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Beyond Holy Russia

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Michael Hughes

7. New Horizons

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  • 1 On the cultural dimension and artistic experimentation in Soviet Russia during the 1920s see Abbot (...)
  • 2 For correspondence relating to the translations see John Gawsworth Papers (University of Reading L (...)
  • 3 Manchester Guardian, 12 July 1929.
  • 4 Observer, 5 July 1931.
  • 5 The Listener, 5 June 1929.

1When Graham published his novel The Lay Confessor in 1928 he was already taking a renewed interest in Russian literature. The following year he edited a thousand-page collection of Great Russian Short Stories, including works by authors ranging from Pushkin to Tolstoy, as well as less familiar writers who had long been favourites of his such as Aleksei Remizov and Aleksander Ertel’. He also included pieces by Soviet authors such as Isaac Babel. When Graham made his tour down the western borderlands of the USSR, in 1924, he was convinced that the Soviet Government had crushed all literature and art of any value, but his views changed somewhat during the following years, as the modest cultural thaw of the 1920s led to the publication of some fictional works of high quality.1 Graham visited Paris several times during the late 1920s, where he spent time rooting around in the second-hand book kiosks that lined the banks of the Seine. It was here that he came across a number of Russian novels that were almost unknown back in Britain. He persuaded his publisher, Ernest Benn, to commission translations of several of these books, including Panteleimon Romanov’s Three Pairs of Silk Stockings, Valentin Kataev’s The Embezzlers and Roman Gul’s General B.O. (Gul’, unlike the other two, was writing in emigration in Berlin). Graham paid for the works to be translated, although he carefully supervised the quality of the final text. He also provided a preface to each book introducing the writer to an English-language audience.2 The translations were well-received by critics. The Manchester Guardian praised Kataev for “his fine work”.3 The Observer told readers that Romanov’s work was reminiscent of Chekhov at his best.4 Vita Sackville-West writing in The Listener praised The Embezzlers as “amusing”.5 Despite the positive reception, though, the series only lasted a short time, since the sales figures were rather less glowing than the reviews.

  • 6 For memoirs of Gawsworth and details about the history of Redonda, see Paul De Fortis (ed.), The K (...)
  • 7 Lawrence Durrell, ‘Some Notes on My Friend John Gawsworth’ in Fortis, Kingdom of Redonda, p. 55.

2Graham’s main contact at Ernest Benn during this time was an aspiring young poet called Terrence Armstrong, who, under his nom de plume of John Gawsworth, soon became a long-standing if eccentric fixture in the London literary scene, before subsequently drinking himself to poverty and an early death. Gawsworth was an avid bibliophile. During the 1930s he published the unknown manuscripts of Graham’s old friend, Wilfrid Ewart, as well as editing numerous collections of short stories. He later served as literary executor for the fantasy writer M.P. Shiel, the self-styled King of Redonda, a title that Shiel claimed to have inherited from his father, who asserted his unlikely right to the throne of the small rocky Caribbean island when living on nearby Montserrat. When Gawsworth received the title upon Shiel’s death in 1947 – he had been heir apparent since the 1930s, when the two men cut their wrists and mingled their blood in a bizarre ceremony at a remote cottage in Sussex – he in turn conferred “dukedoms” on various friends and acquaintances.6 Nor was the title of King Juan of Redonda Gawsworth’s only affectation. By the 1930s he had already constructed a largely imaginary genealogy for himself, claiming descent from a number of Scottish lairds who took part in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, as well as Mary Fytton of Gawsworth Hall in Cheshire (often identified as the dark lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets). Gawsworth was, despite his eccentricities, successful in establishing a place for himself in London literary life, developing friendships with writers ranging from Rebecca West to Lawrence Durrell. Although his talent for self-promotion grated on many of his contemporaries, he had by the middle of the 1930s shown himself to possess “a brain as sharp as an awl when it came to any matter that touched on publishers or publishing”.7 Nor did his poetry lack its admirers; amongst those who praised his early work was Stephen Graham, who many years later received his own “dukedom” of Redonda, albeit one that lacked the more grandiloquent soubriquets that Gawsworth bestowed on some of his closest friends.

  • 8 T.I.F. Armstrong (Gawsworth) Papers (HRC), Letters, Graham to Armstrong, 11 March 1930.
  • 9 John Gawsworth, Above the River (London: Ulysses, 1931).
  • 10 Stephen Graham, ‘Kitchener at Archangel’, in John Gawsworth (ed.), Thrills, Crimes and Mysteries ( (...)

3By the time Graham received his ‘dukedom’ in 1949, he had come to regard Gawsworth as “a crazy poet” – a verdict with which it is hard to disagree – but the two men kept up a correspondence that lasted for more than thirty years after their first meeting in 1930. Gawsworth was just eighteen at the time, having left Merchant Taylors School two years earlier, but he was already determined to pursue a literary career. Graham offered the young man a “haphazard” job at Frith Street, filing papers and dusting books, but the older man also became something of a literary mentor.8 He gave Gawsworth detailed advice about his poetry, and wisely suggested that it would be prudent to develop a career in journalism, given the challenges of earning a living through verse alone. Gawsworth appreciated the advice, which he characteristically ignored, preferring to earn his money from proof-reading and book reviewing. He dedicated one of his earliest pieces to Graham, a cumbersome prose-poem titled Above the River, which described the revelation of a manqué poet who, when walking through the mist of the Welsh hills, sees in a brief moment of sunshine “with blinding clarity the hidden secret of his heart”.9 The sense of epiphany and the intimation of a hidden world were calculated to appeal to Graham, who saw in Gawsworth an echo of his younger self. The two men’s interest in the unseen also found expression in a less elevated fascination with ghost stories. Gawsworth edited a number of collections of mystery stories throughout the 1930s, publishing several pieces by Graham, including one which described how the ghost of Lord Kitchener arrived in Archangel, following his death at sea in 1916 when his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat en route to Russia.10

  • 11 Daily Express, 3 March 1930.

4Gawsworth helped to manage Graham’s affairs during the early 1930s, at a time when his friend was living for long periods in the Balkans, an area that had intrigued him ever since he first met Dimitrjie Mitrinović and Nikolai Velimirović in London in 1915. Graham never really lost the Serb sympathies that had been fostered by his links with the Serbian war-time diaspora. His decision to visit Yugoslavia in 1929 was prompted by his determination not to fall into the trap of living a passive life in what was, he later told readers of the Daily Express, “a sitting-down age” in which even “babies are born with spectacles on”.11 It was also prompted by his long-standing friendship with Mitrinović, who had himself visited the country a few weeks earlier, apparently at the behest of King Alexander (the monarch who had recently declared a royal dictatorship, in the hope of breaking the political deadlock between Serbs and Croats that dogged Yugoslavia between the two world wars). Mitrinović had, even as a young man in Bosnia, been a staunch believer in the need for a pan-Yugoslav spirit, based on mutual toleration between the various ethnic and religious groups, and he travelled to Belgrade to discuss editing a new journal designed to promote such ideas. The project came to nothing, apparently because he made an unfavourable impression on the King’s advisors, and he quickly returned to London to resume his work with the Adler Society. Graham’s trip to Belgrade shortly afterwards was almost certainly linked in some way with these activities. Mitrinović certainly provided his friend with a range of political contacts, as well as an introduction to members of his own family, a gesture that was destined to have a huge impact on the rest of Graham’s life.

  • 12 Manchester Guardian, 28 November 1929.

5When Graham first visited Belgrade, at the start of the 1920s, he found a place still largely populated by “the peasant come to town”. The city looked very different nine years later, and despite the problems facing the country, its capital had become a construction site where “white stone facades rise from cobble stones to the sky”. There were now crowds of “thoroughfares, lines of taxis, modern shops, a plenitude of bowlers and velours, [and] a great number of people who have money to spend”. Graham recorded his impressions for the Manchester Guardian, describing how the steps leading up to the Parliament building lay “symbolically in ruins”, following Alexander’s abandonment of “constitutionalism” a few weeks earlier. He was nevertheless convinced that the monarch still commanded popular support, despite unease about “where he is now steering his country”.12 Graham was not able to obtain an audience with the King, but he did meet many other influential figures in Belgrade, including the Patriarch of the Serbian Church. He also spent time in the city’s cafes and restaurants, many of them run by Russian émigrés, which gave him an opportunity to sample once more the dishes he knew so well from his time in the Tsarist Empire. Graham did not speak Serbo-Croat, but his fluent Russian allowed him to understand the gist of the conversations on art and politics that flourished in the bars and eateries of Belgrade. Within a few years he was fluent in the language itself.

  • 13 Vachel Lindsay Papers (HRC), Letters file, Graham to Lindsay, 16 December 1929.
  • 14 T.I.F. Armstrong (Gawsworth) Papers (HRC), Letters file, Graham to Vera, no date but probably late (...)
  • 15 New Atlantis Foundation Archives, NAF 1/8/7, Graham to Mitrinović, 16 January 1930.

