Pro­pa­gan­dist or ag­i­ta­tor?

Un­seen Rud­yard Ki­pling tales re­veal a writer at­tuned to the hor­rors of his time, says Christo­pher Howse

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -

Max Beer­bohm, that care­ful wit, wrote a cel­e­brated par­ody of Ki­pling in A Christ­mas Gar­land. It came out in 1912, when both Beer­bohm and Ki­pling were at the height of their pow­ers. The Satur­day Re­view (the lit­er­ary Lon­don weekly founded in the same year as The Daily Tele­graph) judged that the in­com­pa­ra­ble Max “not only par­o­died the style of his Authors, but their minds also”. He did in print what his car­i­ca­tures did in pen and wash.

Beer­bohm’s par­ody has the po­lice­man Judlip ru­mi­nat­ing on his task on earth: “Life ain’t a bean-feast. It’s a ’arsh re­al­ity. An’ them as makes it a bean-feast ’as got to be ’ar­shly dealt with ac­cordin’. That’s wot the Force is put ’ere for from Above.”

His re­marks break off when he spots some­one in the act of emerg­ing from a chim­ney-pot, with “a hoary white beard, a red ul­ster with the hood up, and what looked like a sack over his shoul­der”. To the po­lice­man’s cry, he replied “in a voice like a con­certina that has been left out in the rain”. The en­counter ends with a sud­den Ki­plingesque out­burst of vi­o­lence, leav­ing Fa­ther Christ­mas “squeal­ing and whim­per­ing. He didn’t like the feel of Judlip’s knuck­les at his cer­vi­cal ver­te­brae”. With a pow­er­ful kick for luck, the old man is frog­marched to the sta­tion.

Beer­bohm did not write Ki­pling bet­ter than Ki­pling could, but he wrote bet­ter Ki­pling than Ki­pling some­times had. Both sides of this truth are ex­em­pli­fied in The Cause of Hu­man­ity and Other Sto­ries. The ti­tle story, alone worth buy­ing the vol­ume for, was writ­ten in

June 1914 but never pub­lished, for the very rea­sons that make it a mas­ter­piece. Its theme of dead bod­ies would, in the Great War, have been too much to take. If the mod­ern reader does not shed a tear, there is some­thing wrong with him.

In form the story is a yarn, like some­thing by Ki­pling’s close con­tem­po­rary W W Ja­cobs, but with a lupine bite and only the grimmest of jokes. The nar­ra­tor is un­trust­wor­thy, threat­en­ing, a cant­ing crim­i­nal al­ways cit­ing chap­ter and verse from Scrip­ture (not al­ways ac­cu­rately), but thank­ing his maker that he is a “pro­fes­sional liver”.

The pace is quick. A ship’s head stoker (whom the nar­ra­tor finds him­self in charge of) is slack­ing and says defiantly: “Do you ob­jeck?” The re­ply is: “‘Oh no’ I says an’ I tapped ’im on the point. ‘Al­leluia’ says the ’ead stoker when ’e knew where ’e was again. ‘This is life!’ An’ ’e turned to an’ stoked.”

This Tom-and-Jerry vi­o­lence is soon made to look triv­ial by the re­al­ity of the scheme un­der way. If you want to avoid a spoiler skip this para­graph and the next. The wheeze is to im­port corpses in a re­frig­er­ated ves­sel to sell to Lon­don teach­ing hospi­tals, for anatomis­ing, at seven guineas a head. “They’d close at that price ’ole­sale like sharks round a dead n-----.”

The source is to be the Balkan War. The turn­ing point comes when the body-col­lec­tors stum­ble across a mas­sacre of Jews in a coastal town. “I never knew Jews ’ad so much fight in ’em as we dis­cov­ered must have been the case.” Out of re­spect, the bodys­natch­ers re­solve not to ship out any of the Jews’ corpses. The

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