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.