‘The Occasional Garden’

“Don’t talk to me about town gardens,” said Elinor Rapsley; “which means, of course, that I want you to listen to me for an hour or so while I talk about nothing else. ‘What a nice-sized garden you’ve got,’ people said to us when we first moved here. What I suppose they meant to say was what a nice-sized site for a garden we’d got. As a matter of fact, the size is all against it; it’s too large to be ignored altogether and treated as a yard, and it’s too small to keep giraffes in. You see, if we could keep giraffes or reindeer or some other species of browsing animal there we could explain the general absence of vegetation by a reference to the fauna of the garden: ‘You can’t have wapiti and Darwin tulips, you know, so we didn’t put down any bulbs last year.’ As it is, we haven’t got the wapiti, and the Darwin tulips haven’t survived the fact that most of the cats of the neighbourhood hold a parliament in the centre of the tulip bed; that rather forlorn looking strip that we intended to be a border of alternating geranium and spiræa has been utilised by the cat-parliament as a division lobby.1 Snap divisions2 seem to have been rather frequent of late, far more frequent than the geranium blooms are likely to be. I shouldn’t object so much to ordinary cats, but I do complain of having a congress of vegetarian cats in my garden; they must be vegetarians, my dear, because, whatever ravages they may commit among the sweet pea seedlings, they never seem to touch the sparrows; there are always just as many adult sparrows in the garden on Saturday as there were on Monday, not to mention newly-fledged additions. There seems to have been an irreconcilable difference of opinion between sparrows and Providence since the beginning of time as to whether a crocus looks best standing upright with its roots in the earth or in a recumbent posture with its stem neatly severed; the sparrows always have the last word in the matter, at least in our garden they do. I fancy that Providence must have originally intended to bring in an amending Act,3 or whatever it’s called, providing either for a less destructive sparrow or a more indestructible crocus. The one consoling point about our garden is that it’s not visible from the drawing-room or the smoking-room, so unless people are dinning or lunching with us they can’t spy out the nakedness of the land. That is why I am so furious with Gwenda Pottingdon, who has practically forced herself on me for lunch on Wednesday next; she heard me offer the Paulcote girl lunch if she was up shopping on that day, and, of course, she asked if she might come too. She is only coming to gloat over my bedraggled and flowerless borders and to sing the praises of her own detestably over-cultivated garden. I’m sick of being told that it’s the envy of the neighbourhood; it’s like everything else that belongs to her—her car, her dinner-parties, even her headaches, they are all superlative; no one else ever had anything like them. When her eldest child was confirmed it was such a sensational event, according to her account of it, that one almost expected questions to be asked about it in the House of Commons, and now she’s coming on purpose to stare at my few miserable pansies and the gaps in my sweet-pea border, and to give me a glowing, full-length description of the rare and sumptuous blooms in her rose-garden.” Continue reading

Of Menageries and Mappin Terraces

The Guardian newspaper has a review of Zoo Buildings: Construction and Design Manual, by Natascha Meuser, which is a history of all forms of animal enclosures – cages, menageries, bear pits, zoological gardens, fake ‘natural’ landscapes. Although the review doesn’t mention them specifically, I assume Meuser also deals with London Zoo’s Mappin Terraces, which provide the main reference point for Saki’s story ‘The Mappined Life’.

Link: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/sep/27/have-zoos-had-their-day-architecture-barbaric-sci-fi

‘The Mappined Life’

“These Mappin Terraces1 at the Zoological Gardens are a great improvement on the old style of wild-beast cage,” said Mrs. James Gurtleberry, putting down an illustrated paper; “they give one the illusion of seeing the animals in their natural surroundings. I wonder how much of the illusion is passed on to the animals?”

