Reviews of old books

The title above heads no newspaper column. Nothing new about old books! Nothing particularly sale-able about them, unless there is a tie-in to something new. In general, they are unprofitable, which is to say, immoral.

Books continue to be important commodities — like foods, they are produced in most of the countries of the world. As our Prime Minister (Scott Morrison) could tell us, books are important because they create jobs, most importantly jobs in transportation, retailing, marketing and advertising, but also some jobs in information management, editing and writing. Unlike food products, books do not have a built-in expiration, which is a serious problem, as books continue cluttering shelves and minds for years after they have been purchased. And, while the demand for food keeps growing, the demand for books is proving difficult to expand. Electronic media compete for approximately the same market, often described as ‘eyes’. There is only so much looking every pair of eyes can perform, and books make a high claim. As people are lazy, time-poor and easily addicted to simple pleasures, the electronic media have a natural advantage. Under the circumstances, it is amazing that the book industry is as successful as it is, churning out new books every day and whizzing them around the world, much as used to happen with newspapers and magazines.

One of the hindrances (market inefficiencies) in this process is the persistence of old books. There is room for improvement in the biodegradability of paper, which still tends to last many years longer than is necessary for a book to be sold. What would be better — what will be better, next week or next year — would be for old books to be ‘recycled’ promptly, clearing the way for more reading of new books — because it is overwhelmingly the new books that create jobs.

Ultimately, what might be best is for books to become as ephemeral as the electronic media. The most threatening thing about new books is that if they are attractive enough to sell, they have the potential to turn into old books — books that people want to keep, lend to their friends, read a second time, cherish. To avoid this undesirable outcome, publishers are wise to produce books that have the most superficial and transitory attractiveness. For instance, books that are by or about famous people are ideal, as fame is fleeting. Books about sport, politics, fashion, or in fact the fashionable aspect of any subject are similarly sound. The ideal book, industrially speaking, is one that can be marketed now to a readily-identified target population, sold out in four weeks, and then forgotten by the world. The worst books are those that hang around for years, selling a few copies here and there, fondly remembered by loyal readers, requested sporadically in bookshops, popular in the second-hand market, and endlessly poised at the tail end of the publisher’s back catalogue.

Old books are vile. They take too long to say anything, and when they do get to the point, they are often wrong. Racism, sexism, and antique politics abound in old books. They are about old times, which is not in itself an immediate disqualification, but old books about old times are always out of date. Old books do not understand the past with the enlightenment brought to us by the internet. Frozen in the pages of old books are old attitudes to old problems. If we must read about the past, it must be represented in the light of our modern understanding. It must be redrawn to show us how it really was, because it is well known that the people of the past were wrong about everything. Old books completely misrepresent the past, both the past that was the present when the book was written and the past that was already past. Only new books about the past can get it right, often by imagining a past that is completely different to anything we have seen before.


The pleasures of my preface have carried me too far. What I really wanted to do was to review The Essential R B Cunninghame Graham, an old book that I have in my collection only because it once belonged to my grandparents (I mean my father’s parents). Granny and Grandad passed away more than thirty years ago. Grandad died first, of emphysema, and Granny followed him quite quickly. She had been suffering from rheumatoid arthritis for decades, but once Grandad was dead she decided that enough was enough and stopped eating.

Throughout his life Grandad wore a clipped moustache of world war two vintage. His sense of humour was so dry that most people were unaware that he told jokes at all, and it was always part of the joke that he never enlightened them. His face was a quarter-century forecast of my father’s visage, or even a fifty-year prefigurement of my brother. Grandad was a mathematician. He taught navigation to pilots during the war, which I think was a high point in his life, and then he became a school teacher who rose to headmaster, school inspector, and eventually a mandarin in the vast NSW Department of Education. He was pedantic and a martinet. He liked to play snooker. He was a member of the Masons, probably for social reasons only, and his personal creed was sceptical and atheistic.

Granny wore the velvet glove of christianity over the iron fist of intellectual eccentricity: she was for some years a ‘Christian Scientist’. Softly spoken and apparently gentle, she was armed with definite opinions and a formidable dignity. During the war, while Grandad was away and in uniform, she worked at the university, which was a high point in her life. She was a botanist and great bushwalker in her youth, but seriously disabled by arthritis by the time I met her. As a boy I was fascinated by her treatment stories: of gold being injected into her joints, of her feet being taken apart and put back together, bone by bone. Her hands became extraordinary over the years, sculptural, like knots of wood.

