Pskoff

Sad to see the name Pskov come up in the news on the war in Ukraine (“Ukrainian drones attack six Russian regions and hit military planes”).

It will probably be familiar to Saki fans for his piece of reportage ‘The Old Town of Pskoff’ (published in the Morning Post on 27 July 1905 and republished in The Square Egg).

Pskov old photo.jpg
By CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Ethel Munro recalled that “Pskoff more than fulfilled [her brother’s] idea of what a mediæval town should be”. I wonder what Munro would have made of the Russian invasion. He knew the area, spoke Russian, and had reported for the Morning Post on conflicts in nearby regions.

The Old Town of Pskoff

Russia at the present crisis of its history not unnaturally suggests to the foreign mind a land pervaded with discontent and disorder and weighed down with depression, and it is certainly difficult to point to any quarter of the Imperial dominions from which troubles of one sort or another are not reported. In the Novoe Vremya1 and other papers a column is now devoted to the chronicling of disorders as regularly as a British news-sheet reports sporting events. It is the more agreeable therefore occasionally to make the acquaintance of another phase of Russian life where the sombreness of political mischance can be momentarily lost sight of or disbelieved in. Perhaps there are few spots in European Russia where one so thoroughly feels that one has passed into a new and unfamiliar atmosphere as the old town of Pskoff, once in its day a very important centre of Russian life. To the average modern Russian a desire to visit Pskoff is an inexplicable mental freak on the part of a foreigner who wishes to see something of the country he is living in; Petersburg, Moscow, Kieff, perhaps, and Nijni-Novgorod, or the Finnish watering-places if you want a country holiday, but why Pskoff? And thus happily an aversion to beaten tracks and localities where inspection is invited and industriously catered for turns one towards the old Great Russian border town, which probably gives as accurate a picture as can be obtained of a mediæval Russian burgh, untouched by Mongol influence, and only slightly affected by Byzantine-imported culture.

The little town has ample charm of situation and structure, standing astride of a bold scarp of land wedged into the fork of two rivers, and retaining yet much of the long lines of ramparts and towers that served for many a hundred years to keep out Pagan Lithuanians and marauding Teuton knights.2 The powers of Darkness were as carefully guarded against in those old days as more tangible human enemies, and from out of thick clusters of tree-tops there still arise the white walls and green roofs of many churches, monasteries, and bell-towers, quaint and fantastic in architecture, and delightfully harmonious in colouring. Steep winding streets lead down from the rampart-girt heart of the town to those parts which lie along the shores of the twin rivers, and two bridges, one a low, wide, wooden structure primitively planted on piles, give access to the further banks, where more towers and monasteries, with other humbler buildings, continue the outstraggling span of the township. On the rivers lie barges with high masts painted in wonderful bands of scarlet, green, white, and blue, topped with gilded wooden pennons figured somewhat like a child’s rattle, and fluttering strips of bunting at their ends. Up in the town one sees on all sides quaint old doorways, deep archways, wooden gable-ends, railed staircases, and a crowning touch of pleasing colour in the sage green or dull red of the roofs. But it is strangest of all to find a human population in complete picturesque harmony with its rich old-world setting. The scarlet or blue blouses that are worn by the working men in most Russian towns give way here to a variety of gorgeous-tinted garments, and the women-folk are similarly gay in their apparel, so that streets and wharves and market-place glow with wonderfully effective groupings of colour. Mulberry, orange, dull carmine, faded rose, hyacinth purple, greens, and lilacs and rich blues mingle their hues on shirts and shawls, skirts and breeches and waistbands. Nature competing with Percy Anderson3 was the frivolous comment that came to one’s mind, and certainly a mediæval crowd could scarcely have been more effectively staged. And the business of a town in which it seemed always market day went forward with an air of contented absorption on the part of the inhabitants. Strings of primitively fashioned carts went to and from the riverside, the horses wearing their bits for the most part hung negligently under the chin, a fashion that prevails in many parts of Russia and Poland.

