Cunninghame Graham

The West Australian – 28 March 1917

Cunninghame Graham


    Mr. Cunninghame Graham is a prince among travellers. He is also a perfect tell-tale. He has never travelled as an art or a profession, like Pierre Loti. He has not shown anything like the same appetite for the map. He has not raided more than three continents or—if you count America as two continents—four. He has only cared seriously for countries in which Spaniards and Arabs and Scotsmen may be found. He never, we may be sure, went to any country merely or mainly in order to write a book about it. His adventures have been ordered by caprice, not by his publisher.
    Most of his books are a curious mixture of the travel-book and fiction. They might be described as the memoirs of one who is half cavalier and half cowboy. He concentrates in himself the romance of aristocracy and the romance of wild places. His stories and sketches are rich in this double strain. He writes of his adventures like an earl. Not like a real earl, perhaps, but as an earl ought to write. He has all the gestures of the kind of aristocrat you would find in Utopia. He has never lost the grand manner, though he has lived in the odour of revolution for thirty years and more. His revolutionism, for the matter of that, has been largely a protest against commonness. He has the aristocratic love of colour of word and deed, and, if he threw in his lot with the poor, it was as a duke of the poor, a turbulent and violent and heroic dandy.
    He has never had the plebeian patience of restraint. His head was bloody but unbowed on the Sunday of the Trafalgar square riots as a result of his scorn of police restrictions. He was equally defiant when he sat in the House of Commons, and he found himself unable even to profess respect for the Speaker after the manner of common men. He is said on one occasion to have voted in a minority of one—the perfect expression, surely, of the aristocratic attitude. The truth is that Mr. Graham has always felt something of an exile from a more jingling age on the macadamised levels of civilisation. He was never one of those who shared the complacent satisfaction of the nineteenth century with a world of bowler-hatted pedestrians.


    Hence the escape of the protestant earl—they sad he would really have been an earl if he had his rights—into the wild places of Mexico, Morocco, and the Argentine. Hence the conversion of the cavalier into the cowboy. There, at least, life was incessantly picturesque and as many coloured as tropical birds and flowers. There men rode upon horses as men at their most splendid have always done. Mr. Cunninghame Graham went out on his travels in search of a world of horseman, and his books are the record of what he discovered by the way. They are all scribbled over with the figures of men on horseback. One can almost imagine Mr. Graham worshipping secretly the image of a horse, like the Mexican Indians in one of his stories, “Hippomorphous,” who were left with a wounded horse belonging to Cortes, and, when it died, carved a rude statue in its likeness and put it in a temple and worshipped it as the God of Thunder and Lightning. Mr. Graham is unforgiving to the missionary who, seizing a great stone, cast the idol down and broke it into bits with a hammer. “Thus,” he comments with characteristic irony, ”was … a deity destroyed who for a hundred years and more had done no harm to anyone on earth … a thing unusual among Gods.”
    Mr. Cunninghame Graham’s new book, “Brought Forward,” is as thickly populated with horses as any of his others. In the sketch called “Heredity,” relating to the feuds between Spaniard and Portuguese on the frontier of Uruguay and Brazil, “men on horseback, galloping like clockwork, sail across the plains like ships upon the sea.” “All in the province of Rio Grande,” we are told in the same sketch, “are great horsemen, and all use silver trappings on a black horse, and all have horses bitted so as to turn round in the air, just as .a hawk turns on the wing.” And the story ends with a brilliant feat of horsemanship on the part of a Brazilian who made a dash with his pistols over the border in a village of the hereditary enemy. “Los Pingos,” again, is a wonderful sketch of horses being landed from lighters and rounded up on the banks of the Uruguay during the present war, and it contains many little pictures of life as in the climates we see it only in circuses. Here, for instance, is one of a Pampa Indian horseman :— “When horses strayed he galloped up to turn them, now striking at the passing butterflies with his heavy-handled whip, or, letting himself fall down from his saddle almost to the ground, drew his brown finger on the dust for a few yards, and with a wriggle like a snake got back into his saddle with a yell.”

The Tango

     It would be false to suggest, however, that Mr. Graham paints a circus world for us. He paints the ugliness, the discomfort, and the sweat as well as the beauty of wild places. His description of the murder at a dance in “El Tango Argentino” is almost as oppressive in its realism as a story of a slum in Europe. The masterliness of Mr. Graham’s descriptions, however, brings beauty into ugliness. It is his description rather than his narrative, indeed that makes one read him with such an unwearied appetite. The setting of his stories is usually too much in the grand manner to allow him to be an anecdotalist. Besides, he is not one of the crowd, as a good anecdotalist, must be. He is in this aspect, too, a romantic stranger. He tells us nothing about ourselves. He does not light a new candle in our own homes. He is the man who brings gifts from over the sea—coloured stuffs and curios, and the memories of foreign faces.

    And now Mr. Graham says that be will write no more. He is anxious to get off the table before the eggs and the orange peel begin to be thrown. So he bids his readers farewell, with a magnificent and careless gesture:—“Charles Lamb, when someone asked him something of his works, answered that they were to be found in the South Sea House, and that they numbered 40 volumes, for he had laboured many years here, making his bricks with the least possible modicum of straw, just like the rest of us. Mine, if you ask me, are to be found, but in the trails I left in all the years I galloped both on the prairies and the pampas of America. Hold it not up to me for egotism, O gentle reader, for I would have you know that hardly any of the horses that I rode had shoes on them, and thus the tracks are faint.”
    That, surely is the most charming of valedictions. It is also perfectly in character, and makes us all the more reluctant to accept the author’s farewell.


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