“That would depend on the animal,” said her niece; “a jungle-fowl, for instance, would no doubt think its lawful jungle surroundings were faithfully reproduced if you gave it a sufficiency of wives, a goodly variety of seed food and ants’ eggs, a commodious bank of loose earth to dust itself in, a convenient roosting tree, and a rival or two to make matters interesting. Of course there ought to be jungle-cats and birds of prey and other agencies of sudden death to add to the illusion of liberty, but the bird’s own imagination is capable of inventing those—look how a domestic fowl will squawk an alarm note if a rook or wood pigeon passes over its run when it has chickens.”

“You think, then, they really do have a sort of illusion, if you give them space enough—”

“In a few cases only. Nothing will make me believe that an acre or so of concrete enclosure will make up to a wolf or a tiger-cat for the range of night prowling that would belong to it in a wild state. Think of the dictionary of sound and scent and recollection that unfolds before a real wild beat as it comes out from its lair every evening, with the knowledge that in a few minutes it will be hieing along to some distant hunting ground where all the joy and fury of the chase awaits it; think of the crowded sensations of the brain when every rustle, every cry, every bent twig, and every whiff across the nostrils means something, something to do with life and death and dinner. Imagine the satisfaction of stealing down to your own particular drinking spot, choosing your own particular tree to scrape your claws on, finding your own particular bed of dried grass to roll on. Then, in the place of all that, put a concrete promenade, which will be of exactly the same dimensions whether you race or crawl across it, coated with stale, unvarying scents and surrounded with cries and noises that have ceased to have the least meaning or interest. As a substitute for a narrow cage the new enclosures are excellent, but I should think they are a poor imitation of a life of liberty.” Continue reading

Review: The Edwardians by Roy Hattersley

Book cover of The Edwardians by Roy Hattersley

Image from goodreads.com

This was published a good number of years ago but I’ve only got around to reading it now.

Although there is no mention of Munro at all, the book provides useful and entertaining background information about the period when he was writing and publishing. Hattersley begins with the death of Queen Victoria and continues with a panoramic sweep across politics, society, culture and science, ending (inevitably) with the outbreak of the First World War.

The author (who I should perhaps explain for non-UK readers was for many years a Labour MP and served as a member of the government in the 1970s) is particularly good on the politics and personalities of the time. Such knowledge is really indispensable if you want to properly appreciate early satires such as The Westminster Alice. His treatment of the trade union movement and the founding of his own party is similarly well-informed (though less relevant to readers of Munro).

The whole story is told in an engaging and lively way. He has some nice turns of phrase and a good eye for an interesting detail. A highlight was the section on the pioneers of motoring, from which I can’t resist quoting the following, describing one episode in the Automobile Club of Britain’s first attempt at “what, today, would be called a rally”:

Halfway to the summit of the Cumbrian Hills, the Ariel tricycle’s clutch failed and it began to roll backwards – accelerating as it descended towards the valley floor. It was then that the driver discovered, to his surprise, that the brakes only worked when the vehicle was going forwards. He managed to steer successfully to safety with his left hand while turned in his seat to watch the road over his right shoulder. Unfortunately that required him to push his passenger out on to the road. (p. 431)

I even found the section on cricket (a sport I have no understanding of or interest in) readable.

Years ago I read his sort-of-sequel Borrowed Time: The Story of Britain Between the Wars  and I remember the chapters on literature in that being a real weakness, so it was a relief to find a more detailed and considered discussion of writers and their works in The Edwardians – one that actually gives the impression Hattersley had read the books and formed his own opinions on them rather than copying sections out of some undergraduate guide to Twentieth Century Eng. Lit.

Possibly he read a little too much Virginia Woolf, though. How else to explain his calling the Belfast shipyard that built the Titanic “Harland and Woolf”? Coming from Northern Ireland, I feel I must put on record that it is Harland and Wolff. (One of the founders was a German, which is a little ironic when you consider that one of the big issues of the period was Anglo-German rivalry, particularly when it came to building ships.)

Despite that error (and the bizarre typo that has the Balkan Wars against the Ottoman Empire starting two years late in September 1914), this book is definitely to be recommended.

