Letters to a Child

by M.R. James

(from Ghosts & Scholars 3.)

These letters were written by M.R. James to the young Sibyl Cropper in the early years of this century. In 1939, they were collected and edited by Miss Cropper, and published in the November issue of the Cornhill Magazine. Their first ever reprint was in G&S 3 in 1981.

Reproduced by kind permission of N.J.R. James and the executors of Miss Sibyl Cropper.


I am obliged to write to you because to-day when I was bicycling along a lonely, muddy road between Barton and Farnham St. Genevieve I was met by a small procession consisting of one brown owl of medium height walking along the middle of the road. It stopped, and balancing itself with some difficulty on one leg, saluted me in a military manner with the other. So I got off and the owl said to me in a low voice: "I believe you are acquainted with Billy Cropper!" I naturally said: "Sir or Madam, I am unable to conjecture what right you have to speak of that Lady in such familiar terms. I question, I very gravely question whether you have been introduced to her for she expressly told me that she numbered no owls among her acquaintance. Now I who have been introduced have never dared to address her in so unceremonious a manner." I could have said more but the owl was rude enough to interrupt me by saying, "All right, all right, come off the perch! I'm a British bird, a Morris British Bird I am [Sibyl Cropper's Note: My greatest treasure at this time was a newly purchased copy of Morris's British Birds], and here am I a trampin' up to Westmorland to hold a Temperance Meeting at Burneside; and it's dry work, it is, I tell yer. And I thought to myself being as how you knowed the lady you might be willing to speak a word for me so as I could pick my bit of chicking with the family at tea-time afore the Meeting on Friday fortnight."

To this I replied: "I do not think, Sir, that you are at all in a fit state to address a Temperance Meeting. I may also mention that the family, as you call them, are not so far as I have observed, in the habit of taking chicken at their tea." The owl sniffed rather scornfully at this point and said: "Oh! Ah! Well, I'm all right in myself - don't you fret about me. What I should like to know is which is drunkest; me or you that's riding two bicycles?" This was very saddening. I did all in my power to persuade the creature that it was mistaken but it was of little use. The owl only lay down in the muddy road and said: "All right, you go on counting 'em while I take a bit of a rest. I'm a British bird I am and what I sez is British Brandy for British Birds and Total Temperance and every think else for ever and many of 'em." I left it soon and when I did it was beginning to cry and say that the policeman at Great Barton was its only friend and he wouldn't take the pledge.

So that if on about Friday fortnight, a small and very muddy brown owl should present itself at Ellergreen and mention my name and try to effect an entrance and join you at tea you must not place too much reliance upon any statements it may make about me. It would be kind too, to warn the authorities of the Temperance Association that little benefit is to be expected from any meeting that it may express a wish to hold. The bird, I may add, has a shifty red eye, and will probably go to sleep more than once while you are talking to it. I must say that I never expected to meet with so striking a confirmation of the old saying, "As drunk as an owl".

The whole story seems to show how carefully one ought to be. I could not avoid telling you of it and I hope you will forgive me if the alarm turn out to be a false one.

I am yours most submissively,



18 Jan., '03.


.....The immediate cause of my writing is this. On arriving yesterday at Cambridge, I was informed by the College porter that a bird (he did not say what sort of bird) had been hanging about the place for the last day or two anxious to see me.

It was not there at that moment, however, for it had given so much trouble both in the Porter's lodge and in the organ loft of the Chapel, by pecking the ankles of the under porter and of the organist (when the latter was playing the pedals) that it had been warned not to come into College again before I returned.

I went up to my room and busied myself for sometime with tidying up things and answering letters, and presently it got dark and I lighted up candles. I was just addressing my last envelope when I was fearfully startled by a low hoarse voice which came from somewhere near the floor and said: "I beg your pardon, I'm sure, but is this Dr. James's room?"

