Last weekend we ran a The Stories We Tell workshop for a group of people who were returning to us for the third time. Of the many striking things about the weekend, the one that most remains with me now is the fact that when people speak their deep personal truths they are almost never judged by those who hear them.
Perhaps it is because they will only speak of such things when they are certain that they are in safe company – and creating that sense of safety is a large part of what we try to do on these weekends. But I believe it goes beyond that. I believe that when we reveal our essential human qualities, very often with reference to our frailties and vulnerabilities, we are striking universal chords that transcend all prejudice and value judgments, regardless of the company we’re in.
The way we most often reveal those qualities is, of course, in the telling of stories – which so often have their roots in childhood. And by chance, following a weekend when I had marvelled at the richness of experience reflected in the stories of our eight participants, I then found myself pitched into one of my own.
There was a figure in my childhood who loomed large because of my mother’s – obsession, infatuation – I’ll settle for pre-occupation with him. Beyond the immediate family, he was her life’s project and although dead still very much alive in her imagination – with good reason, for he was the definition of a larger-than-life character. I’ve written about him here before: RB Cunninghame Graham, horseman, writer, politician, adventurer.
As children, ‘Don Roberto’ was held up to us ad nauseam as a romantic ideal, a dashing, gifted maverick of aristocratic lineage and egalitarian principle. We knew all too well how he went to South America to seek his fortune when he was 17 and ended up a conscript in a revolutionary army; how in Texas he befriended Buffalo Bill; how as an MP he was arrested for rioting in Trafalgar Square on Bloody Sunday and spent six weeks in Pentonville gaol; how, disguised as a Turk, he was held to ransom in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco; how he was sculpted by Epstein, was Joseph Conrad’s literary mentor and the inspiration for GB Shaw’s Captain Brassbound; and how he died in Buenos Aires and was given a state funeral there. By the time I was an adult I was sick to death of him. I don’t think I completely believed in him either, so flamboyant, so outspoken, so fearless he seemed to be.
But while none of those stories was in fact untrue, there was a great deal more to him that either passed us by as children or didn’t feature in my mother’s frequent references to him. His political life, for example, where he frequently stood alone at Westminster as the champion of trade unionism, an eight-hour working week, free education, nationalisation of major utilities, the liquidation of empire, an end to racism, protection of animal rights, justice for women and more. All this at the close of the 19th century.
It now seems to me no coincidence that it was only after she had published her version of his life story and had begun to let go of him, that I found myself starting to become interested in him. Her book happened to come out in 2004, the year the Scottish Parliament building was opened with great ceremony, and after long years in relative obscurity, Don Roberto’s memory began to be invoked again both as the co-founder, with Keir Hardie, of the Scottish Labour Party and also, subsequently, as the founding president of the Scottish National Party (‘I would rather see my taxes wasted in Edinburgh than London,’ he famously declared).
This week I was invited to the opening of a small library dedicated to him at Stirling’s Smith Art Gallery and Museum. Along with copies of his books, it has a computer containing an online archive of material about him. His papers are in various institutions, here and in the United States, but this is the most comprehensive record of his life and work anywhere. The opening of the Robert Cunninghame Graham Library is an important step in the restoration of his name to the place in modern Scottish cultural and political history that many believe it deserves.
There are now fairly few people alive who ever met him – this year is the 80th anniversary of his death – but there are many more than I would previously have realised who hold him in high regard. One of those is the poet Allan MacGillivray who read this affectionate tribute from his new collection, Redomones, at the launch:
King Robert IV
(When asked by a lady if it was true that he was the strongest claimant to the Scottish throne and might one day be King of Scotland, Robert Cunninghame Graham replied, “Yes, I believe that is true. And what a three weeks that would be!”)
His brief benevolent despotic reign
Saw startling changes made throughout the land.
Blatant respectability was banned
(Except in Edinburgh); trips to Spain
And South America were added to
The school curriculum; a law was made
Protecting discreet demi-mondaine trade;
All titles were abolished, any who
Maltreated horses were condemned to die,
The poor and sick received their rightful dues.
Such misrule gave offence. It came to pass,
One day he saw a guillotine dragged by
The Art Club window, knew he had to choose,
Lit out on horseback for the seas of grass.
Where last was heard, an exiled king still moves,
Proud, noiseless, printless, upon unshod hooves.
Our lives are nothing if not vast collections of stories, and no one exemplifies it better than my great-great-uncle. Just as I come to a new understanding of him with each new story I uncover, so we can reach a new understanding of ourselves by examining our own.
Jamie, I have been thinking about your Stories we tell courses recently, since Elen and I went to see a quite extraordinary one man show at the Barbican called The Encounter. Early on, he says this: “We confuse our life with the story of our life.” I’m not sure exactly what it means, but it won’t leave me as a phrase, and I thought I’d share it with you – one to ponder on…
Martin, of course one never knows exactly what other people mean but my guess is that he’s saying the stories we tell ourselves about who we are don’t always correspond with, or indeed can even work against, the lives we are actually trying to lead.
This liberating assertion, from Seth Godin, landed in my inbox this week and I too thought of your personal stories workshop. He simply wrote, “The realest thing in our lives are the stories we invent. We live with these stories, we remind ourselves of them, we perfect them. And, happily, if you don’t like the story you’re telling yourself, you can change it.”
I suspect we were slightly luckier than our parents generation – your mother was left with a life-long pre-occupation with Don Roberto, while my father’s life was blighted by the expectation that he would emulate him – an utterly impossible feat. But we never met him.
Like you, Jamie, I was fed up with all the hype – even though much of it is true – and with being seen as a “look-alike”, that I too rejected him. However, I came to him earlier than you did quite by chance – I saw a book (The Scottish Sketches of Cunninghame Graham”) a shop window in Chichester and bought it on a whim. On reading it, I discovered the wonderful gems that are buried in his frequently abstruse prose. When I moived to his political writing and speeches, I was struck by his wit.
Don Roberto certainly was a man who had stories to tell and things he wanted to say, which he did flamboyantly without fear or favour – and, hence, despite hsi stylistic flaws, a true writer.