6Graham left Belgrade for London after just a few weeks, but he told Vachel Lindsay in America that he planned to return as soon as possible, in order to collect “some local details for a novel I am writing on the outbreak of the First World War in Serbia”.13 It was not only literature that pulled him back. During his time in Belgrade, Graham met various relatives of Dimitrije Mitrinović, including his younger sister Vera. Following his return to London, Graham wrote to Vera recalling how “happy” he had been during his visit. He also thanked her for the flowers she had given him, which although now “withered hang on my wall over a doorway”, adding that he had bought a Serbian dictionary and was hard at work trying to learn the language.14 By the time he was back in Belgrade, early in 1930, Graham was fretting endlessly about Vera’s health, worrying that she might contract tuberculosis from her brother ‘Lubo’, with whom she lived in a tiny flat, conditions that he feared were “dangerous for Vera [since] she is weak and nervous and coughs a lot and I am afraid she may become infected”. He also fretted that Lubo might soon die which “would be a terrible experience for a young girl”. Graham gave the two of them money to take separate rooms, but Lubo spent the cash on something else, whilst his sister remained “absolutely self-sacrificing and devoted in nursing her brother”.15 Vera was a good deal younger than Graham – he was forty six years old and she was just twenty seven – and there was something almost paternal about his concern for her welfare. He was nevertheless clearly smitten by her from the time they met. Graham had been attracted to older women throughout his life, seeking an almost maternal tenderness from them, but in Vera he believed he had found someone capable of offering the kind of whole-hearted devotion he craved even though she was so much younger than himself. She was soon to become his companion and later his wife – a relationship that lasted until Graham’s death in 1975.

  • 16 Slavonic and East European Review, 9, 26 (1930), pp. 494-95.
  • 17 Vladimir Dedijer, The Road to Sarajevo (London, Macgibbon and Kee, 1967), p. 217 ff.

7Graham’s emotional entanglements did little to reduce his ferocious work-rate. During the summer of 1929 he had started work on an historical novel, St Vitus Day, which explored the motives of the young Bosnian Serbs who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in June 1914. Graham told a friend many years later that the book was not so much a novel as an imaginative reconstruction that was faithful to the facts. When the book appeared the following year, the distinguished East European scholar Robert Seton-Watson praised St Vitus Day as a “remarkable book”, noting that it was based on first-hand information provided to its author by some of those who had been close to the conspirators. Seton-Watson also commended Graham for showing how in 1914 “the younger generation in Bosnia was riddled through and through with revolutionary feeling”, which fuelled the determination of Gavril Princip and his accomplices to carry out the assassination, in the hope of fomenting an insurrection that would lead in time to Bosnian independence from Austria.16 It is unclear where Graham got all his information, particularly as he completed the manuscript after just a short time in Belgrade, but some of it certainly came from Dimitrije Mitrinović (who himself briefly appears as a character in the novel). Mitrinović had nothing to do with the murder of Franz Ferdinand, having opposed the use of violence when he was active in the Young Bosnia movement before 1914,17 but he was able to provide his friend with access to individuals who possessed more detailed knowledge of the events in Sarajevo. Some of the material in Graham’s private papers suggests he spoke to people who had been on the fringes of the conspiracy.

  • 18 Bernard Newman, Albanian Back Door (London: H. Jenkins, 1936), p. 94.
  • 19 Stephen Graham, St Vitus Day (London: Ernest Benn, 1930), p. 276.

8Seton-Watson noted in his review of St Vitus Day that its author had managed to avoid “appealing for sympathy with the murderers”, a strange comment, for Graham made little secret of his approval of the nationalist cause espoused by Princip and his fellow-conspirators. Although one of his friends was correct in noting that Graham did not want to “whitewash” the killers,18 his sharpest criticisms were reserved for the Austrian authorities, telling his readers that “the real reason for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand [...] lay in Austrian outrage upon the national feeling”,19 a reference to the fact that Ferdinand had insisted on visiting the Bosnian capital Sarajevo on St Vitus Day, which marked the anniversary of the sacrifices made by Serbian armies in 1389 in the Battle of Kosovo. The massacres that have scarred Yugoslav history throughout the twentieth century make it hard to accept Graham’s suggestion that the main ethnic and religious fault-line in Bosnia in 1914 was between German ruler and Slav subject. Nor is it easy to accept his wilful decision to ignore the presence of large Croat and Moslem minorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, many of whom looked with suspicion at their Orthodox neighbours, since to do so would have complicated a narrative that tacitly assumed Princip and his fellow assassins were nationalist heroes, commanding universal support in seeking to throw off Austrian rule.

  • 20 Rebecca West (ed.), Selected Poems of Carl Sandburg (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1926), (...)
  • 21 New York Times, 8 February 1931.
  • 22 Manchester Guardian quoted in Stephen Graham, Part of the Wonderful Scene (London: Collins, 1964), (...)

9Graham’s book was serialised in translation in a number of Yugoslav newspapers, which made him something of a local hero, at least amongst the country’s Serb population (Serbs dominated the leading positions in the Yugoslav government and army throughout most of the inter-war years). In 1931 its author was invited to attend the St Vitus Day celebrations in Sarajevo, standing as a guest of honour before the stone memorial to Princip with the assassin’s elderly mother. A few years later he was given the Order of St Sava by the Yugoslav government, for meritorious achievements in the arts and sciences, a prize that he received alongside the novelist and travel-writer Rebecca West (who, ironically, had long been a sharp critic of Graham as “one of the more mechanical practitioners of Russian mysticism”).20 St Vitus Day also bolstered Graham’s reputation back home. One or two reviewers in Britain and America were disturbed by Graham’s attempt to “justify the deed” [i.e. the assassination],21 but most were positive, including one in the Manchester Guardian that praised the book for being “so vivid that we feel ourselves taking a dismayed part in it, as we did when the actuality occurred sixteen years ago”.22 The critical and commercial success of St Vitus Day was instrumental in encouraging Graham to devote much of his time to writing fiction during the following years.

  • 23 New Atlantis Foundation Archive, NAF 1/8/7, Graham to Mitrinović, 31 March 1931.
  • 24 Graham Papers (HRC), Letters file, Velimirović to Graham (n.d.).
  • 25 New Atlantis Foundation Archive, NAF 1/8/7, Graham to Mitrinović, 31 March 1931.

10Graham spent a good deal of 1931-32 in Yugoslavia, although his movements are not easy to follow, given his peripatetic lifestyle. He was certainly in Belgrade early in 1931, when Lubo Mitrinović died from his tuberculosis. Vera was distraught at her brother’s death, even though it had long been expected, and much to Graham’s distress she sat for hours by his coffin in the apartment stroking his hair. The funeral itself took place in the late afternoon of a cold winter’s day. Vera and her brother Chedomir followed the coffin, which was covered with bouquets of violets and mimosa, whilst Graham walked further back in the procession, along with a group of family friends who, for some reason, insisted on discussing the economic crisis in Britain. Vera collapsed in “a burst of hysterical weeping” as the coffin was lowered into the earth, but later in the afternoon at home became “gay and excited”, “laughing and joking over everything” that was even remotely amusing.23 When Graham’s old friend Nikolai Velimirović heard about Vera’s plight, he expressed a fear that it might prove difficult to “keep [her] mind in control and sanity”, adding that it might be sensible to take her to Britain or at least to the Dalmatian coast for a holiday.24 In a letter to Dimitrije Mitrinović, recounting details of the funeral, Graham assured his friend that, although the cost of the funeral had drained Vera’s savings, “she has me and what I have is hers”. He also criticised some other family members for not providing her with more emotional and material assistance.25 It seems unlikely that Dimitrije Mitrinović was entirely put at ease by Graham’s declaration of support. He wrote to a doctor friend in Belgrade shortly afterwards, asking him to provide Vera with help, and suggested that she should leave the city for a time to recover her strength in the peace of the countryside.

11Mitrinović does not seem to have approved of the burgeoning relationship between Graham and Vera, something that probably contributed to a later falling-out between the two men, although they had been drifting apart ever since their cooperation over the proposed secret society back in 1915-16. Graham was by 1930 concerned that Mitrinović was promoting an obscurantist ideology that fostered an almost cult-like discipline amongst his followers (he may have been thinking of Rose when he noted many years later that Mitrinović’s appeal had been greatest amongst middle-aged women who treated him as a veritable guru). The two men nevertheless continued to collaborate occasionally during the first half of the 1930s, at a time when Mitrinović and his followers were establishing the New Europe and New Britain movements, which were both designed to stimulate new forms of national renewal capable of reducing international and domestic conflict. In the summer of 1934, Graham contributed a piece to the journal New Britain entitled ‘The Way of the Young Man’, which bore more than a passing resemblance to the Credo he had published in The Beacon more than ten years earlier, linking together the destinies of individuals and nations:

  • 26 New Britain, 18 June 1934.