‘The Woman Who Never Should’

The Prime Minister[1] sat in a deep, leather-lined chair in his new room, dreaming in the dusk of evening over the coming years and achievements of his Premiership as a brooding hen mothers in prospect the chickens she is yet to hatch. It was a long vista down which his fancy wandered, of peace and adroitness and delicate handlings, of careful managing and gentle rosewater revolutions, above all, of placid, unwavering majorities. A pleasant waking dream, through which the refrain “Toujours Balfour”[2] trickled with the soothing murmur of a meadow stream. A sigh at his elbow broke in upon his musings like a dead rook falling with insistent thud from the silence of a sleeping rookery, and he turned to find a woman standing beside him — a woman with pale, almost frightened face, but with an underlying air of resolution that bordered on defiance.

“Efficiency!” he said; “you here. Here, of all places!”

“You are displeased to see me here?”

“Not displeased, exactly, but I can scarcely believe it. You must see that you cannot possibly stay here.”

“Yet at one time you used to be proud to be seen with me. I suppose I was useful to you at election times, when things did not go so easily for you as they do now. You used to take me to your arms, then, and I think you really cared for me[,] just a little.”[3]

“Of course I admire you very much still, and I often talk about you[,] really I do, though we’ve seen so little of each other lately[.] But you can’t reasonably expect me to dislocate my whole career and habits.”[4]

“I might be so helpful to you. In times of crisis, for instance, the consciousness that you had me by your side—“

“In times of crisis and perplexity I simply get in a man from the street to act as caretaker, and I become again as a little child,[5] innocent of all things[.][6] I have always found that answer admirably hitherto[.] And it would never do, for many reasons, to take you into my establishment; you would inevitably make your presence felt in so many departments. There is my brother and other members of the family group[7] to be considered[—]they would never be able to fit into your ways.”

“You are keeping back the real reason from me, possibly because you wish to spare my feelings. You love another. Do I know her name?”

The Prime Minister hesitated for a moment, then answered softly, as one who caresses a tradition, “Laissez Faire.”[8]

“That old thing! I should have thought you were tired to death of her years ago.”

“Hush, don’t say spiteful things. She may not be brilliant or particularly modern, but you cannot think what a solace it is to a man, tired with his golf or jaded with his philosophical studies,[9] to turn to someone who asks little, exacts nothing.”

“And does nothing, knows nothing, and is dowdy without being cheap. So it is for her that I am put on one side!”

“And you, are you so very constant in your affections? Why do people couple your name so freely with that of my rival and sometime predecessor in the Premiership?”[10]

“Perhaps because he has shown me attention where you have only offered neglect. Remember, if I have no longer attractions for you, there are others.”

The Minister flushed with a sudden unreasoning jealousy. “He cannot give you what I can, a permanent home and a share in all that is going—“[5]

Then, checking himself, he added more gently, “What am I saying? Dear lady, I can never be more to you than a friend. You may come and drink tea with me sometimes on the Terrace,[11] and I shall always be glad to see you — at Manchester.[12] But you must never come here again. It is no place for you.”

Then he held the door open for his unbidden guest. Her foot-steps sounded down the staircase like the hollow menace of a receding drum, and he tried to fancy that its time-beat remotely harmonised with the lingering refrain “Toujours Balfour.”

With a sigh of relief he sank back into the depths of his armchair.

“It was dreadful” he murmured, “but how brave I was! That shall be the keynote of my Administration; we will be gently courageous. Every notable Administration gets a nickname: they will call us—yes, they will call us the League of the Poor Brave Things.”[13]

(First published in The Westminster Gazette, Tuesday, July 22, 1902. I have added a few pieces of punctuation that are either invisible or missing from the copy I worked from.)


