I PROMISED I’d return to Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham’s stories and sketches, and I shall have more to say about them, but today of all days it seems best to introduce them with an example of one in its entirety – one that is, I think, awfully appropriate.

Graham was, as I’ve noted, one of the major critics of imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but joined in the British war effort in 1916 in the belief that its support would be given to the small nations of Europe and their right to self-determination. The pathos of this paradox is deeply felt more than a century later, in Scotland.

At what point does a David, fighting against a Goliath of overbearing power, turn into another Goliath himself? When does the underdog become the dominant bully? The human tragedy in the trajectory is palpable and can be seen in the story of the last 121 years right here, in Scotland and in the United Kingdom. Centralising power gathers its own might, wherever the centre is.

What Graham delivers here is a pen-portrait of the funeral of Queen Victoria but it is much more than that. It’s a portrait of the end of an empire, and yet that Empire is not ended even now.

If there is any truth in the notion that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, what Graham describes here is a tragic vision, and what we’re seeing repeated in our contemporary world is farcical. The spectacle, timing, velocity and co-ordination are exactly what’s required of good theatrical farce.

Entertainment in this sense is distraction, smoke and mirrors. And absurdity raises the stakes. Nevertheless, the tragedy that underlies it all is still there, undiminished. The glitter and gloss create a palimpsest, an over-writing of reality with another layer of reality. None of it is virtual: it’s there, it costs money. (Though even virtual realities are costly!)

What is disastrous for so many people is inevitably worse in the early 21st century, a hundred years from the early 20th. The numbers have only increased. There is no adequate exclamation. Protest becomes unspecified, made by blank cards and empty placards. Eloquence seems to become redundant. Silence is a long way from consent. But the airwaves are certainly ruled by our contemporary Goliaths, all with their own uniform priorities and tiresome methods of persuasion.

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What good writing can do, however, is offer a way of seeing which isn’t accommodated by popular media. Perhaps this is also a way of understanding why Graham has never been a “popular” writer. And yet, as Ford Madox Ford put it in Farewell To Yesterday (1931), “He was, all in all, the most brilliant writer of that or of our present day.”

In An Eagle In A Hen-house: Selected Speeches And Writings Of R.B. Cunninghame Graham (2017), Lachlan Munro tells us: “Graham did not write for those he called ‘the respectable’: ‘Respectability is England’s curse, and Scotland’s bane’ [this from an essay, “Ca’ Canny” in The People’s Press (November 29, 1890)] – ‘Respectability! I hate respectability [...] What did respectability mean? Why, when respectability shut the door of its snug villa it showed humanity out.’ [This from The Edinburgh Evening News, March 18, 1887]

But, what had begun as a spontaneous and eloquent outpouring of angry polemic, both on the public platform and the page, against what he saw as society’s iniquities and hypocrisies, slowly developed into a form of art, and Graham turned more and more to the literary sketch as a means of conveying his message, as in the cynical commentaries below, a subtle indictment of Empire, and poverty.”

Moreover, Munro generalises: “Graham’s works are either journalistic, or nostalgic, demonstrating an acute observational skill, which drew from an extraordinary visual and olfactory memory, and a steely eye for: ‘the trifling actions of which life is composed.’ [The phrase is from ‘At Dalmary’ in The Saturday Review, December 4, 1909.]

Hugh MacDiarmid [in The Company I’ve Kept (1966)] described his work as being ‘of exceptional brilliance’, and Graham as ‘potentially the greatest Scotsman of his generation’ [in Contemporary Scottish Studies (1926)], while T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), [in a letter] described his work as: ‘the best verbal snapshots ever taken I believe.’” Again, the observation applies closely to what follows.

And in all the avalanching of trite cliches, pile upon pile of rubble-language dribbled out by endless commentators, and in all the visual debauchery, here in Graham’s writing there is eloquence, delicacy, poise, insight and sympathy for dogs and poor people. And there is at least one word that was new to me, for which I’m grateful – “cacoëthes”: that sometimes irresistible urge which, when acceded to, is often found to be ill-judged. Switching on the television, for example.


