There is no record of the breed of runaway cow that killed Hector Hugh Monroe’s mother. Which is a pity. It would have been another interesting detail to add to a life that was full of them.
His mother, having already borne three children in Burma where his father was a colonial military policeman, had been sent back to Devonshire so that the child she was carrying could make a less risky entry into the world. No doubt such an ironic tragedy had a long-lasting effect on Monroe who, at the time in 1872, was 2 years old. Perhaps if it had been his father who had been killed, and by a charging bull, he would have grown up to be Ernest Hemingway, but it wasn’t, and he didn’t. He grew up to be Saki, the greatest British writer no one reads any more.
Second-hand copies of The Penguin Complete Saki can be bought on Amazon for a very reasonable £5.60. The book contains 135 short stories, 3 novels and 3 plays. There’s also a foreword by Noël Coward. Which is only fitting because, if you want to fit Saki into a literary lineage, he is the missing link between Mr Coward and Oscar Wilde. These days, a tall skinny caramel machiatto from Mmm Coffee! can set you back nigh on a fiver if you throw in a biscuit, so £5.60 for 960 pages of genius is unbelievable value for money.
Ah, but I hear you say, I’m over-selling Saki. I’m not. At his best he writes short stories of sublime elegance and wit, each rendered with a miniaturist’s eye for detail. In them upper-crust Edwardian life is not so much lampooned as subtly eviscerated. And the stories are funny. Very funny. Laughter in the dark, in many cases, but laughter nonetheless. However, as with all the best satirists’ work, behind them lurk both morality and idealism.
H. H. Monroe changed his name (and made his name) when, working in collaboration with the political cartoonist Fran
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There is no record of the breed of runaway cow that killed Hector Hugh Monroe’s mother. Which is a pity. It would have been another interesting detail to add to a life that was full of them.His mother, having already borne three children in Burma where his father was a colonial military policeman, had been sent back to Devonshire so that the child she was carrying could make a less risky entry into the world. No doubt such an ironic tragedy had a long-lasting effect on Monroe who, at the time in 1872, was 2 years old. Perhaps if it had been his father who had been killed, and by a charging bull, he would have grown up to be Ernest Hemingway, but it wasn’t, and he didn’t. He grew up to be Saki, the greatest British writer no one reads any more. Second-hand copies of The Penguin Complete Saki can be bought on Amazon for a very reasonable £5.60. The book contains 135 short stories, 3 novels and 3 plays. There’s also a foreword by Noël Coward. Which is only fitting because, if you want to fit Saki into a literary lineage, he is the missing link between Mr Coward and Oscar Wilde. These days, a tall skinny caramel machiatto from Mmm Coffee! can set you back nigh on a fiver if you throw in a biscuit, so £5.60 for 960 pages of genius is unbelievable value for money. Ah, but I hear you say, I’m over-selling Saki. I’m not. At his best he writes short stories of sublime elegance and wit, each rendered with a miniaturist’s eye for detail. In them upper-crust Edwardian life is not so much lampooned as subtly eviscerated. And the stories are funny. Very funny. Laughter in the dark, in many cases, but laughter nonetheless. However, as with all the best satirists’ work, behind them lurk both morality and idealism. H. H. Monroe changed his name (and made his name) when, working in collaboration with the political cartoonist Francis Carruthers Gould, he produced a parody of Alice in Wonderland that first appeared in the Westminster Gazette on 25 July 1900. ‘The Westminster Alice’ found the heroine in a Wonderland mired in the morass that was the Boer War. The author’s critical point of view can be gauged by a single stanza from its opening verse.
Party moves on either side, Checks and feints that don’t deceive, Knights and Bishops, Pawns and all, In a game of Make-Believe.The war in South Africa had begun as a self-righteous, popular crusade. A speedy victory had been predicted. But the Dutch guerrilla fighters had other ideas. The writer’s initial target was Arthur Balfour, First Lord of the Treasury. Saki’s Cheshire Cat skewers the politician with six words addressed to Alice.
‘Have you ever seen an Ineptitude?’ Alice, spying the subject of the query, pushes for more information. ‘Can it talk?’ asked Alice eagerly. ‘It has never done anything else,’ chuckled the Cat.Later Alice encounters the White Knight – a cipher for the Secretary of War who had masterminded the start of the conflict. Naturally the subject of the war comes up.
‘And did you bring it to a successful conclusion?’ asked Alice. ‘Not exactly a conclusion – not a definite conclusion you know – nor entirely successful either. In fact, I believe it’s going on still . . . but you can’t think how much forethought it took to get it properly started.’Towards the end of the parody Alice is serenaded by the Mad Hatter.
