Posted by Richard Rawlinson
There must be something in the air as I’m being uncharacteristically nostalgic about people I’ve known who have died.
An early encounter was at prep school, aged 10. My heart sank when my best friend didn’t turn up at the beginning of term, and it wasn’t until assembly the next day that I learned he’d been killed during the holidays in an accident on his father’s farm: he’d been allowed to drive a tractor across a field, but it wasn’t weighted properly and had overturned, crushing him.
I was stunned but, too young to process the guilt and devastation of his parents or even my own loss, I moved on to find a new best friend. I do, however, recall resenting the headmaster for not giving me special treatment, and informing me privately before he told the entire school.
As an adolescent, I also recall my father talking about how his sister died, before I was born, in a BOAC plane crash while en route to India. He was driving with my mother when he saw a woman standing on a humpback bridge over a river, smiling and waving. My mother vouches he exclaimed, ‘Good Lord, there’s Patricia! Thought she was in Calcutta.’ But when my mother looked, she had vanished. It was only when they got home that they received a call that Patricia had died at that exact moment. Spooky.
I attended my first funeral aged 19, and it was for a talented and beautiful friend who died in a car crash during her gap year. I felt anger at the waste of a promising life. Since then, I’ve known relatives who have died of old age and cancer, and friends and acquaintances who have died as soldiers and war correspondents, of AIDs-related illnesses, drugs overdoses and suicide. Having recently written about Issie Blow and Jennifer Paterson, my thoughts now turn to the only person I’ve known who has died as a victim of murder.
I met Robert Tewdwr Moss in my 20s as a fellow diarist at London’s Evening Standard. If we weren’t assigned to cover early-evening book launches and private views, we’d sometimes go to a bar after work. Although in the picture (above) he’s wearing a D&G vest, he was a dandy at work: a louche, floppy-haired aesthete, resplendent in velvet waistcoat, watch chain, wing collar and Byron-esque cravat.
His sartorial contrasts are relevant. Over drinks, he’d confide in me about his ‘double life’, a roué on the fringes of the literati, and a ‘cottage cruiser’ with a taste for ‘rough trade’—his penchant being Big Bad Black Boys. Or Asians. Or Arabs. In fact, anyone but effete, middle class white men.
I learned of Robert’s murder on my return from a villa holiday in Tuscany in August, 1996. Being abroad, I’d missed the write-ups in the papers about a robbery gone wrong. He’d been left bound and gagged while his Paddington flat was ransacked, and he died later of suffocation. The culprits were at large with no apparent leads for the police to go on.
I quickly came up with a theory about how burglars had got into his flat with no signs of a break-in. I fretted about getting involved with a criminal investigation but then called the police, eventually being put through to the detective in charge. I explained I was a colleague of Robert and that I was unsure if it was common knowledge that he was a gay man who picked up a certain type of stranger—that muggers hanging around pubic conveniences and parks, posing as rent boys, just might be the culprits. The policeman thanked me for my tip (elementary, my dear officer), and I heard later that a youth called Azul and his accomplice were arrested and charged, Robert’s laptop being found in their lair.
In the obituaries, no one mentioned this taboo side of a flamboyant presence in London’s salons. A floral extract from The Independent:
‘It is an undeservedly ugly end to an elegant life, and no one who knew Robert Tewdwr Moss will entertain any memory other than that of a handsome, willowy young man with a quizzical, innocent look on his face as he told you something so louche, surreal, and hilarious that you had to laugh out loud. He was kind, generous and witty, and London will be duller for the lack of him’.
I had reservations about telling another side of Robert’s story here. A deciding factor was that he was far from in the closet so there’s no outing involved. At the time of his death, he had just finished a book, Cleopatra’s Wedding Present, about his travels in Syria, and incredibly risky antics therein. With the country today a war zone with atrocities being committed by rebel fighters and the troops of President Assad, Robert enlightens us by showing hidden undercurrents in the ancient capital of Damascus.
The expansive Independent again:
‘Tewdwr Moss’s engrossing account often lingers at the maws of hell – in scrapes and sexual assignations enough to rival Joe Orton’s – but all the while it is perfumed with his prose, as heavily scented as the man himself. “Perfume is the one luxury I allow myself when travelling into the unknown,” he opines.
‘Yet the feyness never grates; he is too funny, acutely observant and emphatic. He drifts through souks, falling in love with Jihad, a Palestinian ex-commando. He meets a Shiite Muslim girl who, in a mosque, shows him her silver cross, an act ‘which could result in the girl getting stoned, and me with her… I realised that however much I loved the Arab world, my liking was indissolubly linked with my gender’.
Who knows what Robert would be up to if he was alive now. They say only the good die young, but the charismatically flawed have a habit of having their life cut short, too.
Footnote: At the beginning, I said something must be ‘in the air’ that’s making me reminisce. That’s too nebulous. Had I not previously known GFG’s founder Charles Cowling, I doubt I’d have become a visitor here let alone a contributor. I usually write for money about subjects from the arts and history to politics and religion. I wasn’t aware death was so engrossing until I dropped by to check out what my ol’ chum was up to these days. I found myself intrigued. I’d given thought to death as a universal truth, and I’ve had brushes with bereavement, but I hadn’t given enough thought to the civil celebrants, undertakers, embalmers, grave-diggers, crem furnace operators, priests, doctors, palliative carers and euthanasia administrators who deal regularly with death. It’s an ongoing education. I’ve now even made a will and laid down preferences for my own funeral! Life is short: do we ‘gather ye rosebuds while ye may’ or ‘repent, repent, repent’? A rhetorical question.