Sunday, March 18, 2007

Saki: What might have been...

H. H. Munro "Saki" (1870-1916)

Speculation on what might have been...

by Tim Connell

What might have been
It is perhaps fruitless to speculate on what might have happened had Munro survived - or not even joined up in the first place. So many good men were killed that every walk of life lost its best talent. No fewer than 64 published poets died on the Western Front, and who knows how many budding ones who never had a chance to be known.

What would Munro have come back to do? He would have been 50 in 1920, so it seems unlikely that he would have continued writing about spritely young men of the sort he had seen slaughtered in their thousands. He would happily have passed that mantle on to the much softer stories of P G Wodehouse, and may well have gently encouraged his nephew Dornford Yates in his writing career. He would undoubtedly have enjoyed the more acid style of Evelyn Waugh and perhaps sharpened up his own wit with satirical comment on the country's rulers by returning to his pre-War job as a parliamentary reporter.

He may not have been embittered by his war experiences, but he would have been relentlessly critical of the generals and war leaders whose errors of judgement had led to the deaths of so many good men. He might even have become a Member of Parliament himself in the Conservative persuasion, and joined in the hounding out of Lloyd George from public life. As a popular figure and as one who had served in the ranks he would have attracted a wide ranging vote. With his writing talent and fine voice he could have gone far as an orator. His old CO in the Fusiliers might even have got him a job with the BBC, where he was the gramophone correspondent and founding editor (with Compton Mackenzie) of The Gramophone (which oddly enough, my grandfather wrote reviews for in the 20's and 30's.) Munro might even have aligned himself with Winston Churchill as a critic of appeasement. Whatever the circumstances, I doubt whether he would have faded into obscurity.

Hector Munro was remembered with affection and respect by his peers. Punch said in 1920, "When the literary Roll of Honour of all the belligerents comes to be considered quietly, in the steady light of Peace, not many names will stand higher in any country than that of our English writer HECTOR MUNRO," and it goes on to refer to his "subtle and witty satires, stories and fantasies”. It adds, "There is in every story a phrase or fancy marked by his own inimitable felicity, audacity or humour." His works were re-issued at regular intervals through the 1920s and who wrote the introductory notes is significant: writers like G K Chesterton, A A Milne and Hugh Walpole; old Russia hands like Maurice Baring, H W Nevinson and Rothay Reynolds; Sir John Squire, a key poet in the Georgian movement, and the Liberal Peer Lord Charnwood. Evelyn Waugh did a retrospective on Saki in 1947 and as late as 1963, so did Noel Coward, for the Penguin Complete Saki (which is actually far from being complete). Saki has never been out of print in 100 years. He still appears in anthologies and collected editions. Oddly enough, he has only been serialised once on TV. Emlyn Williams did some sound recordings in 1978 and even produced a one-man show. There is currently an audiobook out on CD containing some of the stories.

As the war generations pass on, and that long Indian Summer of Edward's reign fades into folklore and myth, so the record of a society on the verge of the modern world becomes somehow more attractive, and the piercing observations of human frailty and the acerbic wit add an extra touch to hold the reader's attention. I believe that he was in fact a far more significant contributor to English Literature than we realise, more than a newspaperman, though not quite a man of letters. But he has stood the test of time better than Maurice Baring, who wrote novels and published collections of poetry or Hugh Walpole who was knighted for his services to Literature, let alone GA Henty, who wrote 122 books between 1868 and 1902. Hector Munro was writing a novel a year by the start of World War One. There are technical shortcomings but he may well have matured and written something more heavyweight than his novels and perhaps something deeper than his short stories. He was collaborating on plays; again there seems to be evidence that he was having some trouble with technique, but his quick-witted one-liners and polished style may have allowed him to develop as a playwright, someone perhaps like Ben Travers who had known him at Bodley Head.

So there it is. A man of many parts, who may have been less mysterious had more of his papers survived, and had he even survived himself, but then he was a prime example of the Edwardian age, with a strong sense of Victorian duty. A versatile writer, a sociable man, whose death was much regretted. But he lives on in his work, which has now acquired additional value because of the insights into the world that he inhabited. But the rebellious young men, the overbearing aunts, the absurdity of the humour, the sharpness of the wit, all seem to survive in the modern age. I think there is something there for everyone even today. The fact that so many people have turned out tonight on the anniversary of his death is proof of that.