IN 1870, the Sultan of Turkey gifted the work of a Scotsman to all his top ranking imperial officials. The Khedive of Egypt had the same work inscribed and painted on the wall of the Royal harem. Two years, later the Meiji dynasty promulgated that the same work be issued across Tokyo's school system. Eventually, every prefecture in Japan followed suit. General George Custer described the Scottish volume as his favourite text.
As far as I can detect, this best seller was the first English- language book to be translated into Albanian. Dutch, French, German and even Danish editions followed. Many people kept the volume next to their Bible. The author was an international superstar.
Fame is transient. Who now reads Self Help? Who has heard of Samuel Smiles? In his home town of Edinburgh and his childhood home, Haddington, I know of no bronze plaques or noble statues. Smiles has almost been obliterated. Is it peculiar to Scotland that it can be indifferent to a son who created riots in Belgrade and carnivals in Milan? The Austrian emperor declared himself to be honoured to meet such a famous man. Yet in Edinburgh, his life and work go unpraised.
He is not entirely forgotten. A new Indian edition rolls off the presses this spring, and a US foundation is hosting a major conference on the centenary of Smilesâ death on 16 April. The conference, however, will be in Tunbridge Wells.
When he died in 1904, Smilesâ funeral cortege was said to be shorter than only Queen Victoriaâs. The mourning for Smiles seems to have been tearful rather than merely respectful. He was loved.
Self Help was perhaps a dud title. Smiles himself realised too late it could be portrayed as "a eulogy to selfishness". Self Help is an extraordinary manifesto for capitalism. It is not an essay in favour of joint stock companies or of particular tax regimes. Smiles is an advocate of entrepreneurship. His book is a truly remarkable inventory of heroism and virtue.
Dipping into its pages - a solid read is too intoxicating - is a curious experience. In part, you travel back in time to his mid-19th century perceptions. In another sense his raw material - human nature - is both timeless and locationless. It is as good for a Japanese man of commerce to exhibit the plain virtues of honesty, punctuality, diligence and energy as it is for a Swede or a Canadian.
Smiles was born in Haddington, East Lothian, in 1812. The son of a farm labourer, he was orphaned by the age of ten. His life story has that awesome streak of porridge-powered integrity which w