Before Utterly Immoral, No. 3, Dr Tim Couzens

Before Utterly Immoral, No. 3, Dr Tim Couzens

July 01, 2022

Utterly Immoral is the first full biography of Robert Keable. However, three writers and academics (Dr James Douglas, Dr Hugh Cecil and Dr Tim Couzens) all started work on writing or co-writing full biographies, and for different reasons did not complete their work. I have written about Dr James Douglas and Dr Hugh Cecil in previous blogs, so next up is Tim Couzens.

My father, Tony Keable-Elliott (Robert Keable’s son), was originally introduced to Tim by Hugh Cecil. In 1996 Hugh and Tim had travelled to Tahiti together to find out more about Robert Keable. After the trip Hugh wrote to my father:

Tim Couzens and I would like, with your approval (and subject to finding a publisher) to write a short biography of your father… I know Tim Couzens would very much like to be in touch when he comes over here later next year. He is a very nice man, humorous and sympathetic and I feel very confident of working well with him.

When Tim next came over to England he stayed with my parents, and I was lucky enough also to meet him. He was, as Hugh had promised, a really nice man, very charismatic and full of good stories. He told us how his research into Robert Keable had nearly killed him. He had recently been on a research trip to Lesotho to retrace the route down the Sani Pass, down which Robert Keable had been carried, after being shot in the leg in Mokhotlong in 1916. Tim and some colleagues were caught in the worst snowstorm in a century and was stranded for eight days, nearly dying of starvation, before being rescued by a helicopter.

Over the next few years Tim kept in touch with me and my father and the plan to co-write the Robert Keable biography remained on the back burner, as he pursued other projects. Until the end of the 1990s he combined being a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s African Studies Institute with other academic posts and writing. In 1992 his book His Tramp Royal: The Story of Trader Horn won many awards and when I met him, he was working on his amazing book Murder at Morija.

In 2007 he explained to my father that he still had not abandoned the idea for a book on Robert Keable, but that he had been commissioned to write about a slightly more significant figure. As he explained:

I was asked (by New Zealand publishers of all people) to be a major contributor to a magnificent book called Mandela: The Authorized Portrait. I did many of the interviews for it including Mandela himself – which is a story in itself (lucky, because he no longer gives real interviews). The book sold hugely throughout the world (translated into 13 languages). As a spin-off from this the N. Zealanders asked me to organise (by extensively interviewing) a similar (though more modest) book on Ahmed Kathrada, a colleague and confidant of Mandela’s for 26 years in prison.

Tim, however, went on to say:

So, where is Robert Keable? And why will he not be abandoned? Well, I’m trying to (again) read right the way through all the material we’ve got in chronological order. I need to do this in tranquillity – beyond the demands of earning a living. I am also hoping to get back, for a last time, to Tahiti this next year.

I (and I’m sure Tim) will never abandon this because I feel almost totally connected to your father’s story. It has become part of my life like a kind of destiny. I must write it and I feel I owe it to R.K.

There was an interesting article in The Spectator … Don’t try to write for money because that does not work. I want to write your father’s story because I must. Perhaps there is something about his story that is now mine. (We are not, of course, similar but there is something about him which I need to express. Perhaps it was his search.)

Tim ended the letter:

              I promise you that RK is very high on my priorities. It will happen, given health and life.

Tragically, Tim died in October 2016 . Not only was his biography of Robert Keable lost but as Brian Willan wrote in his obituary

'South African academic and literary life has lost one of its greatest stars, a true intellectual whose achievements will endure.'

I had been in touch a few months before Tim died, and he had kindly agreed to read my manuscript on Robert Keable, saying he could ‘probably help with some things. A few physical things, a few opinions.’  He finished his email by saying: ‘I certainly think your granddad is worth a biography. I became very close to him while researching his life.’

After Tim’s death his widow Diana Wall very generously agreed to give me all of Tim’s papers on Robert Keable. Unfortunately, the papers got lost in the post. However, Tim had sent Hugh Cecil some copies of his notes so when Hugh kindly donated all his papers to me, I had some of Tim’s notes.

Tim’s research on Robert Keable’s time in Basutoland, and in particular the detailed account of his shooting in Mokhotlong, proved invaluable as I wrote the chapter in Utterly Immoral on Keable in Africa. It was however in Tahiti that Tim really seems to have made his connection with Robert Keable and it was from Tahiti that he and Hugh took the title of their proposed book, Free Love and a Blow Hole: the Life of Robert Keable.

Tim explained the title in a book proposal he planned to send to publishers.

On the north coast of Tahiti, not far from the village of Mahaena, is a deep hole – an ancient volcanic outlet – low down in the side of the black cliff which fronts the Pacific Ocean. Into this clocoa great breakers crash, and when they do, an uncanny sound, something between a whistle and a moan, fills the air, as the water is forced through a vent higher up the rock, close to the road which winds along the coast. Passers-by and cars are drenched by the spray. The blow-hole is one of the most famous sounds of the island, the very voice of the stormy sea, the spirit of wild Tahiti.

From the days of Pierre Loti and Gauguin, up to the 1950s at least, many Europeans have come to Tahiti to realise a dream. These included a sizeable element of British settlers in the decade after the Great War. They came, as one of them Bonnie Smithers, put it pithily for ‘free love and a blowhole’.

One of these migrants to Tahiti was the writer and former missionary Robert Keable. After the triumphant success of his war novel, Simon Called Peter, in 1921, Keable had left his wife and priestly duties behind him to live in Tahiti, in Gauguin’s house at Punaavia, with a young woman, Jolie Buck, whom he met driving timber trucks when he was a padre with the British forces in France, during the First World War. He wanted to escape the disapproving eye of English middle-class society; and to find a freer voice with which to utter the truths he had learned from his stormy, and adventurous life – a sort of spiritual blow-hole, in fact.

For five years from 1922 until 1927 Keable was a famous novelist with a huge readership; tragedy however had already struck, by 1924, when Jolie died, following the birth of her first child, when she was only 25. During the next two years he wrote several new books and lived with a passionate princess (a descendent of King Pomare V), by whom he had a child. He died however of a kidney disease. Within twenty years his work was almost forgotten, his books no longer read.

It is a tragedy to me that Free Love and a Blow Hole was never written and I can only hope that my book Utterly Immoral does justice to the Robert Keable story.