My great-great uncle, RB Cunninghame Graham, or Don Roberto as he was known, was a character quite beyond anyone’s invention.
The Laird of Gartmore, in Stirlingshire, an aristocrat and descendant of Scottish kings, he outraged his landed neighbours by becoming successively a founder, with Keir Hardie, of the Labour Party, then a founder of the National Party of Scotland, and eventually founding president of the Scottish National Party.
A true radical and lifelong champion of the unemployed and oppressed, he was elected Liberal MP for North West Lanarkshire in 1886 on what must have seemed a hair-raising programme of reform which included nationalisation of industry, abolition of the House of Lords, universal suffrage, Scottish home rule and free school meals. He was the first ever socialist at Westminster and was once suspended from the House for uttering the word ‘Damn’. In 1887 he spent six weeks in Pentonville after being beaten and arrested during the Bloody Sunday protests in Trafalgar Square.
He wrote prolifically – travel, history, biography, poetry, essays, politics and short stories – and cut a dashing figure in the literary London of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Literary mentor to Joseph Conrad, he was also friends with John Galsworthy, GK Chesterton, WH Hudson, Ford Madox Ford and GB Shaw who acknowledged him as the inspiration for his play, Captain Brassbound’s Conversion. Handsome and bearded, with strong traces of his grandmother’s Spanish blood, he was painted by Lavery and sculpted by Epstein.
He was also an accomplished horseman and an inveterate adventurer. After leaving Harrow, aged seventeen, he travelled to Argentina to make his fortune cattle ranching, but ended up being conscripted into a revolutionary army. This was the first of a number of spectacular failures, on several continents, the most outlandish of which was his unsuccessful journey in 1898 to the forbidden city of Tarudant in southern Morocco.
Disguised as a Turkish doctor, and accompanied by three locals, he set off on horseback into the Atlas mountains at a time when Christians were liable to be killed on sight. He was within a day’s journey of the holy city when he was caught by the local Caid and imprisoned for three weeks in that potentate’s mountain castle. He told the story later in his book Mogreb-el-Acksa – which I took with me to Morocco before Christmas.
I have previously found him wordy and, to be perfectly honest, have steered clear of him since he has been my mother’s lifelong obsession, and one devotee in the family has always felt to me like enough. But this time I enjoyed the book greatly, as much for his descriptions and wry observation of human foible as for the extraordinary story. Everywhere we went in Marrakech – in the Medina and in the great square, Jemaa el Fna – but especially in the Ourika Valley leading into the mountains, I felt we were accompanied by his ghostly, rangy figure, clad in turban and robes, astride the black horse he had bought for the journey.
There are any number of incidents and discursions I could quote from the book, all of which lent an extra dimension to our holiday, but the one I like best is the observation, for which he offers no explanation (though he was clearly an admirer of the Arabs), that a European shepherd drives his flock from behind, but an Arab leads it from in front.