The Persian monarch, Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar (16 July 1831–1 May 1896), paid three visits to Britain, in 1873, 1878, and 1889. They caused a lot of public interest and were extensively covered by the press, which relished the One Thousand and One Nights element of these state occasions. It took several years, however, after the first visit before the apocryphal stories Bloom remembers found their way into print.
In 1881 the Reverend James Vaughan published his Sermons to children preached in Christ Church, Brighton, on Sunday afternoons in 1878,1879,1880 and 1881:
I am told when the Shah of Persia was in England, and was attending one of the great concerts in London, in the Albert Hall, he was asked what part he liked the best, and he said 'he liked best all that tuning of the instruments before the concert began’.
St. Nicholas; an illustrated Magazine for Young People followed in March 1885:
Once, so the story goes, the Shah of Persia was in London, and went to a concert in the famous Crystal palace at Sydenham. While the orchestra was tuning up and making all manner of queer noises, his royal highness was immensely pleased and entertained, but as soon as the concert really did begin, the Shah said he could not see much beauty in it, and he soon went out.
Like Davy Byrne the sceptical reader may ask: “Is that a fact?”
The diary of the Shah of Persia during his tour through Europe in 1873, which was translated into several European languages, shows no indication that he did not enjoy the numerous musical performances he was treated to all over Europe. His specific comment on the musical aspects of his visit to the Crystal Palace reads:
Facing us was a large organ, similar to the one in the Albert Hall. There were also a numerous orchestra and singers. They played; they sang; and such an assembly was there in that place, above and below, around and on all sides, seated on chairs that one's eyes were dazzled. (p. 192)
That the story is just a story becomes clear e.g. from Dickens's magazine All the Year Round for 1872:
The 'tuning up' of the stringed instruments in an orchestra is likewise obviously disagreeable to any person having an ear for music; yet DONIZETTI, the famous composer, whose brother was maitré d'orchestré to the Sultan MAHMOUD, used to relate that the cacophonous scraping of 'the bowels of the cat with the hair of the horse' was the musical performance in which the Commander of the Faithful was wont to take the greater delight.
Mahmoud II died in 1839. But the yarn can be traced back to at least 1816 when Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine informs its readers:
We may perhaps be accused of having a Turkish taste in music (after the pattern of that Sultan's, who was chiefly fascinated with the jarring process of tuning the instruments, a thing abhorred by 'gods and men') if we venture to own.
The second, less appetising anecdote is mentioned in the Review of Reviews of 1895:
Her Majesty, with a salutary dread of the consequences of lodging oriental princes in royal palaces — the Shah, it will be remembered, used to wipe his nose upon the costly curtains of Buckingham Palace — farmed out her guest at Dorchester House.
Harald Beck/(John Simpson)