Quaint little booths line the sides of some of the steeper streets, and here wooden toys and earthenware pottery of strange local patterns are set out for sale. On the broad market-place women sit gossiping by the side of large baskets of strawberries, one or two long-legged foals sprawl at full stretch under the shade of their parental market carts, and an extremely contented pig pursues his leisurely way under the guardianship of an elderly dame robed in a scheme of orange, mulberry, and white that would delight the soul of a colourist. A stalwart peasant strides across the uneven cobbles, leading his plough-horse, and carrying on his shoulder a small wooden plough, with iron-tipped shares, that must date back to some stage of agriculture that the West has long left behind. Down in the buoyant waters of the Velikaya, the larger of the two rivers, youths and men are disporting themselves and staider washerwomen are rinsing and smacking piles of many-hued garments. It is pleasant to swim well out into the stream of the river, and, with one’s chin on a level with the wide stretch of water, take in a “trout’s-eye view” of the little town, ascending in tiers of wharfage, trees, grey ramparts, more trees, and clustered roofs, with the old cathedral of the Trinity poised guardian-like above the crumbling walls of the Kremlin.4 The cathedral, on closer inspection, is a charming specimen of genuine old Russian architecture, full of rich carvings and aglow with scarlet pigment and gilded scrollwork, and stored with yet older relics or pseudo-relics of local hero-saints and hero-princes who helped in their day to make the history of the Pskoff Commonwealth. After an hour or two spent among these tombs and ikons and memorials of dead Russia, one feels that some time must elapse before one cares to enter again the drearily magnificent holy places of St. Petersburg, with their depressing nouveau riche atmosphere, their price-list tongued attendants, and general lack of historic interest.

The heart knoweth its own bitterness,5 and maybe the Pskoffskie,6 amid their seeming contentment and self-absorption, have their own hungerings for a new and happier era of national life. But the stranger does not ask to see so far; he is thankful to have found a picturesque and apparently well-contented corner of a weary land, a land where distress seems like a bird of passage that has hurt its wing and cannot fly away.


  1. Leading Russian newspaper published in St. Petersburg from 1868.
  2. German military crusading order, who in the Middle Ages conquered Prussia and parts of northern Poland and the Baltic countries.
  3. English stage designer, known for his costume designs.
  4. The Kremlin is the ancient fortress in the centre of the town.
  5. Proverbs 14:10; also used as a poem title by Christina Rossetti (1830–1894).
  6. Inhabitants of Pskoff.

‘The Old Town of Pskoff’ by Saki (H.H. Munro), taken from The Square Egg (public domain). Notes © 2020-23 Bruce Gaston. No reproduction without permission.

Quote

Roald Dahl on Saki

“In all literature, he was the first to employ successfully a wildly outrageous premise in order to make a serious point. I love that. And today the best of his stories are still better than the best of just about every other writer around.”
― Roald Dahl on Saki,
original source unknown (can anyone help?)

More on Saki and F. C. Gould’s Kipling parodies

I posted Munro’s Kipling parodies (‘The Political Jungle Book’ and ‘Not-So Stories’) here last year including the cartoons done by Francis Carruthers Gould. I hadn’t realised (until I came upon the following picture by chance) that the illustrations are also parodies of Kipling. (Kipling did the illustrations for the Just So Stories himself.)

Below is a picture from the British Library flickr account (Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11240828966/in/album-72157672074712488/). According to the webpage, the digitised image is from page 223 of “The Writings in Prose and Verse of Rudyard Kipling. (‘Outward Bound’ edition.) [With plates, including portraits.]”. Oddly, when you follow the link to the digitised book you get a collection of Kipling’s verse which definitely doesn’t contain this particular picture.

British Library digitised image from page 223 of "The Writings in Prose and Verse of Rudyard Kipling. ('Outward Bound' edition.) [With plates, including portraits.]"

