Invisible Ink: No 193 - Harry Graham


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The Independent Culture

A talent for frivolously cruel humour is not something one expects from a man with the following heavyweight CV: Jocelyn Henry Clive Graham, nicknamed Harry, was the son of Sir Henry Graham and Lady Edith Elizabeth Gathorne-Hardy.

He was born in 1874, educated at Eton and Sandhurst. His elder brother became the British Ambassador to Italy, so clearly great things were expected of Hal. At the age of 19 he joined the Coldstream Guards, acting as aide-de-camp to the Governor General of Canada. He served in the Boer War, turned up at the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon, and finally became private secretary to the former Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery. Then he rejoined the Coldstream Guards and fought in the First World War. Oh, and he was also engaged to the legendary Ethel Barrymore. None of which prepares you for the reason for his lasting fame.

Graham had started writing fiction, light verse, journalism, and history in his twenties. His memoir Across Canada To The Klondike was published after his death – and is mercifully lost – but in 1898 he published a volume under the pseudonym Colonel D Streamer called Ruthless Rhymes, which The Times compared to works by W S Gilbert, Edward Lear, and Lewis Carroll. It’s a book that influenced many, including P G Wodehouse, W H Auden and George Orwell. In it were short, cruelly funny verses, often involving death and loss.

A classic example would be: “When Grandmama fell off the boat/ And couldn’t swim (and wouldn’t float)/ Matilda just stood by and smiled./ I almost could have slapped the child.” Another runs thus: “’There’s been an accident!’ they said/ ‘Your servant’s cut in half; he’s dead!’/ ‘Indeed!’ said Mr Jones, ‘and please,/ send me the half that’s got my keys!’”

His other callous, quotable verses include the tale of a father irritated by his crying infant who finds peace by sticking him in the fridge, and a man who despairs of ever being able to start the car again after his wife elopes with the chauffeur. Other Graham victims die from choking on fishbones, fall into fires, or are stung by bees. And yet, he was known to be the most tolerant, gentle, and affable of men.

During the First World War, Graham started producing lyrics for operettas and musical comedies, many of which became huge popular successes. The best of his ruthless rhymes are published by Sheldrake Press.