Archive | November, 2017

Black Friday: the Weeklong Day

23 Nov

How many people in Spain had heard of Black Friday a decade ago?  I had through my American relations and then through its stealthy creeping into England, but when I came to Spain some 9 years ago it was not a part of the run up to Christmas.  Though other aspects of US cultural imperialism like “Trick or Treat” and Santa Claus (both purveyors of manipulation and greed) had made their presence felt, the Christmas lights did not go up until early December and sales were safely consigned to January.

Yet over the last 4 or 5 years Black Friday has steadily been gaining traction in Spain, where it has become a weeklong festival of buying, even though the discounts are often not that great.  But a bargain is a bargain, even if we don’t need it, right?

Advertisers, in pursuit of mythical ever-rising profits, constantly bombard us with the message that in order to be happy we have to accumulate more and more possessions; must always upgrade to the latest model; buy the products endorsed by our favourite celebs; and rubbing our neighbours faces in it when they can’t keep up:  Black Friday is our chance to steal a march on them.

Yet, for the majority of folk in the developed world, “Working long hours to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t care about.” (Dave Ramsey) has become the norm.  This strikes me to be a perspicacious evaluation of life in the 21st century.

Black Friday – like its on-line counterpart, Cyber Monday – is symptomatic of our age, the Material Age, in which people are judged more by what they have than by who they are; more by vain words than by actual deeds; where the financial rewards of the “money men” far exceed that of surgeons, teachers or scientists; and where greed for material things has been recast as a virtue.

While it may be that “Money makes the world go round”, Mammon is a heartless god who can never be satisfied and the supposed gains of our greed, as with all such delusions, are but transitory: none shall pass through the grave.

Yet there is a small band of people who counterculturally eschew this American lifestyle export by boycotting vendors who have “Black Friday” sales or by foregoing shopping entirely on that particular Friday.

Jesus warned, “…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21).  Where is your heart going to be on Black Friday?

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Don Roberto Myths

23 Nov

Celebrities are always going to attract myths and Don Roberto was no exception.

I was still at Prep School when I heard the first anecdote, and had recently started secondary school when I heard the second, and the third is from a book published in 1940.  Thus, in less than 30 years after his death, there were mythical anecdotes and stories being told about him.  Here is a very brief selection of the myths I have heard.

An Anecdote

I remember being gleefully told by a family acquaintance, who was old enough to have known Don Roberto in his old age, that the great man had often said, “In every house there should be three taps: one for hot water, one for cold water and one for whisky!”  Unfortunately, my informant was seemingly unaware that Don Roberto had taken the Temperance Pledge and so did not imbibe, making the quote highly improbable.

An Equestrian Tale

A tale, which I heard from an elderly neighbour who was in his 90s, concerns Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  The story he loved to relate to us young Cunninghame Grahams was as follows.

One day, when Don Roberto was visiting the Wild West Show with his friend Col Alexander Maitland Gordon, they were shown a horse that was unrideable.  Maitland Gordon, a cavalry officer bet Don Roberto he could ride the beast without being thrown and duly arranged to return the next day to make the attempt.

The following evening, Maitland Gordon, dressed in riding attire and accompanied by Don Roberto, returned to try and win his wager.  However, whenever Maitland Gordon approached the horse it would buck and kick and he found he could not get close enough to even mount it.  In frustration, he turned to Don Roberto saying, “Well I wager not even you could ride that brute!”  Don Roberto, who was wearing evening dress, calmly lit a cheroot and eyed the horse.  Then he casually approached the horse quietly talked to it and gently stroked its nose before leaping on its back without touching the stirrups.  So poor Maitland Gordon lost two wagers in one evening.

The first problem with the tale is, if the horse had never been ridden, why did it not do as all unbroken horses do when mounted, buck and jump to try to dislodge the rider.  The tale is designed to embellish Don Roberto’s skills as a horseman, and though he undoubtedly was an excellent horseman, even he got thrown badly on occasion and suffered injuries from it.

Second, it is highly unlikely that the Wild West Show would keep a horse that was completely unrideable as it would be of little value to the show (unless for comic value as hapless cowboys chased it around the ring).  Furthermore, given the skills of the Native American Indians and Cowboys at breaking horses, it would not have stayed unmountable for long.  The whole point of the show was to demonstrate the skills of the participants.

Third, I have never been able to find any Alexander Maitland Gordon, let alone one who was a cavalry officer.  Nor can I find any Maitland Gordon (Alexander or otherwise) among Don Roberto’s friends and acquaintances – there is certainly no correspondence between them which is highly peculiar given Don Roberto’s proclivity for letter writing.  Thus, if one of the main protagonists of the tale is fictitious, the whole must be suspect.