There are two wisdoms: one for the mature and another for the adolescent.
He is wrong who gives old men’s wisdom to the young.
Or who contradicts the young man’s wisdom with the old man’s experience.
There is not one standard way of life for young and old.
For the Altar requires sacrifice but it is the Moloch which requires slaughtered babes.
The sacrifice of the immature is no gain to the Altar.
For they sacrifice, not their true selves but only their unripeness.
The young nation must not be allowed to sacrifice itself. It must first become what it was intended by God to be and then sacrifice itself.26

12Although such esoteric language was no longer typical of his work, it would be unwise to dismiss the significance of such pieces altogether, for the “matter-of-fact” Graham of the 1930s retained at least some features of his earlier outlook, despite his growing focus on middle-brow fiction and historical biography.

  • 27 Manchester Guardian, 13 February 1931.
  • 28 Ibid, 6 October 1921.

13Graham was greatly exercised throughout the early 1930s by the onset of the Great Depression that followed the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. In early 1931 he published an article in the Manchester Guardian warning that social unrest was likely to erupt in the United States as a result of rising unemployment in a country with little tradition of supporting for those facing poverty.27 The economic collapse in America also had a more direct impact on him, drastically reducing his income from commissions and royalties, which he needed to fund the house in Frith Street and pay for his trips abroad. One of the reasons Graham spent so much time in Yugoslavia in the early 1930s was indeed that the cost of living, at least outside Belgrade, was much lower than in Britain. On 21 September 1931, ironically the day the British Government was forced to abandon the Gold Standard, Graham therefore once again headed back to Yugoslavia, following a short break in London, in order to spend several months in a cottage in the Julian Alps writing a new novel. Although the train journey to Ljubljana was uneventful, he found to his consternation that the Yugoslav banks were unwilling to exchange British pounds for dinars, ruefully noting that it was “humiliating that a country like Yugoslavia should have doubts about the ultimate value of the pound sterling”.28 The situation improved a little in the weeks that followed, but Graham was still forced to rely heavily on the small amount of French currency he had brought with him, with the result that his lifestyle in the winter of 1931-32 was considerably impoverished.

  • 29 John O’London’s Weekly, 23 January 1932.
  • 30 Stephen Graham, Everybody Pays (London: Ernest Benn, 1932).
  • 31 Manchester Guardian, 31 December 1931.

14This period was, nevertheless, a happy one. Graham rented a white-washed tumble-down cottage, suffused with the smell of drying corn and smoked pears, which was located on a lane near Lake Bohinje close to the Austrian border. He walked daily down to the lake past streams filled with “darting trout” – Graham became a keen angler whilst living at the cottage – and stared at the motionless water which reflected the numerous pine trees that rose up the steep valley sides. In the evening he ate trout washed down with a local Riesling, and talked to his one-armed landlord “on religion and immortality”, or went into the village to listen to the peasant music that rang out from the houses. As autumn passed into winter the rain turned to snow, transforming the landscape, and making the views of the mountains that towered above the lake even more dramatic. Graham fed the local bird-life that flocked to the windows of the cottage, and sometimes walked up high into the mountains, passing local youths on skis and the occasional sled.29 He also found time to pen a novel – Everybody Pays – which charts the unlikely romance between a tax inspector and a young woman who earned her living as a nightclub dancer.30 The book is without doubt amongst the most lifeless of all his fictional works, perhaps because its author was so entranced by his surroundings that he found it hard to concentrate on his writing. It was certainly composed at breakneck speed. He also found the time to write a long piece for the Manchester Guardian describing how the global depression was affecting Yugoslavia, leading to a growth in poverty which he feared would trigger “a social eruption” if the situation did not improve.31 Financial questions were to loom increasingly large in the second half of Graham’s life, the natural obsession of a man who never had a stable source of income. His letters were increasingly full of mundane reflections on questions of taxation that would never have occurred to the young man who left Britain to pursue his Russian “shadow” so many years before.

  • 32 Hugh David, The Fitzrovians: A Portrait of a Bohemian Society, 1900-1950 (London: Michael Joseph, (...)

15The indifferent critical response to Everybody Pays did not deter Graham from writing more fiction in the years that followed. The 1930s was, perhaps, the last time when a British writer could derive a reasonable income from fiction, even without producing a best-seller. Graham was convinced that his ability to write at speed meant that it was a potentially lucrative outlet for his talent. In 1931 he had already published another novel about London life, A Modern Vanity Fair, which traced the career of the enigmatic Xavier Riddell, a wealthy Anglo-American seeking to make his way in London High Society. Graham populated the book with numerous characters who lived their lives between the world of the aristocratic salon and the world of Bohemian nightclubs (a border-land which he had himself inhabited a good deal during the second half of the previous decade, when he was a regular at Soho’s Gargoyle Club, which provided a meeting place between these two disparate settings.32) The characters are as so often in Graham’s fiction drawn in a highly stylised fashion, complete with an array of flappers and aristocratic young men, who all seem to lack any definite occupation, relying instead on generous parental allowances to finance their life-styles. The novel’s title expressed Graham’s irritation at the triviality of much of what passed for London Society, but the book was written (to use Graham Greene’s phrase) as an “Entertainment”, rather than a serious social critique of the London beau monde in all its various guises. It did however focus a good deal on the nature of truth and falsehood in the presentation of self – something that was to become a marked feature of much of Graham’s fiction – perhaps tellingly given his careful attempt throughout his life to conceal himself beneath a veneer of seeming candour. A Modern Vanity Fair ends with the revelation that Xavier Riddell is in fact the heir both to a baronetcy and a considerable fortune, something that he has kept hidden during his early days in Society, for reasons that remain obscure even to the most attentive reader. Graham had by the early 1930s become fascinated by the extent to which individuals could construct false personas persuasive enough to fool those around them, a fascination that seems to have spilled over from his own life into his fictional creations.

  • 33 T.I.F Armstrong Papers (HRC), Letters, Graham to Gawsworth, 14 May 1932.

16Graham’s next novel, One of the Ten Thousand (1933), was once again written at the village of St Janez on the shore of Lake Bohinje “in view of the lake and snow-capped mountains”.33 Despite the exotic setting of its composition, Graham drew extensively on his experience of prison-visiting during the early 1920s, telling the story of one Murray Maudant, sentenced to a year’s imprisonment in Pentonville for knowingly cashing a cheque whilst having insufficient funds in his account to meet it. According to the story Maudant tells the prison chaplain, he was acting for a friend, and did not realise that he was being asked to commit a crime, although he freely admitted to having been ‘inside’ on two previous occasions. He also tells the padre a horrific story of how his wife had killed herself and their two children whilst he was in gaol for the second time (when he had been convicted of pawning ornaments owned by his landlady). The chaplain becomes convinced of the prisoner’s innocence, not least because of his belief in Maudant’s claim to have experienced a religious conversion whilst in Pentonville, and he therefore begins a campaign for his release. Maudant is also supported by his fiancée, ‘Queenie’ Lorrimer, one of the ‘fast’ young women who were a staple in Graham’s fiction during this time. The campaign was in time successful. Only in the last two pages of the book does it become clear that Maudant is not who he claims to be – casting doubt on everything that he has said – including his tragic tale about the loss of his wife and children. When he is yet again convicted for minor larceny, whilst working at an aircraft factory in north London, the police discover that his real name is Ellis, a career criminal who has been in trouble with the law since his teenage years. The stories about his past life and sufferings are exposed as probable falsehoods. The prison chaplain and others who believed in Maudant seem, in the light of this revelation, to have been gullible fools. The book is nevertheless ambiguous about the extent to which Maudant had almost come to believe his own stories. Graham’s account was loosely based on a number of cases he recorded ten years earlier, in the diary he kept whilst prison-visiting, a time when he was already struck by the extent to which many prisoners had lost all sense of truth and falsehood. The anonymous character of the metropolis allows Maudant to remake his identity time and again, fooling even those close to him, for in a modern city the absence of strong communal ties makes it impossible to establish the truth about the streams of people who throng the crowded streets.

17The figure of the con-man also dominates Graham’s 1934 novel The Padre of St Jacobs, which seems to have been written in London during one of his periodic returns home to Britain. The two central characters in the book are Edgar (Gar) Lloyd, a mysterious adventurer and ‘rough diamond’, who has supposedly made his fortune in America, and the Revd Mark Whyte, vicar at the (fictional) Royal Chapel of St Jacobs in London. The novel revolves around Lloyd’s promise to give Whyte a million pounds, to support a revivalist campaign in London, just as soon as he can repatriate the money from America. Lloyd’s own professed conversion sits uneasily throughout the book with his raffish lifestyle and rough manner of speech, but Whyte comes to believe in the reality of Lloyd’s improbable fortune, and willingly provides his own savings to pay the fees needed to facilitate the transfer of the money to Britain. Lloyd encourages the Padre to develop detailed plans for the revivalist mission, and explains each delay in providing the necessary funds by reference to some obscure legal problems back in America. The art (or at least the suspense) of the novel consists precisely in Graham’s success in fostering uncertainty about whether Lloyd is really a fraudster. His demeanour and scam seem so obvious that they create uncertainty in the reader’s mind as to whether he can really be a con-artist. It is only in the final pages of the book, when Lloyd not only takes all of Whyte’s savings, but even repeats his scam by returning to take further funds given to the padre by his loyal parishioners, that the situation becomes clear. The morality of the book does however remain profoundly ambiguous. Whyte is painted by Graham in too intricate a fashion to be condemned simply as a gullible and other-worldly priest. Lloyd, for his part, has much of the patina of the loveable rogue who almost seems to believe in the elaborate fictions he weaves. The simplistic moral vision that fuelled the youthful Graham’s diatribes against the spiritual bankruptcy of modern urban society had long since faded, replaced by a more mature awareness of the moral ambiguity of the contemporary world.

