Circus Has No Home. In the winter of 1937 he motored around Europe in a converted Morris-Commercial bus, collecting material for The Man in Europe Street, a topical book which endeavoured to gauge the mood of a continent moving headlong towards conflict. During the Second World War he served with Field Security in Madagascar and India, and from the early fifties lived in Tangier for fifteen years. Throughout this time – with the exception of his Army service – he wrote, turning out thousands of words before lunch every day, day after day.

Croft-Cooke wrote of his hopes as a writer: “In all my life, I realise now, I have had two single aims which become one when I write. I have wanted to love people, not only – perhaps not chiefly – of my own race and background, but people of strange callings, of other countries and languages, people antithetical to my family and natural associates. Then to identify with them, to try and be mistaken for one of them, to learn their languages, share their points of view and, where they have been outcast, to be an outcast with them.”

Croft-Cooke was a non-conformist, an eternal optimist, and eternally interested – perhaps as a rebellion against his upper-middle-class upbringing – in new and varied experiences. The autobiographies bristle with incident and loving accounts of the personalities, famous and otherwise, he encountered during his varied and peripatetic life.

The list of writers he met reads like a roll-call of the literary greats of yesteryear: while still a teenager he made a pilgrimage to the homes of his heroes Rudyard Kipling and John Masefield; in his twenties he met G.K. Chesterton, who encouraged his literary endeavours by buying his poetry and short journalistic pieces for G.K.’s Weekly. He later became close friends with Compton Mackenzie and pre-war best-seller Louis Golding, who recurs in his life story as a larger than life figure combining egocentricity and buffoonery. For all that Golding was a figure of fun in literary circles of that time, however, the portrait of him, warts and all, never descends to ridicule – and this is indicative of Croft-Cooke’s attitude to life in general. His account of his life and times, the people he met and his many varied experiences, is remarkable for its even-tempered tone and good humour. He never descends to acerbity or cynicism, and even when events went against him he maintains a wry sense of proportion. Again and again he states that from misfortune grew the seeds of fortune; he seems incapable of rancour, and was proud of his ability to make the best of any set-back or mishap.

And it was a life not without hardship. His struggle to make a living as a writer often forced him to produce quickly-written and second-rate work, and to take on menial and sensationalistic journalism. In the thirties he was tied to an iniquitous contract by Walter Hutchinson, and compelled to write five books a year in order to repay the publisher’s expense of having to withdraw and pulp his fourth novel Cosmopolis, (reprinted in 1949 as The White Mountain) after libel action was threatened by the Swiss head-master of the private school at which Croft-Cooke had worked and which he used as the setting for the book. In over fifty years as a published writer, Croft-Cooke never had a best-seller and his books were rarely reprinted. He claimed that one of the reasons he lived abroad was that he could not exist in Britain on the money he made from writing.

Although the memoirs do reveal his character, there is one aspect of his nature that he was loath – with good reason – to air in public. Croft-Cooke was homosexual when male homosexuality was illegal. He was well over sixty when the act was eventually decriminalised in Great Britain in 1967, and accustomed to a life-time of keeping the fact of his sexuality from his writings. Even after ’67 he found it hard to admit his real nature in print, instead making veiled hints in later autobiographies. There is a case to be made for the claim that his autobiographical writings suffered from this enforced reticence. Croft-Cooke stated often in the course of the Sensual World that the books were not about himself – a claim that comes over as the writer labouring under the yoke of necessity – but that his aim was to record accurately a passing era. It is tempting to speculate how much more accurate, not to mention sensual, that record might have been if circumstances had allowed him to write openly of his most intimate feelings and experiences.

In 1943, while serving as a Field Security Officer in Belgaum, India, Croft-Cooke met a seventeen year-old Indian, Joseph Sussainathan. The writer was then forty years old. They remained together, Alexander employed as Croft-Cooke’s secretary, for the next thirty-six years. In his 1965 travel-cum-autobiographical volume about India, The Gorgeous East, Croft-Cooke describes their meeting in perfunctory terms, glossing over not only how he managed to employ Sussainathan as his aide throughout his army service in India, but also their true relationship. His partner features only fleetingly in the remaining books in the series, a relationship referred to by the writer as resembling that between a father and son.

In 1953 Croft-Cooke was jailed for six months, and Sussainathan for three months, on a charge of homosexual indecency. They were found guilty of inviting two sailors back to Croft-Cooke’s Ticehurst home and over the course of a weekend indulging in homosexual practices. In ’54 Croft-Cooke published a book about the court case and his time in Wormwood Scrubs and Brixton. The Verdict of You All is a searing indictment of conditions in British jails in the fifties and a diatribe against the miscarriage of justice that brought about the sentencing. Perhaps more remarkable, though, is the fact that Croft-Cooke manages throughout the course of the book to deflect the question of whether or not he was in fact homosexual.