  1. Arthur James Balfour (1848–1930), British Conservative politician, Prime Minister 1902–1905.  ↩
  2. ”Balfour for ever“ (French).  ↩
  3. The need for “national efficiency” had become a political watchword from the end of the nineteenth century, prompted by Britain’s military failures in the Second Boer War (1899–1902) and by increased competition from Germany. Demands for efficiency, i.e. modernisation, were made by politicians from all parties. Balfour’s 1902 Education Act was to be one product of this drive. 
  4. Balfour was often characterised as indolent and lacking passion or drive. Winston Churchill once commented “If you wanted nothing done, Arthur Balfour was the best man for the task. There was no equal to him”.  ↩
  5. Reference to Matthew 18:3.  ↩
  6. Was Munro perhaps remembering John Dryden’s Prologue to Joseph Harris’ The Mistakes (1690)? “’Tis innocent of all things–even of wit.”  ↩
  7. Balfour came from a political family: his father and grandfather had been MPs and his brother Gerald (1853–1945) also entered parliament. His maternal grandfather was the second Marquess of Salisbury, who was an MP before inheriting his title and later served as Lord Privy Seal and Lord President of the Council. His son (and consequently Arthur’s uncle), the 3rd Marquess, was Prime Minister three times in the later nineteenth century.  ↩
  8. Political ideology that governments should interfere as little as possible, especially in economic matters.  ↩
  9. Balfour made a name for himself with philosophical writings, including his The Foundations of Belief (1895) and Defence of Philosophic Doubt (1879); his love of golf was well known and often exploited by caricaturists and political sketch writers.  ↩
  10. Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, (1847–1929), Liberal Prime Minister 1894–1895.  ↩
  11. Of the Houses of Parliament, overlooking the Thames.  ↩
  12. Balfour represented the constituency of Manchester East from 1885–1906.  ↩
  13. “The League of the Poor Brave Things” was the name of one of the many voluntary charitable organisations looking after deprived children.  ↩

‘The Mouse’

