The Wrong People - Robin Maugham

Ladymol's Review

Set in Tangiers in the (unspecified) post-war years, this story starts rather slowly, and rather predictably, but takes an unexpected turn that kept me riveted.

At first, it’s all very “Brideshead Revisited”: queer British and American ex-pats enjoying the greater freedoms for their sexual tastes that this enclave of North Africa has to offer. These are not particularly nice people. They come to Tangiers, basically, to prey sexually on young boys. That the boys would live lives of degradation in other ways—extreme poverty at the root of all their ills—if these rich foreign men did not adopt them as their sexual pets, is the excuse offered.

Arnold Turner, a teacher at a boy’s reform school, comes to Tangiers to work through his sexual confusion. He’s self-aware enough to realise that he married his wife because she looked like her brother. One tantalizingly brief moment with the brother on the banks of a river after bathing bring his desires into the open and spurned by both sister and brother he retreats to Tangiers for his Christmas break. Sitting alone in the bar one night he’s invited home by a rich American, Ewing. Ewing does not appear to have the predicable interest in Arnold and quickly sets him up with his fourteen-year-old houseboy Riffi. Arnold is utterly smitten. At last he can indulge in his fantasies, fall in love, possess a boy.

However, Arnold has no money of his own and is trapped by the need to work. He must return to England and leave Riffi. That is, until Ewing offers him a bizarre and shocking deal: find a young English boy at the school who is unhappy enough to leave, and send him to Tangiers, in return for a villa and means of support. Ewing had a previous young lover, but aged nineteen when they met, Tim was too set in his ways to accept Ewing’s demands. Unable to settle for an Arabic boy, Ewing wants an English boy he can educate, civilise, take around the world and form into the perfect lover. He believes if he can get one early—thirteen—then the boy will still be malleable enough to train.

Arnold utterly rejects the offer, but over the next few days, with his holiday slipping away and parting with Riffi coming closer and closer, Ewing wages a campaign of manipulation to get Arnold to comply. This part of the book is fascinating. We see things only from Arnold’s pov, and he takes things very much at face value. We see things very differently and can follow, step by step, the way Ewing backs him into a corner from which there is no escape. Arnold returns to England, selects a boy and puts the events into motion that will secure his life with Riffi.

The end of the book is masterful twist of dark humour that proves that not even the best of plans survives first contact with the enemy.

I particularly liked the moral dilemmas this book threw up. I was actually quite seduced by Ewing’s vision of taking a boy and giving him access to the greatest cultures of the world. The boy they select has been dreadfully abused by his mother and stepmother. He’s abused at school by masters and boys alike. His life is a complete misery. Is it so wrong that in exchange for sex with Ewing when he’s older, he’s given access to the best education and care that money can buy? Is Arnold being nothing more than a hypocrite when he refuses to help and then brings the scheme to ruin because it is an English boy: he’s more than happy to bugger an Arab boy the same age, offering him little more than keeping him as an exclusive sex-slave. Arnold reminded me a little of men who view images sex images of children on the web but who claim in their defence that they didn’t contribute to the exploitation and abuse merely by viewing. Of course they did, and Ewing, Arnold and their ilk create the seedy, abusive society in Tangiers by their abnormal cravings for young boys. I ended the book quite sad that a man like Ewing, for all his culture and education and money, couldn’t think to offer little Dan such a start in life without it having to be about sex.

A little coy and old fashioned in its style for modern tastes perhaps but an excellent read once you get into it.

Cerisaye's Review

This novel was so scandalous author Robin (nephew of Somerset) originally used an alias.  It's about boy love, exploitation of Arab youth and underage sex that however you dress it up is child abuse- sex tourism was in the news as I read, with Gary Glitter’s arrest in Vietnam.  It reflects a view of gay men alien to modern attitudes of tolerance, understanding and acceptance.  However it beautifully evokes the seductive charms of exotic Tangier, then a haven of freedom from places where society forbade same sex attraction, punishing its expression with prison and ruin.  It’s a damning indictment of the way repression rendered men incapable of normal relationships, unhappy and longing for love, doomed to fail and lose.

A homoerotic thriller set mid 60s, though, published after Stonewall, it reads like something from the 50s due to the way it portrays gay men as ‘The Wrong People’ of the title.  It’s prefaced by the quote from The Merchant of Venice in which Antonio says “I am a tainted wether of the flock”

Arnold Turner, respectable Englishman teaching at a school for juvenile delinquents is on holiday, where he meets wealthy businessman Ewing Baird.  Arnold is fearfully repressed.  He suppresses desire for boys because it isn’t right to abuse his position.  Let loose where money buys unlimited license, temptation is harder to resist, particularly when the lure is beautiful, biddable Riffi, only 14 but no innocent.

Arnold is drawn into a morally reprehensible scheme through Ewing’s emotional blackmail after the naive dupe takes the bait.  It’s obvious what Ewing is up to long before the poor chap realises he’s being played.

Arnold has never known love.  Shut away in a boys’ school he has no life.  Can we blame him for falling so madly for young Riffi, who is complicit? That’s how poor Arab boys survive, as Arnold is graphically shown.  No doubt Riffi regards what he does as better than the alternatives, and Arnold is kind and gentle.  He wants to spend his life with Riffi giving him everything.  He should be looking for love with a man his equal, but he’s not capable of a mature relationship.  He knows it’s wrong but can’t stop; it’s used against him in a way that’s entirely believable for the character. Still, Riffi IS a child and the relationship troubling because it’s so erotic. 

Ewing despises his desire and resents that it puts him beyond the pale.  He says he wants impressionable boys to educate and love in the Greek ideal.  The youths he tries to nurture resent his wealth and power and can’t offer what he needs, intimacy, affection and approval, before they inevitably leave.

Ewing wants a boy to mould and Arnold is in a position to get him one.  Is a boy whose parents either rejected or neglected him, beaten and sexually abused at school by other masters, any worse off with Ewing who offers a new comfortable life with opportunities he’d never have otherwise?

The novel reminded me of Bought and Paid For, with the similar idea of a wealthy man buying a boy to save.  It explores controversial issues about the nature of love and how repressed men regarded as corrupt and immoral behave, handicapped by self-loathing and shame. Ewing Baird’s games of manipulation are his way of getting back at a respectable world that rejects him. 

There’s some repetitiveness in the writing, but it’s interesting even if only for historical curiosity.  Riffi is more erotic fantasy than fully developed character; however I felt sorry for Arnold and Ewing the war hero is human not monster.  Is it too late for Arnold?  I hope not. Though emotionally undeveloped, his nature inhibits him becoming like Ewing- who resents Arnold the more.

The ending is frustrating.  Ewing goes on; his kind always does.  So what does THAT say?  I think Maugham had issues of his own.  Gay men are no more likely to be paedophiles than straight ones, though this book makes it appear otherwise, an aspect I didn't like.  Same-sex attraction isn't perversion but paedophilia is and their equation taints the book, though I enjoyed it otherwise.

A thought provoking read but not easy given the focus on what are abusive relationships however it's dressed up; they’re all victims one way or another so we can condemn their choices yet try to understand why they make them.