On his release from jail he left England and settled in Tangier, where over the course of the next fifteen years he wrote much of his best work. He was often candidly dismissive about his ability as a novelist, but from time to time he exceeded his limitations. His best Pre-Tangier novel is Wilkie, written immediately after the Second World War, which recounts the life of a retired Army Colonel’s service in India towards the end of the Raj, and his return home to a much changed and almost unrecognisable England. His best fiction, however, was written in Tangier. Harvest Moon describes the life and work of Cockney hop-pickers in Kent; Fall of Man is about the trial and fall from grace of an artist on a false charge of child abuse. Perhaps his finest novel, Seven Thunders, graphically details the German destruction of the ancient Vieux Port area of Marseilles in 1943. He also wrote important non-fiction works during this time, including a re-evaluation of the Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas affair in Bosie: The Story of Lord Alfred Douglas, and an account of the lives of non-conformist Victorian writers, Feasting with Panthers.

It was over twenty years before I re-read the Sensual World series, and then not without a sense of trepidation. I recalled the books as honest accounts of a struggling but optimistic writer, beautifully written in a clear, vivid, yet idiosyncratic prose style. I feared that my own youthful penchant for romance, my desire to share the struggles of a fellow aspiring writer, might have coloured my view of dully-written, mediocre memoirs, of the type which were ten-a-penny in the latter half of the last century.

I need not have worried. The Sensual World comes across, even after multiple re-readings, as a loving and wondrous account of a life lived to the full, and a priceless memoir of life in the 20th Century. Croft-Cooke’s avowed aim was to leave behind a comprehensive record of his times, and in this he succeeded. In a prefatory note to The Sound of Revelry, the account of his time in London immediately preceding the Second World War, he states, “It may be over ambitious to try to catch the tone of an epoch through individual experience, to say to those who did not experience it: ‘This is what it was like to be alive at that time.’ That is what I have attempted.”

Rupert Croft-Cooke died in Bournemouth in 1979, at the age of seventy-five, and left a oeuvre of over one hundred books, none of which are now in print. There is a claim to be made that the best of his novels are unjustly neglected – but it is the Sensuous World series which deserves to find a new audience, and which will be seen as Croft-Cooke’s lasting legacy to the world of English letters.

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The Novels of Rupert Croft-Cooke

(The following lists are incomplete. I’d be grateful for any information concerning publishers and publication dates, as well as any books I might have missed.)

Troubadour (Chapman & Hall, 1930)

Give him the Earth (Chapman & Hall, 1930)

Night Out (Jarrolds, 1932)

Cosmopolis (Jarrolds, 1932)

Release the Lions (Jarrolds, 1933)

Picaro (Jarrolds, 1934)

Her Mexican Lover (Mellifont Press, 1934)

Shoulder the Sky (Jarrolds, 1934)

Blind Gunner (Jarrolds, 1935)

Crusade (Jarrolds, 1936)

Kingdom Come (Jarrolds, 1937)

Rule Britannia (Jarrolds, 1938)

Same Way Home (Jarrolds, 1939)

Glorious (Jarrolds, 1940)

Octopus (Jarrolds, 1946)

Ladies Gay (MacDonald, 1946)

Wilkie (MacDonald, 1948)

Brass Farthing (Werner Laurie, 1950)

Three Names for Nicholas (Macmillan, 1951)

Nine Days with Edward (Macmillan, 1952)

Harvest Moon (Macmillan, 1953)

Fall of Man (Macmillan, 1955)

Seven Thunders (Macmillan, 1956)

Barbary Night (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1958)

Thief (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1960)

Clash By Night (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1962)

Paper Albatross (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1965)

Three in a Cell (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1968)

Wolf From the Door (W.H. Allen, 1969)

Exiles (W.H. Allen, 1970)

While the Iron’s Hot (W.H. Allen, 1971)

Under the Rose Garden (W.H. Allen, 1971)

Nasty Piece of Work (Methuen, 1973)

Conduct Unbecoming (W.H. Allen, 1975)

Short story collections

A Pharaoh with his Waggons (Jarrolds, 1937)

A Football for the Brigadier (Werner Laurie, 1950)

A Few Gypsies (Putnam, 1955) – a collection of articles about gypsies, with short stories.

