I want to talk today about an author called Ernest Bramah; he's not well known, but he's hugely loved by those who know him. Bernard Levin forgave friends who didn't return borrowed Bramah books, because "they are among the blessed", and his early supporters included Jerome K Jerome, Arthur Quiller-Couch ("Q", the critic, essayist and famously idiosyncratic editor of the Oxford Book of English Verse), and Hilaire Belloc. He's a very funny writer, utterly sui generis, and I hope to persuade you of his charms!
A few basic facts - Ernest Brammah Smith lived from 1868 to 1942, a very private and secluded life which has proved almost impenetrable to biographers. But Aubrey Wilson has just written The Search for Ernest Bramah which collects together a great deal of information. It's of interest because information on Bramah is so scarce, but it's a bit clunky, with an infelicitous style and an over-reliance on quotations from the books. I wouldn't recommend it except to confirmed Bramah lovers - but it does put his writing into context. Bramah wrote several types of books - "Chinese" stories, most notably the Kai Lung series; stories about the detective Max Carrados; a very popular but now unread politcal satire called The Secret of the League, which George Orwell acknowledged as a major influence on Nineteen Eighty-Four; a book about his failed attempt to make a living from farming; and English Regal Copper Coins, Charles II - Victoria, 1671-1860 - which I certainly won't be commenting on!
I was given my first Kai Lung book by an elderly great-aunt around 1980, when her husband died and left an eccentric collections of books. It was in the classic Penguin edition of the 1930s - the dress all my volumes are proud to wear - and I chose it from the library my uncle had left because I recognised the name from Dorothy Sayers' Strong Poison, in which Harriet says to Lord Peter Wimsey, "However entrancing it is to wander through a garden of bright images, are we not enticing your mind from a subject of almost equal importance?" She is, very gently, cutting him short in a marriage proposal, in order that he can concentrate on clearing her from the risk of being hanged for murder! I read and was immediately hooked. Kai Lung is a Chinese story teller, and he satirises British and European instituions and attitudes under the guise of traditional Chinese settings, complete with elaborate circumlocution, irony, and aphorisms. Bramah never went to China, but read Chinese literature, and British and American books about China, voraciously, and created a glorious make believe of romance and wit. He writes like an angel. The stories are full of aphorisms, of satisfactory endings in which villains get their come-uppance and the virtuous are rewarded, and they are unlike anything you have ever read before! The Kai Lung stories are hard to quote to give a real indication of the overall effect, but here are a couple of examples:
It is a mark of insincerity of purpose to spend one's time in looking for the sacred Emperor in low class teashops.
Say on, if you must ... but a virtuous life speaks louder than a brazen trumpet.
The Max Carrados books, on the other hand, are set in late Victorian and Edwardian England - often London. The first, simply called Max Carrados, was published in 1914 - I have borrowed a first edition from the London Library. The eponymous hero is a gentleman of leisure, a keen numismatist, an amateur detective, and completely blind. The stories are a delight, although not always absolutely credible; The Game Played in the Dark is a classic, often anthologised, notably in Penguin's Rivals of Sherlock Holmes in the early 1970s.
I hope you will want to read some Bramah, and I've put relevant links in the left hand column, though there are many cheap second hand editions available from sites like http://www.abebooks.co.uk/ or http://www.usedbooksearch.co.uk/UK.htm. I'd suggest you started with Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat, or Max Carrados - and do let me know if you try him, and what you think. May your yin and yang be perfectly balanced.