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Hector Hugh Munro (18 December 1870 – 13 November 1916)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a chill, rain-washed afternoon of a late August day, that indefinite season when partridges are still in security or cold storage, and there is nothing to hunt—unless one is bounded on the north by the Bristol Channel, in which case one may lawfully gallop after fat red stags. Lady Blemley’s house-party was not bounded on the north by the Bristol Channel, hence there was a full gathering of her guests round the tea-table on this particular afternoon. And, in spite of the blankness of the season and the triteness of the occasion, there was no trace in the company of that fatigued restlessness which means a dread of the pianola and a subdued hankering for auction bridge. The undisguised open-mouthed attention of the entire party was fixed on the homely negative personality of Mr. Cornelius Appin. Of all her guests, he was the one who had come to Lady Blemley with the vaguest reputation. Some one had said he was “clever,” and he had got his invitation in the moderate expectation, on the part of his hostess, that some portion at least of his cleverness would be contributed to the general entertainment. Until tea-time that day she had been unable to discover in what direction, if any, his cleverness lay. He was neither a wit nor a croquet champion, a hypnotic force nor a begetter of amateur theatricals. Neither did his exterior suggest the sort of man in whom women are willing to pardon a generous measure of mental deficiency. He had subsided into mere Mr. Appin, and the Cornelius seemed a piece of transparent baptismal bluff. And now he was claiming to have launched on the world a discovery beside which the invention of gunpowder, of the printing-press, and of steam locomotion were inconsiderable trifles. Science had made bewildering strides in many directions during recent decades, but this thing seemed to belong to the domain of miracle rather than to scientific achievement.

“And do you really ask us to believe,” Sir Wilfrid was saying, “that you have discovered a means for instructing animals in the art of human speech, and that dear old Tobermory has proved your first successful pupil?”

“It is a problem at which I have worked for the last seventeen years,” said Mr. Appin, “but only during the last eight or nine months have I been rewarded with glimmerings of success. Of course I have experimented with thousands of animals, but latterly only with cats, those wonderful creatures which have assimilated themselves so marvellously with our civilization while retaining all their highly developed feral instincts. Here and there among cats one comes across an outstanding superior intellect, just as one does among the ruck of human beings, and when I made the acquaintance of Tobermory a week ago I saw at once that I was in contact with a “Beyond-cat” of extraordinary intelligence. I had gone far along the road to success in recent experiments; with Tobermory, as you call him, I have reached the goal.”

Mr. Appin concluded his remarkable statement in a voice which he strove to divest of a triumphant inflection. No one said “Rats,” though Clovis’s lips moved in a monosyllabic contortion, which probably invoked those rodents of disbelief.

“And do you mean to say,” asked Miss Resker, after a slight pause, “that you have taught Tobermory to say and understand easy sentences of one syllable?”

“My dear Miss Resker,” said the wonder-worker patiently, “one teaches little children and savages and backward adults in that piecemeal fashion; when one has once solved the problem of making a beginning with an animal of highly developed intelligence one has no need for those halting methods. Tobermory can speak our language with perfect correctness.”

This time Clovis very distinctly said, “Beyond-rats!” Sir Wilfred was more polite but equally sceptical.

“Hadn’t we better have the cat in and judge for ourselves?” suggested Lady Blemley.

Sir Wilfred went in search of the animal, and the company settled themselves down to the languid expectation of witnessing some more or less adroit drawing-room ventriloquism.

In a minute Sir Wilfred was back in the room, his face white beneath its tan and his eyes dilated with excitement.

“By Gad, it’s true!”

His agitation was unmistakably genuine, and his hearers started forward in a thrill of wakened interest.

Collapsing into an armchair he continued breathlessly:

“I found him dozing in the smoking-room, and called out to him to come for his tea. He blinked at me in his usual way, and I said, ‘Come on, Toby; don’t keep us waiting’ and, by Gad! he drawled out in a most horribly natural voice that he’d come when he dashed well pleased! I nearly jumped out of my skin!”