British Library digitised image from page 223 of “The Writings in Prose and Verse of Rudyard Kipling. (‘Outward Bound’ edition.) [With plates, including portraits.]” Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11240828966/in/album-72157672074712488/

Nevertheless, it is from the Just So Stories (see page 213 of the book here), and the similarity between it and the FCG version (with Lord Rosebery’s face on the cat) should be obvious to all:

The Dalmeny Cat

FCG’s illustration to ‘The Dalmeny Cat’ (Westminster Gazette, 31 October 1902)

You can find Munro’s story to go with the picture here.

‘Kaki’ [sic] writes…

The “Here, There and Everywhere” column of the Westminster Gazette of 12th June 1902 contained what I suppose you could call a rebuttal to ‘Reginald’s Peace Poem’, specifically the assertion by Reginald:

“What is the tragedy of the aasvogel?” asked the Other sympathetically.
“Oh, simply that there’s no rhyme for it.”

In response, the anonymous writer offers his readers the following:

A sweet-potato bogle,
You will please to understand,
Determined for to maffick
Since the peace had come to hand,
Bestowed a high-class ogle
On a petulant aasvogel
In the middle of the traffic
In the Rand.

KAKI

Source: Westminster Gazette, 12.06.1902, p. 10.

More on Saki, Selfridge’s and the ‘Romance of Business’

Following on from the publication here of the lost Saki story ‘The Romance of Business’, Saki scholar Brian Gibson managed to turn up the following article about the series of ads of which Saki’s tale was but a part. I publish it in full below. Readers may think that the writer is taking his brief a bit too seriously and the prose gets bit purple as a result, but it gives an idea of the context.

OCTOBER 3, 1914 SELFRIDGE & CO, LTD, London, England.–A series of ads exploiting the store’s fifth anniversary. There are some twenty odd ads in the complete series. Three of them are reproduced on this page.

It is possible that no more remarkable ads than these have been produced in the entire history of retail advertising. It is certain that there has never been a more interesting and more constructive presentation of the institutional phase of retailing–the side of retailing that is too often submerged when the actual function of a store is under consideration.

It is not in technique and design that the Selfridge ads are out of the ordinary–although they are in reality works of art, on the one hand, and literature, on the other. Their chief novelty and merit lie in the point of view they reflect, a point of view that puts retailing as an enterprise, and trade as a vocation, on the high level on which they properly should stand.

While each ad of the entire series carries the signature of Selfridge & Co., the theme in the text is “the Retail Store as an Institution,” and the subject matter is composed not of what Selfridge & Co. think of themselves, but of what other people think of them. And, after all, is it not public opinion that makes any institution what it is–any institution, at least, the basis of whose work is service?

It is not easy to discuss advertising of this kind without discussing the store whose merchandise and whose business policy and ideals it exploits; yet a discussion of the store in this instance would be a discussion of its publicity, so closely does the theme of the series coincide with the activities of which Selfridge & Co. are typical exponents.

The themes of the three ads reproduced here are respectively: “The Dignity of Work,” “Imagination” and “The Romance of Business.”

The first ad is composed of a letter of congratulations to Selfridge & Co. from Mme. Sarah Bernhardt. The theme of the letter is contained in the caption–the dignity of work. What better theme for an advertisement of a store that has won respect and prestige in the world’s metropolis? Who is better fitted, by honors, and experience, to speak of work and its dignity than “the divine Sarah Bernhardt”?

The second ad opens with a quotation from Keats:

Then let wingèd fancy wander

Through the thought still spread beyond her;

Open wide the mind’s cage door,

She’ll dart forth and cloudward soar.

The paragraph following reads:

Imagination bulks so largely in all that conduces to the sum of human happiness from childhood to old age, that it comes as a shock to be sometimes told that imagination is entirely out of place in the plain, prosaic affairs of business life.

A fitting tribute to that great building traits of the mind–imagination. And a fitting vehicle for its presentation–an advertisement of one of the greatest monuments to vision, the store of Selfridge & Co.