Autobiographical Books (in The Sensual World series)

The Gardens of Camelot (Putnam, 1959)

The Altar in the Loft (Putnam, 1960)

The Drums of Morning (Putnam, 1961)

The Glittering Pastures (Putnam, 1962)

The Numbers Came (Putnam, 1963)

The Last of Spring (Putnam, 1964)

The Purple Streak (W.H. Allen, 1966)

The Wild Hills (W.H. Allen, 1966)

The Happy Highways (W.H. Allen, 1967)

The Sound of Revelry (W.H. Allen, 1969)

The Moon in My Pocket (Sampson & Low, 1948)

The Licentious Soldiery (W.H. Allen, 1971)

The Blood-Red Island (Staples Press, 1953)

The Gorgeous East (W.H. Allen, 1965)

The Dogs of Peace (W.H. Allen, 1973)

The Life for Me (Macmillan, 1952)

The Verdict of You All (Secker & Warburg, 1955)

The Tangerine House (Macmillan, 1956)

The Quest for Quixote (Secker & Warburg, 1959)

The Wintry Sea (W.H. Allen, 1964)

The Ghost of June (W.H. Allen, 1968)

The Caves of Hercules (W.H. Allen, 1974)

The Long Way Home (W.H. Allen, 1974)

The Green, Green Grass (W.H. Allen, 1977)

Supplementary:

The World is Young (Hodder & Stoughton, 1937)

The Man in Europe Street (Rich & Cowan, 1938)

The Circus Has No Home (Falcon Press, 1941)

Sergeant Beef Detective Novels

Case for Three Detectives (1936)

Case without a Corpse (1937)
Case with No Conclusion (1939)
Case with Four Clowns (1939)
Case with Ropes and Rings (1940)
Case for Sergeant Beef (1947)
Neck and Neck (Gollancz, 1951)
Cold Blood (1952)

Carolus Deene Detective Novels


At Death’s Door (Peter Davies, 1955)
Death of Cold (Peter Davies, 1956)
Dead for a Ducat (Peter Davies, 1956)
Dead Man’s Shoes (Peter Davies, 1958)
A Louse for the Hangman (Peter Davies, 1958)
Our Jubilee Is Death (Peter Davies, 1959)
Jack on the Gallows Tree (Peter Davies, 1960)

Furious Old Women (Peter Davies, 1960)
A Bone and a Hank of Hair (Peter Davies, 1961)
Die All, Die Merrily (Peter Davies, 1961)
Nothing Like Blood (Peter Davies, 1962)
Crack of Doom (Peter Davies, 1963)
Death in Albert Park (W.H. Allen, 1964)
Death at Hallows End (W. H. Allen, 1965)
Death on the Black Sands (W. H. Allen, 1966)
Death at St. Asprey’s School (W.H. Allen, 1967)
Death of a Commuter (W. H. Allen, 1967)
Death on Romney Marsh (W.H. Allen, 1968)
Death with Blue Ribbon (W.H. Allen, 1969)
Death on Allhallowe’en (W.H. Allen, 1970)
Death by the Lake (W. H. Allen, 1971)
Death in the Middle Watch (W. H. Allen, 1974)
Death of a Bovver Boy (W. H. Allen, 1974)

Short Story Collection

Murder in Miniature (Academy, 1992) (Including 10 Beef stories, 8 Sergeant Grebe stories, and a further 10 stories)

Non-Fiction

How Psychology Can Help (Daniel, 1927)

The Cloven Hoof: A Study of Contemporary London Vices (with Michael

Harrison, under the pen-name Taylor Croft: Dennis Archer, 1932)

God in Ruins (Fortune Press, 1936)

Darts (Geoffrey Bless, 1938)

How to Get More Out of Life (Geoffrey Bless, 1938)

Rudyard Kipling (Home & Van Thal, 1948)

How to Enjoy Travel Abroad (Rockliffe, 1948)

The Sawdust Ring, with W.S. Meadmore (Odhams Press, 1951)

Cities, with Noel Barber (Allan Wingate, 1952)

Buffalo Bill, with W.S. Meadmore (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1952)

Sherry (Putnam, 1955)

Port (Putnam, 1957)

Smiling Damned Villain (Secker & Warburg, 1959)

English Cooking, a New Approach (W.H. Allen, 1960)

Madeira (Putnam, 1961)

Cooking for Pleasure (Collins, 1962)

Bosie: The Story of Lord Alfred Douglas (W. H. Allen, 1963)

Tales of a Wicked Uncle (Cape, 1963)

St. George for England (Dulwich Press, 1966 – limited edition of 500 copies)

Wine and Other Drinks (Collins, 1966)

Feasting With Panthers: A New Consideration of Some Late Victorian Writers

(W.H. Allen, 1967)

Exotic Food (Allen & Unwin, 1969.)

The Unrecorded Life of Oscar Wilde, (W. H. Allen, 1972)

Circus: A World History, with Peter Cotes (Elek, 1976)

Poems

Songs of a Sussex Tramp (Vine Press, 1922)

Tonbridge School (Free Press, 1923)

Songs South of the Line (Torrey, 1925)

The Viking (Rota, 1926)

Twenty Poems from the Spanish of Becquer (Oxford, 1927)

Some Poems (Galleon Press, 1929)

Plays

Banquo’s Chair (1930) Filmed in 1945 as The Fatal Witness

Tap Three Times (1931)

Deliberate Accident (1934)

As Editor

Major Road Ahead (Methuen, 1939)

The Circus Book (Sampson & Low, 1947)

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