Monday, 20 April 2020

James and The Buffalo Bill Wild West show


 

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James regulary exchanged letters with the daughter of one of his friends, Walter Fletcher, her name was Sibyl Cropper, but her friends always called her Billy. These letters often belied his occupation as an academic and cataloguer of Mss, provost and curator it would not be automatically compare with the lighter side of life, but the one outstanding characteristic that all of James’s friends and colleagues’ remember is his great sense of humour.

He always had a an open door policy to all of the undergraduates at kings and the boys at Eton, and this casual policy extended to his treatment of the manuscripts that he was often in possession of. Arthur Benson recalled one typical night in James’s quarters where the tables were piled high with “priceless manuscripts with his soda siphon a whisky bottle and glasses bubbling with contents standing on the piles of papers”.

His gentle way with people also extended to the children of the families he was friendly with; in 1902 he made the acquaintance of the Cropper family through his friend Walter Fletcher who became engaged to Maisie Cropper that autumn. The family were known for their frequent informal gatherings where many people would be invited to add to the merriment. Upon James’s first invitation to their house Ellergreen near Kendal, his arrival had been forgotten in the proceedings.

As Sibyl, (Billy) Cropper, who was to become James’s greatest friend among all of the family remembered later in her book “The Bright Countenance”,

“On his arrival we somehow failed to meet his train and he made his way from the station, a quarter of a mile or so, on foot. . . I found him wandering round the house in the dusk trying to find the front door and muttering to himself, “I don’t see no red carpet lain down, I don’t see no flags a flying!”

James hit it off with the family from that day, his friends who knew him as the great academic of Kings College and the authority on Christian Archaeology were very taken aback with his attendance at the Buffalo Bill Wild West show, which he visited twice with Billy, “It amused me a great deal”.

Then there were the visits to France on a very ungainly contraption A double tricycle, (this was before the advent of rubber tyres) the ride was so uncomfortable that he and his friend Childers got through the visit by singing the cursing psalm.  Later the friendship with Gwendolyn Mcbryde and his ward Jane earned him the nickname “Mouse” with which Jane would term him rather than uncle.

The idea of a dour humourless authority on Christian churches and dusty academic tomes does not fit easily with the gentle almost whimsical character who loved Wild West shows, and cursing on uncomfortable forays out in the wilds of rural France. These letters I believe will show the other more human side to the academic who also loved scaring people and often himself with the really truly terrifying ghost story. It is something that I always bear in mind about James, his truly human qualities not just his authorial oeuvre.

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