Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham (1852 - 1936) (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

From Gaucho to Rive Gauche and Back Again

Dominic Hilton discovers the extraordinary life and times of “Gaucho Laird”, R.B. Cunninghame Graham

Artillery Row

Sitting naked at my desk in Buenos Aires, about to turn in, my phone lit up with a WhatsApp message from my so-called friend A.S.H. Smyth in Colombo. “You need to write about R.B. Cunninghame Graham,” it read.

Tired after an intense day of sunbathing and cheap beer, I racked what was left of my brain, drawing a predictable blank. “Who the hell is R.B. Cunninghame Graham?” I replied, immediately regretting my decision.

“Well,” came the response, five minutes later, “quite.”

Cunninghame Graham, I quickly learned, was a peacocking Scottish aristocrat

Not helpful, but now I was ill-tempered and wide awake. Smyth is always doing this to me, and always at the most ungodly hours. The best thing about our prickly, long-standing friendship is that we currently live ten thousand miles apart. Wishing it were eleven thousand miles—or, better still, twelve thousand—I typed “Cunninghame Graham” into Google, getting 296,000 results in 0.80 seconds, one of them a street here in my adopted city, named “Roberto Cunninghame Graham”. A knot instantly formed in my stomach.

OK, OK, I thought, try to stay calm. Maybe it’s nothing. Two or three minutes of minimal research and you’ll be done.

Who was I kidding? The first link I clicked on—“Images”—revealed Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham to be just the sort of tousle-haired, shrubbery-faced bounder for whom my frenemy is eternally nursing a massive, ill-concealed man-lust. With a thundering groan of despair, I buried my face in my hands, realising how expertly I’d been played.

Through the gaps in my fingers, I watched as my phone blinked to life again. Attached: two images. Oh, God. A brace of photographs, poorly taken in dim light. Pixelated pages from an eBook. Something Smyth was reading in his windowless Sri Lankan hovel. He’d underlined the key sentences, of course.

“An accomplished horseman,” I read through narrowed eyes, “Cunninghame Graham spent some time as a South American gaucho, where he was press-ganged into a revolutionary army following an unsuccessful spell as a cattle rancher.”

The knot began to tighten in my stomach and my eyelids twitched. Should I reply? No, I thought. That’ll show him.

I turned back to my computer, which improved things not at all. Cunninghame Graham, I quickly learned, was a peacocking Scottish aristocrat; an Old Harrovian who befriended Buffalo Bill and went around calling himself “Don Roberto”. I hated him already.

At which point, my girlfriend popped her head into the room. Her eyes fell on my naked body, hunched over the glowing screen of my laptop. “…What are you up to?” she said.

I told her not to ask. Kind of stupid, as she already had. Then I said, “Reading about some Scots nob who died in Buenos Aires.”

“Oh,” Catherine said, sounding almost disappointed. “Today?”

I glanced at Wikipedia. “In 1936. At the Plaza Hotel in Retiro.”

“Is that the grand one in Plaza San Martin?” she asked through a yawn. “The one they’re forever renovating?”

I said it was. Then, for some reason, I told her that Cunninghame Graham married an alleged half-French, half-Chilean beautiful young poetess named Gabrielle Chideock de la Balmondiere. He claimed to have met Ms. Chideock de la Balmondiere when their galloping mares collided in San Antonio de Bexar and she was tossed, damsel-like, into the dirt.

“What do mean, “alleged”?” Catherine wanted to know.

“Well,” I explained, citing my sources, “it turns out Cunninghame Graham met her in a park, not on horseback at all, and that she was, in fact, a Yorkshire girl named Carrie Horsfall.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Horse-Fall??”

“Right!?” I clicked on a different link. “And it says he was voted “Top Scot” in a newspaper poll.”

“Well, I’ve never heard of him,” Catherine said.

“Me neither. Not to mention there are “Top Scot” polls…”

“Who knew?” She sighed, and slid onto my lap. “So, who was this man?” she asked, tying up her hair. “And why are we reading about him?”

“Smyth,” I said. To which she simply nodded.

Cunninghame Graham was born in 1852, the same year as Calamity Jane. Distantly related to Robert the Bruce, he spent his formative years bumming around the family pile in Perthshire, before being packed off to London for his education. By seventeen, he’d had his fill of studying and decided to seek his fortune in South America, where he was promptly kidnapped by drunken gauchos on the vast plains of the pampas.

“Oh, let me guess,” said Catherine, wearily, all too familiar with the cliché: “Captivated by the gaucho way of life, he elected to go native.”

This was pretty much it. Needless to say, Cunninghame Graham’s subsequent business ventures all amounted to nothing, and the fin de siècle trustafarian left Argentina with his tail between his legs, having lost, rather than made, another fortune. (A familiar enough story nowadays; less so in the nineteenth century.) According to an article we dug up in the Scotsman, upon his return to British shores, Cunninghame Graham was known across the land as “the modern Don Quixote”. As in, “Here comes the modern Don Quixote. Quick, hide!”

Mounting debt soon forced Cunninghame Graham to flog his ancestral Scottish estate to a Tory politician who’d amassed his own fortune in shipping. “Even so,” insists his great niece, Lady Polwarth, in her 2005 biography, Gaucho Laird, “the tenants all loved him.” Uh-huh.

