Inspiring Older Readers
Tobermory by Saki (H.H. Munro)
This is the shortest of short stories but one that never fails to give me pleasure. It’s a wonderful example of how the richest ideas can, in the hands of a skilful writer with a great idea, be showcased in the seemingly slightest of fictions.
Cornelius Appin is a colourless social failure – at least in the eyes of the sniffy upper class invitees to Lady Blemley’s house party:
Someone 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.
But on this occasion he has a surprise up his sleeve because he has been able to teach the house cat, Tobermory, to speak. At first the assembled guests are amused and delighted by this but their enthusiasm quickly turns to horror when they realise that Tobermory has been eves-dropping their private conversations for some time and is happy now to spill the beans. And he’s also learned how to be judgemental and supercilious himself – when he wants to be he can be pretty…well, catty, I suppose is the best word:
“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.”
A desperate thought strikes these bastions of the establishment – what if Tobermory is just the first? What havoc might ensue if he teaches other cats – maybe even all other pets – to speak?
Soon Tobermory is less of a magnificent curiosity and much more of an abomination and threat to the stability and social order of the human guests whose foibles and hypocrisies he takes such delight in exposing. Having gloomily resigned themselves to the fact that there seemed to be nothing that would stop the inevitable consequences of having all their secrets and dirty laundry exposed, they are mysteriously saved by the discovery of the cat dead in the shrubbery – seemingly on the wrong end of a fight with a larger tomcat. At the end we also learn of the dreadful fate of Cornelius Appin:
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."
Saki (Munro) took great delight in using the short story form to satirise the privileged establishment and Tobermory for me is the cream of the crop. In what seems like nothing more than a delightful bit of whimsy he exposes just how ruthless and essentially morally corrupt the establishment can be in defending their reputation and status. Munro himself came from an old Colonial background (interestingly not dissimilar to that of George Orwell – he too had connections with Burma and the imperial ruling class) and had an insider’s understanding of how the upper crust function.
I think it’s impossible to read Tobermory these days without seeing the obvious parallels with the stories of Julian Assange and Edward Snowdon – modern day spies in the houses of the powerful and privileged. They should take full note of the fate that befell this particular cat and his tutor.