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18 October 2008 @ 09:02 pm
Sam Small, the Flying Yorkshireman  


(Nov 6, 2004)

Here's a nice break from my usual menu of hard-boiled detectives, sword-swinging barbarians and spaceship captains. The Sam Small stories by Eric Knight are a charming series of tall tales which appeared for a few years beginning in 1938 in magazines like COLLIER'S, THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, and ESQUIRE (okay, not exactly pulp magazines). Nine of these were collected in THE FLYING YORKSHIREMAN (originally titled SAM SMALL FLIES AGAIN, Harper & Brothers, 1942).

Here we visit an appealing world long gone, where the town "knocker-upper" would walk around and tap on everyone's window early in the morning to wake them for church or work at the mine (and what happens when he gets a strong feeling one morning that it's not Monday but a second Sunday for a change -- and haven't we all wished that?)

Knight is best remembered today for giving us the heroic collie Lassie in LASSIE COME HOME ("What's that, girl? You say YOU pushed Timmy down the well?!"), but he wrote a wide variety of stories. The Sam Small tales were written when Knight was "very homesick or feeling low or hopeless and wanted to cheer myself up" and "nearly all these stories were written five and six thousand miles away from my native Yorkshire. It was mostly being homesick, I think." They were inspired by the folk tales Knight was told as a child back in Yorkshire about the fabulous Sam Small, and so there is little concern for continuity or moral lessons; he calls them "telling" stories, just pleasant entertainment and they work fine that way.

Sam himself is a middle-aged man, short and round, going bald and with a white handle-bar mustache. Think of the character from Monopoly but dressed in tweeds and sensible British walking shoes. He is comfortably off, having invented the wonderful "self-doffing spindle" (whatever that may be), giving him free time to have improbable adventures.

Not that he goes looking for trouble, of course, but Sam is one of those bizzaro-magnets to whom unlikely events just happen. He may wake up to find himself inexplicably in Nazi Germany, looking exactly like Rudolf Hess. Or his new pup may be a "wee tyke" who can understand and speak English perfectly well, and who likes to be read to from the evening paper. He may attend a revival meeting in California (his daughter Vinnie is trying to become a cinema star) and discover that he can fly like Peter Pan if he believes strongly enough he can. His wife Mully is a good woman, patient and long-suffering but only up to a point. ("What would the British workingman be without his pint of ale at the day's end?" asks Sam, to which Mully snaps, "That's something the world'll never know till one of 'em tries it.")

Aside from the whimsical plots, the stories are enjoyable because Knight was good at portraying believable personalities. Sam, Mully and the town regulars are recognizable people with unexplained quirks and habits. Evidently, Yorkshiremen were regarded at the time as being plain, simple folk with a strong streak of stubbornness for its own sake and a love of argument. (For all I know, this may have been true then as well as today, never have been fortunate enough to go there.) This tends to make situations more complicated than they really need to be. When Sam "gets his Yorkshire up", he is quite capable of making a ticket-seller talk him into what resort town is a good bargain to visit.

Yorkshiremen are also described as being frugal by necessity but carrying it too far. Teaching your dog to pick up any stray coins he might spot and bring it home to drop it in front of you is not a bad idea, "not, as some ignobly minded persons have hinted darkly, so that they will snatch up a dropped coin and race homeward with it before the loser has had time to bend down and pick it up."

The final touch is the Yorkshire dialect, which Knight does not lay on so thick that the stories are incomprehensible to a Yankee reading them seventy years later, but enough to give the telling a special flavor. ("When a chap of thy age starts gating up in t' middle o' t' night, and swinging in his shirt-tail from the chandelier like a hoorang-ootang, well, all I gate to say is, if tha keeps it up, they'll be sending for thee from Menston yet.") When I read the Richard Hannay books by John Buchan, the Scots in some of the dialogue looked like transcribed Martian at first, but it quickly became clear and understandable, adding a real sense of the time and setting of the stories. The closest thing to the Sam Small stories (in terms of affectionate recreation of a specific folk and place) I've seen in American fantasy would be the John the Balladeer tales by Manly Wade Wellman... but of course, there the cheerful humour was replaced by downright weirdness.


A series of stories by Eric Knight that I would like to see more widely known. Here's the cover to the 1948 Pocket Book edition (remember their icon of the kangaroo with a book in her pouch?) done by Louis Glanzman. Again, rather than just paraphrase my thoughts, I think it's smarter to repost the review I wrote after first reading these stories and they were still fresh in my mind;