Historical Notes: Mediterranean moralist of amorality

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The Independent Online
"IF, AS a memorial, I leave nothing behind me but Eric, it will prove to posterity that I have not lived in vain," wrote Norman Douglas, who died a celebrated honorary citizen on the Island of Capri in 1951. The fact that Eric, a 12-year-old London boy Douglas picked up at the Crystal Palace fireworks display in 1910, did not survive as a memorial but died in obscurity in Africa might prove that this sybaritic literary figure did indeed live in vain.

Douglas liked to think himself a pagan, the moralist of amorality, and his predilection first for girls - he once boasted that he had had 1,100 virgins - and, from his thirties, for boys kept him cruising around the Mediterranean. (A small incident involving schoolboys at the Natural History Museum in London also kept him abroad.)

It was not only young people who came under Uncle Norman's spell. Graham Greene and Compton Mackenzie were among many admirers. The cookery writer Elizabeth David, who met him in Antibes at the outbreak of the Second World War, was greatly captivated by him. She was then Elizabeth Gwynne and she was 26; he was 72.

"Above all," she wrote in the acknowledgements to her first book, A Book of Mediterranean Food, "I have a debt of gratitude to Mr Norman Douglas whose great knowledge and enchanting talk taught me so much about the Mediterranean."

It is initially hard to comprehend why this serial paedophile could captivate such intelligent and sensitive people. But by all accounts Douglas could be an engaging companion. His mind was sharp, enquiring, scientific; his humour quick if sometimes bawdy. He broke rules, burned boats, tolerated no fools and did not give much of a damn. Elizabeth Gwynne, strong-willed, sexually liberated, felt a great bond.

Norman Douglas was the second son of the 15th Laird of Tilquhillie, who had inherited a cotton mill in Austria, which is where Norman grew up, going to Uppingham School in England. In 1898 he married Elsa FitzGibbon, and they had two sons. After their divorce Douglas spirited his small children away from their mother, to their distress and to her everlasting grief, only virtually to abandon them.

Douglas's literary career was patchy, and some of his output is quite indigestible today. His early books were not successes, though Siren Land (1907) has several times been reprinted and Old Calabria (1915), which he wrote during a sojourn in southern Italy with Eric, has become a travel classic. Then, in 1917, he published a novel, South Wind, a jolly romp about pagan practices in a mythical Mediterranean island that seems remarkably like Capri.

South Wind's great success was due in part to its timing: it was published at the end of the First World War when everyone was in need of escape, just as Elizabeth David's A Book of Mediterranean Food brought sunshine into Britain's kitchens during the grey days that lingered long after the end of the Second World War.

Elizabeth David shared Douglas's distaste for prying into people's lives, and she kept her own life away from the public gaze. In 1964 she wrote an article about Douglas for Gourmet magazine. Its title, "South Wind Through the Kitchen", is also the title of a posthumous collection of "The Best of Elizabeth David" published in paperback last year. Her cookery books remain in print. In fact now, seven years after her death, she is making something of a comeback: two biographies as well as a novel based on both Douglas and David, all published within a year.

So it is Elizabeth David, not young Eric, who has proved a memorial to Norman Douglas and shown that he did not live in vain. But the hundreds of nephews and nieces Douglas left behind, many of whom cannot have emerged unscathed by his behaviour, should not be forgotten.

Roger Williams is the author of the novel `Lunch With Elizabeth David' (Little, Brown, pounds 15.99)