A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Part of Back To School Week
Hands up all who think that Rudyard Kipling is a jingoistic, unquestioning chronicler of the Empire. Oh good, hardly any of you. He’s much more complicated than that. He is a writer grounded in his time, a chronicler of Empire, certainly, but not at all predictable or unthinkingly deferential. The British Empire, and particularly India, was the mainstay of his life, a given. He was born there (in 1865), and, as we shall see in ‘Stalky & Co’, was specifically educated to serve it. By the time he died in 1936, he had seen its glory in tatters, seen, and suffered personally, the tragedy for the country he loved of the First World War. The foundation of his writing is a fierce certainty that Britain was worth deep personal commitment, worth defending and fighting for, and from that bedrock he took the strength to ensure that in what he wrote he was keen-sighted, and, to an extent, did not mind what he said or how he said it.
Stalky & Co is deemed to be one of his books for children, along with Just So Stories and The Jungle Books. But of course it must be – it’s a book of school stories. Hmmm. I read it first when I was no more than about 11. It was so vivid and original to me then that I have scarcely forgotten a word of it since. I have not re-read it so often in my adult years, but picking it up again, I was amazed to discover just how many layers of meaning it has, and to recall how many of these layers were actually apparent to me when I first read it in childhood. I am also processing my reaction to being reminded that a book containing so much subversion, violence, disgusting behaviour, insubordination, bullying and corporal punishment could ever have been thought to be suitable reading for children. (But, as they say of being flogged at public school, it did me no harm, though perhaps I’m not the best judge of that). However, all that dysfunctionality is channelled to a profoundly serious purpose – the service of the Empire, and the defence of the interests of Great Britain.
The book is a loosely structured, picaresque tale of three boys, Stalky, M’Turk and Beetle (Kipling in disguise) across a couple of years at school. So far, this could be firmly in the genre of 19th century school stories, such as Tom Brown’s Schooldays, or Eric, or Little By Little (which Kipling satirises mercilessly here). But Kipling sets out to subvert the genre, implicitly and explicitly. To start with, the school is not a conventional, ancient public school. It is a modern establishment, based on The United Services College at Westward Ho! near Bideford in Devon, where Kipling, sent home by his parents from India, was educated along with several hundred other boys, to serve the Empire in army or political or diplomatic corps. Kipling is at pains to tell us that this is no ordinary school (in fact, at one point, one of the schoolboys says ‘But we aren’t a public school – we’re a limited liability company, paying four percent.’). Its traditions are recent and still evolving, and its ethos unique. It is to be the cradle of self-invented men.
The three heroes break bounds, break rules, push house-masters and teachers to breaking point, and wage war on authority with huge energy and fierce courage. One reason to read this book is that their exploits are often (though not exclusively) riotously funny. For good little boys and girls, reading about what they get away with is breath-taking, and the reasons why they get away with it are … illuminating. They run rings round their teachers, Prout, their lumbering house-master, and the spitefully sarcastic and desperately insecure King. They pursue vendettas and let the punishment fit the crime. They show appalling disrespect to fellow-pupils, older and younger, and to anyone in authority – save the Padre, who handles them with a light touch, and the god-like (or even God-like) Headmaster, who watches them rampage round within the wide and elastic boundaries he sets for them, then brings them up short with a strong moral lesson when they trespass over them.
The language of the book is just what you would expect from Kipling – the boys, and the teachers, speak a uniquely thrilling argot, which defines them in this unique world. The bulk of the stories are told in the voices of the characters, with bags of dialogue – their personalities shine through. They start young and carefree, humiliating their masters, tricking them and tweaking their tails, but in the space of the two or so years we follow them, it gradually dawns on them and on us what is the life that is being prepared for them. They learn guile, tactics and strategy. Their academic life is focused on being accepted by Sandhurst or Woolwich (nicknamed ‘The Shop’), the elite military academies of the day. They learn to celebrate military virtues, while imbibing a modern version of warcraft, akin to guerrilla fighting. They encounter an ‘old boy’ who has done a heroic deed of warfare in India, and they learn about what their life, and their options, will be. Their heroes are those who have died for their country. Stalky will join a warrior elite; M’Turk will bring technology and progress to an undeveloped word, and the wordsmith Beetle will be their chronicler.
So, to what end is all this controlled savagery? It prepares them to fight, on that very North-West frontier between modern day Pakistan and Afghanistan, where we are engaged today. The words ‘Helmand Province’ do not appear, but they hang unspoken over the book when I read it today. We return and return to it. Nothing new, under the sun.
The book early on has a story, Slaves of the Lamp Part 1, of the three boys and three other heroes, slightly older than them and just about to leave the college to become warriors, putting on a production of ‘Aladdin’. The final chapter finds them together again, all bar Stalky, older and differently experienced, reminiscing in bloodthirsty detail about Stalky’s military exploits as an officer who is most comfortable working behind the lines, going in disguise, going native, conducting ‘special operations’. Exactly what he was doing in those years at school, but now part of ‘The Great Game’, not childish games. And, he has used the script of that old pantomime as code in his campaign – the bonds forged at school are stronger than family ties.
Why do I find it bearable to read? Because I have learnt to trust Kipling and not stereotype him. You may not trust him, and if you did not, I shouldn’t blame you – he is strong meat. But I find in Stalky & Co underneath all the maltreatment of small furry animals and small boys, the slacking, the rule-breaking, the smoking, the vendetta-waging, the rough justice, and the capricious favouritism that lets all that happen, an intense and profound humanity and some brilliant perceptions. One of the stories has stayed with me all my life: The Flag Of Their Country. To cut the story short, a Politician, an MP straight from central casting, comes to the school to lecture it on Patriotism. He tramples all over the boys’ sensibilities, and tells them that Life is not all a game of marbles. Finally, after a peroration of excruciating bad taste and insensitivity, he unfurls a Union Flag, and brandishes it. The sense of shock is palpable. He has outraged their feelings and tried to claim, falsely, that he has empathy with them. The flag-waving is an obscenity. To the boys he is a hate figure, and, we are led to believe, has less true love of country in his whole being than these Empire-builders in training each have in a single limb. The insight in this story is so powerful that even now, I shrink from any politician who wraps himself in the flag, or seeks to teach the nation what it should think about its duty to some patriotic ideal. Gordon Brown did something of the sort very soon after he became Prime Minister, my mind flew straight back to this story, and I have never recovered from the sense of my hopes in him being dashed. This of course is a highly personal reaction.
Kipling is a controversial writer; he has given so many hostages to fortune in the shape of eloquent words and original turns of phrase that are just asking to be recruited to a particular side of the argument. Phrases such as ‘The White Man’s Burden’, or ‘Lesser breeds without the law’ can be and are misused, where the measure of his irony is misunderstood. He could also write, after the death of his son at Loos in 1915 “If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied”. That doesn’t fit, does it. These school stories are wildly hilarious and deadly serious, and suitable for all adults, aged 11 or over.
Stalky & Co, by Rudyard Kipling (1899). My copy is the 1957 reprint of the 1950 Library Edition. London: Macmillan, 1957 pp xi  272. This is the original edition that contains 9 stories, and on which I have based this review.
The OUP Oxford World Classics edition contains an additional 5 Stalky stories (that I have never read – I discovered this fact only today).