Man or myth?

Mythical figures are necessary to society, but they can be problematical when they are members of your own family. Often described as being mythogenic, Don Roberto is one such figure. He was someone about whose exploits stories were, and continue to be, compulsively told.

I know. I was fed an unremitting diet of them from an early age by my mother, his great-niece. In a monumental life these stories were the foundation stones, the tales that underpinned the whole edifice—or ‘the adventure of being Cunninghame Graham’ as GK Chesterton described his crowning achievement.

I heard more often than I care to remember of his youthful exploits in Argentina; his outbursts in the House of Commons; his arrest in Trafalgar Square on Bloody Sunday; his support for the chain-makers of Cradley Heath; his rescue of the Glasgow tram-horse; his marriage to the mysterious Gabriela; his misery at the loss of Gartmore; his unsuccessful expedition to Tarudant; his prolific output as an author; his death in Buenos Aires and burial on the island of Inchmahome.

To my mind he was, if not godlike, at least superhuman, a towering presence at my mother’s shoulder throughout much of her adult life, and therefore inevitably a feature of my own. Such figures tend to be unreachable and untouchable. They have exaggerated qualities: they are more courageous, more compassionate, more quick to action, more principled, less flawed and so on than ordinary mortals.

My mother finally relinquished her obsession with, if not her affection for, her great-uncle after publishing Gaucho Laird, her own account of his life, in 2004. As dementia later took hold of her I thought that he might be fading from all our lives just as he faded with her memories. But I hadn’t counted on the length of his shadow, nor the turn of events that would lead to the 2014 referendum and the revelation that in one respect at least I was his natural heir: I found that I believed passionately that Scotland should be independent.

Don Roberto maintained that he needed no biographer, since all that there was to know about him was there in his writing.

But that was not all. The more I learnt about him the louder and stronger came the echoes. I began to give an illustrated talk, Tales of Don Roberto. Then I was encouraged to write a book. But what kind of book should it be? Much has been written about him over the years. There have been critical biographies and adulatory ones; there have been semi- and fully-fictionalised accounts of his life; there have been collections of scholarly essays about him and his influence; and many collections of his own works, from his political speeches to his short stories. Almost as I write, historian Lachie Munro has just completed a doctoral thesis about him.

I had to ask myself: What can I bring to the story of Don Roberto that hasn’t been said before? And why should I want to write about him in the first place? The second question is the more easily answered. I’m a writer and his is a wonderful story to tell. A hugely significant political and cultural figure who today is woefully little known about, it seems timely to bring him to a wider audience. More personally, I find validation of my own views on Scotland’s place in the world in what he said and wrote. And my understanding of his, my forebear’s story and the resonances I find in it, add to my knowledge of myself. 

Don Roberto maintained that he needed no biographer, since all that there was to know about him was there in his writing. It has been frequently noted by others that he put himself squarely into everything he wrote. In a decade of writing a regular blog about my life experiences, I have come to realise that that may also be my strongest suit. So in answer to the first question, while I am eager to tell his story, I’m also keen to explore how it intersects with my own. But to do justice to either I now find myself faced by the challenge that must face many biographers: how to disentangle the man from the myth?

‘…the more I enquired into the life and experiences of Robert Cunninghame Graham, the more I liked him.’

In her introduction to The People’s Laird the author, Anne Taylor, reflects on the potential perils of the relationship between biographer and subject. What happens if you discover you don’t like them? she asks; then admits that with Don Roberto she had been ‘most fortunate: the more I enquired into the life and experiences of Robert Cunninghame Graham, the more I liked him.’

Likeability is a humanising characteristic that suggests a degree of intimacy, and one not necessarily ascribed to mythical figures. Kindness is another. Don Roberto was by all accounts a kind man, one who allowed himself to be touched by others, who balanced a tendency to cynicism with a deep reservoir of empathy. Kindness, the notion that we are connected by our common humanity, that is to say our human-kindness, has long been a theme of mine. My other blog is called A Few Kind Words.

Perhaps that is the unifying thread I am seeking in attempting to tell his story and mine. There is so much to be angry and frustrated about today, and yet so much also to hope for—above all that Scotland becomes free to be the small, progressive, outward-looking, independent nation it aspires to be, a place where decency and kindness can flourish.

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