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Saturday 1 March 2014


I’m holding in my hand a piece of a vanished world, a playscript written by my great uncle Willy.

William Henry Salter (1880-1969), c1910

Uncle Willy and his brother Fred, my grandfather, were both keen mountaineers and before the First World War they made regular trips to climb in Europe. They formed climbing and skiing parties with experienced locals, and my father told me once that when the war erupted across Europe they had to cut their connections with many close friends in Germany.

In the manner of the times, and in the years before television, house parties made their own entertainments after the exertions of the day. They would read to each other, set each other puzzles and word games and devise comic sketches together. For Willy and Fred these were intellectual, cerebral entertainments of a sort learned from their father, who met with his friends regularly to read and discuss Aristotle (in the original ancient Greek).

Willy Salter (standing behind, centre) and Fred Salter (standing right), c1910

Willy’s play was written at one such gathering. The nine-page sketch is like an early Yes, Minister, set in the front office of a Cabinet Minister and with lots of satirical humour about civil service intransigence and ignorance about small (and therefore comic) corners of the British Empire. The punchline involves the salute to which the King of Tonga is entitled being increased by two guns.

It’s called In a Government Office and the cover of the typed script includes the note “First performed at the Kursaal, Mürren, on December 30th 1911,” to which my father has added by hand “by Uncle Willy and friends.” A New Year house party in the Swiss Alps!

The Kursaal, Mürren, c1920 – the remote village, high in the Bernese Oberland, is still unreachable by road in 2014

Although it was probably performed as a reading rather than a full performance, the description of the stage set is very detailed –
Private Secretary’s room in a Government Office. Fireplace in centre at back. Window on left. Desks on either side of fireplace, both piled high with papers, books of reference etc. Desk-telephone on each desk. Door at back (right) leading into Minister’s room. Door at side (right) leading into passage.
It’s a three-hander: the characters are Blenkinsop (a messenger), Mr Tremayne (a permanent official) and Miss Carstairs (a member of the public). There’s no specific note of the cast: Uncle Willy and friends, one of them perhaps one of the women so unsuitably attired in the group photograph above.

In a Government Office, by Willy Salter and friends – the painting behind is Glacier de Tret la Tête, by Noel Rooke, painted in 1911 – the climbing figures were added in 1915 with a new dedication “To FG Salter” after Fred suffered an injury in the trenches which ended his climbing career

The date of the performance is highly significant. According to Wikipedia, “Mürren has its roots as a farming village. However, it has grown in size and wealth owing to tourism in both summer and winter. Tourism and winter sports have been an important part of Mürren's history since 1911, when the first British winter tourists arrived.” Those first British tourists, therefore, three years before the start of the First World War, included Uncle Willy and friends. Now the Kursaal, the cast and that whole pre-war world have gone; and only the rust-speckled script survives to remind us how things were. The civil service, I suspect, remains largely unchanged.

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