I’ve been reading a lot about China recently, which is how I came upon a characteristically rambling volume by Osbert Sitwell, entitled Escape with Me! An Oriental Sketch-Book. He opens this account of his pre-war travels in Cambodia and China by remembering how, as a child, he used to visit his paternal grandmother in her ‘large, honey-coloured’ mansion in Surrey…
It was here, where his ailing grandmother lay ‘in a chaise longue in the Indian Room, with a fur rug across her legs, and a Samoyede dog, recently imported from the Arctic Circle, one on each side of her, like the lions at either hand of a Byzantine sovereign’, that Sitwell claims first to have discovered his interest in ‘foreign countries and manners’. He describes various exotic furnishings from Burma and India as sources of the inspiration he found there, together with the peacocks, the strange fruits in the hot-houses, and the brightly coloured folded illustrations in old copies of the Botanical Magazine in the Library. He also adds the following reminscence:
‘And then downstairs in the hall stood a large cage, with a monkey in it. Alas, I was frightened of this capering creature, and, indeed, in those days hated the whole simian tribe, though latterly, since being informed of the events that led up to the massacre of the majority of the monkeys in Gibraltar – only a very few were allowed to survive – my heart had warmed to them. . . . The streets of the fortress town are so narrow that the monkeys could easily swing from any window-sill in it to another opposite. One summer they took, suddenly, to stealing photographs, the glinting silver frames of which no doubt caught there attention, and to placing them in the rooms across the way. The havoc these tricks created was immense; Colonel A would find that a photograph of his wife (“the Missus”) had disappeared, and would eventually locate it, either through his own initiative or the employment of detectives, in Commander B’s bedrom: and vice versa. As a result so many altercations took place, so many scandals occured, so many divorce proceedings were pending, that in the end, when the true criminals were discovered, it was felt that, for the honour of the Services, the monkeys of Gibraltar had better be suppressed, kept down to the minimum’.
(Osbert Sitwell, Escape with Me! An Oriental Sketch-book, London: Macmillan, 1939, p. 14.)
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