18Graham’s 1934 novel Lost Battle has already been discussed on a number of previous occasions, since it provides a useful biographical source casting light on the complexity of his early family background. At the heart of the novel lies John Rae Belfort’s (Anderson Graham’s) decision to desert his family in Essex and establish a new family on the other side of London. The fictional Belfort goes to enormous lengths to conceal the character of his second family from his neighbours in Buckinghamshire, both by refusing to allow them to mix socially, as well as by steadfastly failing to acknowledge publicly the existence of his original household. It is only when he allows his oldest son, Mark, to visit his home of Morebattle Hall that the elaborate charade begins to fall apart. Graham’s presentation of Belfort appears to represent little more than a thinly-disguised portrait of his father, and there can be little doubt that the unconventional nature of his own family background helped to fuel his interest in the authenticity of social appearance. Anderson Graham was hardly a con-man like Gar Lloyd, but he too seems to have gone to great lengths to control the way others perceived him, in order to maintain the veneer of respectability necessary for the editor of so august a publication as Country Life. Graham’s growing awareness of the mystery of his family, which struck him so powerfully after his father’s death in 1925, fuelled a fascination with appearance and reality that ran through many of his novels of the early 1930s.

  • 34 Times Literary Supplement (Reviews of One of the Ten Thousand, 23 February 1933; and A Padre of St (...)
  • 35 The Bookman (Review of Lost Battle), October 1934.
  • 36 Daily Express, 15 February 1933.

19The fiction and non-fiction that Graham wrote during the first part of the 1930s in a sense signalled the triumph of the realist over the idealist in his writing. The concerns of books like A Modern Vanity Fair and Everybody Pays were utterly different from those of earlier novels such as A Priest of the Ideal. It is indeed difficult at times to believe they could have been written by the same man. Graham’s early fiction rested to a greater or lesser degree on the assumption that all social and political problems were an expression of some deeper religious or metaphysical malaise. His novels of the 1930s overwhelmingly concentrated on exploring the foibles and frailties of his characters without ever really penetrating to the heart of their identities and anxieties. It was as though, having lost his earlier intensely idealistic view of life, Graham was left adrift in a world where people appeared to him as strangely brittle and without depth. The reviews of his novels were, for the most part, unenthusiastically positive, typically praising their author for his “realistic skill” in “capturing the follies of contemporary life”,34 but pointing out that he struggled to “make plain” in his characters “that human understanding which is all great art’s foundation”.35 The novelist and critic James Agate believed Graham was, “for a first-class or very nearly first class novelist […] astonishingly little known”,36 words which his subject rightly took as a compliment, but such sentiments were not widely shared. The quality of Graham’s fiction was undermined by the speed at which he wrote it. The sheer scale of his productivity in writing fiction in the first half of the 1930s seems even more astonishing given that he also wrote several substantial biographies and numerous articles in the London press.

  • 37 Stephen Graham, Twice Round the London Clock (London: Ernest Benn, 1933), p. 215.

20Although Graham wrote several of his novels at St Janez on the shores of Lake Bohinje, he did not abandon London altogether during the first half of the 1930s, not least because his presence there was required to deal with the practical business of checking proofs and approving publicity material. His visits were also necessary to collect the material he required as a writer of non-fiction. The life of London’s streets continued to fascinate him, as it had for quarter of a century, inspiring a series of vignettes that appeared in a 1933 collection Twice Round the London Clock. The book was illustrated by Rick Elmes, who accompanied Graham on a series of nocturnal jaunts through the city, and provided humorous pictures of life in places ranging from railway stations and pubs to suburban whist drives and theatres. Graham also chronicled life in his own “village” of Soho, which he described somewhat surprisingly as “a quiet place where one can rest at night”,37 despite the sound of clubs emptying in the early hours and the local Italian population exercising their dogs in the dim pre-dawn light.

  • 38 Ibid, pp. 217-19.

21The title of the collection was adapted from an 1858 book by the journalist George Augustus Sala, Twice Round the Clock: Hours of the Day and Night in London, which had contained sketches on subjects ranging from fashionable gentlemen’s clubs through to Billingsgate market. Although Graham coloured the chapters in London Clock with his usual penchant for anecdote and description, lingering beneath them was his intense interest in the city’s deeper identity, reflecting a sense that it possessed a character that could not be neatly delineated, but might be hinted at by means of episodic sketches and remarks. He was determined to show his readers that it was possible to find a poetry in the rhythms of London, writing that, in all the cities of the world he had visited, he had “never found one so satisfying, so alluring, and unfathomable in mystery and beauty as London”. Whilst Moscow was “an awakener of the soul” and Constantinople offered “an enchanting window upon Asia and old time”, London offered “labyrinths and lost places” that made the city strangely “unsearchable”, concealing from view the “untold pathos” of millions of lives led in the privacy of “little houses, rooms, flats”. Graham also suggested that, for all the bustle of the city’s streets, “Londoners probably have more faith, more calm of the soul, than the people of any other great city of the world”.38 In a striking final paragraph he criticised John Ruskin, so long his hero, for only seeing in London “a festering wilderness of brick and mortar”. Ruskin’s passionate desire to live in garden cities, designed according to the credo of the Arts and Crafts movement, had led him to miss the “ever-wonderful life” of London, which for all its slums and “desecrations” remained a place of wonder, possessing a soul that was absent in more planned communities. Whilst the sketches in London Clock were for the most part quite light-hearted, they showed that Graham had retained his talent for finding poetry in the mundane world of city streets.

  • 39 Stephen Graham, Stalin (London: Ernest Benn, 1931), pp. viii, 43, 121.
  • 40 The Observer, 22 November 1931.

22It was not only Graham’s fascination with the street-life of London that tied him to Britain for long periods of time. He also needed access to the British Library, just a few minutes’ walk from his home, in order to carry out the research for a series of biographies that he published in the first half of the 1930s. In 1931 he published one of the earliest biographies of Joseph Stalin, who had only recently established himself as the unchallenged leader of Soviet Russia, describing him as “a man of sagacity and will who carried the revolution to its present stage”. He also stressed Stalin’s “gift for organisation”, as well as arguing that despite his lack of charisma he had become “a hero to red youth”, evoking a distinctive mix of “admiration and dread”.39 Although Graham’s biography of Stalin has not stood the test of time particularly well, its portrayal of the Soviet leader was reasonably acute given the paucity of information available to him. The book was remarkable for what one reviewer called its “kindly and sympathetic” tone,40 evidence perhaps that Graham wanted to shed his reputation as a chronicler of old Russia, and instead establish a name for himself as a commentator on the contemporary Russian scene.

  • 41 Stephen Graham, Ivan the Terrible (London: Ernest Benn, 1932).
  • 42 Stephen Graham, Boris Godunof (London: Ernest Benn, 1933). For a positive review of the book as “a (...)
  • 43 Speculum, 10, 1 (1935).

23His interest nevertheless soon returned to the more traditional world of Tsarist Russia. In 1932 Graham published a biography of the sixteenth-century tsar Ivan the Terrible, famous for his brutality towards thousands of his subjects, many of whom were tortured to death in ways that still appal even today in a world inured to the most grotesque atrocities.41 He followed this up with a biography of Boris Godunov, who ruled Russia at the start of the seventeenth century, and whose death in 1605 precipitated the Time of Troubles that led to the rise of the Romanov dynasty.42 Graham worked diligently in the British Library to collect material for the two books, reading earlier Russian biographies and collections of documents, although he was uncharacteristically poor at painting a vivid sketch of either tsar. Nor were the books well-received by scholars, one of whom noted that Graham was “by temperament and training [...] a novelist rather than an historian”.43 It was a verdict with which Graham would probably have agreed.

  • 44 Stephen Graham, Alexander II: Tsar of Russia (London: Nicholson and Watson 1935), pp. 179, 160.
  • 45 Ibid, p. 279.
  • 46 Ibid, p. 315.

