Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham is one of the puzzles in Scottish literary history. Born in London in 1852, son of a Scottish laird of distinguished ancestry, he spent a considerable part of his youth on his estates, where he developed a strong affection for the Scottish landscape and Scottish traditions. His mother was half-Spanish and he learned Spanish as a child from his Spanish grandmother. He was educated at Harrow and in Brussels. His Hispano-Scottish background led to his being equally involved with Latin America, Spain and Scotland. He embarked on ranching in Argentina at the age of 17 and although that enterprise proved unsuccessful it provided him with a fund of experiences which he later enriched by further adventures in Texas, Mexico and North Africa. His travel sketches and accounts of experiences and characters met with in these adventures constitute an important part of his literary output.
He returned to Scotland on his father’s death in 1883 and settled on his ancestral estate of Gartmore in Perthshire, which he found sadly encumbered with debt. He had to sell it in the end. His experiences in Latin America and elsewhere had led him to a passionate radicalism in politics, a radicalism which, like that of his friend and admirer Hugh MacDiarmid, refused to be bound by the platform of any political party. He was elected as a Liberal MP for North-West Lanark in 1886 and sat in Parliament until 1892. He was more of a socialist than a Liberal, however, influenced by H.M. Hyndman and William Morris, a friend of Keir Hardie. Above all, he reacted with fierce individualism to the cruelties, inequalities, snobberies and hypocrisies he encountered on both sides of the Atlantic. He was also fiercely anti-puritan. In later life, he became more and more involved with the fate of Scotland, being one of the founders of the Scottish National Party in 1928 and its first president. (His mixture of left-wing socialism and Scottish nationalism is again reminiscent of MacDiarmid.) As a writer, Cunninghame Graham enjoyed the friendship and correspondence of Conrad and was admired by most of the important English writers of the day. His social and political writings are more hard-hitting than those of Shaw, who greatly admired him.
Cunninghame Graham’s speech on Scottish independence, delivered on 21 June 1930, in its range and humanity and historical perspective is as incisively relevant today as it ever was. His maiden speech in the House of Commons, delivered on 1 February 1887, is a wickedly witty indictment of both the major parties, and again is still startlingly relevant. His 1908 article on ‘The Real Equality of the Sexes’ makes most modern articles on sexual equality seem cheap and childish. And, to single out one more of the political pieces included in Dr Watts’s collection, his piece on ‘Bloody Sunday’, written for William Morris’s the Commonweal in 1888, is a classic account of indefensible police action against innocent demonstrators which sounds astonishingly contemporary.
These and other essays on social and political themes form one of the two groups of articles, essays and stories collected by Cedric Watts under the titles ‘Political Pieces’ and ‘Literary Pieces’. Dr Watts came to Cunninghame Graham through Conrad, whose letters to Cunninghame Graham he has edited; he is also the co-author of a biography of Cunninghame Graham. It is indicative of the many-sidedness of this writer that the other evidence of the revival of interest in him, Professor Walker’s selection of the writings concerned with Scotland, is the work of a Scots-born professor of Spanish in Canada. There is no section on the political and polemical writings and speeches on Scotland. Two stories, the much-anthologised ‘Beattock for Moffat’ and the Maupassant-like ‘Christie Christison’, are in both collections. Both editors in their critical discussion attempt to come to terms, in summary fashion, with Cunninghame Graham’s versatile genius.
What emerges from both books is the sound of a speaking voice. Cunninghame Graham writes like a man speaking, and it is significant that many of his stories and sketches take the form of a character, set with specific detail in a clearly visualised scene, telling a story to the author or to other auditors. There is something Conradian in this (one thinks of Conrad’s Marlow), but the tone is less formal than in Conrad. One of the problems facing the critic of Cunninghame Graham’s writings is how to regard them: some sketches are more like short stories, some short stories are more like sketches, others again are impressionist renderings of scenes and characters that are given unity only by the presence of the author’s feeling for them. His writings about Scotland change somewhat as he grows older: they become more mellow, more sadly reminiscent, more haunted by old memories and by a sense of ancient history underlying everything. The earlier ones are sharper, more wittily observant of the astringencies and self-contradictions of the Scottish character. Yet even when he is at his most astringent the affection shows through. Some of the Scottish essays are simply evocations of a landscape, others are simply presentations of an idiosyncratic character. They have the air of informal discourse that led many of Cunninghame Graham’s contemporaries to consider him a gifted amateur. But this is not amateur writing. Its informality of tone and sometimes the apparent arbitrariness of shape are the work of conscious art. Cunninghame Graham knew what he was doing.
