Ruthlessly Funny


The Victorians were a callous lot, really. A gentleman named Harry Graham started writing very Victorian 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 Col. D Streamer called ‘Ruthless Rhymes’, which the Times compared to works by WS Gilbert, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.

It’s an amoral book that influenced many, including PG Wodehouse, WH Auden and George Orwell. In it were short, cruelly funny verses often involving death and loss, told with tasteless relish. And of course it’s for children. 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 and quotable verses include the tale of a father irritated by his crying infant who finds peace and quiet 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 being stung to death by bees.

Paradoxically, Graham was known to be the most tolerant, gentle and affable of men. What drove such a sensible, high-born gentleman to produce these poisonous little poems? Might I suggest that callous throwaway comments have always been a mark of English humour? It is said, after all, that the best English insult is one where you come away thinking you’ve just been complimented.

During the war Graham started producing lyrics for operettas and musical comedies, many of which became huge popular successes. But he was better when he was mean, and the best of his ruthless rhymes are back in print. There were originally several volumes.

22 comments on “Ruthlessly Funny”

  1. Jo W says:

    Today’s blog, good isn’t the word.

  2. Peter Dixon says:

    Didn’t Billy Connoly have a song: ‘Ye Cannae Kick Yer Granny Off a Bus’?

  3. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Not quite Victoria, but I wonder whether his Matilda influenced Hilaire Belloc?

    That Night a Fire did break out-
    You should have heard Matilda Shout!
    You should have heard her Scream and Bawl,
    And throw the window up and call
    To People passing in the Street-
    (The rapidly increasing Heat
    Encouraging her to obtain
    Their confidence)-but it was all in vain!
    For every time She shouted “Fire!”
    They only answered “Little Liar!”
    And therefore when her Aunt returned,
    Matilda, and the House, were burned.

    Another author added to my reading list.

  4. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    That will teach me not to cut and paste without reading it – should of course read

    ‘Their confidence)-but all in vain!

  5. chazza says:

    And,of course, don’t forget the marvellous Edward Gorey…

  6. snowy says:

    Broad is the Gate and wide the Path
    That leads man to his daily bath;
    But ere you spend the shining hour
    With plunge and spray, with sluice and show’r –
    With all that teaches you to dread
    The bath as little as your bed –
    Remember, whosoe’er you be,
    To shut the door and turn the key!

    I had a friend – my friend no more ! –
    Who failed to bolt his bath-room door;
    A maiden aunt of his, one day,
    Walked in, as half-submerged he lay!
    She did not notice nephew John,
    And turned the boiling water on!
    He had no time, nor even scope
    To camouflage himself with soap,
    But gave a yell and flung aside
    The sponge, ‘neath which he sought to hide!

    It fell to earth I know not where!
    He beat his breast in his despair,
    And then, like Venus from the foam,
    Sprang into view, and made for home!
    His aunt fell fainting to the ground!
    Alas! They never brought her round!

    She died, intestate, in her prime,
    The victim of another’s crime;
    And John can never quite forget
    How, by a breach of etiquette,
    He lost, at one fell swoop (or plunge)
    His aunt, his honour and his sponge!

    The Bath by Harry Graham

  7. Liz Thompson says:

    I have a book called A Book of Leaden Verse by Paul Dehn. It contains parodies of poems, rhymes and hymns.
    I wandered lonely as a cloud, That mushrooms high o‘er vale and hills, And all at once I saw a crowd A host of tranquilising pills. And now my heart in quiet lives, Made murmurous by sedatives.
    Not a drum did sound, Not a funeral note, As his corpse to the ramparts we hurried. A flash burn is not an agreeable sight, And the other ranks might have got worried.
    Hark the herald angels sing, Glory to the new born thing. Which, because of radiation, Will be cared for by the nation.
    I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

  8. Liz Thompson says:

    Ye canna kick yer granny aff a bus is more widely known than just by Billy Connolly. I remember it featuring at anti polaris demos in Scotland in the late 50s, early 60s. A good round up of the anti nuclear songs of the period is on cd Ding Dong Dollar, Folkways FD 5444, including the Misguided Missile and the Misguided Miss, and They say we’ve never had it sae guid.

  9. Theophylact says:

    Incidentally, Edward Gorey illustrated Paul Dehn’s book.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Of course you can shove your ither grannie off a bus, ’cause she’s your daddy’s mammy. Now. why it’s alright to do violence to your Father’s Mother but not your Mother’s is beyond me.
    One Burns Night we were treated to “My Hindustani Granny” and if anyone actually has the words there is a whole group here who would like to sing it again.(We’re a bit of a strange lot.)

  11. snowy says:

    Accuracy not warranted. [Corrections from native speakers welcome.]

