Bryans, Robert Harbinson ('Robin Harbinson'; 'Robert Harbinson') (1928–2005), memoirist and travel writer, was born on the Newtownards Road, Belfast, on 24 April 1928, third child and only son of Robert Bryans, musician and window cleaner, and his wife Georgina (née Campbell), known as 'Big 'Ina', millworker. John Bryans (1885–1988), an evangelical lay preacher and grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland (1968–71), was a cousin.
Georgina was born outside marriage; in later life Bryans came to believe that his maternal grandfather had been a Jewish moneylender. (On one occasion he was physically attacked in London by an anti-Semite because of his facial appearance.) When Bryans was five months old his parents moved across the city to take up the tenancy of a house formerly occupied by a deceased relative on the Donegall Road, south Belfast. Bryans's father had been set up in a commercial window-cleaning business by Canadian relatives; this was not successful (partly because of his drinking) and in 1933 he fell from his ladder, had his skull pierced by spiked garden railings, and died after several months' sufferings. Georgina rejected suggestions by evangelical relatives that she should send her children to an orphanage and make a 'better' marriage; instead, she combined work as a charwoman and a school caretaker with labour in a mill; when temporarily forced to scale down this work by health problems during the second world war, she took in lodgers. She found relief in the pub and in informal sexual liaisons. These had to be discreet, since the family were nominal members of the Church of Ireland and received financial support from their parish of St Simon's-in-the-Meadows; in return the children were obliged to attend church (until Bryans, the youngest, entered employment when they promptly ceased to do so) and to go around the district (including the upper-middle-class households of the nearby Malone Road) collecting for the church's Protestant Orphans' Society. According to Bryans, his feelings towards the church and its life combined fascination (the church organ implanted his lifelong love of music, and talks by missionaries gave him a yearning to travel the world) and repulsion (particularly at the snobbery he encountered in certain quarters). He was on bad terms with the teachers of St Simon's parochial school, which he attended except during his frequent absences to roam the Bog Meadows in the company of Traveller children or to associate with a youth gang which met in a thicket near the Dublin–Belfast railway line. Despite this chequered relationship with the church Bryans always remembered the rector, Canon Charles Maguire, as a kindly man concerned for his parishioners' welfare who went to considerable lengths to keep the young Bryans out of reform school when he was apprehended for petty crimes, and later tried to help him to find employment. Despite his nominal anglicanism the young Bryans also attended several gospel halls which drew him as much by their theatricality as by their message. His ambivalence was intensified by evangelical relatives, who openly regarded his mother and himself as decidedly inferior beings.
In 1940 Bryans, then aged 12, was evacuated to Co. Fermanagh. After several short placements he settled down on a farm at Lisgoole owned by James and Lizzie Graham, an unmarried elderly brother and sister whom he came to regard as parental figures. His performance in school improved so much that a local gentry-woman tried to have him study for a scholarship at Portora School (this was blocked by his mother who wished him to learn a trade). Contact with local catholics removed many of the Orange prejudices of his upbringing, and he came to admire the Georgian architecture of Enniskillen and the county's aristocratic mansions. Bryans, who was unusually tall and physically mature for his age, claimed to have had his first sexual experiences either with local girls in Fermanagh or some two years later when staying on a farm in Co. Antrim. Much later, he also claimed to have been sexually molested at this time by the elderly bachelor Cecil Lowry-Corry (later 6th earl of Belmore) and to have been subjected to sexual advances by another prominent unionist gentleman farmer.
Bryans retained a deep emotional connection to Fermanagh for the rest of his life, seeing the Graham household as his home away from home to which he returned intermittently. He described his Fermanagh experiences in the second book of his memoirs of youth, Song of Erne (1960), whose portrayal of 1940s rural Ulster attracted abiding interest in the county, especially among those portrayed therein. In 1966 he made a BBC documentary about his life in Fermanagh, and the new material he gathered from conversations with old acquaintances led him to publish Songs out of Oriel (1974), a long free-verse narrative revisiting his Fermanagh days. At his own request he was buried in Cleenish churchyard, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh; his headstone identifies him as the author of Song of Erne.
Religious and other experiences
On returning to Belfast at the age of fourteen (when no longer obliged to attend school), he began work in the Harland and Wolff shipyard, where he was expected to begin an engineering apprenticeship at the age of sixteen. After a short period as cabin boy on a dredger, he ran away to Fermanagh. Back in Belfast, he went through various clerical positions while simultaneously dabbling in spiritualism, attending evangelical services, and dropping in on high church anglican services at St George's (regarded by evangelicals as little better than popery). Having got 'saved' in the hope of impressing a young woman of evangelical views, he (and the mission authorities) decided he should train to become a missionary in Africa. Early in 1944 he left Belfast to attend Barry School of Evangelism in South Wales.
Bryans's relations with the Barry school proved stormy. His discussions with sailors in the dock area of Cardiff (where he had been sent to conduct evangelistic work) led him to modify many of his religious beliefs, and thereafter he combined study at the college with bouts of dissipation in the dock area. At the same time he befriended the elderly Mabel Wills, a member of a prominent Welsh and Cornish business family and a patron of the college and other evangelical causes. After leaving the school Bryans went to live with the Wills family as a factotum and protégé.