The “Romance of Business” ad is composed of a letter from H. H. Munro (“Saki”), dealing with the great principle that all work worth doing has a broader appeal to the mind than mere mental exercise–has its spiritual side.

The ads reproduced are not the most remarkable of the series. It would be difficult to specify how one is better than another. But these three and a fourth, entitled “The Optimist,” are especially characteristic of the treatment of the entire campaign.

They put the indisputable stamp of high dignity on the business of retailing, and they are prophetic of the future important place which advertising must hold in commercial activities.

Primarily, a store, be it great or small, has for its function the selling of merchandise, the assembling and the distributing of commodities to those who need them. And primarily, the purpose of advertising is the selling of goods, with the additional function of establishing trade and building prestige. Yet it is notable in this series of anniversary ads, that merchandise as merchandise is dealt with only casually.

It is the ideals and the purposes behind the great institution whose signature appears on each ad that form the real theme. Plainly, it is an institution of service, of dignified endeavor, of creative thought, of constructive activities, of purposeful progress. Here are the chief captions of a part of the series:

“Moral Responsibility,” “The Favours of Progress,” “What of the Future?” “Markets of the World,” “Merchandise of the World,” “Romance of Commerce,” “Crystal Gazing” and “Charity.”

The theme of the “Crystal Gazing” ad is the educational value of commercial intercourse among nations and the far-reaching influence of commerce in the world’s betterment. The text of this ad is from a personal interview granted to a director of Selfridge’s by Prince Guido Henckel von Donnersmark, one of the foremost and wealthiest members of the German nobility, and who is eighty-four years of age.

The “Charity” ad was the announcement of a day of the store’s Anniversary Week when a proportion of its profits was set apart to augment the fund for Schools for Mothers in Poplar, Stepney and Westminster.

These anniversary ads are notable in certain points in particular: First, they are the heralds of progress of an American store in the British metropolis. Serond, they are typical of the highest development in retail publicity–the kind that deals with the human and institutional sides of retailing. Third, they are, for the most part, expressions of favorable opinion from people of note and station in the world’s work.

And still they are ads, designed to put before a public the goods, the policies and the service of a retail house.

Source: Dry Goods Economist, v.68:3, October 3, 1914, p. 205. Online here and here.

‘The Romance of Business’: A newly rediscovered Clovis story

[This story, forgotten until now, formed part of an almost full-page advertisement by the London department store Selfridge’s that was printed in the Daily News and Leader. Two thirds of it were taken up by an elaborate illustration of laden men, trucks and even elephants passing through an ornate classical archway on their way to a dock with ships. Selfridge’s commissioned several such illustrations from noted artists, complemented by short texts on subjects such as “The Dignity of Work”, “Imagination” and “Markets of the World”, and had them printed in a number of prominent newspapers as part of its fifth birthday celebrations. Munro’s contribution was prefaced by a short explanatory comment in bold print.]

Mr. H. H. MUNRO (“Saki”) in response to our request for an article on The Romance of Business, has, in his inimitable way, defined that text in the following: —

“Ring for some more tea,” said Margaret Sangrail to her nephew; “Sophie Chabhouse has just been here, and I always give her inferior tea in my most valuable tea service. The fact that she can neither drink the tea nor carry away the tea-cup fills her with acute anguish, which I find much more amusing than filling her with Lapsang Souchong.”

“I’m afraid you’re not very fond of Cousin Sophie,” said Clovis.

“I make it a rule to like my relations,” said Margaret; “I remember only their good qualities and forget their birthdays. Still, when a woman is as indecently rich and as incredibly mean and as unpardonably boastful as Sophie is, a little malicious tail-twisting becomes not merely a pleasure but an absolute duty.”

“The boasting is certainly rather unendurable,” admitted Clovis; “I met her at lunch yesterday at the Cuverings, and she could talk of nothing else but a fur stole she’d just bought, Lake Baikal beaver, cost her seventy guineas after a fortnight’s haggling, probably worth a hundred, and so on, all through lunch time.” Continue reading