‘Wireless’ by Rudyard Kipling

Probably, the first thing you should do these days when talking about Kipling is confront his politics. He wasn’t a racist, so far as I can make out. He was an imperialist and a jingo. He supported the Boer War which, when you get down to it, was the British Empire’s violent campaign to get its hands on the South African gold reefs. He hated Suffragettes, opposed Irish Home Rule and lost few opportunities to brand socialists as ‘soap-dodgers’. Etcetera. Yet here also was the boy who’d gone psychosomatically blind as a result of the abuse suffered at the hands of the Holloway family in Southsea; the boy who spoke Hindi as a first language; and the man who wrote some of the most ‘magical stories in the English language’. (Which must be right, since the blurb on the paperback in front of me says so. But I agree). You have to know, or learn, how to separate the man or the woman from the work. (Shakespeare, anyone, who hoarded grain during a food shortage? Caravaggio, who castrated and killed a man?)
 
But back to Kipling – and his influence. The young James Joyce said, “If I knew Ireland as well as R.K. seems to know India, I fancy I could write something good.’” Isaac Babel studied him. Jan Montefiore, in the Introduction to her edition of his selected stories, detects a descriptive similarity between sections of The Waste Land and this story ‘Wireless’. (TS Eliot anthologised Kipling’s verse). She also suggests Hemingway pinched a line or two of it for his own story ‘In Another Country’. Everybody read him, even if they disagreed with his politics. In ‘Wireless’ Kipling sets up his main plot – the young Mr Cashell experimenting with early wireless technology – and through it stitches the red thread of chemist Mr Shaynor’s romantic attachment. ‘Red’ is appropriate because the story’s drenched in the colour, not least the spots of blood that show in Mr Shaynor’s handkerchief after his coughing fits. To pointlessly cut short a beautiful thing, there are more than Hertzian waves in the air. The spirit of John Keats is somehow, but plausibly somehow, channelled through the dozing Mr Shaynor, who then commences to scribble: ‘Remember,’ (says the narrator) ‘that in all the millions permitted there are no more than five – five little lines of which one can say: ‘These are the pure Magic. These are the clear Vision. The rest is only poetry.’ And Mr Shaynor was playing hot and cold with two of them!’ – John Keats also being an apothecary and also, of course, dying from TB. 
 
Incredible story. Incredible. Ever so slightly, my hands shook when I re-read it for A Personal Anthology.

First published in Scribner’s Magazine, August, 1902. Collected in Traffics and Discoveries, 1904 and most recently in The Man Who Would Be King, Penguin Classics, 2011

‘They’ by Rudyard Kipling

It’s sentimental, self-pitying and twee. It’s the very definition of self-indulgence. It’s beautifully bound in a Macmillan edition of 1905, printed only on one side of each page and with lush but utterly awful illustrations by FH Townsend. It arrives accompanied by all the problematics you would expect with Kipling: but somehow delivers anyway. It must be his perfectly constructed ghost story, ‘They’.

“One view called me to another,” it begins; “one hilltop to its fellow, half across the county…” Kipling never learned to drive, but here casts himself as the lone free motorist who finds he has run himself “clean out of my known marks” and is lost on the Downs until he finds an “ancient house of lichened and weather-worn stone, with mullioned windows and roofs of rose-red tile”. It seems quiet, but then a child appears at an upper window. A woman in a big gardening hat sets her foot “slowly on the time-hollowed stone steps” and greets him softly across the turf. It’s a heritage outing contemporary readers can fully share.

“I never dreamed–” exclaims our narrator. But he did. He did dream. And this is all he ever dreamed, really: the great shining powerful motor car, the perfect little valleys and bridges, the rose-red tiles, the house where “hollowed” and “hallowed” have the same meaning, this perfect blind graceful woman, the little vanished children who gather round him. ‘They’ is the ultimate Sunday drive, the kinship reconnection with the ghosts of the fiction of England.

First published in Scribner’s Magazine, August 1904. Collected in Traffics and Discoveries, Macmillan, 1904, and as an illustrated volume, 1905. Widely available. Read it online here.

‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’ by Rudyard Kipling

I still have the red leather bound edition of The Jungle Book from which my father read to me and my brother when we were children. His reading to me kindled my love of stories, short and long. My memories are about comfort and excitement in equal measure. There was something so exotic about the names of Rikki-tikki-tavi the mongoose and Nag and Nagaina the cobras, killed by Rikki-tikki to protect his young master, Teddy. But we were cosy and cosseted by the fire; there were no snakes in the English Midlands. Reading the story now, so many years on, I’m struck by Kipling’s descriptive powers “… a noise as faint as that of a wasp walking on a window-pane – the dry scratch of a snake’s scales on brick-work.” And my heart weeps afresh for Chuchundra, the sad little musk-rat who “whimpers and cheeps all the night, trying to make up his mind to run into the middle of the room. But he never gets there.”

(From The Jungle Book, Macmillan,1894.  You can read it, with the original illustrations by W. H. Drake, here)