Appin had preached to absolutely incredulous hearers; Sir Wilfred’s statement carried instant conviction. A Babel-like chorus of startled exclamation arose, amid which the scientist sat mutely enjoying the first fruit of his stupendous discovery.

In the midst of the clamour Tobermory entered the room and made his way with velvet tread and studied unconcern across the group seated round the tea-table.

A sudden hush of awkwardness and constraint fell on the company. Somehow there seemed an element of embarrassment in addressing on equal terms a domestic cat of acknowledged dental ability.

“Will you have some milk, Tobermory?” asked Lady Blemley in a rather strained voice.

“I don’t mind if I do,” was the response, couched in a tone of even indifference. A shiver of suppressed excitement went through the listeners, and Lady Blemley might be excused for pouring out the saucerful of milk rather unsteadily.

“I’m afraid I’ve spilt a good deal of it,” she said apologetically.

“After all, it’s not my Axminster,” was Tobermory’s rejoinder.

Another silence fell on the group, and then Miss Resker, in her best district-visitor manner, asked if the human language had been difficult to learn. Tobermory looked squarely at her for a moment and then fixed his gaze serenely on the middle distance. It was obvious that boring questions lay outside his scheme of life.

“What do you think of human intelligence?” asked Mavis Pellington lamely.

“Of whose intelligence in particular?” asked Tobermory coldly.

“Oh, well, mine for instance,” said Mavis with a feeble laugh.

“You put me in an embarrassing position,” said Tobermory, whose tone and attitude certainly did not suggest a shred of embarrassment. “When your inclusion in this house-party was suggested Sir Wilfrid protested that you were the most brainless woman of his acquaintance, and that there was a wide distinction between hospitality and the care of the feeble-minded. Lady Blemley replied that your lack of brain-power was the precise quality which had earned you your invitation, as you were the only person she could think of who might be idiotic enough to buy their old car. You know, the one they call ‘The Envy of Sisyphus,’ because it goes quite nicely up-hill if you push it.”

Lady Blemley’s protestations would have had greater effect if she had not casually suggested to Mavis only that morning that the car in question would be just the thing for her down at her Devonshire home.

Major Barfield plunged in heavily to effect a diversion.

“How about your carryings-on with the tortoise-shell puss up at the stables, eh?”

The moment he had said it every one realized the blunder.

“One does not usually discuss these matters in public,” said Tobermory frigidly. “From a slight observation of your ways since you’ve been in this house I should imagine you’d find it inconvenient if I were to shift the conversation to your own little affairs.”

The panic which ensued was not confined to the Major.

“Would you like to go and see if cook has got your dinner ready?” suggested Lady Blemley hurriedly, affecting to ignore the fact that it wanted at least two hours to Tobermory’s dinner-time.

“Thanks,” said Tobermory, “not quite so soon after my tea. I don’t want to die of indigestion.”

“Cats have nine lives, you know,” said Sir Wilfred heartily.

“Possibly,” answered Tobermory; “but only one liver.”

“Adelaide!” said Mrs. Cornett, “do you mean to encourage that cat to go out and gossip about us in the servants’ hall?”

The panic had indeed become general. A narrow ornamental balustrade ran in front of most of the bedroom windows at the Towers, and it was recalled with dismay that this had formed a favourite promenade for Tobermory at all hours, whence he could watch the pigeons—and heaven knew what else besides. If he intended to become reminiscent in his present outspoken strain the effect would be something more than disconcerting. Mrs. Cornett, who spent much time at her toilet table, and whose complexion was reputed to be of a nomadic though punctual disposition, looked as ill at ease as the Major. Miss Scrawen, who wrote fiercely sensuous poetry and led a blameless life, merely displayed irritation; if you are methodical and virtuous in private you don’t necessarily want everyone to know it. Bertie van Tahn, who was so depraved at 17 that he had long ago given up trying to be any worse, turned a dull shade of gardenia white, but he did not commit the error of dashing out of the room like Odo Finsberry, a young gentleman who was understood to be reading for the Church and who was possibly disturbed at the thought of scandals he might hear concerning other people. Clovis had the presence of mind to maintain a composed exterior; privately he was calculating how long it would take to procure a box of fancy mice through the agency of the Exchange and Mart as a species of hush-money.