I hastily got up on to the table, I must confess, snatched up a candle and held it in the direction of the noise. For the moment I had really forgotten about the bird of which the porter had told me, and I was quite relieved when I saw a very ordinary rook of medium height standing on the floor somewhere near my chair. I remembered of course, about my expected visitor, and got down from the table and said rather sharply perhaps: "How on earth did you get in?" "I beg your pardon I'm sure," said the rook, "but I came up the back way along of being so put about by Thomas at the Great Gate." (Thomas is the head porter here.) "Well," I said, "I don't allow strangers to come up by the back way; please remember that another time." The rook said, "I beg your pardon I'm sure, but I called in consequence of me being the identical same one as what the one was as was took for the new edition."

I asked what in the world that meant and the rook, which seemed to have only one way of beginning any remark, closed its eyes once or twice and said, "I beg your pardon I'm sure but I called along of me being the one as had their likeness took for Revd. Morris's British Birds, new edition, and me and a few friends was getting together a slight testimonial for the Revd. Morris to take the form of a Pianoler, 'armonium or accordium as funds permit of. We 'ave the cordial support of the Vicar of the parish and Mr Bradshaw author of the railway guide, also many well-known orficers and Sir 'Enry Camberwell Bandshire - I should say Candle - Bandle - leastwise -" Here it stopped, having evidently forgotten the last part of its speech and I said: "This is simply disgraceful. Mr. Morris published his first edition in 1870 - I believe he has been dead for years, and even suppose he wasn't, how am I to know that you are the bird whose likeness was 'took' as you call it, for the new edition?"

The rook at once became or affected to become virtuously angry. "Do you doubt my word," it said, "and me chose out of all the rooks in England? There was 'undreds came to be drawed, and the Revd. Morris he turned them all away - 'This is the one for me', he sez (meaning me), 'this here one with the honest look in its eyes.' Ah! he said that, and here have I got papers to prove it, and now you durst to doubt my word -" and so it went on at a great rate. Of course, when I heard of papers I asked to see them and it produced a horrid little satchel from somewhere under its wing containing a mass of dirty little bits of paper, one of these I subsequently found on the floor and enclose it. [Sibyl Cropper's Note: On a torn scrap of paper was written, "the enclosed rook has my heartfelt suport. - J. Bradshore."] The others were exactly similar. When the bird found that I had no intention of subscribing to its absurd testimonial it turned very nasty, and went at once for my ankles. It is extraordinary how difficult it is to get a rook out of your room when it doesn't want to go. I believe a broom is the real thing. I succeeded after a very arduous quarter of an hour in getting it downstairs by that means, and I have got the broom handy by my chair now. Obviously the whole thing is a hopeless fraud but the Westmorland rooks, if they are in it, may be more plausible than ours, and so I think it is as well to let you know.

I am with every sentiment of respect.

Yours very truly,


P.S. The blot on Page 3 may be omitted in reading the letter. It forms no part of it and I only let it in because it had not enough money to pay even a third class fare to Burneside. What its business may be there I have no notion.


22 Jan., 1903.


It was indeed a gratification to "receive" as you so thoughtfully put it, your communication. I feel that I have at least one colleague in the field of ornithological study who does not - as too many so-called scientists do - sniff at and deride the records of my observations.

I am unfortunately confined to my room by the lumbago (a sign of approaching old age), and this has become known to the sparrows who infest the College. They are well aware that I cannot move quickly or indeed move at all without grave personal inconvenience, and the consequence is that they take it in turns to come and sit on my window-sill and laugh. I sent a note to the Provost's cat - a large animal named Cato, of whom I am a good deal afraid and he was good enough to what he called "step round and look in" this afternoon. But I derived but slight benefit from this manoeuvre, for he insisted first on having a copious lunch, and then went to sleep. A particularly insolent sparrow was goading me to madness soon afterwards and being unable to move easily, as I said, I threw a small object, it might have been a book or a chair - at Cato to attract his attention. I am sorry to say he completely lost control of his temper, bit my hand, and left the room. One of the kitchen cats whom I have since asked up, will do nothing but ask in a high, irritating voice: "What are you doing now?"

