Saki and see

11th April 2008 at 01:00
This analysis makes heavy work of the life of H.H. Munro, says Mike Chappell

The Unbearable Saki: The Work of H.H. Munro

Sandie Byrne

Oxford University Press

pound;19.99

My memories of Saki, the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro or H.H. Munro (pictured, left), date back to television short stories that were a must-watch of my youth.

It has been an ambition to find out more about the storyteller. This book helped that. However, between the first 121 pages and the last chapter lies a solid chunk of detailed analysis of Saki stories that requires a good knowledge of the books.

Unfortunately I, and I would guess many others, do not have this knowledge and it was a hard slog to read through this section for the snippets they contain of Saki the man.

He was born in North West Burma on December 18, 1870, and was shot in the trenches and died a Lance Sergeant (having refused many offers of a commission) in November 1916, aged 45. His death certificate records his age as 42, as he had lied to enlist.

Saki tried to join the Army in 1893, but was too ill. He had been brought up in England by his aunts. This was a miserable childhood by some accounts, but his sister, who provides lots of information, disputes this; perhaps in order to enhance her brother's memory.

The aunts nursed Saki through brain fever (possibly meningitis) when he was nine. He was never a well child and after being rejected by the Army in 1893, joined the Burma Police, but resigned after a fever in 1894.

He seems to have settled into writing parliamentary sketches (he was a Tory) before becoming a foreign correspondent for the Morning Post in 1902 and travelling to Russia. He returned home when his father died in 1907.

He became a top bridge player around the London clubs, dressing in a dapper fashion. He was kind to animals and had thoughts of moving overseas in his later years, to farm in Serbia.

He made his living by writing short stories for magazines. It's interesting to learn how hard he had to chase to get paid. He was writing articles for at least five magazines when he was in the trenches.

This all seems to fit in with Saki's school report: "Plenty of ability but no application".

Indeed he never seems to have extended himself militarily until his final two years in the trenches.

If you have read Saki, this is the book for you, but you need to know the characters. Otherwise, you would only pick it up for a sketch of middle-class, Edwardian, colonial life.

It is page 102 before the writer gives an explanation of why H. H. Munro adopted the pen name of Saki. The book says Saki was stationed at Tidworth in Hampshire - but isn't Tidworth in Wiltshire?

It is written by an academic in an academic style. Despite the interesting subject, it's not a page turner. However, I feel I have a good understanding of Saki from the outside.

I do not think the book manages to get inside the skin of this solitary recluse. Read it, but as a bedside book for insomniacs.

Mike Chappell teaches maths at Dorcan Technology College in Swindon.

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