Blowing Cigarette Smoke at Greenfly

E.S. Turner

  • The Unrest-Cure and Other Beastly Tales by Saki
    Prion, 297 pp, £8.99, May 2000, ISBN 1 85375 370 X

Will Self would have us believe that a volume of Saki’s stories, chosen from eight miles of second-hand books in a New York store, saved his life. That, he says in his introduction to this collection, should not be confused with changing his life. Faced with a 22-city promotional tour of America for one of his books (‘Not, you might venture, a deathly predicament in and of itself – but how wrong you are’), he was able to set against the ‘terrifying rootlessness’ of the tour the ‘triumphantly rooted character’ of Saki’s stories. I picture him, crammed in his aircraft seat, suddenly transformed, or perhaps stung, by a line like ‘to have reached thirty is to have failed in life,’ or wondering how to work off, on the next interviewer, a variation of ‘I love Americans but not when they try to talk French. What a blessing it is they never try to talk English.’

The Saki joke most venerated down the generations – ‘The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go she went’ – appears in the first tale of this selection, the latest in a series of Prion Humour Classics which includes Saki’s contemporaries Stephen Leacock, Jerome K. Jerome and the Grossmiths. Saki lends a caustic distinction to that company. His real name was Hector Hugh Munro and he was born in Burma in 1870, the son of an inspector-general of the Burma police. Two years later his mother died after a miscarriage caused by being charged by a cow in an English lane, an incident which did not prevent her son writing about women skewered by stags or otherwise rent by wild beasts. The young Hector was brought up in Devonshire by two supposedly harsh, repressive aunts. Like George Orwell, he served briefly in the Burma police. Invalided out, he was next seen as a near-dandy and struggling writer in London, somewhat given to practical joking. He was also given to what his sister Ethel, who burned his letters after he died, called ‘chumming’. This is defined as ‘sharing chambers’ in the OED, which has nothing ill to say about the practice. However, in the post-Wilde years even innocent chumming was hazardous. Saki, to whom no public scandal ever attached, moved from freelancing to become a European correspondent of the Morning Post. He had already attracted notice with his cynical short stories. V.S. Pritchett has placed him in ‘the early period of the sadistic revival in English comic and satirical writing’. It was a great day for authority-baiting and aunt-bashing, which came to the same thing, and also for finding amusing fates for children – thumbs cut off by Scissormen (Struwwelpeter), death agonies brought on by chewing bits of string (Belloc) or being hurled with one’s twin from a cliff to see who would reach the bottom first (Captain Harry Graham). Saki, though, was often on the child’s side; he recognised, too, that children loved tales of grown-ups meeting horrible ends.

Will Self writes of the ‘pagan unease’ introduced by Saki into the tedium of those weekend country-house parties in which his characters were so ‘triumphantly rooted’. He says: ‘It is as if Damien Hirst had arrived at Blandings Castle and pickled Lord Emsworth’s prize pig in formaldehyde.’ Or, I would suggest, it is as if Ben Travers, having brushed up on Grand Guignol, had given one of his Aldwych silly asses a profile of Adonisian beauty, triumphantly displayed until eventually the head is turned to reveal the other side to be heart-stoppingly hideous.

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