A Tall Tale of a Trouncing

The Glaswegian engineer, Samuel Mavor, in a longer reminiscence of Don Roberto, relates the following tale:

An incident narrated to me by the late Professor George Forbes illustrates the fiery energy of Cunninghame Graham.  Don Roberto and his wife spent the summer at Pitlochry and while there he was called to London where he had to remain for two weeks.  During his absence, an acquaintance, son of a well-known Church dignitary, was persistent in unwelcome advances to Mrs Cunninghame Graham, and on Don Roberto’s return she told him of the annoyance she had experienced.  Don Roberto went immediately to the residence of the lothario, and inquired for him, but was told he had gone to Perth in the morning, and would return in afternoon.   Don Roberto strode straightway to the station where he ascertained the time of arrival of the afternoon train from the south; he also found that by taking the train to Dunkeld he could arrive there before the northbound train was due, so off he went to Dunkeld, where on the platform he paced impatiently awaiting the train from Perth.  On its arrival he found his man, opened the carriage door, dragged him out and to the amusement of the other passengers administered a severe beating, then leaving his enemy prostrate on the platform he leapt onto the moving train for Pitlochry.

Indignant at the public thrashing of his son, the irate father insisted on action for assault being raised against Don Roberto.  It fell to George Forbes, who was a friend of the offended family as well as of Don Roberto, to take the part of the mediator, and try to placate ruffled tempers.  Not without considerable difficulty was he able to have the matter smoothed over and further publicity avoided.” (Mavor, Samuel (1940), Don Roberto, “Memories of Men and Places”, London: William Hodge and Company Ltd, pp79-80.)

While Mavor is a masterful storyteller, his reminiscence is riddled with errors and there are numerous problems with the supposedly “secondhand” tale.

First, there is no evidence that Don Roberto and George Forbes were friends, though it is likely they had mutual acquaintances; nor is any reason given as to why Don Roberto & Gabrielle were summering in Pitlochry.  Furthermore, Forbes did not build his Pitlochry house (The Shed) until 1906, the year Gabrielle died.

Second, from the cameo rôle Mavor assigns Gabrielle, it is clear he did not know her.  He has her a meek, docile wife, lacking the nous to ask assistance from Forbes, or even to send a telegram to her husband, but having to await his return to defend her honour.  This does not accord with the historical record of a woman who had run away, not once but twice, to go on the stage; who as a newlywed ranched in Texas and travelled by wagontrain to Mexico City; who roamed Spain with just her Galician maid as her companion; and who was an experienced political orator.  Moreover, if as Taylor speculates in her scholarly biography of Don Roberto, Gabrielle had had to support herself through prostitution when her stage career foundered, she would have been more than able to spurn the unwanted attentions of a spoilt, lovelorn swain.

Third, Forbes does not come out of it as well as Mavor might imagine.  While Forbes brokered peace, he failed to protect his guest from the persistent pest (was he blind and/or mute?) and was obviously so unapproachable that Gabrielle could not ask for is assistance but had to wait for Don Roberto’s return.

Fourth, though one could easily imagine Don Roberto catching a train to intercept his wife’s erstwhile suitor, the fisticuffs does not so readily come to mind.  While Don Roberto undoubtedly had fiery energy and was a man of action, there are no other recorded incident of physical violence (notwithstanding Trafalgar Square, where he was more victim than perpetrator). Don Roberto did not need to “administer a severe beating”, the weapon of choice of the inarticulate, as with the devastating wit for which he was widely renown, he could have so humiliated the poor youth with a haranguing that he would have wished he had had a thrashing instead.

In short, Mavor appears to have uncritically taken his friend’s anecdote and used it to add vividness to his pen-portrait of one of the most colourful characters of his age.

A Family Fable

Much later, when I was an adult, I was told about a Clydebank family which believes that their grandfather, Andrew, son of one Janet Munro, was the illegitimate child of Don Roberto.  They surmise that she had been seduced by Don Roberto while working as a maid at Ardoch.  And this tale has been passed down through the generations as family history.

The family’s genealogist, however, is more sceptical.  He readily admits that Janet was of dubious reputation and the “black sheep” of the family and that the family cannot provide a single shred of evidence she ever met Don Roberto, let alone had any kind of sexual relationship with him.

The facts prejudicial to the Munro claim are insurmountable.  First, at the time the baby would have been conceived, the family were not using Ardoch, which was leased to a tenant; second, Don Roberto, who was newly married, was incontrovertibly abroad (first at Bremerhaven and then at Vigo) at the critical juncture.

Of course, all those who claimed to have personal knowledge of the affair are all safely dead and beyond interrogation, but the myth persists despite the slew of facts which make it utterly impossible.  But when did facts ever deal a deathblow to a rollicking good tale?

These examples make me wonder whether there are any other myths about Don Roberto out there waiting to be collected and debunked.