"Writing," I say, "And what are you doing now?" "Still writing," "And what are you going to do next?" "Oh," I say, "won't you have a little milk?" "Yes" says the cat (no "please" or "thank you" or anything of that sort). "And what shall I do after that?" "If you can't manage to hold your tongue you'll leave the room after that." This rather silences the cat for a short time. Then it says, "What day is it to-day?" "Thursday - King's Accession." "Why isn't it King's College?" "It is King's College." "Why isn't it called King's College?" "It is called King's College." "Why did you call it some thing different?" "Now look here," I said the last time it asked this stupid question, "out you go." It was just beginning to ask, "Why do I go out?" when I showed it why with the poker. And now I can hear it still asking questions on the back-stairs. Whether it is the spread of Education or living in what they call an intellectual atmosphere, I don't know, but these University cats are getting beyond me altogether.

27th Jan.
This communication has been waiting for some days now. The lumbago has been diminishing, thank you, but as I have to go out to-night in the rain I daresay it will be better and I shall be worse to-morrow. In any case the inclemency of the weather and my inability to perambulate the rural environs of this town, have precluded me from initiating such a series of observations as might have resulted in bringing me into contact with the ornithological world or as I have seen them not inaptly designed "our Feathered Friends." You will, I am confident, be quick to excuse the consequent dearth of specific information for which these pages might reasonably be censured. Nor will it, I venture to suggest, escape your notice that my enforced confinement has had the effect of throwing me upon the society of those voiceless yet eloquent companions (I allude to the books which line the walls of my little sanctum) and of purifying if not adorning the style in which for the last few lines I have taken the liberty of addressing you.

Yrs. as always,



14 Feb., 1903.


As it was Valentine's Day I went to the garden this afternoon to give your message to the Tit. I found her seated on the top of the pump with a small twig in her beak. I believe she had been doing nothing whatever that was useful, but the moment she saw me she burst into a wonderful state of activity. "Well, what is it now?" she said. "Really, it's too bad: a person can't get five minutes, no nor yet five seconds to themselves but what people must come interrupting and pushing in. However you suppose I'm going to get this nest built I don't know and I suppose you don't care."

"Dear me," I said. "I'm very sorry. I merely wanted to wish you many happy returns of the day and to give you the kind regards of a lady of my acquaintance, but if you're too busy to stop and listen I suppose I had better go on." "Dear, dear," said the Tit (she had dropped the bit of stick by now and appeared to have forgotten all about it). "Well, I daresay I can spare a minute but I must say I think you might have mentioned it before - who is this precious lady that wants to send me kind regards? Much better if she's thought of sending a worm or a comforter or something sensible - but then people are so thoughtless now-a-days."

When I could get a word in, I told her that it was the youngest Miss Cropper of Ellergreen near Kendal in Westmorland who was anxious to have her kind regards and best wishes conveyed through me that she took a great interest in birds of all kinds and (I added on my own responsibility), especially in Tits. The Tit was rather gratified I think, but thought it necessary to keep up the appearance of general business-like agitation, anxiety and irritation, so she said: "Well I never. What young people are coming to! I'm sure," and various things of that kind but at last got so far conciliated as to say that I might tell you that it had been a very trying season, so much so that she hardly knew whether she was standing on her head or her tail (I said she was standing on neither, and she begged me not to interrupt, for surely she was the best judge of that) and that what with one thing and what with another, whether it was the government's fault or not she didn't know - of course it wasn't for her to speak, being only a mere bird she had no vote of course, and she dared say if she had she would be told she wasn't capable of using it right, but that was neither here (thank goodness) no nor there; but at any rate all she could say was that if I didn't leave that garden in one minute she was going to find out the reason why. "And so you haven't any message for Miss Cropper?" I said.

