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