    “Ah’ve goat a granny and she’s a Hindustani.
    She’s my Hindustani Granny from Bombay.
    When she feeds me Chapattis, Curried Mince n Tatties,
    I’m Vindaloo all day”

    Now I’ll tell ye a story, I hope it does’ne bore ye
    Of my granddad starting down in Hindustan,
    He was oot there huntin’ badgers wi’ some dukes and maharajas,
    Och! he was a very sportin’ sort of man.
    Well one day in the jungle we his aunty and his uncle,
    A maiden called him over wi a wave,
    She said Sir I beg your pardon, but is this the Perfumed Garden,
    He said “No it’s just me splash on after shave.

    Ah’ve goat a grann…. etc.

    Well they vowed they would marry so she bought a tartan Sari
    Then grandad spent a very sleepless night
    There was one unanswered question gave him nervous indigestion
    As she kicked him with the left foot and the right.
    (He couldne ask her Mammy)
    Well he did’ne what a Rabi, so he went and found a swami….
    Who looked in his crystal ball and had a keak
    He said your Mammy’s Mammy no a Billy or a Nanny
    In fact religion makes the woman Sikh

    Ah’ve goat a grann…. etc.

    Granddad was kinda nervous when they held the wedding service
    In a wee Masonic Hall in Kathmandu,
    While the band played Colonel Bogey they were married by a Yogi
    Who’d just come in from appin Mad Karu.
    They posed for wedding photies in their Dungarees and Dhotis,
    While the home made white spirit flowed like wine
    Then half the guests got scurvy or a dreaded dose of lurgie
    And the other half quite suddenly went blind.

    Ah’ve goat a grann…. etc.

    Now this ends the saga of my granny’s heiland raga
    You’ll be pleased to hear they’re baith still goin’ strong
    He drives a double decker every Friday down to Mecca
    Where the faithful play at bingo all night long…
    Granddad marches wi a batton wi his bowler hat on
    In a flute band of the Delhi Orange Hall,
    You’ll see the banner swayin On The Road To Mandalayin
    He’ll sing – “Who’ll guard old Delhi’s walls

    Ah’ve goat a grann…. etc.”

    [Tune of “I love a lassie”]

    [YouTube video code number Q02caGmeMA4 for reference]

  12. Roger says:

    “Across Canada to the Klondike” is actually pretty good. Although he was an Old Etonian officer in the Coldstream Guards (whence the pseudonym) he doesn’t seem to have taken his soldiering seriously and resigned his commission when he married an actress.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, Snowy, you are an absolute treasure. I had searched Google and found some sideways references but no words. Didn’t think of YouTube ’cause I’m used to print references. I bow deeply in your direction and will credit you with finding it.

  14. Prodosh Bhattacharya says:

    Would Victorians have fridges to stick babies into?

  15. admin says:

    Yes Prodosh, although it was fairly basic – you’d have a block of ice delivered and it would sit in a container within the larder.

  16. snowy says:

    Post Script

    I was unable to give credit to the original transcriber, because the info was missing. There may be errors, there is no standard form for dialect words.

    The line: “Who’d just come in from appin Mad Karu”, would be more conventionally rendered as “…apeing Mad Carew”, [a reference to ‘The Green Eye of the Yellow God’].

    [There is a commercial recording by Alistair McDonald on an album called ‘Across a Stormy Ocean’, single tracks may be purchased from a company that starts with ‘A’.]

  17. Brian Evans says:

    Les Dawson:

    I’m really upset. It’s twelve months to the day that the bloke next door ran off with the wife. And I don’t half miss him.”

    I theng yeoau

  18. Ian Luck says:

    Les Dawson:

    “I wouldn’t say my sister in law was large – but when she walked down the aisle on her wedding, I was immediately reminded of a sight screen being dragged onto the pitch at Lords…”


  19. Wayne Mook says:

    Of course there are Shock Headed Peter songs from The tiger lillies are cruel from of course Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann. I did read these and The 1st 4 Oz books to my little one, green glasses for the Emerald City.

    Most Nursery rhymes are quite cruel, so we do have a long tradition of cruel children’s rhymes.


  20. Ian Luck says:

    The Shockheaded Peters were an odd band who made possibly the only record that upset the late, great, John Peel: ‘I, Bloodbrother Be.’ An astonishing tune, but definitely not radio friendly. Do I have a copy? Only on a CD compilation, sadly.
    Their version of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ is terrifyingly creepy. And wonderful.

  21. Wayne Mook says:

    Crikey, now there is a blast from the past, I’d forgotten about them. I remember John Peel being upset by that. There is quite a bit of their stuff on You Tube.


  22. Ian Luck says:

    Thinking of well-known tunes rendered utterly terrifying, another example would have to be the version of ‘Tainted Love’ by the now defunct (due to both main members being dead) band, Coil. I love it, but it does sound like it’s being wrung out of the mouth of a corpse. I expect that’s exactly what Coil were aiming for. They created a set of themes for the movie ‘Hellraiser’, which disturbed the writer, Clive Barker, and also, presumably, the movie company, as they were not used. I have them on a 10″ vinyl record. They are like the background music to a nightmare. I have a suspicion that some very low frequency sounds have been utilized in their creation – you can feel some of the music, as well as hearing it.

Comments are closed.