Roderic Fenwick Owen: Writer and adventurer who became court poet to a Sheikh
Friday 08 April 2011
The death of Roderic Fenwick Owen a month before his 90th birthday marks the belated breaking of many moulds. Descended from an old Lincolnshire family and heir to a handsome fortune, Fenwick Owen spent the late 1940s crewing his way around the world on tramp steamers; these typically belonged to shipping lines owned by the families of schoolfriends from Summer Fields or Eton. The young Englishman jumped ship from the SS Wairuna on a remote Tahitian island, intent on a year of beachcombing. Instead, he was seduced by, and married, a Polynesian princess called Turia, only to desert her a year later and sail on. The story of his youth reads like a novel by Somerset Maugham. Containerisation and mass tourism would make it impossible today.
Like Maugham, too, Fenwick Owen's foray into heterosexuality was short-lived. Unlike the tortured novelist, however, he took to homosexuality with alacrity, revelling in the cloak-and-dagger naughtiness of gay life in the Fifties. ("That silly Wolfenden," he used to say of the man whose report decriminalised homosexuality. "Coming along and spoiling everything.") Visits to the Royal Tournament at Olympia in the company of equally well-born friends – one was a titled courtier in the household of the Queen Mother – were made less in appreciation of military skill than in the hope of picking up guardsmen. After 20 years of joyous promiscuity, Fenwick Owen met the love of his life, an Italian called Gian Carlo Pasqualetto, in 1967. Their partnership, spent at Fenwick Owen's vast house in The Boltons, lasted until Pasqualetto's death from cancer in 1991.
Life at Gilston Lodge tended to the unexpected. Bought with a £5,000 inheritance in the 1950s – the house next door recently sold to a hedge-fund manager for £9m – Fenwick Owen's choice of residence had alarmed his Mayfair-centric mother. "Darling," she reasoned, "people won't come all this way out of London to see you here." With its array of bedrooms, the Lodge played host to the eclectic range of Fenwick Owen's acquaintance. There was, for many years, an adored Irish lover called Nick, a deep-sea diver who died in the 1980s. As often in Fenwick Owen's romantic career, Nick was married (his son, now in his 70s, would remain a devoted friend).
He was not the only recipient of Fenwick Owen's disinterested kindness. The late 1950s found the one-time Tahitian beachcomber in the Persian Gulf. A pacifist at Oxford in the Second World War, Fenwick Owen had eventually taken a non-combatant posting in the RAF which left him with an unlikely expertise in the building of airstrips. Thus he found himself in Das, a small but oil-rich Gulf island in need of a runway. While overseeing its construction, Fenwick Owen took under his (non-sexual) wing an ailing Pakistani called Gulzaman. Gulzaman returned with his rescuer to Gilston Lodge, acting as something between a valet and godson for the next decade and a half. It was Fenwick Owen who supplied the dowry for his ward's eventual marriage.
The stay in the Gulf also led to one of the more unusual episodes in a highly unusual life. Presented to the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi as an es-Sha'ir [poet], the closest he could get in Arabic to "travel writer" – Fenwick Owen found himself asked to compose an ode on the spot. Never a slave to self doubt, he responded with: "Through Abu Dhabi's golden sands / We walked and talked until the sea / Crept up and disenchanted me". Sheikh Shakhbut nodded sagely and declared Fenwick Owen his court poet. It was a post he was to hold for 30 years, becoming laureate in turn to Shakhbut's son.
When not penning royal odes, he practised as a travel writer and biographer. There were books on Africa and Polynesia and lives of Lord Tedder – described by a critic as "a masterpiece of military strategy" – and Sir John Franklin, the latter Fenwick Owen's thrice-great uncle. To this day, his The Golden Bubble (1957) is reviled by Iranian hardliners for its historically reasoned attempt to rename the Persian Gulf "the Arabian Gulf". (An Iranian website, not altogether plausibly, claims Fenwick Owen to have been "a shadowy functionary" of the British secret service.) In 1974, there was Beautiful and Beloved, a well-received biography of Mavis de Vere Cole, model and mistress of Augustus John.
In his last years, Fenwick Owen devoted himself to a three-volume autobiography called Funny, Living and Loving, a memoir less warts-and-all than genital-warts-and-all. (A section on pubic lice is particularly memorable, as is the story of the author's refusal of a the gift of a painting – "a frightful daub" – from an artist he had never heard of called Jackson Pollock.) This he published privately, in large part to acquaint his family with the realities of his life: the epigram to the first volume is St Thérèse of Lisieux's famous dictum, "Je n'ai jamais cherché que la vérité" ["I've only ever sought the truth"]. Always happiest when at his most shocking, Fenwick Owen was mildly annoyed when his family received the books with equanimity.
The choice of St Thérèse was not simply mischievous. Fenwick Owen always saw the telling of truths, particularly uncomfortable ones, as a moral imperative. Like Rousseau, his confessions were all or nothing. He was also a man of surprising, if unorthodox, faith. Notionally Church of England – his great uncle, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, was a co-founder of the National Trust – Fenwick Owen picked and chose as he went along. His travels in Arabia had given him a huge admiration for the fatalism of Islam; life with Pasqualetto left him an approximate if unpractising Roman Catholic; the address at his funeral was read by an old friend, Rabbi Lionel Blue. Ill in his last months, he was cared for by a housekeeper who had been with him for 22 years and by friends who had known him, in some cases, for 50 more.
Roderic Franklin Fenwick Owen, writer and traveller: born London 27 March 1921; died London 21 February 2011.
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