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.