This is not to say that there are not contradictions in his work. The gifted travel-writer, the evoker of places and people in (to most of us) strange parts of the world, is in some measure in the tradition of picturesque travel writing in which English literature is so rich. But Cunninghame Graham is never merely picturesque. He has a deep sense of the sadness and futility of much human life, combined with an awareness of the stoical dignity with which many humble people bear hardship and injustice. He often bore himself like a dandy, the dashing, even swaggering Don Roberto. Some of his contemporaries thought of him as a Don Quixote tilting at windmills. But this went along with a deep and steady compassion for his fellow men and a bitter contempt for those laws, institutions, prejudices and fashions that perpetuated inequality and injustice. As Dr Watts points out, Cunninghame Graham was not an anachronistic, chivalric figure engaged in romantic gestures.
In spite of his fierce involvement in politics and his contempt for all the established political parties, in spite of his brilliance as a polemicist and of the passionate anarcho-socialism that emerged as his creed, Cunninghame Graham was not in his most characteristic writing a man who set out to change the world. Nor was his intention simply to record it. In both his travel sketches and his stories and sketches of Scottish life he can be said most of all to savour what he writes about. Criticism of the systems and habits that militate against the fulfilled life is often there; sometimes it is outspoken; but most often what reaches the reader most impressively is the sense of life lived in a particular way in a particular place. There is a note of sadness underlying almost everything. That is not the characteristic note of the revolutionary. It is the fact that people are capable of endurance that seems to strike him most: they endure, and he watches their endurance and he conveys it to us in his own voice. The story ‘A Hegira’, which describes with quiet authenticity the fate of a group of Mescalero Indians after their escape from captivity in Mexico to seek their homelands, and the story of the death of the old lady in her old Scottish country house in ‘Miss Christian Jean’ are very different in their setting but similar in narrative tone. It is perhaps strange that a writer who could write with such passionate vigour of the abuses that embitter people’s lives could also write with such pure power of human endurance of suffering. More often, however, the stories are not so much of suffering as of the slightly bizarre fortitude of ordinary people in facing the inevitable: this is certainly true of the numerous funerals in the Scottish stories.
For those concerned with fitting writers into categories, Cunninghame Graham remains something of a problem. The 20th-century Concise Dictionary of National Biography describes him as ‘traveller, scholar, Scottish nationalist, socialist, etc’, and that ‘etc’ is eloquent of the biographer’s sense of helplessness in the face of Cunninghame Graham’s multiple activities. It is interesting, however, that ‘writer’ does not figure in the list. Yet he is only known as a traveller because he wrote about his travels and as a scholar because he embodied his knowledge in sketches and stories. In Scotland he is remembered by old people as a powerful figure in the Scottish Nationalist movement in its early days, but the present generation of Scottish Nationalists seem to have no interest in him, nor do the Left (or any other) wing of the Labour Party seem aware of his great fight against the succumbing of Labour politicians to the temptations of respectability. It is all the more encouraging, therefore, that we have in these two volumes enough of Cunninghame Graham’s writings to bring his distinctive work and personality – and Cunninghame Graham was a personality above all – to the attention of the present generation. It looks indeed as though a Cunninghame Graham revival is on the way. It should be as welcome in Scotland as in South America, where his name is still honoured. He was on a visit to Argentina when he died, in Buenos Aires, in 1936. The Argentines called a new city after him, Don Roberto. It would have been good to have his splendid radical voice speaking with authority and passion in the recent Falklands crisis, though it must be admitted that it is difficult to conjecture exactly what he would have said.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.