Dwindle, dwindle, little war, How I wonder more and more, As about the veldt you hop When you really mean to stop.Brilliant though the satire is, it has obviously dated and has very little relevance in Britain today. Unless, of course, you should happen to cast your eyes towards Iraq. Saki’s next satirical creation, who also appeared in the Westminster Gazette in a series of short stories, was Reginald. Reginald is a young dandy who is vain, self-centred and charming. And, of course, witty. In his second outing, in a short story called ‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’, Reginald contemplates the festive season: ‘People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.’ But it is the pretensions of the lightly gilded society around him that give Reginald the most scope for mischief. In ‘Reginald on House Parties’ our man about town reluctantly finds himself on a weekend shooting party in Dorsetshire: ‘There’s such a deadly sameness about partridges; when you’ve missed one you’ve missed the lot.’ His hosts, unwisely, rib him about his inability to hit a bird at five yards – ‘a sort of bovine ragging that suggested cows buzzing round a gadfly and thinking they were teasing it’. By way of response, the next morning Reginald gets up early and hunts down the most conspicuous thing in the bird line that he can find. He measures five yards. He starts shooting. Then he gets the gardener’s boy to drag the corpse into the hall where everyone will see it on their way in to breakfast. His hosts are not impressed. The peacock was a pet. ‘They said afterwards that it was a tame bird; that’s simply silly, because it was awfully wild at the first few shots.’ And when the foibles of society aren’t enough to draw Reginald’s fire, the prematurely jaundiced eye of his youthful disdain sets its sights on individual human relations. In ‘Reginald on Besetting Sins’, a tale that barely covers two pages, he informs us that ‘Children are given us to discourage our better motions’, and that ‘The revenge of an elder sister may be long in coming, but, like a South Eastern express, it arrives in its own good time.’ Revenge is a subject of which Saki was a connoisseur. In his short stories it was often directed at aunts. Saki really didn’t get on with aunts. And with good cause. As a child his aunts didn’t get on with him. After his mother had died, and his father had returned to service overseas, he and his siblings were left in the care of Aunt Charlotte and Aunt Augusta. In those dour Victorian times the prevailing childcare philosophy was that children should be repressed for their own good. The aunts, already at war with each other, set about the task with admirable determination. The house they lived in was large and gloomy, with fetid rooms shut off from the sun and the malign influence of fresh air. The gardens, stocked with ample fruit trees, were not for playing in. Discipline was rigid. The tempers of the aunts flared regularly. And even God was invoked as conjuring up thunderstorms as a personal rebuke to the children’s unruly behaviour. None of which prevented Saki, who as a sickly child had been judged doomed by the local doctor, from assuming the role of mayhem-maker-in-chief. But it was only years later, in his short stories, that he would consummately heap humiliation on his oppressors. In ‘The Lumber Room’ a small boy, Nicholas, is deprived of a trip to the beach on account of his insistence that there is a frog in his breakfast bowl of bread and milk. His aunt, of course, knows that this is plainly ridiculous. But Nicholas, having put the frog there himself, sees it as yet another lesson in the fallibility of the aunt. Banned from the beach trip Nicholas is also barred from visiting the gooseberry garden. He then devises a plan in which, having first wriggled around in the shrubbery near the gooseberry garden, he enters the locked, forbidden and delight-filled lumber room knowing that the aunt will be fully occupied guarding the gooseberries. Eventually Nicholas’s long-term absence leads the aunt to scour the gooseberry garden where she is sure the miscreant must be hiding. Unfortunately she falls into the rain-water tank and can’t get out. She cries out to Nicholas for help. But Nicholas refuses to come to her aid: ‘I was told I wasn’t to go into the gooseberry garden.’ He then debates with the sodden aunt whether she is in fact the Evil One tempting him. The aunt insists that she is the aunt. Nicholas innocently asks if there will be strawberry jam for tea. The aunt, resolving that he won’t have any, says yes. And Nicholas triumphantly trumps the claim: ‘Now I know that you are the Evil One and not aunt. When we asked for strawberry jam yesterday she said there wasn’t any . . . Oh devil, you have sold yourself!’ Eventually the aunt is rescued by a kitchen maid searching for parsley. The pseudo-aunt in Saki’s undoubted masterpiece ‘Sredni Vashtar’ does not get off so lightly. Sredni Vashtar is the name of the polecat owned by 10-year-old Conradin and kept hidden at the back of a tool-shed from his guardian Mrs De Ropp. To the child the beast, bought from a friendly butcher-boy, is less of a pet and more of a god. Every Thursday in the musty gloom of the shed ceremonies are invoked and garlands laid. Conradin knows that if the polecat is ever discovered by Mrs De Ropp it will be exiled or dispatched. But, when that fateful day comes and she starts ferreting around in the tool-shed, his faith is rewarded in a most gruesome fashion: ‘out through the doorway came a long, low, yellow-and-brown beast, with eyes a-blink at the waning daylight, and darkwet stains around the fur of jaws and throat’. It must be said that death by beast, or the threat of it, is a recurring theme in Saki’s work. Obviously his mother’s demise may have had something to do with this. But it could also be that he was influenced by the fact that one of his ancestors was the Munroe who was famously devoured by a tiger while on a hunt in India. And the fact that so gory an event was commemorated at the time by the issue of a very popular china ornament may well have made Saki realize that the decorative and the dark can co-exist. But however black the subtext of any particular story, Saki can always be relied upon to deploy a silly name to puncture any danger of pomposity. Mrs De Ropp contends with Clovis Sangrail, Bertie Van Tahn, Septimus Brope, Ada Spelvexit, Revil Yealmton, Mrs Packletide, Wilfred Pigeoncote, Serena Golackly, Lester Slaggby and Mrs Duff-Chubleigh for our amusement. My own favourite name is Filboid Studge. Not a person, but a failing breakfast cereal whose fortunes are turned round when advertised by a poster of the great and the good of the time depicted as the Damned in Hell suffering the unspeakable torment of not being able to reach bowls of the stuff held over them by demons. Bold letters along the bottom of the poster read ‘They cannot buy it now’. But even as Saki wrote this, the world around him was heading towards another version of hell. Saki, who had worked as a foreign correspondent for the Morning Post, had ample experience of spotting storm clouds gathering on the horizon. He had been sent to the Balkans in 1902 when the states of that region had preened and postured and skirmished over the fate of Macedonia. He had also been in St Petersburg in 1905 when the first red shoots of the Russian revolution pushed their way through the frozen soil. With him at the time was his holidaying sister. On 22 January they made their way to the Hôtel de France to lay claim to front-row seats for Father Gapon’s march on the Winter Palace. The strikers the priest led were from the Putilov Ironworks, demanding an eight-hour day, sanitary conditions, medical aid and higher wages. What they got were the bullets and swords of the Tsar’s troops. Up to a thousand people were killed. Back in London eight years later it wasn’t the arrival of the Tsar’s troops at the Winter Palace that troubled Saki, but the Kaiser’s at the Palace of Westminster. With Parliament seemingly preoccupied with the question of Home Rule for Ireland, Saki took it upon himself to highlight the danger of Germany’s growing military might in the only way he could. He wrote a book. When William Comes is a fantasy in which, after a war lasting barely a week, Britain is under German rule. The British had lost because, brave though their troops were, there weren’t enough of them, they were under-equipped and there had been no time to train the reserves. Saki’s message could not have been clearer. The book was published in 1913. On 3 August 1914, when Sir Edward Grey addressed Parliament and finally declared that Britain would go to war with Germany, Saki was in the public gallery. Within a couple of days he had hired a horse to ride for exercise. He was determined to fight. He was 43. On 25 August he joined the 2nd King Edward’s Horse as an enlisted man. But the demands of the cavalry were too physically taxing and he transferred to the 22nd battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. Since he spoke German he was pressured to take a job as an interpreter, but he refused, just as he refused the offer of a commission. He wanted to be an ordinary soldier. After a year in training at various barracks around the country Saki was dispatched to Boulogne. By the autumn of 1916 he had been at, or near, the front for the best part of a year. He had been promoted to lance sergeant. Then he fell ill. As he lay in a hospital bed word reached him that, as part of the fag-end of the Battle of the Somme, his battalion were planning an attack on the fortified village of Beaumont-Hamel that lay just behind German lines. In truth it was an action that had little chance of providing a breakthrough, but a conference at Chantilly was looming and General Haig wanted to be able to report even the smallest of successes to his French counterparts. Saki, not wanting to be away from his comrades when they went over the top, nor thought of as a shirker feigning illness to avoid a fight, left his bed and reported back to his unit. At 1.30 a.m. the battalion marched in darkness towards the muddy trenches of the front line. Two exhausting days later Saki’s company were bedded down in marshy ground guarding the left flank of the slow advance. At four in the morning there was a lull in the shelling. Grateful for the respite, one of the men in Saki’s company lit up a cigarette. But Saki knew just how dangerous this was and uttered his last words: ‘Put that bloody cigarette out.’ A shot rang out. There is no record of whether the cigarette that killed Hector Hugh Monroe was ever put out. Which is a pity. It would have been another interesting detail to add to a life that was full of them.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 17 © Rohan Candappa 2008
About the contributor
Rohan Candappa’s last book answered the ‘101 Essential Questions of Britishness’. Before that was one about Prince Charles and Che Guevara. And their similarities. Well, it seemed a good idea at the time.