Even in a delicate situation like the present, Agnes Resker could not endure to remain long in the background.

“Why did I ever come down here?” she asked dramatically.

Tobermory immediately accepted the opening.

“Judging by what you said to Mrs. Cornett on the croquet-lawn yesterday, you were out of food. You described the Blemleys as the dullest people to stay with that you knew, but said they were clever enough to employ a first-rate cook; otherwise they’d find it difficult to get any one to come down a second time.”

“There’s not a word of truth in it! I appeal to Mrs. Cornett—” exclaimed the discomfited Agnes.

“Mrs. Cornett repeated your remark afterwards to Bertie van Tahn,” continued Tobermory, “and said, ‘That woman is a regular Hunger Marcher; she’d go anywhere for four square meals a day,’ and Bertie van Tahn said—”

At this point the chronicle mercifully ceased. Tobermory had caught a glimpse of the big yellow tom from the Rectory working his way through the shrubbery towards the stable wing. In a flash he had vanished through the open French window.

With the disappearance of his too brilliant pupil Cornelius Appin found himself beset by a hurricane of bitter upbraiding, anxious inquiry, and frightened entreaty. The responsibility for the situation lay with him, and he must prevent matters from becoming worse. Could Tobermory impart his dangerous gift to other cats? was the first question he had to answer. It was possible, he replied, that he might have initiated his intimate friend the stable puss into his new accomplishment, but it was unlikely that his teaching could have taken a wider range as yet.

“Then,” said Mrs. Cornett, “Tobermory may be a valuable cat and a great pet; but I’m sure you’ll agree, Adelaide, that both he and the stable cat must be done away with without delay.”

“You don’t suppose I’ve enjoyed the last quarter of an hour, do you?” said Lady Blemley bitterly. “My husband and I are very fond of Tobermory—at least, we were before this horrible accomplishment was infused into him; but now, of course, the only thing is to have him destroyed as soon as possible.”

“We can put some strychnine in the scraps he always gets at dinner-time,” said Sir Wilfred, “and I will go and drown the stable cat myself. The coachman will be very sore at losing his pet, but I’ll say a very catching form of mange has broken out in both cats and we’re afraid of it spreading to the kennels.”

“But my great discovery!” expostulated Mr. Appin; “after all my years of research and experiment—”

“You can go and experiment on the short-horns at the farm, who are under proper control,” said Mrs. Cornett, “or the elephants at the Zoological Gardens. They’re said to be highly intelligent, and they have this recommendation, that they don’t come creeping about our bedrooms and under chairs, and so forth.”

An archangel ecstatically proclaiming the Millennium, and then finding that it clashed unpardonably with Henley and would have to be indefinitely postponed, could hardly have felt more crestfallen than Cornelius Appin at the reception of his wonderful achievement. Public opinion, however, was against him—in fact, had the general voice been consulted on the subject it is probable that a strong minority vote would have been in favour of including him in the strychnine diet.

Defective train arrangements and a nervous desire to see matters brought to a finish prevented an immediate dispersal of the party, but dinner that evening was not a social success. Sir Wilfred had had rather a trying time with the stable cat and subsequently with the coachman. Agnes Resker ostentatiously limited her repast to a morsel of dry toast, which she bit as though it were a personal enemy; while Mavis Pellington maintained a vindictive silence throughout the meal. Lady Blemley kept up a flow of what she hoped was conversation, but her attention was fixed on the doorway. A plateful of carefully dosed fish scraps was in readiness on the sideboard, but the sweets and savoury and dessert went their way, and no Tobermory appeared in the dining-room or kitchen.