24Graham’s next attempt at biography was more successful, or at least more interesting, for the light it cast on his attitude towards Holy Russia almost twenty years after the 1917 Revolution. In his book on Alexander the Second, the Tsar Liberator who ended serfdom in 1861, Graham returned to his familiar theme that no church was “identical with Christianity [...] They are human institutions, each with a glory of its own, and need not be criticised with reference to the Gospel which was addressed to the heart of man and not to a committee or a society”. He was nevertheless complimentary about the Russian Orthodox Church, suggesting that it had always been a “national” church, that “embodied in a visible form the ideals and aspirations of a young nation”.44 Graham argued that Holy Russia was, in large part, a creation of the defeat of Napoleon in 1812, which helped to forge a sense of national identity that had previously been inchoate and fragmentary. As a result, the Russia over which Alexander ruled was a place where “there was no atheism, no free-thinking, but instead a superfluity of belief […] the peasants not only believed in the Trinity but had a superfluity of beliefs, an eagerness to believe in the supernatural, even in the absurd”.45 The biography boasted an impressive set of primary and secondary sources in Russian, although Graham made little effort to pretend that it was a work of scholarship, acknowledging that the book was “a special interpretation of the drama of Alexander’s life and is written with the presumption that self-expression and national development are the only justifiable aims of political movements”.46 Although it was many years since Graham had written about Holy Russia, he still believed that pre-revolutionary Russia possessed a distinctive spiritual character, which had for almost two decades been systematically submerged and repressed by the Soviet regime that seized power in 1917. It was not an argument calculated to appeal to professional historians, more familiar with the subtle complexities of tsarist Russia, which defied easy reduction into the rigid historical framework of the kind Graham offered his readers.

  • 47 Newman, Albanian Back-Door, p. 93.

25Graham was not really successful at concealing his lack of interest in writing biography, a task he carried out in large part simply to make money. The call of Vera in any case kept summoning him back to Yugoslavia. He was by the early 1930s a comparatively well-known figure in the country. There were unfounded rumours in Belgrade that Graham worked for British intelligence, making him an object of suspicion in some quarters, particularly towards the end of the 1930s when the Yugoslav government moved closer to the axis powers. His Serb sympathies nevertheless meant that he continued to be well-regarded by many individuals in positions of power. When the writer and journalist Bernard Newman cycled through the country, in 1935, he found that Graham’s name opened doors even to senior political figures in the capital.47

  • 48 Negley Farson, Way of a Transgressor (London: Gollanz, 1935).
  • 49 Daniel Farson, Never a Normal Man (London: Harper Collins, 1997), p. 19.
  • 50 Negley Farson, Going Fishing (London: Country Life, 1942), p. 137.
  • 51 Negley Farson, A Mirror for Narcissus (London: Gollanz, 1956), p. 17.

26Graham in fact avoided Belgrade as much as possible, preferring life in what Newman called the “wild and unsophisticated” countryside around Lake Bohinje, which had captivated him since his first sojourn there in 1931. He was joined in the area in 1935 by the American journalist and writer Negley Farson, who moved there with his family to finish his book Way of a Transgressor, an autobiographical account that became an unlikely best-seller when it was published the following year.48 Graham had known Farson in pre-war Russia, where they both worked as journalists, and had subsequently praised the American’s books in the British press. When they were reunited in the wilds of the Julian Alps – Farson too was looking for somewhere cheap to live49 – the two men delighted in fishing for trout in the shadow of the mountains that rose above the lake shore. So struck was Farson by his experiences that he later set them down in a book, Going Fishing, in which he described catching trout in streams that flowed through “a pastoral land where the valley filled with the tinkle of cow and goat and sheep bells”.50 Farson was like Graham very much a product of urban life – he had worked for many years in Chicago before serving as foreign correspondent in a number of European cities – but he was also a natural adventurer, who relished the call of the wild, and felt “more at home in the desert and in the middle of some swamp than I ever have on Fifth Avenue”.51 Throughout their lives both men needed “wide open spaces” as a counterpoise to the more confining world of the city. The Yugoslavian landscape seems to have captivated many foreign writers during the 1930s. The case of the novelist and spy-writer Bernard Newman has already been mentioned. More famous, perhaps, is Rebecca West, whose magisterial 1941 book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was based on her travels through the country during the previous decade. Graham and Farson were not alone in finding in Yugoslavia a place that sat on a dense web of historical and geographical boundaries that seemed to make life there resonate with a particular richness and depth.

  • 52 Manchester Guardian, 30 September 1935.
  • 53 For Graham’s later memories of this time see Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 12b (‘War-Time Radio Br (...)
  • 54 Stephen Graham, The Moving Tent: Adventures with a Tent and Fishing-Rod in Southern Jugoslavia (Lo (...)

27Graham did not spend all his time in Slovenia during the mid 1930s, for he travelled a good deal to see Vera, who spent time in Belgrade and Sarajevo trying to develop a career in journalism. In 1935 the two of them headed off, complete with tent and fishing rods, for an extended journey to the south of Yugoslavia, more specifically to the region round Lake Ochrid, located on the borders of modern-day Albania and Macedonia. It was also the region where Graham’s old friend Nikolai Velimirović had by now become a bishop. Graham provided readers of the Manchester Guardian with a brief description of this journey through “a beautiful mountain country”, where East met West, and the rivers were full “of big lusty” fish so powerful that they broke the lines of anglers who set out to catch them.52 A fuller account had to wait until 1939, when he published The Moving Tent, which contained some of Graham’s best travel writing since his youthful accounts of his journeys through the Russian Empire so many years before (the manuscript itself was probably finished early in 1937).53 It was a connection that he consciously tried to create in his readers’ minds, by archly referring to himself throughout the text as ‘The Vagabond’, an allusion of course to his very first book A Vagabond in the Caucasus. The Preface to The Moving Tent contained faint echoes of some of Graham’s pre-war ideas, including his claim that “Wild Nature is the heritage of every man”, along with his assertion that those who chose to live in cities were like “absentee landlords” who could not even bother to “derive revenue from what is theirs”.54 The book itself was nevertheless more restrained in tone than most of Graham’s early travel writing. It provided readers with a melange of vivid details and anecdotes, almost certainly derived from more than one trip, but without indulging in the exuberant philosophising of his younger self.

  • 55 Ibid, p. vi.
  • 56 Ibid, p. 78.

28Graham originally visited southern Yugoslavia to collect information for a novel about Black Magic in Macedonia, but he quickly became convinced that his readers would be more interested in his efforts to “escape from the hurly-burly of war-mongering, daily newspaper sensations, cinemas and barrel-organs”.55 The book focused on providing detailed descriptions of landscapes and people in a region that was still so far from the heart of Europe that it seemed to retain a fairy-tale glint of unreality. His account of the impoverished fishing villages on the shores of Lake Ochrid, with their “low stone-houses” and “swarms of children and moulting fowls”, was superb at capturing the texture of life in one of the most isolated corners of the continent.56

  • 57 Ibid, p. 97.
  • 58 Ibid, p. 106.

29Graham visited numerous remote churches and shrines, finding places of solitary pilgrimage where it was possible to recapture something “of the glory of religion” as it had existed in “the morning of the Christian faith”.57 He was also surprisingly positive, if unduly picturesque, in his description of oriental-looking Moslem villages complete with “turbaned Dervishes and veiled women”. Perhaps most surprisingly, Vera appeared repeatedly in Moving Tent, which included a photograph of her sitting in bathing costume on a rock above Lake Prespa with a fishing rod in her hand (in his own copy of the book, Graham noted many years later that the picture was taken on “an idyllic morning in October”). Graham’s portrait of Vera bordered on the angelic, although he was understandably reticent in his description of their exact relationship, simply describing her as a “dark handsome girl with uncut black hair [and] merry eyes and one of those aquiline noses which the ancient Romans left behind on the Balkan peninsula”.58 He told readers how she helped to heal a Moslem woman in one village where they stayed by dint of her careful nursing. He also provided a touching account of how Vera provided care to a wounded goat that crossed their path, its flesh slowly being eaten away by the wasps that plagued the region, washing the creature’s wounds and finding its owners to insist that they took care of the animal. The description of Vera in Moving Tent was striking enough for some reviewers to see her as the heroine of the book. The sales were however badly damaged by the timing of its publication. Although Graham had been working on versions of the book since 1936, it only appeared in 1939, at a time when readers had more on their minds than the lure of far-away exotic landscapes. The delay in publication was not only a financial blow for Graham. Moving Tent is no classic of travel literature, but it did reflect many of his strengths as a writer, most notably his ability to evoke the lure of faraway places in a way that made them seem both familiar yet tantalisingly strange.

  • 59 Daily Mail, 5 December 1935.
  • 60 Graham, Wonderful Scene, p. 295; Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 7, Graham to Marion Hay, 2 October (...)

