Obituary: E. J. Oliver

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The Independent Online
Edward James Oliver, writer, born London 1911, married 1934 Betty Cowen (died 1981; two daughters), died Southampton 7 December 1992.

E. J. OLIVER, the novelist, essayist and journalist, was born in 1911 into a solid middle-class family whom he loved but from whose values he spent much of his life escaping.

Jimmy Oliver became a Roman Catholic while an undergraduate at Oxford and then became a writer instead of entering the professions - though he did put in a short stint at the publishers Sheed & Ward, and on the staff of the Catholic weekly the Tablet, both situated in Paternoster Row in the City of London. It was in this Thirties period that I first met him. I see him walking down Ludgate Hill to have lunch under the arches at Shirreffs, his handsome looks adorned by a bowler and a cane, having risen from a desk where Cervantes or Racine, Baudelaire or Eugenio d'Ors would have been his reading matter.

His novels reflect a duality in his nature. His first, Honeymoonshine (1936), tells the story of an Englishman in Paris falling in love with a beautiful woman of French- English extraction, who, on their honeymoon, reveals Europe to him (significantly, his name is James). Whether in Marseilles, Barcelona, Rome, on a Greek island, on the Danube, in Transylvania, or back in England, she incarnates the spririt of the place in fantastic ways for his instruction. Yet in Not Long to Wait (1949) we are centred firmly in London where an innocent boy from the Welsh dales is trying to make his way as a waiter in shady Soho. Oliver's third and last novel, The Clown (1951), begins with Tommy, aged 10, being taken, spellbound, to his first pantomime, Aladdin, in 1921, and ends 30 years later with Tommy playing Widow Twankey in the same pantomime. For, in the meantime, and to his conventional family's dismay, he has become a music-hall artist.

During the war Oliver served in Field Security, the Intelligence Corps, from 1940 to 1942, had a motorcycle accident and was hospitalised in 1943, then worked for the BBC European Service from 1944 to 1948. He used to tell the story of how, in applying for this job and still reeling from the breakdown following his accident, he said, 'The trouble is, I'm rather mad,' to which his interviewer replied, 'That's fine, you can go into our Yugoslav section.'

In the late Fifties Oliver wrote three biographical studies: one of Coventry Patmore (1956) with especial reference to The Angel in the House, Patmore's marriages and his conversion to Catholicism; the next of Gibbon (1958), with special reference to his attitude to Rome; and the third of Balzac (1959), for whom his admiration knew no bounds.

Jimmy Oliver also wrote reviews and articles, mostly, latterly, for the Tablet and the Chesterton Review. I pick out the title of an article of his in the second of these publications: 'Paradise in Chesterton, Giraudoux and Ramon Gomez de la Serna'. There you have him.

(Photograph omitted)