The sepulchral dinner was cheerful compared with the subsequent vigil in the smoking-room. Eating and drinking had at least supplied a distraction and cloak to the prevailing embarrassment. Bridge was out of the question in the general tension of nerves and tempers, and after Odo Finsberry had given a lugubrious rendering of ‘Melisande in the Wood’ to a frigid audience, music was tacitly avoided. At eleven the servants went to bed, announcing that the small window in the pantry had been left open as usual for Tobermory’s private use. The guests read steadily through the current batch of magazines, and fell back gradually on the “Badminton Library” and bound volumes of Punch. Lady Blemley made periodic visits to the pantry, returning each time with an expression of listless depression which forestalled questioning.

At two o’clock Clovis broke the dominating silence.

“He won’t turn up tonight. He’s probably in the local newspaper office at the present moment, dictating the first installment of his reminiscences. Lady What’s-her-name’s book won’t be in it. It will be the event of the day.”

Having made this contribution to the general cheerfulness, Clovis went to bed. At long intervals the various members of the house-party followed his example.

The servants taking round the early tea made a uniform announcement in reply to a uniform question. Tobermory had not returned.

Breakfast was, if anything, a more unpleasant function than dinner had been, but before its conclusion the situation was relieved. Tobermory’s corpse was brought in from the shrubbery, where a gardener had just discovered it. From the bites on his throat and the yellow fur which coated his claws it was evident that he had fallen in unequal combat with the big Tom from the Rectory.

By midday most of the guests had quitted the Towers, and after lunch Lady Blemley had sufficiently recovered her spirits to write an extremely nasty letter to the Rectory about the loss of her valuable pet.

Tobermory had been Appin’s one successful pupil, and he was destined to have no successor. A few weeks later an elephant in the Dresden Zoological Garden, which had shown no previous signs of irritability, broke loose and killed an Englishman who had apparently been teasing it. The victim’s name was variously reported in the papers as Oppin and Eppelin, but his front name was faithfully rendered Cornelius.

“If he was trying German irregular verbs on the poor beast,” said Clovis, “he deserved all he got.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is a challenge to discern from this story whether Mr.Munro is either an ailurophile or an ailurophobe – and that is something I find vaguely satisfying. I had the same thoughts when I read The Merchant of Venice: was Shakespeare allowing his anti Semitic bias to show, or was he making a sympathetic case for Shylock?

In my case, I have to admit I am not an admirer of the feline species. I was spoiled by a feline of very close acquaintance who came to live with me, (he found me on my 35th birthday) and who by his exemplary nature and behaviour drastically lowered my tolerance for all other cats.

This singularly superiour member of the species never fell prey any of the despicable habits  often noted in his fellow felines. He never scratched at either the furniture or people: if he slipped off a lap he never tried to save himself by extending his claws. He never objected to a bath, and often fell asleep  in a dishpan of bathwater, with his head resting on the side. He went for walks (no leash) with the dogs, went hiking and camping, rode in the car quietly and calmly, permitted the dogs all manner of liberties without a hint of ill-humour, groomed the dogs and petted them when they went to him asking for affection and attention, and never killed a bird or a mouse in his life, despite having had ample opportunity to do so.

I once rescued a pigeon with a broken leg, and left her in an upstairs room to recuperate, always remembering to close the door behind me. One day the door was left open and Fred was nowhere to be found. Entering the room with a sense of horror and trepidation, I found Fred curled up next to the pigeon and taking an afternoon nap.

This friend of mine could also be picked up in any way at all, including by his tail – something he enjoyed greatly. He could be draped around a human shoulder or neck without ever extending a single claw even if he started to fall from the heights. He never got up on the furniture without an invitation, and he used the toilet for its intended offices.

In addition to all these sovereign virtues, he customarily greeted me at the door with a clearly enunciated “hello,” always came when called, and never left his yard for any purpose whatsoever. He was a friend to all and an enemy to none, not even the mice he calmly observed presuming to eat his cat food. His favourite diversion was to chase a small twig attached to a fishing pole, and eleven years after he entered animal Valhalla I still keep this preferred toy (and others) in their accustomed places in my home. He now rests beneath a flower bed in my back yard, and every year I fancy I see some of his mortal essence re emerge in the flowers that grow there.

