Saturday, August 26, 2006

Robert Tewdwr Moss: 10 years on

In earlier posts in July I reminded those who care that Aug 26 marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Robert Tewdwr Moss. And here we are now.

I tried recently to buy a copy of his fantastic travel book about Syria, Cleopatra's Wedding Present, but it's out of print, more's the pity. I'm tempted to re-print it myself. It's a book of timeless worth both for its writing and its sensibility: a book only Robert could have written - a funny, gay picaresque odyssey-cum-love story in a fundamentalist Moslem country.

I had thought to re-read his many obits that improbably appeared in the nationals back in '96. I say improbably because he was not famous, known only to a small circle of journalists. Many of the obit editors hadn’t heard of him but were persuaded by the likes of Peter Parker and Philip Hoare to run pieces: they and many others had sensed in Robert the potential for tremendous achievement and had already witnessed his genius for affecting so many people through his personality and voracious interest.

Cleopatra was a promise that tragedy made a memento. I say this not to glamorise him, he had many faults like everyone else, but to acknowledge a general impression of him by all or most who encountered him.

I planned to re-read his obits to say more about his life but I now think I prefer just to remember him and some reactions to his death. One that sticks particularly in mind was a news feature on Robert written by one of the Duncan Campbells on the Guardian.

Even now it seems astonishing that this paper commissioned and ran the piece. It told the story of a murder mystery in high society, the death of a man who wrote for Tatler and other posh periodicals, who was gay. It was written in a semi-amused way as if Hercule Poirot had been hired to script a voiceover for yet another homicide on the Nile. Because the victim was (wrongly) perceived as part of a privileged world, because he was a man who was homosexual, the writer imagined that he could write a piece of emotional indifference for the entertainment of his audience. This hideous article alerted me to a streak of viciousness that runs through the Guardian to this day – at its worst it makes the Daily Mail look as benign as a village newsletter.

Aside from the obits, newspaper coverage of Robert’s death was thin – ironic given the fact he’d written for most of them. His passing coincided with the awful murder of a child (I forget the facts) – the subject of pages and pages of fact and speculation mixed with the usual exploitative emotionalism. Child murders sell newspapers. Gay male murders don’t.

An obvious point to make but one worth repeating.

Robert’s obits were inevitably eccentric and colourful: a little too colourful for the likes of the priggish Ian Hislop who at the time despaired at the odd subjects of obits these days: he was plainly referring to Robert’s. Hoare’s obit in the Independent recalled how an editor at the now defunct IPC fashion glossy Woman’s Journal first “discovered” Robert. He had written to the editor on coloured notepaper and enclosed cuts from some obscure West African magazine. He was invited to the soulless glass tower near Blackfriars. The editor recalled a beautiful pony-tailed man with droopy wing collars and a baroque waistcoat gliding into his office and exuding a carnation scent. The camp exterior belied a serious and determined temperament – later demonstrated in many high comic celebrity pieces that were marked by great attention to telling detail.

Robert had an unusual talent to befriend his interview subjects. Beryl Bainbridge adored him as did the curious and late Master of the Queen’s Music, Malcolm Williamson, who would phone the offices of The People in attempts to contact Robert – he was shifting at the paper along with Hoare back in the early ‘90s.

For some reason the actress Joely Richardson became one of his best friends and exotics such as Lady Colin “Georgie” Campbell doted on him. John Major’s biographer Nesta Wyn Ellis was also a close pal: on one occasion she asked him to house-sit her duplex in Montagu Square while she was away. This became an opportunity for a debauch with one of his lovers and both delighted in disporting in her expensive lingerie before the many mirrors in her boudoir.

Even Lord Snowden was the subject of an anecdote. Robert encountered him at a London party and recalled how on leaving the venue all he could hear was the rapid thud of Snowden’s walking stick on the ground as the viscount seemed to hurry after his new young friend. At the other end of the starry spectrum was his encounter with Lionel Blair at yet another party – a chaste encounter it should be said though not for want of Blair’s obvious enthusiasm.

Had Robert lived he would have written more travel books of innovation and controversy, travel books comparable with or better than Bruce Chatwin's. He would have written comic romans a clef based on his unique journeys through London society and would have himself become the subject of media interest – somewhere in a TV vault there’s a documentary in which he took part, on the subject of … handbags.

Instead, his journey on this planet was brief but rich in incident. Too brief.

PS A reader asks how do you pronounce Tewdwr. Answer Tudor.


Patrick said...

I purchased his book recently (republished in 2008) as I'm hoping to travel there this year. Do you know anything more about his death? mentions that "two boys" killed him.

[ not sure if my previous comment, above reached you as I got an error .. so this is a repeat ]

Patrick said...

Apparently the two killers are eligible for parole in 2011 - see

I never knew him but have really enjoyed what I've read so far. Thanks for your really interesting blog article on him.

Madame Arcati said...

Thank you Patrick. All this detail is on this site - just follow the labels below the post or put Robert's name in the search box - there are personal reminiscences and details of his death.

sean said...

I am in the middle of his wonderful book "Cleopatra's Wedding Present." I had never heard of the author, and my primary interest in purchasing the book was to know more about Syria, rather than the author.

What a bittersweet treat it has been. I love his writing, his sense of humor, his ability to see through people and customs and objects. What a great loss his death is.

Are any of his other writings published?

Madame Arcati said...

Cleopatra is Robert's only published work.

westie said...

I used his book to guide me to the hotel in which he stayed in Damascus - and it was just as he described. I was heartbroken to discover later that it now appears in the Lonely Planet guide. Nevertheless, his descriptions were sufficient to lead me to this Mecca. Most of my journey around Syria was inspired by his book - and left me with treasured memories. It is marvellous piece of travel writing evoking the sights sounds smells of a country. And a beautiful wistful love story to boot.