Wednesday, July 29, 2009

From the Shelves of the Paco Library

Sir Osbert Sitwell was an English poet, novelist and art critic; however, he made something of a career writing about his fascinating family. His five-volume autobiography (the first volume of which is entitled Left Hand, Right Hand!) is probably his best-known work, and is one of the most highly-regarded autobiographies of the 20th century. While the books cast a wide net among Sir Osbert’s family and friends, the central figure is his father, Sir George Sitwell: conservative politician, antiquary, and eccentric par excellence.

The autobiography was followed up by Tales My Father Taught Me, a collection of additional incidents involving Sir George that forms a kind of postscript to the earlier works. Running throughout the Tales is the loving, if frequently bemused, recollections of Sir Osbert’s near-farcical relationship with his father; two minds, rooted in different centuries, that never quite operated on the same wavelength.

Take, for example, Sir George’s ruminations on Robin Hood:
’I don’t object to his robbing monks, who were no doubt bigoted and self-indulgent and thoroughly deserved it,’ he explained, ‘but he should have kept the money for the rich. Of course, it is true that there was no income tax in those days, still it was such a mistake to give the money to the poor, whereas the rich were the only people who knew how to spend it. They could always have found a use for it. Most selfish of Robin Hood not to have grasped that! You couldn’t trust him. No, they were a very unpleasant set, I’m afraid…I hope, dear boy, that you’ll be careful to avoid the company of people like that.’

‘Where should I find it?’ I asked.

He ignored my question.

‘Every young man,’ he went on, ‘should beware of joining up with such a party of crack-brained socialists…’

On another occasion, Sir George felt the need for a holiday. Son Osbert decided to help his father find just the right place.
Now as it happened I had only that very morning read in one of the daily papers an advertisement of what was obviously a privately run home for the demented, and was described as ‘set in peaceful surroundings with a park and a lake.’ Accordingly I told my father about the establishment but did not disclose to him its true nature.

‘It sounds just what I need,’ he said.

‘Well, all I can tell you is that most people, once they’ve got there, never leave…They like it so much that they’ve even invented a pet-name for it – “the Bin”.’

This appeared to satisfy him, though he added: ‘I should like my fellow guests to have hobbies which they could discuss with me, and to be people, too, of some importance.’

‘I believe that one of them claims to be a steam-roller, which I suppose in a way could be important,’ I replied in imaginative frenzy before I could stop myself, ‘and another resident claims that he is the Emperor of China.’

Fortunately, my father never listened very carefully to what was said to him and caught nothing before the last part of the sentence. Indeed, he seemed gratified, and remarked that revolutions usually did a great deal of harm. My brother and sister also spoke to him of the place with enthusiasm. Indeed, we succeeded in painting for him so attractive a picture of this peaceful retreat that he told his secretary to write immediately for pension terms…Unfortunately, in their reply, the asylum authorities added to the letter a postscript: ‘Ought a strait-waistcoat to be sent for Sir George to wear during the journey, which will be made by van? Three strong and practiced male nurses will, of course, be in attendance, and prepared to quell any disturbance on the way.’

This, though it abruptly terminated our design, was by no means the last we were to hear of it. I was packed off to our house at Scarborough, which my father was at the time using as a kind of private Siberia…Nevertheless, I reflected as I walked to the station, the project had been worth while for its own sake, and my father had nearly enjoyed a long and for once really unusual holiday

Tales (and the related memoirs) is a great romp through the history of an extremely talented, but oddball, family, and at times is almost Wodehousian in character and incident. A delightful read.


blogstrop said...

Yes, indeed. Sounds like "Love In A Cold Climate" (Nancy Mitford)with more attitude and more eccentricity, if possible.

Steve Burri said...


I'm blogging this as your suggestion for the Presidential vacation site in place of Martha's Vineyard.

richard mcenroe said...

Isn't it odd that as we make more and more of a fetish of 'diversity' such genuinely individual eccentricity seems to be falling by the wayside...?

TW: oviddway: the kind of poetic writing style that gets you flunked if your professor catches you addressing it to his daughter...

Paco said...

Steve: Great idea!

Richard: That's a first-rate observation. There's a kind of Gresham's Law in operation, where bogus exceptionalism designed largely as a means of achieving advantages for preferred groups is driving out the notion of individual exceptionalism.

Yojimbo said...

No need for individual exceptionalism in the collective. We've "progressed" beyond such notions.

A big one-two-fiver in Death Valley Tuesday.

richard mcenroe said...

Paco -- OT but FYI - Just sent you a moderately important email...

TimT said...

I briefly studied the collaborative poetic/musical work 'Facade', by Edith Sitwell and composer William Walton, at uni. It's a really fun piece of music, light and witty but quite original as well. Apparently it was considered shocking when first performed, though that's hardly true. It was first written by Walton as a kind of drawing room entertainment for the Sitwell family, who were friends of his.

It's well worth listening to as a Sitwell curio.

Paco said...

TimT: I remember reading about that in one of Sitwell's books, and it did sound pretty interesting.