So I am completely unable to comprehend why humans assume a servile and inferior position in relation to felines. Unlike most dogs, most cats dislike each other on sight, and I for one take my cue from such an eminently sensible attitude. Cats. I think, despise human weakness, and the more they are deferred to, the deeper the disdain they feel. In my experience cats clearly appreciate a firm hand, disposed as they are by their feline temperaments to take kindness for weakness.

I think  Mr. Munro grasped that fact with the utmost clarity and perspicacity.

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Hector Hugo Munro, a.k.a 'Saki' (December 18 1870 – November 13 1916)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Have  you written to thank the Froplinsons for what they sent us?” asked Egbert.

“No,” said Janetta, with a note of tired defiance in her voice; “I’ve written eleven letters to-day expressing surprise and gratitude for sundry unmerited gifts, but I haven’t written to the Froplinsons.”

“Some one will have to write to them,” said Egbert.

“I don’t dispute the necessity, but I don’t think the some one should be me,” said Janetta. “I wouldn’t mind writing a letter of angry recrimination or heartless satire to some suitable recipient; in fact, I should rather enjoy it, but I’ve come to the end of my capacity for expressing servile amiability. Eleven letters to-day and nine yesterday, all couched in the same strain of ecstatic thankfulness: really, you can’t expect me to sit down to another. There is such a thing as writing oneself out.”

“I’ve written nearly as many,” said Egbert, “and I’ve had my usual business correspondence to get through, too. Besides, I don’t know what it was that the Froplinsons sent us.”

“A William the Conqueror calendar,” said Janetta, “with a quotation of one of his great thoughts for every day in the year.”

“Impossible,” said Egbert; “he didn’t have three hundred and sixty-five thoughts in the whole of his life, or, if he did, he kept them to himself. He was a man of action, not of introspection.”

“Well, it was William Wordsworth, then,” said Janetta; “I know William came into it somewhere.”

“That sounds more probable,” said Egbert; “well, let’s collaborate on this letter of thanks and get it done. I’ll dictate, and you can scribble it down. ‘Dear Mrs. Froplinson – thank you and your husband so much for the very pretty calendar you sent us. It was very good of you to think of us.’ ”

“You can’t possibly say that,” said Janetta, laying down her pen.

“It’s what I always do say, and what every one says to me,” protested Egbert.

“We sent them something on the twenty-second,” said Janetta, “so they simply HAD to think of us. There was no getting away from it.”

“What did we send them?” asked Egbert gloomily.

“Bridge-markers,” said Janetta, “in a cardboard case, with some inanity about ‘digging for fortune with a royal spade’ emblazoned on the cover. The moment I saw it in the shop I said to myself ‘Froplinsons’ and to the attendant ‘How much?’ When he said ‘Ninepence,’ I gave him their address, jabbed our card in, paid tenpence or elevenpence to cover the postage, and thanked heaven. With less sincerity and infinitely more trouble they eventually thanked me.”

“The Froplinsons don’t play bridge,” said Egbert.

“One is not supposed to notice social deformities of that sort,” said Janetta; “it wouldn’t be polite. Besides, what trouble did they take to find out whether we read Wordsworth with gladness? For all they knew or cared we might be frantically embedded in the belief that all poetry begins and ends with John Masefield, and it might infuriate or depress us to have a daily sample of Wordsworthian products flung at us.”

“Well, let’s get on with the letter of thanks,” said Egbert.

“Proceed,” said Janetta.

” ‘How clever of you to guess that Wordsworth is our favourite poet,’ ” dictated Egbert.

Again Janetta laid down her pen.

“Do you realise what that means?” she asked; “a Wordsworth booklet next Christmas, and another calendar the Christmas after, with the same problem of having to write suitable letters of thankfulness. No, the best thing to do is to drop all further allusion to the calendar and switch off on to some other topic.”

“But what other topic?”

