H.H. Munro was born in 1870 and killed in the first world war in 1916. It´s striking that his best work was produced in a concentrated period between 1909 and 1913. (Unlike Douglas Adams, whose best stuff was written before he turned 30). The great short stories, "Tobermory", "The Open Window", "The Lumber Room", "The Story-Teller", and the two not-quite-so-great novels, The Unbearable Bassington and When William Came (set in a German-occupied England of the near future, say 1915 or so) all date from those years.
But Munro did a lot of other things too. He first achieved fame as a parliamentary sketch writer, poking fun at the Boer War, the Iraq of its day. But I'm obviously most interested in his two years as a Balkan correspondent from 1902 to 1904. He filed his first ever report from the town of Vučitrn, about the riots in Mitrovica, in October 1902. Oddly enough the first report I saw through to completion in my current job in June 2002 was also about riots in Mitrovica, and I expect to be in Vučitrn next Wednesday.
He doesn't just cover the Balkans, but also Warsaw, St Petersburg and Paris, but I think it's not just projecting my own sympathies to say that he liked the Balkans most. He liked Uskub, a very different place then from the Skopje I know and love and will be in again on Thursday. He got overwhelmed by the sheer wealth of intricate political information he was getting, to the point where he was unable to construct a coherent narrative; he became excessively reliant on official sources that took him into his confidence; he wasn´t so good on the graphic details or deeper social commentary. Of course I have always been immune from any such faults myself. Of course.
He notably drops the ball twice: when the King and Queen of Serbia are murdered in their bedroom, and their naked corpses flung out the palace window, he is in the next door country and only reaches Belgrade when it´s all over. (He can only report that people are still pointing out the window in question - as indeed they still do today.) Then on 31 July 1903 he decides that nothing much is happening in Macedonia, and goes on holiday. On 2 August the Ilinden rising begins, ending with the death of Goce Delčev in a blaze of glory and the crystallisation of Macedonian nationalism. Clearly his links with the local revolutionaries were not particularly good.
I remember hearing about this book when it was first published in 1981. It´s rather coy about Munro's homosexuality, though I suspect it was probably rather daring for its time (immediately post Jeremy Thorpe). The biographer is fair I think to the two awful aunts who brought up Saki and his elder brother and sister after their mother was killed by a stampeding cow (in Devon, in 1872). I was also interested in the Irish connection - his brother Charles ended up as the governor of Mountjoy Prison in Dublin until 1922, and they used to have family holidays near Portstewart. And the biographer also manages to explain convincingly why someone of his particular talents and character should enlist in the army during the first world war and also resist promotion to the status of officer. His last words were "Put that bloody cigarette out!" Then a German sniper shot him.
The six new short stories are OK though not spectacular.