Theodoric Voler had been brought up, from infancy to the confines of middle age, by a fond mother whose chief solicitude had been to keep him screened from what she called the coarser realities of life. When she died she left Theodoric alone in a world that was as real as ever, and a good deal coarser than he considered it had any need to be. To a man of his temperament and upbringing even a simple railway journey was crammed with petty annoyances and minor discords, and as he settled himself down in a second-class compartment one September morning he was conscious of ruffled feelings and general mental discomposure. He had been staying at a country vicarage, the inmates of which had been certainly neither brutal nor bacchanalian, but their supervision of the domestic establishment had been of that lax order which invites disaster. The pony carriage that was to take him to the station had never been properly ordered, and when the moment for his departure drew near, the handyman who should have produced the required article was nowhere to be found. In this emergency Theodoric, to his mute but very intense disgust, found himself obliged to collaborate with the vicar’s daughter in the task of harnessing the pony, which necessitated groping about in an ill-lighted outbuilding called a stable, and smelling very like one—except in patches where it smelled of mice. Without being actually afraid of mice, Theodoric classed them among the coarser incidents of life, and considered that Providence, with a little exercise of moral courage, might long ago have recognized that they were not indispensable, and have withdrawn them from circulation. As the train glided out of the station Theodoric’s nervous imagination accused himself of exhaling a weak odour of stable yard, and possibly of displaying a mouldy straw or two on his unusually well-brushed garments. Fortunately the only other occupation of the compartment, a lady of about the same age as himself, seemed inclined for slumber rather than scrutiny; the train was not due to stop till the terminus was reached, in about an hour’s time, and the carriage was of the oId-fashioned sort that held no communication with a corridor, therefore no further traveling companions were likely to intrude on Theodoric’s semi-privacy. And yet the train had scarcely attained its normal speed before he became reluctantly but vividly aware that he was not alone with the slumbering lady; he was not even alone in his own clothes. A warm, creeping movement over his flesh betrayed the unwelcome and highly resented presence, unseen but poignant, of a strayed mouse, that had evidently dashed into its present retreat during the episode of the pony harnessing. Furtive stamps and shakes and wildly directed pinches failed to dislodge the intruder, whose motto, indeed, seemed to be Excelsior;1 and the lawful occupant of the clothes lay back against the cushions and endeavoured rapidly to evolve some means for putting an end to the dual ownership. It was unthinkable that he should continue for the space of a whole hour in the horrible position of a Rowton House2 for vagrant mice (already his imagination had at least doubled the numbers of the alien invasion). On the other hand, nothing less drastic than partial disrobing would ease him of his tormentor, and to undress in the presence of a lady, even for so laudable a purpose, was an idea that made his ear tips tingle in a blush of abject shame. He had never been able to bring himself even to the mild exposure of open-work3 socks in the presence of the fair sex. And yet—the lady in this case was to all appearances soundly and securely asleep; the mouse, on the other hand, seemed to be trying to crowd a Wanderjahr4 into a few strenuous minutes. If there is any truth in the theory of transmigration, this particular mouse must certainly have been in a former state a member of the Alpine Club. Sometimes in its eagerness it lost its footing and slipped for half an inch or so; and then, in fright, or more probably temper, it bit. Theodoric was goaded into the most audacious undertaking of his life. Crimsoning to the hue of a beetroot and keeping an agonized watch on his slumbering fellow traveler, he swiftly and noiselessly secured the ends of his railway rug to the racks on either side of the carriage, so that a substantial curtain hung athwart the compartment. In the narrow dressing room that he had thus improvised he proceeded with violent haste to extricate himself partially and the mouse entirely from the surrounding casings of tweed and half-wool. As the unraveled mouse gave a wild leap to the floor, the rug, slipping its fastening at either end, also came down with a heart-curdling flop, and almost simultaneously the awakened sleeper opened her eyes. With a movement almost quicker than the mouse’s, Theodoric pounced on the rug and hauled its ample folds chin-high over his dismantled person as he collapsed into the farther corner of the carriage. The blood raced and beat in the veins of his neck and forehead, while he waited dumbly for the communication cord to be pulled. The lady, however, contented herself with a silent stare at her strangely muffled companion. How much had she seen, Theodoric queried to himself; and in any case what on earth must she think of his present posture?

“I think I have caught a chill,” he ventured desperately.

“Really, I’m sorry,” she replied. “I was just going to ask you if you would open this window.”

“I fancy it’s malaria,” he added, his teeth chattering slightly, as much from fright as from a desire to support his theory.

“I’ve got some brandy in my holdall, if you’ll kindly reach it down for me,” said his companion.

“Not for worlds—I mean, I never take anything for it,” he assured her earnestly.

“I suppose you caught it in the tropics?”

Theodoric, whose acquaintance with the tropics was limited to an annual present of a chest of tea from an uncle in Ceylon, felt that even the malaria was slipping from him. Would it be possible, he wondered, to disclose the real state of affairs to her in small installments?

“Are you afraid of mice?” he ventured, growing, if possible, more scarlet in the face.

“Not unless they came in quantities. Why do you ask?”

“I had one crawling inside my clothes just now,” said Theodoric in a voice that hardly seemed his own. “It was a most awkward situation.”

“It must have been, if you wear your clothes at all tight,” she observed. “But mice have strange ideas of comfort.”

“I had to get rid of it while you were asleep,” he continued. Then, with a gulp, he added, “It was getting rid of it that brought me to—to this.”

“Surely leaving off one small mouse wouldn’t bring on a chill,” she exclaimed, with a levity that Theodoric accounted abominable.