“Oh, something like this: ‘What do you think of the New Year Honours List? A friend of ours made such a clever remark when he read it.’ Then you can stick in any remark that comes into your head; it needn’t be clever. The Froplinsons won’t know whether it is or isn’t.”

“We don’t even know on which side they are in politics,” objected Egbert; “and anyhow you can’t suddenly dismiss the subject of the calendar. Surely there must be some intelligent remark that can be made about it.”

“Well, we can’t think of one,” said Janetta wearily; “the fact is, we’ve both written ourselves out. Heavens! I’ve just remembered Mrs. Stephen Ludberry. I haven’t thanked her for what she sent.”

“What did she send?”

“I forget; I think it was a calendar.”

There was a long silence, the forlorn silence of those who are bereft of hope and have almost ceased to care.

Presently Egbert started from his seat with an air of resolution. The light of battle was in his eyes.

“Let me come to the writing-table,” he exclaimed.

“Gladly,” said Janetta. “Are you going to write to Mrs. Ludberry or the Froplinsons?”

“To neither,” said Egbert, drawing a stack of notepaper towards him; “I’m going to write to the editor of every enlightened and influential newspaper in the Kingdom, I’m going to suggest that there should be a sort of epistolary Truce of God during the festivities of Christmas and New Year. From the twenty-fourth of December to the third or fourth of January it shall be considered an offense against good sense and good feeling to write or expect any letter or communication that does not deal with the necessary events of the moment. Answers to invitations, arrangements about trains, renewal of club subscriptions, and, of course, all the ordinary everyday affairs of business, sickness, engaging new cooks, and so forth, these will be dealt with in the usual manner as something inevitable, a legitimate part of our daily life. But all the devastating accretions of correspondence, incident to the festive season, these should be swept away to give the season a chance of being really festive, a time of untroubled, unpunctuated peace and good will.”

“But you would have to make some acknowledgment of presents received,” objected Janetta; “otherwise people would never know whether they had arrived safely.”

“Of course, I have thought of that,” said Egbert; “every present that was sent off would be accompanied by a ticket bearing the date of dispatch and the signature of the sender, and some conventional hieroglyphic to show that it was intended to be a Christmas or New Year gift; there would be a counterfoil with space for the recipient’s name and the date of arrival, and all you would have to do would be to sign and date the counterfoil, add a conventional hieroglyphic indicating heartfelt thanks and gratified surprise, put the thing into an envelope and post it.”

“It sounds delightfully simple,” said Janetta wistfully, “but people would consider it too cut-and- dried, too perfunctory.”

“It is not a bit more perfunctory than the present system,” said Egbert; “I have only the same conventional language of gratitude at my disposal with which to thank dear old Colonel Chuttle for his perfectly delicious Stilton, which we shall devour to the last morsel, and the Froplinsons for their calendar, which we shall never look at. Colonel Chuttle knows that we are grateful for the Stilton, without having to be told so, and the Froplinsons know that we are bored with their calendar, whatever we may say to the contrary, just as we know that they are bored with the bridge-markers in spite of their written assurance that they thanked us for our charming little gift. What is more, the Colonel knows that even if we had taken a sudden aversion to Stilton or been forbidden it by the doctor, we should still have written a letter of hearty thanks around it. So you see the present system of acknowledgment is just as perfunctory and conventional as the counterfoil business would be, only ten times more tiresome and brain-racking.”

“Your plan would certainly bring the ideal of a Happy Christmas a step nearer realisation,” said Janetta.

“There are exceptions, of course,” said Egbert, “people who really try to infuse a breath of reality into their letters of acknowledgment. Aunt Susan, for instance, who writes: ‘Thank you very much for the ham; not such a good flavour as the one you sent last year, which itself was not a particularly good one. Hams are not what they used to be.’ It would be a pity to be deprived of her Christmas comments, but that loss would be swallowed up in the general gain.”