A NATION dressed in black, a city wreathed in purple hangings, woe upon every face and grief in every heart. A troop of horses in the street ridden by kings; a fleet of ships from every nation upon earth; all the world’s business stilled for three long days to mourn the passing of her who was the mother of her people, even of the poorest of her people in the land. The newspapers all diapered in black, the clouds dark-grey and sullen and a hush upon the islands and upon all the vast dependencies throughout the world.

Not only for the passing of the Queen, the virtuous woman, the good mother, the slave of duty; but because she was the mother of her people, even of the poorest of her people in the land. Sixty odd years of full prosperity; England administering to the good of universal Empire; an advance in the material arts of progress such as the world has never known, and yet to-day she who was to most Englishmen the concentration of the national idea, borne on a gun-carriage through the same streets, which she had so often passed through in the full joy of life.

Full sixty years of progress; wages at least thrice higher, when a girl, she mounted on her throne; England’s dominions more than thrice extended; arts, sciences, and everything that tends to bridge space over a thousand times achieved and a new era brought about by steam and electricity, all in the lifetime of her who has passed so silently through the once well-known streets.

The national wealth swollen beyond even the dreams of those who saw the beginning of her reign; churches innumerable built by the pious care of those who thought the gospel should be brought home to the poor.

Great battleships, torpedo boats, submarine vessels, guns, rifles, stinkpot shells and all the contrivances of those who think that the material progress of the Anglo-Saxon race should enter into the policy of savage states, as Latin used to enter a schoolboy’s minds, with blood.

Again, a hum of factories in the land, wheels whizzing, bands revolving so rapidly that the eye of man can hardly follow them, making machinery a tangled mass of steel, heaving and jumping in its action, so that the unpractical on-looker fears that some bolt may break and straight destroy him, like a cannon ball.

All this, and coal mines, with blast furnaces, and smelting works with men half naked working by day and night before fires. Infinite and incredible contrivances to save all labour; aerial ships projected; speech practicable between continents without the aid of wires; charities such as the world had never known before; a very cacoëthes [a sometimes ill-judged irresistible urge] of good doing; a sort of half-baked goodwill to all men, so that the charities came from superfluous wealth and the goodwill was of [a] platonic kind; all this and more during the brief dream of sixty years in which the ruler, she, who was mother of her people, trod the earth.

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All these material instances of the past change in human life, which in her reign had happened and which she suffered unresistingly, just as the meanest of her subjects suffered them, and as both she and they welcomed the sun from heaven as something quite outside of them and, as it were, ordained, her people in some dull faithful way had grown into the habit of connecting in some vague manner with herself.

For sixty years, before the most of us now living had uttered our first cry, she held the orb and sceptre and appeared to us, a mother Atlas, to sustain the world. She left us, almost without a warning, and a nation mourned her, because she was the mother of her people, yes, even of the meanest of her people in the land.

So down the streets in the hard biting wind, right through the rows of dreary stuccoed houses, frowning like cliffs, respectably upon the assembled mass of men, her funeral procession passed. On housetops and on balconies her former subjects swarmed like bees; the trees held rookeries of men, and the keen wind swayed them about but still they kept their place, chilled to the bone but uncomplainingly, knowing their former ruler had been mother to them all.

Emperors and kings passed on, the martial pomp and majesty of glorious war clattering and clanking at their heels. The silent crowds stood reverently all dressed in black. At length, when the last soldier had ridden out of sight, the torrent if humanity broke into myriad scores, leaving upon the grass of down-trodden park its scum of sandwich papers, which, like the foam of some great ocean, clings to the railings, round the roots of trees, was driven fitfully before the wind over the boot-stained grass or trodden deep into the mud, swayed rhythmically to and fro as seaweed sways and moans in the slack water of a beach.

At length they all dispersed and a well-bred and well-fed dog or two, roamed to and fro sniffing disdainfully at the remains of rejected food which the fallen papers held.

Lastly a man grown old in the long reign of the much-mourned ruler whose funeral procession had just passed stumbled about stepping upon the muddy grass and taking up a paper from the mud fed ravenously on that which the two dogs had looked on with disdain.

His hunger satisfied he took up of the fragments that remained a pocketful, and then whistling a snatch from a forgotten opera, slouched away onward and was swallowed by the gloom.