Happily, Cunninghame Graham’s loaded mum ran a thriving literary salon in London, and “Don Roberto” soon fell in with the likes of Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Bernard Shaw, G.K. Chesterton, Guy de Maupassant, Ford Madox Ford and John Galsworthy. Funny how some things just happen to work out. The sophisticated salon started to hang out in Paris, as literary types are required to by law, circle-jerking in La Ville Lumière’s most fashionable cafés and can-can clubs. “Cunninghame Graham,” gushed the smitten Chesterton, “achieved the adventure of being Cunninghame Graham.” While a besotted Bernard Shaw insisted the mere act of being Cunninghame Graham was “an achievement so fantastic that it would never be believed in a romance.”

Shaw credited Cunninghame Graham with inspiring two of his plays, while Conrad based his novel Nostromo on Cunninghame Graham’s life

Nor, indeed, on Wikipedia. Shaw credited Cunninghame Graham with inspiring two of his plays, while Conrad based his novel Nostromo on Cunninghame Graham’s life. “[A]mongst his literary friends he was regarded as the most talented of them all,” claims that Scotsman article.

“But… I’ve never even heard of this man!” Catherine repeated.

She sounded angry, and I knew how she felt. Bloody Smyth.

Catherine was now scrolling up and down through various articles on my computer, her tongue running agitatedly over her freshly brushed teeth. The heated stare in her eyes was quite frightening.

“Look at this!” she cried, referring to evidence that Cunninghame Graham sat for all the prominent artists of his day, who painted and sculpted him as Don Quixote (naturally) or Commander for the King of Aragon in the Two Sicilies (really). Then there was the illustrious political career, about which I had somehow never heard.

Elected as a Member of Parliament (Liberal) in 1886, Cunninghame Graham holds the historic honour of being the first politician ever to be suspended from the House of Commons for using the word “damn”. After molesting a policeman at the “Battle of Trafalgar Square”, for which he spent six weeks in Pentonville gaol, Cunninghame Graham then attended a Marxist Congress in Paris with his comrade and good pal Keir Hardie, with whom he founded the Scottish Labour Party. Serving as the first ever socialist MP in the UK Parliament, the “gaucho laird” went on to establish the Independent Labour Party, full of what he called “piss-pot socialists”. A passionate supporter of Scottish home rule, he later also founded the National Party of Scotland before being elected inaugural President of the now-reigning Scottish National Party. As if this wasn’t enough, he was posthumously praised by Sean Connery as “a true socialist—unlike Tony Blair”.

“Didn’t you write your master’s thesis on all this stuff?” Catherine said.

“Well, sort of,” I said, feeling sick.

“And you never stumbled across this guy?”

What could I say? My thesis was a load of cobblers. Besides, what do I care about Sean Connery, or Conrad, or gauchos, or Robert De Niro and Jeremy bloody Irons?

“Jeremy Irons…?” Catherine looked quizzical.

“Yep,” I said, now thoroughly deflated. “Turns out The Mission was based on one of Cunninghame Graham’s books.”

“He wrote books, too?!” Catherine said. By now she was just winding me up.

“Thirty-fucking-four of them,” I sulked.

But there was more. Like Cunninghame Graham’s sojourn into Morocco, which had him disguised as a Turkish sheikh. Said to be searching for the city of Taroudant, from which Christians were strictly forbidden, he was captured, again, this time by a man named Si Taieb ben Si Ahmed El Hassan El Kintafi. As in, “Here comes Si Taieb ben Si Ahmed El Hassan El Kintafi. Quick, hide!”

According to Cunninghame Graham’s account of his calamitous expedition, Mogreb-El-Acksa: A Journey In Morroco, Si Taieb ben Si Ahmed El Hassan El Kintafi “kept all his money in iron boxes underground, and all his wives were guarded by gentlemen of the third sex”. But now it was really getting late, and I couldn’t handle any more about “Don Roberto’s” stilted conversations with his fellow prisoners, including “a scabby-headed boy” who rubbed camel butter into his scalp, or the horny inmate who whiled away the hours of his captivity comparing the fairest of Morocco’s panoply of sexes to cattle, hens and goats.

“How did he come to die in Buenos Aires?” Catherine asked, her head starting to loll against my neck.

“It’s easily done,” I said.

I felt her frown. So I explained that Cunninghame Graham had been visiting the birthplace of W.H. Hudson, another of his famous friends. He’d contracted pneumonia, and when he died, his body lay in state and the President of Argentina led “a countrywide tribute.”

“Why?” Catherine asked. I had no good answer.

She uncurled herself and told me to come to bed.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” I said. “There’s one more thing I need to do.”

My eyes were bloodshot as I reached for my phone. “While I appreciate the tip,” I wrote to my malevolent antagonist, “I find little in Cunninghame Graham’s tedious life worth writing about. In fact, I have concluded he was like as not a proper bell-end. But why don’t you write something, since you’ve such a crush on him?”

I sent the message, closed my computer, and went to bed. That night, I had a terrible dream in which I died in Argentina and nobody led a countrywide tribute to me, nor was a single street named in my honour. On the plus side, though, my loaded mother ran a thriving literary salon in London, so Smyth was just fine.

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