I think G&G were close, although they were very different and they did not have much to say to each other. They produced three children, but I am told that G&G never slept in the same bedroom once Grandad returned from his war service. Everything I know about them is like dot points written on cards. I really didn’t know them well. When I was a boy they lived in Wagga Wagga and their visits to Sydney were few and formal. I did not know it then but my Dad was at war with Grandad over the terrain of Dad’s childhood. For my Dad, the key struggle in life was to be ‘not like my father’. This certainly drove Dad on to all sorts of achievements and disappointments that were quite unlike the course of Grandad’s life, but their personalities remained as similar as their physiognomies.

Later, Dad achieved a reconciliation with Grandad, and Grandad and Granny came to live in Sydney with him. At that stage my own relationship with my father was quite distant, so I still didn’t see much of G &G. As it turned out, Dad’s marriage broke up (I am referring to his second marriage) and he had to sell his grand home and move G&G into a retirement village. It was at that stage that I had my closest conversations with them, but it was all too little, too late.

Shyness with strangers is frustrating, but shyness with the strangers who are your family is both frustrating and sad.

A rather wonderful Webster’s New International  Dictionary, 1926 edition, weight 7.5 kg. Why G&G had an American dictionary I don’t know. They certainly didn’t speak American.

After their deaths, Dad disposed of G&G’s personal effects, keeping items that were meaningful to him and offering others to family members. I took some books, including a rather wonderful Webster’s International Dictionary and several books by R B Cunninghame Graham. I had never heard of this author, but the fact that G&G had an extensive collection seemed promising. As one book was called Charity, I suspected that Granny was the true owner, although now, knowing slightly more, I have reason to believe it may have been Grandad. But I don’t know and never will.

I have carried these books from house to house without reading them, and now have realised that this cannot continue. So I read The Essential R B Cunninghame Graham.


The Essential R B Cunninghame Graham (published by Jonathan Cape, 1952) is a sampler of Graham’s extensive works between 1895 and 1936. The introduction by Paul Bloomfield told me infinitely more than the zero I previously knew about Graham, and left me with the impression of a Scottish aristrocratic adventurer obsessed with exotic cultures, particularly those of the Middle East and the Americas, places where Graham travelled extensively. The introduction includes a more-than-faintly ridiculous family tree delineating Graham’s pedigree.

… a more-than-faintly ridiculous family tree …

This volume is one of The Essentials Series, which at the time included The Essential Hemingway, The Essential James Joyce and also essences of Richard Jefferies, Mary Webb, Neville Cardus, Samuel Butler, T.E. Lawrence, W.H. Davies and Uncle Remus. An eclectic list. I have read a lot of Hemingway and Joyce. I can see a ‘family resemblance’ between Hemingway’s manly universe and Graham’s, but Joyce is from another planet entirely, as is Samuel Butler. T.E. Lawrence I know from reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which also has some themes and subject matter in common with Graham. The rest of the names on this list are unknown or barely known to me, except for Uncle Remus, an inclusion that must remind us all that literary tastes are fickle and sometimes fated to become embarrassing.

Graham’s work celebrates the exotic, untamed nature, and the manly virtues of non-industrialised societies. For instance:

No one who has not lived upon the southern Pampa in the days when a staunch horse was of more value in time of trouble than all the prayers of all the good men in the world, can know how constantly the fear of Indians was ever present in men’s minds.

The Indiada of the old Chief Catriel was permanently camped outside Bahia Blanca. They lived in peace with all their neighbours; but on the sly maintained relations with Los Indios Bravos, such as the Pampas, Ranqueles, Peheulches and the rest who, though they had their Toldos out on the Salinas Grandes, and dotted all the way along the foothills of the Andes right up to the lake of Nahuel-Huapi and down to Cholechél, occasionally burst like a thunder-cloud upon the inside camps, as suddenly as a pampero blew up from the south.

The terror and romance of the south frontier were centred in the Indian tribes. When they broke in amongst the great estancias of the south, all but the chiefs riding upon a sheepskin, or without even that, carrying a lance made of a bamboo, fifteen to twenty feet in length, the point of a sheep-shear, fastened to the shaft by a piece of a cow’s tail, or other bit of hide wrapped around it green, then left to dry until it became as hard as iron, and with a tuft of horsehair underneath the blade, looking like a human scalp, the deer and ostriches all fled in front of them, just as the spindrift flies before a wave.

[from ‘A Hatchment’, p122 in ‘The Essential R B Cunninghame Graham’] 

Bloomfield’s introduction is candid about some weaknesses in Graham’s writing:

I am not very worried by his faults of carelessness. There is no doubt that his punctuation, not his strong point, is sometimes responsible for the muddle a sentence gets into, and for our breathlessness when a last comma is followed by a single word of one syllable. His spelling is variable. He constructs some of his stories awkwardly, and might with advantage have cut the preambles shorter. A tiresome habit he got into was colouring up his pictures with analogies: he abused the word ‘like’ — so many things reminded this much travelled man of other things.