30Moving Tent was not the only book in which Vera appeared. A few months before his 1935 trip to Lake Ochrid, Graham finished a new novel called Balkan Monastery, which was subsequently chosen by the Daily Mail as its Book of the Month (a “fine novel” that “fills in the details of an unfamiliar landscape”).59 Balkan Monastery tells the thinly-disguised story of Vera Mitrinović, Desa Georgevitch in the book, who is evacuated during the First World War with a number of other young Serb girls to an ancient monastery, where they are forced to scrounge in the fields for food to stay alive. Vera-Desa is subsequently handed over to a Bulgarian family, as part of a deliberate attempt by the Bulgarian authorities to undermine Serb identity, but succeeds in escaping to return home to her family. Graham presented Vera’s story against the turbulent historical background of the time, including the Serb army’s dramatic retreat through Albania to Scutari, in the face of a rapid Austrian and Bulgarian advance from the North and East. The horror of the forced march is told through the story of Desa’s brother, Sava, attached to a unit guarding the Serbian King Peter. Sava’s own suffering makes him almost indifferent to the pain of those around him, his heart unmoved even when he sees fellow-soldiers frozen to death, their bodies encased in ice besides the fires they lit in a desperate bid to keep alive. Nor did Graham conceal the pain of Desa-Vera’s own experiences, as she and her fellow “orphans” struggle to survive in the face of food shortages and the threat of rape. It is as so often with Graham’s novels difficult to identify the precise boundary between fact and fiction. Whilst he cannot have known at first-hand the dramas he described, he always insisted that Balkan Monastery represented a faithful account of Vera’s experiences.60 The vivid tone of the book certainly commended it to reviewers, who were moved by the description of the struggle of Desa and her fellow-orphans to survive in a country ripped apart by war.

  • 61 See, for example, Evening News, 30 June 1973.
  • 62 Daily Mail, 22 October 1937.

31Graham made no attempt to tell his readers that Balkan Monastery was based on a real story. Nor does the book cast much real light on the woman who inspired its central character. Graham dedicated the book to Vera, but their relationship was still a sensitive issue for members of her family, and, to the end of his life, he was evasive when describing exactly how and when they met.61 Graham’s relationship with Vera during the mid 1930s was in any case made more complicated by the fact that he remained married to Rose (a subject of particular concern to Vera’s relatives). There is little doubt that Graham himself wanted a divorce. In the year following the publication of Balkan Monastery, he wrote a piece for the Daily Mail under the title ‘Marriage Ruined his Life’, lamenting the dangers posed by the matrimonial state for “a young man of much promise”, as the routine conventionalities of life crushed his youthful enthusiasms and hopes. The situation was, he suggested, different on the continent, which remained “a man’s world”, where women were unable to yoke their husbands to a world of domestic routine: “John Bull with one leg tied to a leg of Mrs Bull is neither elegant nor speedy. Untied they can compete with anyone and win”.62 The piece was intended to be light-hearted, and few readers would have picked up on the under-current of bitterness beneath the whimsy, with the exception of the handful of people who knew about Graham’s own situation. It is a moot point whether Graham recognised that the plight of the young man who married early was not unique in his family history. It echoed the experience of his own father, who had abandoned his wife for a woman he was never able to wed, frustrated by the constraints family life placed on his career. Matrimonial complications seem to have been embedded in the genes of the Graham family.

  • 63 Professor Y. Frolov, Fish Who Answer the Telephone and Other Studies in Experimental Biology (Lond (...)
  • 64 Stephen Graham, Characteristics (London: Rich and Cowan, 1936), Preface.
  • 65 Ibid, pp. 6, 58, 72, 107.

32Money remained short for Graham throughout the second half of the 1930s, and he was forced for a time to carry out translation work, then as now a distinctly unprofitable affair. He translated Professor Y.P. Frolov’s Fish Who Answer the Telephone and Other Studies in Experimental Biology (Frolov had worked in the laboratory of Ivan Pavlov, best-known today for his work with dogs on conditioning).63 He also, more profitably, wrote a good deal for the Daily Express, including a series of sketches that appeared in 1935-36 describing the national character of various countries, which were later published in book-form under the title Characteristics (a title inspired by Thomas Carlyle’s book of the same name). Graham wrote in the Preface that he did not aim to produce “a book of theory elaborated beyond opinions. It is rather a collection of facts, impressions and curiosities of travel”.64 The sketches that appeared in the Express failed lamentably to provide the mixture of anecdote and observation at which Graham excelled in his best writing, instead favouring a degree of generalisation that sought to reduce the richness of particular cultures to a crude national type, more often than not in a way calculated to reinforce the prejudices of Express readers. The Greeks tended to be “fat and gross” since they liked sweetmeats. The Scandinavians were “the most honest” people in Europe. The Celtic nations were inclined to “melancholy”, the Russians “cried easily”, and the French were “a small people” with “little heads” and “small feet” (the latter were like all the “Latin races [also] more subject to panic than others”).65

33The articles in Characteristics all too often reflected a rather unpleasant penchant for banality and over-simplification, of the kind that had characterised Graham’s descriptions of Russian Jews and American blacks in some of his earlier work. Since the articles were originally written for serialisation in a newspaper, in the form of a brief column that provided little room for nuance or subtlety, there was no space for the kinds of descriptions of people and places that were Graham’s forte. The sketches instead provided a leaden series of insights unrelieved by their author’s penchant for colour and detail. They were followed by a later series of articles in the Sunday Express on ‘The Soul of the British Empire’ – in practice the White Dominions – which appeared under such banal headings as ‘Australians are Extraordinary’. Nor was Graham hindered in expressing his opinions by the fact that he had not actually visited some of the places he described. The articles assumed unequivocally the value and worth of Empire, at a time when the threatening international situation was creating a pervasive sense of unease in Britain about the country’s future. Graham’s columns were written to a formula designed to appeal to the paper’s readers, as well as its owner, the imperially-minded Lord Beaverbook.

  • 66 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 581, 24a (‘People on a Trip to South Africa’).
  • 67 Gawsworth Papers (University of Reading Library), Box 10, Graham to Gawsworth, incorrectly dated, (...)

34One of the articles which appeared in the Sunday Express in 1937 was about South Africa. In this case Graham spoke from personal experience, for the previous year he and Vera had set sail from Southampton headed for Cape Town. During the long sea journey he jotted down sketches of his fellow-passengers, who included an intelligent doctor searching for a wife, the editor of a leading Cape newspaper, and a middle-aged woman who annoyed her fellow passengers by invariably being late for dinner because she took so long over her preparations. He also wrote some notes about how he might write a novel populated by characters based on his travelling-companions.66 After their arrival in Cape Town, Stephen and Vera headed northwards to Swaziland, where the two of them stayed on a remote farm owned by Neal Harman, who subsequently established a reputation as a novelist with such books as Crown Colony and Death and the Archdeacon. They quickly took to life on the veldt. Both were keen anglers, and they spent time fishing for the exotic species that teemed in the local rivers and ponds, taking care to avoid the crocodiles that floated in the reeds along the banks. They also drove out into the remote countryside in an ancient lorry, which periodically broke down and refused to start again, camping under the stars and listening to the shrieks and roars of the local wildlife.67 The couple were enthralled by the sight and sounds of creatures they had previously only read about, and found no difficulty in adjusting to the rigours of life on the African plains, relishing the sense of isolation and remoteness. It was with regret that they eventually headed eastwards, to Mozambique, in order to catch a boat which took them back to London via Port Elizabeth and Tenerife. They arrived back in London at the end of August 1936.

  • 68 Stephen Graham, African Tragedy (London: Rich and Cowan, 1937).

35Graham’s African novel was duly published in 1937 by the London firm of Rich and Cowan under the title African Tragedy.68 The book tells the story of Tom Anderson, a former soldier from Scotland, who after the war travels to the southern states of the United States where he becomes caught up in the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. He flees America after being sickened by the sight of a mob lynching a young black man accused of having sex with a white woman, and eventually finds his way via Trinidad to South Africa. Anderson relishes the freedom of his new life, working for a time as a gold miner, before using the money he saves to buy a remote farm in Swaziland, where he lives surrounded by a small number of scrawny farm animals and a handful of Zulu servants. Anderson’s farm fails to become a commercial success due to its owner’s lack of capital, and his life soon starts to alternate between a “serene existence” of shooting and fishing, punctuated by severe bouts of fever. This solitary existence is shattered when a telegram summons him back to Scotland to see his dying father Jock. Tom’s initial sense of desolation at father’s death soon fades when he meets one Lady Laura Charters, a regular at the hotel, who had for years been regaled by Jock with stories of his son’s adventures. Tom is bewitched when he sees Laura for the first time, and over the next few weeks the two of them travel together across Europe, making plans to head back to Africa where Laura promises to invest money to help develop the farm.

  • 69 Times Literary Supplement, 9 October 1937.