“Meanwhile,” said Janetta, “what am I to say to the Froplinsons?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who would have thought a topic as sterile as the writing of a  thank-you note could have occasioned such a bit of effusively brilliant frippery as this offering from H.H Munro – a.k.a Saki?
The English upper-classe of a few generations was  quite unsurpassed at a species of mildly derisive self -deprecating humour, which despite its understated tone, had, and still retains that subversive ability to make one, like it or not, dissolve in unrestrainable and almost hysterical laughter, -‘Tobermory’  – (perhaps it will be reserved for a later post) by this same authour comes to mind.
This story exactly explains the reason I continue to  love such polished exponents of this genre as P.G. Wodehouse, and always will. There is something quite remarkable and unique to English culture, which permits – and even encourages –  a simultaneous display of preening and sniggering.  I bet you won’t find anything to equal it amongst  either the French or Germans.
Americans, no matter how much they would like to, don’t have an upper class it is doubtful they ever did – (sorry Mr. James and Mrs. Wharton), because steel barons and railroad men, and even the pretensions of the founding fathers do not cut the mustard here.  Unless one is so terribly undiscerning as to mistake money for class, which I am happy to say is next to impossible to do even for the least discerning among us, Donald Trump and Warren Buffet also fail to crash the gate.
But even if we had an ‘upper-class’, it would only be found among the routs (gaggles, or murders – you  are welcome to choose the appropriate collective noun of your choice) of pinch-mouthed Republicans who have shares in the sorts of companies that reap their profits from anti-social enterprises such as genetically modified foods and stock market shenanigans.  Precious little scope for comedy there I’m afraid, and anyone prospecting for a laugh in that direction is sure to come up a cropper.
So to give us the hoi-polloi, Horace’s common crowd an unrestricted a sly inside-look at the slightly dithery formalities and unbreakable tribal rituals a certain class was constrained to religiously observe, we must resort to the likes of Mr. H. H. Munro.
Thank-you notes written with fountain pens, and stamps which had to be licked and pasted on brown envelopes ….  Oh where have they all gone? The rueful answer must be ‘The way of all flesh’.
But I would be forever and unforgivably remiss if I prevented the intrusion of a very serious note amidst  all this levity.  ‘Saki’ – Hector Hugo Munro –  was in my opinion a war hero. Munro died when he was struck by a sniper’s bullet in Beaumont-Hamel France. His last words were said to be “Put that bloody cigarette out”.  He  had volunteered at age 43 at the beginning of WW1 to join the British Srmy Royal Fusiliers  as a low-ranking soldier, when he could have so easily and honourably refrained from doing so. He was well beyond conscription age, and had contracted Malaria (in those days a debilitating and incurable disease) while serving in the police force in Burma. What was more, he was volunteering to uphold the interests of a nation which could have if it had so wished, prosecute and  jail him for simply living his life as who and what he was. Hector Hugo Munro was a gay man.  We would never have guessed that – would we!  and as such, he lived at a time when being one was in effect a criminal offense.  The  prosecution and trial and sentencing of Oscar Wilde  19 years before, when Munro was a young man of 25 could not have been forgotten.
The horrible scandal and the ruination of Oscar Wilde’s life must have also been fresh in the mind of Munro’s sister Ethel when she destroyed most of his papers after his death. I am sure she meant well, and was no doubt anxious to get rid of ‘incriminating evidence’ which had the real potential to sully her brother’s name and reputation, even after he had so gallantly given his life for his country.
While we can laugh at the innocent falsehoods and pretensions of a society anxious to uphold  a self-preserving  – and relatively harmless sense of propriety, we cannot be amused when that  hypocrisy takes on a punitive cast, and leads to the persecution of people who depart from sexual norms which are priggishly upheld in public ( though who could guess at the degree to which they were violated in private by that same ‘moral majority’) by its mainstream practitioners.
We must regret and deplore the enormous and incalculable amount of material expunged and  lost to our own history as gays and lesbians, through the acts of well meaning – and perhaps  not so well meaning people, and material which was destroyed even by gays and lesbians themselves because of the need for secrecy and dissimulation.
Those pages and chapters and entire books of or our past are lost forever, but we must never forget that they existed.

 

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saki

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