Evidently she had detected something of his predicament, and was enjoying his confusion. All the blood in his body seemed to have mobilized in one concentrated blush, and an agony of abasement, worse than a myriad mice, crept up and down over his soul. And then, as reflection began to assert itself, sheer terror took the place of humiliation. With every minute that passed the train was rushing nearer to the crowded and bustling terminus, where dozens of prying eyes would be exchanged for the one paralyzing pair that watched him from the farther corner of the carriage. There was one slender, despairing chance, which the next few minutes must decide. His fellow traveler might relapse into a blessed slumber. But as the minutes throbbed by that chance ebbed away. The furtive glance which Theodoric stole at her from time to time disclosed only an unwinking wakefulness.

“I think we must be getting near now,” she presently observed.

Theodoric had already noted with growing terror the recurring stacks of small, ugly dwellings that heralded the journey’s end. The words acted as a signal. Like a hunted beast breaking cover and dashing madly toward some other haven of momentary safety he threw aside his rug, and struggled frantically into his disheveled garments. He was conscious of dull suburban stations racing past the window, of a choking, hammering sensation in his throat and heart, and of an icy silence in that corner toward which he dared not look. Then as he sank back in his seat, clothed and almost delirious, the train slowed down to a final crawl, and the woman spoke.

“Would you be so kind,” she asked, “as to get me a porter to put me into a cab? It’s a shame to trouble you when you’re feeling unwell, but being blind makes one so helpless at a railway station.”


  1. (Latin) higher; upwards.
  2. A Rowton House was a hostel for working men (named after their originator, Victorian philanthropist Lord Rowton).
  3. With a regular pattern formed by holes.
  4. (German) A year spent travelling abroad, especially before taking up a profession.

 

Saki’s eastern Europe

Even many years ago, before I started seriously studying Saki, I was struck by the presence of central and eastern Europe, the Balkans and Russia in his stories. ‘Reginald in Russia’ is a very obvious example, but there are so many other stories set in that part of the world: ‘The Wolves of Cernogratz’, ‘The Easter Egg’, ‘The Name-Day’, ‘The Interlopers’ (just to name a few that spring to mind straightaway).

‘Wratislav’ is a particularly interesting example. Although it is clearly set in Vienna, as the reference to the Graben (one of the main shopping streets) makes clear, this setting has no real bearing on or importance in the story. Indeed, it is quite incongruous, given that it begins with a comment by Clovis (how he came to know two aristocratic Austrian families is left unexplained)[1] and ends with a play on the English saying ‘Conscience makes cowboys of us all’.

Cover picture of Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination

Image taken from amazon.com

I had therefore contemplated writing up something about the topic. As it turns out, someone has already gone some way down that path. Vesna Goldsworthy’s Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination, however, is not specifically about Saki but looks at the works of a number of writer. According to the blurb:

Through much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, writers and filmmakers in Western Europe and America have found in the Balkans a rich mine of images for literature and the movies. Bram Stoker’s Transylvania and Anthony Hope’s Ruritania are among the best known of these images. In this pioneering book, Vesna Goldsworthy explores the origins of the ideas that underpin Western perceptions of the “Wild East” region of Europe. She examines Western and East European letters, diaries, personal interviews, and a wide range of Balkan-inspired literature. She shows how the lucrative exploitation of Balkan history and geography for Western literature and for the entertainment industry has affected attitudes toward the countries of the region and the West’s political involvement.
I haven’t read it (yet) so I can’t comment on exactly what she has to say about Saki, but after examining the table of contents on amazon.com, I can tell you that there is a section called “Saki’s Lost Sanjak” (referring to the story ‘The Lost Sanjak’ in Reginald in Russia) in a chapter entitled “War and Diplomacy in the New Ruritania: Comic Visions of the Balkans”. Other writers dealt with include E.M. Forster, George Bernard Shaw, Evelyn Waugh as well as – of course – Anthony Hope, whose The Prisoner of Zenda is the key text in this genre (and a pretty good read if I remember correctly).

  1. I don’t have the facilities to check at the minute, but I wonder if Clovis was just inserted when the story came to be collected in book form? It’s possible: the same happened with ‘Tobermory’. (In the original, Bertie von Tahn gets most of Clovis’s dialogue.