36Graham provides his readers with hints from the moment Tom and Laura first meet that there is something obsessive about Anderson’s feelings. The second half of the book is characterised by a strong sense of foreboding, as the struggles in their relationship start to echo their battle to build a profitable farm in the hostile African veldt. Although Tom plans to build a grand house for Laura, the life they lead together falls far short of the idyllic vision that had passed before her eyes when they had been in Britain, and the tragic denouement of their life together comes when Laura decides to return home to her husband and small child. Tom remains in Swaziland where he turns into a half-crazed figure – a cross between Kurtz in Heart of Darkness and Tony Last in A Handful of Dust – and when his fever is particularly bad he becomes convinced that his farm has been cursed by one of the local witch-doctors. In his saner moments he recognises that the house he had built for Laura is actually being eaten away by white ants, which chew through the furniture and rafters, causing them to crumble into dust at the first attempt to make repairs. The book ends with Anderson’s death in a raging storm, when the weakened house proves unable to resist the wind, and the roof falls in burying Tom beneath the rubble along with one of his pet wildcats. The book was well-received by critics. The reviewer in The Times Literary Supplement wrote that “Mr Graham has not shirked one item in the list of small trials that make Africa so sordid and at times so unbearable; yet he has succeeded in building up for his Tom and Laura a background of such immensity that they themselves take on heroic stature and the story of their misfortunes attains the dignity of tragedy”.69

  • 70 The Times, 18 November 1938.

37Although African Tragedy is one of Graham’s best novels, anyone wanting to buy a copy today will almost certainly be disappointed, for within a few months of publication the unsold stock was pulped by Rich and Cowan. They took this decision after settling a libel action brought by Neal Harman and Margot Hilda Layton (Lady Chesham), with whom Graham and Vera had stayed during their visit to Swaziland in 1936. Harmon and Layton – like the fictional Anderson and Charters – owned adjacent farms. Layton, like Charters, stayed in the main house on her neighbour’s land when visiting her property since it had no suitable accommodation. The basis of the libel action rested on the fact that Graham had drawn on recognisably “real life” people and places when writing his book, but had “added some fiction to his fact and recounted incidents which never occurred, but, if they had occurred, would have revealed Mr Harman and Lady Chesham as very undesirable characters”.70 Graham was himself named in the libel action but could not be contacted to defend it (he was back in Yugoslavia at the time). The barrister for Rich and Cowan noted that the firm had accepted African Tragedy in good faith as a work of fiction, given that Graham was “an author of some repute”, adding that his clients were happy to accept that there was not a “vestige of foundation for the objectionable passages” in the book (which were presumably the ones relating to the relationship between the fictional Tom and Laura). Rich and Cowan agreed to pay damages to the plaintiffs as well as withdrawing the book from circulation.

  • 71 Daily Express, 3 March 1930.

38It is no surprise that one of Graham’s novels eventually led to a libel action (in another strange echo of his father’s life, it is worth noting that Anderson Graham had suffered a similar fate more than forty years earlier). Much of his previous fiction had drawn closely on his own life and the lives of people he knew. Under-London was highly autobiographical in character. One of the Ten Thousand echoed Graham’s experiences of prison-visiting in the early 1920s. Last Battle used only the thinnest of disguises when portraying the complex personal life of Anderson Graham. Balkan Monastery was largely based on Vera’s experiences as a child in Serbia. And, as has already been seen, Graham was even on his trip out to South Africa already thinking how he might translate his fellow-passengers into fictional characters. Graham always freely acknowledged that he wrote best from life, noting in the Daily Express at the start of the 1930s that good writing was always rooted in personal experience and the “testing of reality through hardship”.71 His liveliest novels were based on real events, whilst his dullest books, like Everybody Pays, were written purely from imagination. It is possible that Graham wrote African Tragedy believing that no one would ever relate the central characters to their two real life protagonists. It seems more likely that his own modus operandi meant that he never really understood the risks of what he was doing. It was certainly, as the barrister for Harman and Chesham noted in Court, in questionable taste to “accept another’s hospitality and afterwards turn him into the subject of a book”. Graham never mentioned the incident in any version of his memoirs. Nor does it arise in his surviving correspondence. It is however striking that he did not publish another work of fiction for almost two decades – and when he did it was a sequel to the tediously safe Everybody Pays – suggesting that the whole experience of the libel action had been serious enough to scar him for years to come. It is perhaps superfluous to add that Rich and Cowan did not publish any of his later books.

  • 72 The Times, 10 October 1934.
  • 73 Daily Mail, 12 October 1934.

39The African Tragedy libel trial more or less coincided with the publication of another book by Graham, Alexander of Yugoslavia: Strong Man of the Balkans, a detailed work of documentary history which examined the controversy surrounding the murder of the Yugoslavian monarch at Marseilles four years earlier in October 1934. The “horrible crime” predictably aroused furore across Europe,72 including Britain, where it fuelled concerns about international relations at a time when fascism and communism were both on the rise. The assassination also raised questions about who was behind the attack (the actual gunman killed by police was a Bulgarian, Vlado Chernozemski, who had for years been involved in the campaign to free Macedonia from Serbian control). In the weeks that followed the shooting, newspapers across the continent were full of details of the plot. Most of those implicated in the investigation by the French authorities were Croatians, with strong links to the nationalist Ustaša organization headed by Ante Pavelić, although the government in Belgrade made clear its suspicion that the Italian and Hungarian governments were also involved in the affair (the Ustaša had training camps in both countries). The potential diplomatic consequences of the murder were considerable, given that Alexander was, at the time of his death, seeking to build a complex set of alliances with countries across Europe. The Daily Mail even carried a report that that the assassination was designed to bring about war.73 Although the immediate crisis passed, in part because the French and British governments were reluctant to confront the governments behind the killing, Alexander’s murder remained etched in the public consciousness. The assassination was one of the first political killings caught on film, making it possible for thousands to see the final moments of the King, as his body slumped back in his open-top car and a crowd of soldiers desperately tried to capture the assailant and protect his victim from further harm.

  • 74 Graham Papers (HRC), Misc. (Interviews with members of Yugoslav Royal Family and Yugoslav politici (...)

40Graham’s account of the assassination is one of his most compelling works of history. The basic premise of his argument was that Pavelić had been responsible for master-minding the assassination from Italy, with the help of Mussolini’s government, since both Croatian nationalists and Italian fascists had an interest in bringing about the disintegration of the Yugoslav state. Graham told the story with his usual vigour, blending together a mixture of history and speculation, which at times makes Alexander of Yugoslavia read like a novel. It was, nevertheless, far more a work of history than his earlier book St Vitus’ Day. Although Graham invented dialogue, and described incidents that he cannot possibly have known about, the book was built around a skeleton of fact, derived in part from the published accounts of the trials of the surviving conspirators that took place in France early in 1936. He was also able to rely on another less public source. The cover of Alexander of Yugoslavia claimed that the book had been written with the cooperation and advice of members of the Serbian Royal Family. Graham’s private papers contain transcripts of interviews he conducted in the autumn of 1937 with a number of people, including Prince Paul, who became Regent after the murder of his cousin.74 The Prince warned his interviewer that he would find it difficult to write a conventional biography of Alexander. Graham responded that he had no desire to write such a book, telling Paul that, although he wished to provide an accurate account of the murder in Marseilles, he wanted his book to have a sense of “drama” designed to appeal to British readers.

41Graham also interviewed Queen Maria, widow of Alexander, who told him that her late husband was often “impatient of measures taken for his own safety”. She added that neither of them had any “special forebodings” about the journey to France, even though there had been rumours of a definite plot to kill the King. Graham in addition interviewed a number of senior Yugoslavian political figures, including Bogoljub Jevtić, who had been Foreign Minister in 1934. The notes he made of these interviews were detailed, although since he conducted them just a few months before his final manuscript was submitted to the publishers, they were probably used to fill gaps in the narrative rather than provide a foundation for the whole analysis. Nor did the interviews cast much light on the motives of the assassins themselves, rather providing Graham with a greater insight into the personality of the King, with the result that the chapters dealing with Alexander were more substantial than those that explored the actual details of the plot against him.

  • 75 Stephen Graham, Alexander of Yugoslavia: The Story of the King who was Murdered in Marseilles (New (...)

42Graham’s Serbian sympathies ran deeply through Alexander of Yugoslavia, but although he made no secret of his admiration for the King, the book was far more than a piece of simple hagiography. Whilst he praised Alexander’s commitment to promoting international peace, as well as his bravery in the face of an earlier assassination attempt, he acknowledged that large numbers of Croatians felt that they were excluded from positions of power in the Yugoslavian civil service and military. He gently criticized the King for his coup d’etat of 1929, even though it had been intended to reduce ethnic tensions in the country, suggesting that he had “slipped into the error of paternal government which might have worked in old Montenegro but was unsuitable for a large state and a complex of jealous races”. He also suggested that after 1929 Alexander had become “more aloof, more hedged in majesty”, which made it harder for him to gauge the mood of his people, even though he was genuinely determined to build a federation in which all ethnic groups could flourish.75

  • 76 E.C. Helmreich, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 204 (July 1939), p (...)

