Sunday, January 23, 2011

Bertram Smith

I get a lot of enquiries through Bear Alley - mostly from people trying to track down a book (in which case I can rarely help as I'm not a dealer) or trying to price a book or some artwork (in which case... ditto). The more interesting ones are whether I can track down information on an author or artist. I've had a reasonably good hit rate recently and this is one such case. (But before I get  too big-headed about it, there are plenty of cases where I can find nothing. I only write up the successful ones!)

So... Bertram Smith. Paul Norman asks about his book Totty, which was published by Latimer House in their 'Crusader' range of children's books in 1950 - as was the sequel, A Perfect Genius. Pauls says: "My copy says it was first published by Harper Bros in 1908, but the story seems much more modern than that, and I wondered if you could shed any light on it?"

The short answer is "No", but I do wonder if the later printings were abridged or modernised as the Latimer House editions are around 150 pages where the originals are around 240. That may just be post-WWII austerity as paper restrictions were still in force, but it could mean they were abridged or revised to keep the length down.

A.N.M., reviewing the book in the Manchester Guardian (15 July 1908), said: "Mr. Bertram Smith's Totty should not, perhaps, be put into the hands of schoolboys, for it might make them conscious and laboured imitators of this ingenious adventurer. His doings are narrated by an abettor and admirer - the Mr. Watson to his Sherlock Holmes, - and though we cannot claim that the narratives are masterpieces of schoolboy life, they may fairly be called jolly good ripping, or whatever indicates the brisk excursion over the lower slopes of humour. Totty's invention of an entirely fictious boy who makes his mark on the school and even baffles the masters is capital, and so is 'The Great Tontine' and it is all good, hearty, funny stuff."

The follow-up was reviewed by P.R.B. on 6 October 1909: "The writer of fiction who announces that his hero is a genius is asking for trouble. To portray genius with success is to possess it. The task loses none of its immensity when the hero in question has to be a genius and a public-school boy at the same time. after gaily giving a hostage to fortune in the title of his new series of sketches of school life - A Perfect Genius - Mr. Bertram Smith proceeds in the most light-hearted way to redeem it. There is no mistake about Totty Grahame's genius. It takes the rare form of continually getting into mischief (and very often out) without doing anything of which one need be ashamed. To outline his escapades at second hand would be sacrilege. There is only one small detail that invites adverse criticism. The shorthand master is a Manchester man, and his taste in slang is indicated as being not quite up to public school form. And yet his censors use the word 'nipper' where he uses 'kid.' Surely this should be the other way about. It is a trivial point, perhaps, but one expects perfection from Mr. Smith, for he has caught the atmosphere of a small public school as no other writer one remembers. After reading this book one sees what Mr. Kipling was driving at in Stalky and Co. - something one almost missed in it - for Mr. Kipling was Mr. Kipling all the time, whereas Mr. Smith is merely the creator of Totty and does not obtrude his personality on the reader. But enough. Buy the book for a Christmas present for your nephew, and don't forget to read it youself, for there are some good hearty laughs to be got out of it."

High praise for schoolboy books isn't the usual, although Bertram Smith was himself a regular writer for the Manchester Guardian, writing light and humorous columns on boyhood, many of which were collected in his 1917 book Days of Discovery. Intrigued, I went to my first port of call in all things relating to schoolboy stories, Robert Kirkpatrick's The Encyclopedia of Boys' School Stories, which has an entry for Bertram Smith but lacks any biographical information. I can now add a little.

Bertram Smith was born at New Brighton, Cheshire, 1876, the son of James Smith, a cotton broker, and Ramsay M. Smith, his wife. Both were born in Scotland but lived at Dalmorton House, Rowson Street, Liscard, Cheshire, with their children (at least six) and servants. Bertram also began life as a cotton broker but seems to have strayed from his father's business to become a farmer and writer, his articles appearing regularly in Punch.

He began caravanning in the late 1890s in Cheshire with a caravan called Triumvir which had several successors before he purchased Sieglinda, or the Perfect Caravan. He became an authority on caravan building and touring and authored The Whole Art of Caravanning (1907). A review of his later book, Caravan Days (1914), describes it as written in a humorous but not obtrusively funny style, good spirited but not high spirited. Describing trips through every county in Scotland but Argyll, and "days that are so completely recalled have been vividly lived ... This is the first truth about Caravan Days. There is nothing in them that does not count. They are free from slack and empty periods. They leave no room for killing time. They are busy days, packed with insistent occupations - days in which there is always much to do and everything is worth doing. They are beautifully monotonous, and yet no two are the same."

One reference I've been able to find is in The British Journal of Nursing, dated 29 May 1915 which notes that the Wounded Allies Relief Committee were sending two caravans to Belgium in support of Allied troops, one fitted out as a soup kitchen, the other with hot baths. "The Committee has been presented by Mr. Bertram Smith of Beattock with two other caravans and these are now in process of equipment."

As well as being devoted to the open-air, Smith was also a fan of sports and was an authority on curling and other winter sports, describing for his readers the international competitions held each year Switzerland.

During the Great War he campaigned for increasing the production of the land and, as a lowland farmer himself, began operating one of the new motor tractors in all weathers on the farms in his district. Never strong in health, he died at his home, Broomlands, Beattock, Dumfriesshire, on 21 March 1918 after a short illness.

Smith appears to have had a kind and generous disposition, supporting many activities and raising funds where he could. One such was noted in Punch on 2 April 1919, shortly after his death: "The sum of £91 11s. 0d. generously collected by various schools in South Africa for the "Sporpot" (savings-box) fund, which was suggested in these pages by Mr. Punch's friend, the late Mr. BERTRAM SMITH of Beattock, has been distributed amongst the Belgian refugees who have spent four and a half years of exile at Beattock and have just left to return to their own country."

Obituaries appeared in The Bookman (vol. 54) and Country Life (vol 43), but I don't have access to either of these.


Fiction (series: Totty Grahame in both)
Totty. The truth about ten mysterious terms. London & New York, Harper & Bros., 1908.
A Perfect Genius. London & New York, Harper & Bros., 1909.

The Whole Art of Caravanning. London, Longmans, 1907.
Caravanning as a Holiday Pursuit. 2nd ed. Beattock, B. Smith, 1910.
Caravan Days. London, J. Nesbit, 1914.
Days of Discovery. London, Constable & Co., 1917.
Running Wild, with a preface by Ward Muir. London, Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1920.
Crashie Howe, a Hill Parish, with an introduction by Sir William Robertson Nicoll. London, Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1921. [sketches]

(* The photograph at the top of the page showing Bertram Smith at the kitchen range at the back of one of his caravans. The second shows the interior of the Triumvir. Both are from The Bystander, 29 May 1907, and had previously appeared in Smith's book The Whole Art of Caravanning.)

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