Mr Kipling’s exceedingly good stories

Rudyard Kipling was held in high regard, in our house, when I was a child. In a classic example of white privilege, we could ignore his imperialism and racism and concentrate on his many qualities as a writer.

It’s no excuse to point out that he was a product of his time. Some of his contemporaries managed to be far less reactionary and intemperate, and we could’ve chosen them to venerate (George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells were both socialists, I think.) Actually, we did love E. Nesbit, and she was a Fabian!

But Kipling is undeniably the better artist. He’s a fantastic short story writer: compassionate and insightful, concerned with describing his version of the human condition through lived experience. That’s the condition of the white, male human, living in isolation, unsupported by a nurturing community.

This may explain why they’re so bleak in outlook, something you might not expect from the creator of The Jungle Book. Kipling is also completely irreligious – I can’t remember a single pious statement in any of his works – so there is no governing purpose or logic to his world. They are surprisingly existentialist tales.

His stories thus have that sense of being somehow unresolved. This is common to many great stories, because it makes them resonant. In Kipling’s oeuvre, a nasty situation arises, a predicament; an experience, usually due to the unpleasantness of people. This situation ends and the characters usually survive and may go on to a slightly less threatening existence, but what’s been revealed to you is the way the world is. These are the sorts of things that happen. This is what people do to each other, or themselves, but they seem driven to do it, and most of them are treated with sympathy. Lessons are learnt, but there’s no sense that justice has been done and the world has been set to rights. It’s the same sentiment as Auden expresses in The Shield of Achilles: “that girls are raped, that two boys knife a third/ were axioms to him”. It’s a merciless, pointless, godless universe. Good things happen, but they’re wrested from the darkness by sheer bloody hard work.

One of Kipling’s attractive qualities is his disdain for the writer as a visionary of elevated status. He’s dismissive of his own craft. He celebrates, instead, the working man: minor colonial civil servants, junior officers and soldiers, and he includes them in the readership he addresses. His writing is accessible – conversational and unpretentious, presumably for this reason. He’d started his working life as a journalist, after all, one of only two English staff on the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore.

What he admired was hard work for a good end: appropriate, given his gloomy outlook: we have to look after ourselves and each other in a dangerous world. Is he responding to a post-Mutiny sense of vulnerability, under the gaze of so many alien, possibly hostile and resentful Indian eyes?

In his early books this meant working yourself to death protecting and nurturing the Indian population, largely from itself. (His “white man’s burden”.) His first book, Plain Tales From the Hills (1888) contains the story of Strickland, Kipling’s ideal colonial officer, who has dedicated himself wholly to knowing and understanding India and the Indians so he can manage them without going native. Another story describes a British engineer who becomes an alcoholic and almost goes mad after four years completely alone in rural India. (“Alone” means without British company, here.) The whole of “Pig” is based on the awful paperwork, and the office politics, colonial civil servants had to involve themselves in. In another, William the Conqueror, (from The Day’s Work, 1898) he tells of a budding romance between a colonial officer and an English woman whose paths cross only very occasionally, because they are racing around Madras saving thousands of people from famine. “On the City Wall” from Soldiers Three (1889?) celebrates the feats of British administrators and soldiers trying (successfully) to thwart a riot between Muslims and Hindus.

Emulating his heroes, Kipling thought writers should treat their writing as a job. Gyles Brandereth, in Have You Eaten Grandma? (2018), quotes Kipling’s advice on becoming a writer, “Only, Write! Write! Write! And – WORK!” (p.280) His (only partially successful) novel The Light that Failed (1890) charts the tragedy of a young artist who is prevented from working by misfortune and malign intent. He is killed by a stray bullet on the edge of a battlefield (I think), but his presence there is pretty much an act of suicide as he has gone blind. Being unable to work, and without the love of the woman he loves, he has nothing to live for.

Kipling’s dark and pessimistic tales and poems, his message of the unrecognised nobility of work, appealed to my morose old dad. He used to wander around the house reciting (or intoning) Kipling’s poetry. He was particularly fond of The Gods of the Copybook Headings, a poem that played off the Edwardian practice of making school children copy out austere sayings to practice their handwriting. In Kipling’s hands these become the unforgiving creed of a pitiless universe. Our favourite line was probably, “And the gods of the copybook headings said: ‘If you don’t work you die’”.

This stayed with me. It’s not just the dour injunction to unrelenting work, it’s the anxiety that underlies it. The awful consequences of taking your eye off the ball, of being idle: ‘If you don’t work you die’”.

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