And so on — perhaps enough to warn you off. But Graham’s stories are interesting, set in times and locations utterly far from anything we have now. He writes as a privileged white visitor to these worlds — an imperialist, if you like — but his exoticism compares favourably with that of Edgar Rice Burroughs (whose jingoistic Tarzan I have discussed here). Graham is in many ways like that other writer of Empire, Rudyard Kipling: surprisingly nuanced, sympathetic to the worldview of non-White cultures and concerned for the natural environment, which he sees being destroyed by the march of progress. ‘Progress’ and ‘civilization’ are viewed cynically by Graham. His short story, ‘Calvary’,  is a moral tale about a noble horse plucked from wild country in Argentina by ‘Commerce, that vivifying force, that bond of union between all the basest instincts of the basest of mankind…’. The horse is worked to death in the streets of London, a christlike sacrifice that is unable to halt the relentless motion of the city.

On the other hand, a great part of Graham’s writing celebrated the intrepid courage of the conquistadores who invaded and plundered South America — not a fashionable theme in the present day.


I imagine my Grandad reading Graham’s ripping yarns and colourful histories, untroubled (as a mid-20th-century white man) by any quibbles about the injustices of the conquests or the hyper-masculinity of the heroes. I imagine him thrilled by Arabian deserts and poisonous South American jungles, temporarily lifted out of the dry quiet of an Australian country town into a camaraderie of wild horsemen and perilous exploration.

But it may not have been so.


For the last bend of this meandering river, I googled ‘R B Cunninghame Graham’ to see how my ignorance stacked up. The Wikipedia article on Graham was enough to make me feel fairly dumb. It begins ‘Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham (24 May 1852 – 20 March 1936) was a Scottish politician, writer, journalist and adventurer. He was a Liberal Party Member of Parliament (MP); the first ever socialist member of the Parliament of the United Kingdom; a founder, and the first president, of the Scottish Labour Party; a founder of the National Party of Scotland in 1928; and the first president of the Scottish National Party in 1934.’ It is possible that Grandad, whose father was a Scot, was more interested in the political Graham.

I had wondered whether Graham’s work attracted the interest of academic critics of Orientalism — I mean Edward Said or those who have followed on from him — and there is indeed an interesting article called ‘Discursive Heterogeneity in Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham’s Travel Account Mogreb-El-Acksa: A Journey in Morocco (1898)’, which concludes:

Graham is more concerned with deconstructing and destabilizing the centrality of Western Christian civilization than with propagandizing the superiority of Western society. His journey into Moghreb-el-Acksa produces a travel account that is schizoid in nature, and this is attributed mainly to the expansion of a mechanical way of life that spurs the author to free himself from this kind of life and assuage his angst in Morocco as a remote elsewhere. Besides, we can deduce the unattainability of Graham’s desired break with the dominant discourses and the impossibility of an alternative mode of representation. Cunninghame Graham is driven to search for deep significations and finds Western Barbary as an Oriental space characterized by its belatedness, devoid of meaning, composed of purely aesthetic objects which he sometimes appreciates and most often ridicules. So, at the same time, Morocco is a pristine place, but also an eerily novel, arcane, indeed inscrutable site of the Other.

[Lahoucine Aammari. Discursive Heterogeneity in Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham’s Travel Account Mogreb-El-Acksa: A Journey in Morocco (1898). December 2017. ELOPE English Language Overseas Perspectives and Enquiries 14(2):41. DOI: 10.4312/elope.14.2.41-54]

Frontispiece photo of a sculpture by Jacob Epstein, from ‘Don Roberto: being the account of the life and works of R B Cunninghame Graham 1852-1936’ by A F Tschiffely (William Heinemann, 1937). Strangely enough, give this head a short back and sides, clip the moustache to match and lose the beard to expose a weak chin and you would see a face remarkably like that of my Grandad, Jim Bingham, who once owned this book.

There are more articles about him, and books, of course. Mogreb-El-Acksa: A Journey in Morocco was once thought the acme of travel writing. R B Cunninghame Graham was famous in his lifetime, often called Don Roberto, sometimes considered the Don Quixote of his day, a horserider until the eighth decade of his life, eccentrically handsome, and a friend of other luminaries such as Joseph Conrad and Bernard Shaw. Like the worlds he traversed, he is being erased by time, just as he would have expected.

One last point of interest: according to Wikipedia, the movie The Mission was partly inspired by Graham’s book A Vanished Arcadia (1901).

So: worth a look, perhaps. If only there were a new edition of his works with colours that !pop! on the covers.

Read something similar:

Second-rate [memoir]
March into morning [review]
My story of Uncle Russell [fiction]
A fatal case of Art [review of The horse’s mouth]

Read something different:

How many million dollars would you pay a CEO each year? [opinion]
How Tobin found the iron statuette [fiction]
the innocents [fiction]

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