Anyone who knows me well will know well that I hold an author called EB Smith in very high regard. He died nine years before I was born. I bought my first collection of his wonderfully droll stories in 1974, from "Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed" in Soho. I have bought, and given away, numerous copies since then. On 29th May 1947, John Connell published (in "The Listener" magazine) the following article.
The recluse who created "Kai Lung"
In the summer of 1942 there died at Weston-super-Mare a Mr. E. B. Smith, a man in his seventy-fifth year — a man of quiet and secluded habits. Next day The Times's obituary of this elderly recluse extended to some three-quarters of a column. For Mr. E. B. Smith was known to the world as Ernest Bramah — a writer of delicate and markedly individual talent. No man ever kept more firmly and continually distinct the two parts of himself, the writer and his own private personality. No author in recent times so jealously or so successfully guarded his privacy. Ernest Bramah never received any of the glossy, well-publicised prizes of his profession. He fended off the interviewers. Even his publishers did not see him for years at a time. During one period of his life he lived at Ravenscourt Park, within easy reach of all the literary lion-tamers in London; but somehow he eluded them. Even Sir John Squire,1 who was one of his keenest admirers, with whom he exchanged a long and stimulating correspondence, was never able to lure him to a meal or a meeting, in spite of the most zealous attempts. Appointments were even made by telephone; and then, at the last moment, most unfortunately Bramah was summoned away suddenly to the country.
'Like an Aged Mandarin'
There remains, however, by an odd chance, one photograph of him taken late in life. The fact that after so many years he had that photograph taken, the fact that he gave it to his last publisher, is perhaps a single, rather engaging inconsistency in the otherwise flawless pattern which he made of his life. In that photograph he looks for all the world like an aged mandarin of ancient lineage and ripe culture. There is the high, domed forehead. There are the seams and the lines in the countenance, drawn by irony and pity and laughing wisdom. There is the sage humility and the gentle kindness; and there behind the owlish spectacles is the sudden, sharp and violently illuminating gleam of wit.
Bramah, in more than forty years of writing, attained great and merited distinction by the establishment and the unflagging manipulation of an ingenious but rigidly artificial convention of oriental story-telling. The China of which his 'Kai Lung' tales are so undeviating an evocation lives and glows in your mind for ever once you have met it. That China — its people, its manners, its landscape — is as real and as comprehensibly Chinese as anything described by Peter Fleming or Robert Payne or Pearl Buck; and it is mercifully unaffected by contemporary political controversy.2 Hilaire Belloc, who year after year was one of Bramah's stoutest and most generous champions, once wrote to the editors of a learned Chinese quarterly in Hong-Kong to ask their views on Kai Lung. He never had any answer; and I am afraid there is not a scrap of evidence that Bramah ever went out of Europe in his life. I think we must accept it, therefore, that his knowledge and love of China and of things Chinese were products entirely of his own mind and temper.
The clue to his gift for identifying himself with what he conceived to be a Chinese mental and spiritual mode lies, curiously enough, in two other books, of a quite different type, which brought him considerable and deserved notice and respect, and his two volumes about a blind detective, Max Carrados. In a long and strangely revealing introduction to the second of these, The Eyes of Max Carrados, he discusses, very carefully, and with a plenitude of historical examples, the phenomenon of a blind man acquiring complete mastery over his affliction, and moving fearlessly and with assured, unhesitant steps in the world of seeing. I do not think it is a fanciful deduction that to Mr. E. B. Smith China was throughout much of his life the world that mattered. From it he was cut off by the accidents of geography and economic circumstance, as Max Carrados was cut off from the world of daylight by the fortuitous infliction of blindness. But as Max Carrados by the development and exercise of latent capacity could walk serenely and unhandicapped amongst seeing men, so, by the exercise of a strong and disciplined imaginative faculty, Ernest Bramah could walk beside young Kai Lung in a land of harsh sunlight, of bare red-brown hills and deep gorges; a land where peasants — like storytellers and mandarins — speak impeccable prose; a land where maidens are as wily and determined as they are beautiful, and where, after due, humbly phrased persuasion, a village or an Emperor will listen enthralled to an elegant story adorned with its appropriate moral.
There were then two main currents to Bramah's writing: the Kai Lung books and the Max Carrados books. There were side-streams too. E. B. Smith as a young man had been a farmer in the Thames valley — not a very successful farmer — and in 1894 Ernest Bramah wrote his first book, which was called English Farming and Why I Turned it Up.