But he also attracted a very different patron. Evan Morgan (1893–1949), 2nd Viscount Tredegar, combined literary ambitions and homosexuality with the dual role of chamberlain to the pope and enthusiastic disciple of the black magician Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), and was intrigued by hearing from evangelical aristocrats about the promising new convert from spiritualism. While Bryans is vague about the details of his personal dealings with Tredegar (to whom he refers repeatedly in his later memoirs), he certainly participated in 'black masses', celebrated by the viscount attired as a female witch, at which wine mixed with drugs and other substances was administered to groups of sailors from a skull.
Contact with Tredegar brought Bryans into the fringes of literary and aristocratic bohemia, which he was to inhabit for the rest of his life, and into a sinister milieu where elements of camp catholicism and anglo-catholic ritualism overlapped with homosexual sado-masochism and occultism. He recalled Frank Shelley-Mills (called 'Martin' in The protégé), whom he met while exploring the 'esoteric philosophy' of George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky, as a particularly evil influence on his life; Shelley-Mills, nominally an anglican clergyman, had secretly acquired episcopal orders in the succession of the Old Catholic bishop Arnold Harris Mathew (1852–1919) and combined belief that he was the reincarnation of the poet Shelley with a desire to be whipped by muscular young men (preferably Jewish) whom he treated with great cruelty.
The influence of the Wills family secured Bryans a teaching job at Adelaide College, a girls' school in North Devon. To the alarm of his evangelical associates, he seriously considered conversion to catholicism and becoming a monk at Buckfast Abbey (of which Tredegar was a patron). At the same time he dabbled in acting and had an affair with Sally Payne, wife of a retired Wills Tobacco Company executive, by whom he had a son, Christopher (b. 1948). Partly because of the scandal this provoked, partly because of unspecified complications arising from his acquaintance with the Soviet spies Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess (with whom he had been brought into contact through shared gay and artistic acquaintances), and partly from a desire to start again by taking up farming in western Canada with his fiancée (an aristocratic young lady in rebellion against her background whom he first met while she was working as a wartime nurse), Bryans emigrated to Alberta in 1949.
He found conditions in Alberta inauspicious for his hopes of farming, and a brief stint as a teacher at Shawnigan Lake School, British Columbia (intended as a Canadian equivalent of the major British public schools), came to an end when he quarrelled with its founder, C. W. Lonsdale (whom he later described as a dictatorial snob unhealthily obsessed with corporal punishment). Bryans's fiancée eventually married someone else, though they remained on friendly terms; he never married. The principal result of this first visit to Canada was friendship with Adeline de la Feld (née Lister-Kaye) a rebellious member of a landed family, who in her youth translated Chekhov and participated in Italian futurism. Bryans served her for years as factotum in various financial and literary matters and eventually became her literary executor. He may have been received into the Russian Orthodox Church with her as his godmother.
The rest of the 1950s was spent in travel, including residence with Native peoples on a later visit to Canada, a period as a shepherd in the Morvern peninsula in the Scottish highlands (during which he composed the semi-fictional The field of sighing: a highland boyhood (1966), published as by 'Donald Cameron', under which name he also published Sons of El Dorado: Venezuelan adventure (1968)), a period in Zurich (during which he published The eye (1956), a collection of autobiographical poems excerpted from a long unpublished autobiographical typescript, 'Born to wander'), a period in the Caribbean (he began his autobiography in a Chinese establishment in Trinidad), and a visit to Pakistan in search of Gurdjieffan enlightenment.
The last of these forays led to Gateway to the Khyber (1959), the first of twelve travel books he published (as by Robin Bryans) on commissions from the London publishers Faber and Faber between 1959 and 1969. These books, which included Summer saga: a journey in Iceland (1960), Fanfare for Brazil (1962) and The Azores (1963) (he developed a particular interest in areas of Portuguese culture and settlement), were critically well-received for their vivid descriptions and interest in the lives of the ordinary inhabitants of the places he visited, but they enjoyed only modest commercial success. In the late 1950s he settled in London, where his work for Faber and Faber and attachment to the BBC as a freelancer brought him into contact with writers such as Louis MacNeice (qv) and W. R. Rodgers (qv). According to Miranda Carter, Bryans's connection with Faber and Faber ended when he was commissioned to edit an anthology of short stories and was discovered – after publication – to have written all the stories himself. A dispute over royalties led to Bryans chaining himself to the railings outside Faber and Faber's premises, getting into a fistfight with an employee of the firm and serving a brief prison sentence.