43Graham nevertheless placed most of the blame for Yugoslavia’s problems on the post-war settlement devised at Paris in 1919, which he believed had sought to impose democracy in a region where it could only come about as the result of a slow process of evolution. The reviewers of Alexander of Yugoslavia were generally positive, although those of a scholarly turn of mind suggested that the more controversial material required footnotes, so that readers could see for themselves the sources for Graham’s various claims.76 This criticism was a fair one. Graham did a good deal of research for the book, and had privileged access to valuable material about Alexander and his family, but his description of the plotters and their links to the governments in Rome and Budapest was both impressionistic and speculative. The lively portrayal of Alexander and the other dramatis personae made Alexander of Yugoslavia an enthralling read. It is less clear whether it cast much new light on the assassination itself.

44By the end of the 1930s, Graham had spent ten years dividing his life between Yugoslavia and Britain, largely abandoning the long journeys of his earlier years, with the striking exception of his trip to South Africa in 1936. The decade was for him a time of reorientation and reinvention. In private he focused his energy on building a new life with Vera. In public he concentrated on writing more fiction and biography in place of the travel accounts that had once been his signature piece. Graham’s decision to change his literary focus was a consequence both of financial necessity and a reluctance to return to the kind of confessional work that had once been his forte. This sense of flux was echoed in his novels. Even the most cursory reading of his fiction shows the extent of his fascination with the gulf between public and private personas – the sense that people could present themselves to the world in ways quite unlike their true selves – or, and perhaps more tellingly, in ways that suggested they only possess a weak sense of their real identity. As Graham spent the first part of the 1930s stumbling towards a new personal and professional life, in place of the one that had fallen apart in the second half of the previous decade, his sense of the fragility of his own identity seeped out in his work. It was only in the second half of the decade that a new Graham began to emerge. Both the travel writing of Moving Tent, and the quasi-investigative journalism of Alexander of Yugoslavia, were of a higher quality than anything he produced in the first half of the 1930s. How his life and work might have developed if he had been able to develop these interests in tranquillity can only be a cause for conjecture. The outbreak of War in Europe in 1939 transformed Graham’s life, as it transformed the lives of countless millions of others. London had always been important to him as the place to which he returned physically and emotionally from his travels around the world. For the next thirty five years, down to his death, the city was to become home for Graham in a far more immediate and enduring sense.

Notes

1 On the cultural dimension and artistic experimentation in Soviet Russia during the 1920s see Abbot Gleason, Peter Kenez and Richard Stites (eds.), Bolshevik Culture: Experiment and Order in the Russian Revolution (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985); Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Visions and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

2 For correspondence relating to the translations see John Gawsworth Papers (University of Reading Library), Box 10, Graham to Gawsworth, 15 October 1930, 18 November 1930, 24 November 1930.

3 Manchester Guardian, 12 July 1929.

4 Observer, 5 July 1931.

5 The Listener, 5 June 1929.

6 For memoirs of Gawsworth and details about the history of Redonda, see Paul De Fortis (ed.), The Kingdom of Redonda, 1865-1990: A Celebration (Wirral: Aylesford Press, 1991).

7 Lawrence Durrell, ‘Some Notes on My Friend John Gawsworth’ in Fortis, Kingdom of Redonda, p. 55.

8 T.I.F. Armstrong (Gawsworth) Papers (HRC), Letters, Graham to Armstrong, 11 March 1930.

9 John Gawsworth, Above the River (London: Ulysses, 1931).

10 Stephen Graham, ‘Kitchener at Archangel’, in John Gawsworth (ed.), Thrills, Crimes and Mysteries (London: Associated Newspapers, 1936), pp. 371-76.

11 Daily Express, 3 March 1930.

12 Manchester Guardian, 28 November 1929.

13 Vachel Lindsay Papers (HRC), Letters file, Graham to Lindsay, 16 December 1929.

14 T.I.F. Armstrong (Gawsworth) Papers (HRC), Letters file, Graham to Vera, no date but probably late November 1929.

15 New Atlantis Foundation Archives, NAF 1/8/7, Graham to Mitrinović, 16 January 1930.

16 Slavonic and East European Review, 9, 26 (1930), pp. 494-95.

17 Vladimir Dedijer, The Road to Sarajevo (London, Macgibbon and Kee, 1967), p. 217 ff.

18 Bernard Newman, Albanian Back Door (London: H. Jenkins, 1936), p. 94.

19 Stephen Graham, St Vitus Day (London: Ernest Benn, 1930), p. 276.

20 Rebecca West (ed.), Selected Poems of Carl Sandburg (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1926), p. 23.

21 New York Times, 8 February 1931.

22 Manchester Guardian quoted in Stephen Graham, Part of the Wonderful Scene (London: Collins, 1964), p. 295.

23 New Atlantis Foundation Archive, NAF 1/8/7, Graham to Mitrinović, 31 March 1931.

24 Graham Papers (HRC), Letters file, Velimirović to Graham (n.d.).

25 New Atlantis Foundation Archive, NAF 1/8/7, Graham to Mitrinović, 31 March 1931.

26 New Britain, 18 June 1934.

27 Manchester Guardian, 13 February 1931.

28 Ibid, 6 October 1921.

29 John O’London’s Weekly, 23 January 1932.

30 Stephen Graham, Everybody Pays (London: Ernest Benn, 1932).

31 Manchester Guardian, 31 December 1931.

32 Hugh David, The Fitzrovians: A Portrait of a Bohemian Society, 1900-1950 (London: Michael Joseph, 1988), pp. 122-23.

33 T.I.F Armstrong Papers (HRC), Letters, Graham to Gawsworth, 14 May 1932.

34 Times Literary Supplement (Reviews of One of the Ten Thousand, 23 February 1933; and A Padre of St Jacobs, 22 March 1934).

35 The Bookman (Review of Lost Battle), October 1934.

36 Daily Express, 15 February 1933.

37 Stephen Graham, Twice Round the London Clock (London: Ernest Benn, 1933), p. 215.

38 Ibid, pp. 217-19.

39 Stephen Graham, Stalin (London: Ernest Benn, 1931), pp. viii, 43, 121.

40 The Observer, 22 November 1931.

41 Stephen Graham, Ivan the Terrible (London: Ernest Benn, 1932).

42 Stephen Graham, Boris Godunof (London: Ernest Benn, 1933). For a positive review of the book as “a distinguished contribution to letters”, see The Atlantic, December 1933.

43 Speculum, 10, 1 (1935).

44 Stephen Graham, Alexander II: Tsar of Russia (London: Nicholson and Watson 1935), pp. 179, 160.

45 Ibid, p. 279.

46 Ibid, p. 315.

47 Newman, Albanian Back-Door, p. 93.

48 Negley Farson, Way of a Transgressor (London: Gollanz, 1935).

49 Daniel Farson, Never a Normal Man (London: Harper Collins, 1997), p. 19.

50 Negley Farson, Going Fishing (London: Country Life, 1942), p. 137.

51 Negley Farson, A Mirror for Narcissus (London: Gollanz, 1956), p. 17.

52 Manchester Guardian, 30 September 1935.

53 For Graham’s later memories of this time see Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 12b (‘War-Time Radio Broadcasts: A Visit to a Village in Yugoslavia’).

54 Stephen Graham, The Moving Tent: Adventures with a Tent and Fishing-Rod in Southern Jugoslavia (London: Cassell, 1939), p. vii.

55 Ibid, p. vi.

56 Ibid, p. 78.

57 Ibid, p. 97.

58 Ibid, p. 106.

59 Daily Mail, 5 December 1935.

60 Graham, Wonderful Scene, p. 295; Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 7, Graham to Marion Hay, 2 October 1950.

61 See, for example, Evening News, 30 June 1973.

62 Daily Mail, 22 October 1937.

63 Professor Y. Frolov, Fish Who Answer the Telephone and Other Studies in Experimental Biology (London: Kegan Paul, 1937).

64 Stephen Graham, Characteristics (London: Rich and Cowan, 1936), Preface.

65 Ibid, pp. 6, 58, 72, 107.

66 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 581, 24a (‘People on a Trip to South Africa’).

67 Gawsworth Papers (University of Reading Library), Box 10, Graham to Gawsworth, incorrectly dated, but probably June 1936.

68 Stephen Graham, African Tragedy (London: Rich and Cowan, 1937).

69 Times Literary Supplement, 9 October 1937.

70 The Times, 18 November 1938.

71 Daily Express, 3 March 1930.

72 The Times, 10 October 1934.

73 Daily Mail, 12 October 1934.

74 Graham Papers (HRC), Misc. (Interviews with members of Yugoslav Royal Family and Yugoslav politicians).

75 Stephen Graham, Alexander of Yugoslavia: The Story of the King who was Murdered in Marseilles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1939), pp. 5, 153 (first published in Britain by Cassell in 1938 as Alexander of Jugoslavia: Strong Man of the Balkans).

76 E.C. Helmreich, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 204 (July 1939), pp. 192-93.

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