"Message?" she said. "I'll message her sending a lot of stupid great gabies here to take away a person's sticks and nests and all - the only good bit of stick I've been able to find all day." I pointed out the bit of stick lying on the ground where she had dropped it, and first she said that wasn't the one and then that I had trodden on it and spoilt it, and so forth. But eventually I got a kind of grudging permission to tell you that she was very sensible of your kind intention and that if she was allowed to get on with her work and succeeded in finishing a nest this year, she couldn't object to you coming and looking at it. "But mind," she said, "if there's any mischief comes of it don't say I didn't warn you till I was tired. If I get a cold in my head, or it comes on to rain, or there's an explosion in the papers don't you go saying I didn't tell you of it." I rashly said that whether any of these things happened or not I would be sure to say she had told me they would, and that made her so exceedingly angry that I really thought it best to go. Another day she will be more peaceful.


7 July, 1903.


.....I was a good deal worried before leaving home by the cat. She came into the room where I was working and suddenly said she wished to give a month's notice. This was startling, but I made no sign of surprise and simply asked for her reason. She then said she wished to leave in order to butter herself. I guessed at once that she had been listening to kitchen gossip and had picked up the expression without understanding it. "Butter yourself?" I said. "I think you mean better yourself, don't you?" She was a little taken aback, but waved her tail about and said she hoped she knew what her own words meant. "Very well," I said, "but how do you propose to butter yourself, and why do you wish to do it? It would be very bad for your coat and I doubt if any other family would be more likely to permit it than we should."

"Oh dear yes," she said. "Of course they would. Why, in my last place we all did it once a week!" "Did you indeed?" I replied. "Well of course, that is very important. I will write at once to your late mistress and inquire what arrangements for a weekly buttering were in force and how many of the family took part in the process. Did old Mr. Green, for instance?"

Well, it appeared that she couldn't remember about that, though she had no doubt he did but it wasn't worth troubling to write. "But it isn't only the butter," she went on. "I shouldn't so much mind about that, it's all the other indignations they put upon me. Nobody looked at the last mouse I brought in, and no-one said good-night to me last night."

"I thought you were out all last night," I put in. "I don't mean not last night," she said hastily, "but it's always happening like that and I nearly choked myself to-day trying to kill a cockchafter and not a person paid any attention! I'm not understood here in this house and I'd better go."

Well you know, when a person is in that frame of mind, argument is worse than useless, so I merely said: "Can you give me Miss Green's address? I will speak later on the subject of finding you another home." She looked at me vacantly and said, "What do you say? Oh my goodness, there's a mouse on the grass!" and flounced out of the window. I heard no more complaints before I left and expect she has thought better of it. But it's all very distressing.

Ever yr. aff.,



25th June, 1903.


A curious thing happened to-night. I was playing with the cat after dinner on the gravel path with a plantain, and she grew so much excited that she hardly knew what she was doing. When the plantain was worn out I picked up a large ox-eye daisy to go on with; and just as I was doing it I heard her say, "Ah, that's much better." I turned round very sharp and looked at her. She was crouched down quite flat on the gravel and looked so angry - (there is a moth in the ink) - that I thought she was going to make an ugly rush at me: but instead of that she turned and rushed into the bushes like a wild thing and I haven't seen her since. Now I think this is very interesting. I am perfectly sure they could talk if they chose, as well I know. Evidently you have to get them off their guard.

But all this you will say - and rightly, has nothing to do with the rudeness of the Rude Stone Monuments, which I visited in Brittany this spring; and certainly they were extremely rude. Whether it was because they were pro-Boers or Anglophobes or remembered the Battle of Quiberon, which they are quite old enough to do, or whether it was simply because they had never seen a hat exactly like mine before (which is the reason given by those who were with me) I do not know; anyhow that fact remains that I could not pass a single megalith (as they are called - though they prefer almost any name to this) without incurring a series of most damaging criticisms. At first I thought it was boys concealed behind the stones, but when I came to notice one or more of the larger stones shuffling forward and lying down across the road just where they expected my bicycle to pass I realised the true state of the case. After all, perhaps we ought not to be too hard on them. It must be dull work standing there from one year's end to another.

I succeeded in frightening them a good deal eventually by saying as I passed that Charlemagne was expected shortly - it appears that he issued orders that all the megaliths should be destroyed. They have never forgotten this and it was really very funny to see them trying to make themselves look as small as possible.

Ever yr. aff.,


Copyright (c) 1939 N.J.R. James

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