Bryans published as Robert Harbinson two short story collections, Tattoo Lily, and other Ulster stories (1961) and The far world, and other stories (1962). (In 1996 Lagan Press, Belfast, published Selected stories – Robert Harbinson, edited with a preface by John Keyes.) As Robin Bryans he also published a novel set in Brazil, Lucio (1964), and edited a collection of Best true adventure stories for Faber and Faber (1967). It is clear that Bryans also used other pseudonyms which might be uncovered by diligent research. During a 1971 libel suit triggered by Bryans's feud with John Sparrow, warden of All Souls' College, Oxford, 'the fellows of All Souls … took into court books written by me under five different pseudonyms and all the letters and other documents connected with the books'. At one point during the proceedings, in which Bryans represented himself, 'for I could say things in court which no barrister would dare', he referred to a story by one Mary Huxtable and stated that she was in court: 'the judge said he would be pleased to see Mary Huxtable so, dropping a suitable curtsey, I said, "I am Mary Huxtable"' (The dust has never settled, 508). Bryans is said by Francis Wheen (Independent, 9 September 1990) to have used the name 'Christopher Graham', and during his acting career he employed the stage name 'Patrick O'Brian'.
Memoirs of childhood and youth
Bryans's literary reputation, however, principally rests on four memoirs of his childhood and youth, quarried from his longer autobiographical text and published as by Robert Harbinson: No surrender (1960), covering his early childhood up to departure for Fermanagh; Song of Erne (1960), about his Fermanagh experiences; Up spake the cabin boy (1961), covering the period from his return to Belfast to his departure for Britain; and The protégé (1963), which covered – with extensive excisions and renamings to avoid libel suits – his life in Britain until his departure for Canada. These immediately attracted attention – particularly in Northern Ireland – for their vivid descriptions of working-class life in mid-century Belfast and the formation of the author's sensibility. They have always had admirers and were reprinted by Blackstaff Press in 1989. Partly on the strength of them, Bryans was commissioned to write a travel book, Ulster: a journey through the six counties (1965), receiving some discreet encouragement from the government of Terence O'Neill (qv), as part of its attempt to portray a modernised Ulster. Although Bryans professed to hold generally left-wing and anti-partitionist political views (he was a regular book reviewer for the Irish Press from the early 1960s into the mid 1980s) and was saddened at the confinement of the Bog Meadows by the new Belfast motorway and the growth of suburbia around Georgian Enniskillen, the book generally fits the O'Neillite narrative, presenting Ian Paisley (qv) as representative of a dwindling bigoted subculture and emphasising the general civilisation of such acquaintances as Peter Montgomery of Blessingbourne House.
In 1970 Bryans brought his mother to London – where she lived until her death in 1986 – as a result of the Ulster troubles, and his later writings angrily contrast the hopes expressed in Ulster with subsequent events. His London flat became a place of resort for young Ulster writers; for the rest of his life he regularly visited the province to lecture on literary and artistic subjects, and appeared on several UTV and BBC Northern Ireland programmes.
During the 1960s Bryans also established himself as a serial litigant, contributor of material to the satirical magazine Private Eye (which he nonetheless accused of anti-Semitism), and composer of scandalous open letters on aristocratic misdeeds which he claimed were covered up while smaller fry, such as the osteopath Stephen Ward (1912–63), an acquaintance of Bryans, who committed suicide when caught up in the Profumo scandal, were punished. The endlessly proliferating lawsuits in which Bryans featured led to at least one short prison sentence for contempt of court. Some of his veiled references to Blunt in Private Eye may have contributed to the art historian's public exposure in 1979, and Bryans was interviewed by at least two authors of books on the subject (John Costello and Andrew Boyle). This gave rise to rumours (which Bryans denied) that he had been a lover of Blunt or Burgess. Similarly, Bryans's writings about gay circles involving some prominent unionists led some left-wing activists and tabloid newspapers to claim that these circles had been directly involved in the scandal surrounding sexual abuse of disadvantaged teenagers at the Kincora Boys' Home; Bryans claimed these allegations were greatly exaggerated. Bryans's appearance on an episode of the Channel 4 late-night talk show After dark (16 July 1988), in which he discussed the British intelligence service as a member of a panel including H. Montgomery Hyde (qv), Merlyn Rees (qv) and Robin Ramsay of Lobster magazine, and others, provoked much attention and several libel writs.
He self-published as Robin Bryans four memoirs under the Honeyford Press imprint: The dust has never settled (1992); Let the petals fall (1993), resembling a sequel to The protégé with many digressions; Checkmate: the memories of a political prisoner (1994); and Blackmail and whitewash (1996). These contain a rambling mixture of personal reminiscence, accounts of certain acquaintances' lives, discussions of scandals and cover-ups linked by little more than free association; they are often repetitive. Yet Bryans believed them superior to his earlier work because more outspoken (he describes in detail events treated more circumspectly in the earlier memoirs, with the real names of participants), but though they possess a certain amount of interest for the student of Bryans's own life they do not clearly distinguish between first-hand knowledge, hearsay, speculation and other sources. While attracting a certain amount of attention from students of the seamier aspects of twentieth-century Britain they would require very extensive knowledge of certain specialised milieu (as well as a great deal of patience) to arrive at an assessment of their worth. In his last years Bryans worked on opera libretti and set up a recording studio at his home with the aim of providing assistance to musical composers and performing artists.
Bryans died in London on 11 June 2005 after a long illness. He may be compared with St John Ervine (qv), both as a writer from the Belfast protestant working class who achieved an international reputation and as an obsessive and splenetic autodidact, but his descriptive gift raises the best of his work above the earlier writer.