The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987)

Summary

This is a very mixed bag of a book. The first quarter or so is a thrilling global overview of the main trends and developments in industrial capitalism during the period 1875 to 1914, containing a vast array of fascinating and often thrilling facts and figures. But then it mutates into a series of long, turgid, repetitive, portentous, banal and ultimately uninformative chapters about social change, the arts, sciences, social sciences and so on, which are dreadful.

And underlying it all is Hobsbawm’s unconcealed contempt for the nineteenth century ‘bourgeoisie’ and their ‘bourgeois society’, terms he uses so freely and with so little precision that they eventually degenerate into just being terms of abuse.

And in his goal of insulting the 19th century ‘bourgeoisie’ as much as possible, Hobsbawm glosses over a huge range of crucial differences – between nations and regions, between political and cultural and religious traditions, between parties and politicians, between classes and even periods, yoking a fact from 1880 to one from 1900, cherry-picking from a vast range of information in order to make his sweeping Marxist generalisations and support the tendentious argument that ‘bourgeois society’ was fated to collapse because of its numerous ‘contradictions’.

But when you really look hard at the ‘contradictions’ he’s talking about they become a lot less persuasive than he wants them to be, and his insistence that ‘bourgeois society’ was doomed to collapse in a welter of war and revolution comes to seem like the partisan, biased reporting of a man who is selective in his facts and slippery in his interpretations.

Eventually you feel like you are drowning in a sea of spiteful and tendentious generalisations. I would recommend literally any other book on the period as a better guide, for example:

It is symptomatic of Hobsbawm’s ignoring specificity, detail and precision in preference for sweeping generalisations about his hated ‘bourgeois society’, that in this book supposedly ‘about’ imperialism, he mentions the leading imperialist politician in the world’s leading imperialist nation, Joseph Chamberlain, precisely once, and the leading British cultural propagandist of imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, also only once. These feel like glaring omissions.

When I read this book as a student I was thrilled by its huge perspectives and confident generalisations and breezily Marxist approach. It was only decades later, when I read detailed books about the scramble for Africa, or late-imperial China, or really engaged with Kipling’s works, that I realised how little I actually understood about this period and how much I had been seriously misled by Hobsbawm’s fine-sounding but, in the end, inadequate, superficial and tendentiously misleading account.

Introduction

The Age of Empire is the third and final volume in Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s trilogy of books covering what he termed ‘the long nineteenth century’, from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1798 to the start of the Great War in 1914. This third instalment covers the final 40 years, from 1875 to 1914.

In the previous book, The Age of Capital, Hobsbawm had amply demonstrated that he regards the third quarter of the nineteenth century as marking the triumph of the liberal ‘bourgeoisie’, of the ‘capitalist’ middle classes, in industry and technology and finance and politics and the arts.

Having seen off the attempt to overthrow existing regimes across continental Europe in the failed revolutions of 1848, the continent’s ruling classes experienced from 1850 onwards, a period of spectacular economic, technological, business and trade growth which continued on into the 1860s. This boom period was overseen by laissez-faire liberal governments in most countries and reflected in the widespread, optimistic belief that the steady stream of scientific, technological and industrial innovations would produce an endless progress upwards towards peace and prosperity. It was 25 years of what Hobsbawm insists on calling ‘liberal bourgeois triumph’.

It led to the confident conquest of the globe by the capitalist economy, carried by its characteristic class, the bourgeoisie, and under the banner of its characteristic intellectual expression, the ideology of liberalism. (p.9)

At the end of The Age of Capital he gave a short preview of what was coming up in the next era, and it is a major change in tone and subject. Whereas the pace of scientific and technological innovation accelerated, economically, politically and culturally the period which began around 1875 felt like a very different period, witnessing the collapse of much of the mid-century optimism.

Main features of the period

The Long Depression

The period witnessed a long depression, particularly in agriculture, which lasted from 1873 to 1896. A glut of agricultural produce led to a collapse in prices, rural poverty and loss of revenue for the landowning aristocracies. Cheaper food made life better for all those who lived in cities, so the overall impact was very mixed. Commentators at the time didn’t understand what had led to an apparent stalling in expansion and profits and historians have debated its precise causes ever since.

Protectionism

The Long Depression was the main trigger for many western governments to move rapidly from the mid-century free trade model associated with Liberalism towards protectionism, the imposition of protective tariffs on imports etc, especially by America.

New industries

The textile base of the first industrial revolution continued to be important (witness Britain’s huge exports of cotton to its captive markets in India) but the main industrial economies entered a new era driven by new sources of power (electricity and oil, turbines and the internal combustion engine), exploiting new, science-based materials (steel [which became a general index for industrialisation and modernisation, p.35], alloys, non-ferrous metals), accompanied by numerous discoveries in organic chemistry (for example, new dyes and ways of colouring which affected everything from army uniforms to high art).

Monopoly-capitalism

The depression and the consumer explosion led to small and medium-sized companies being replaced by large industrial corporations, cartels, trusts, monopolies (p.44).

New managerial class

The age of small factories run by their founders and family was eclipsed by the creation of huge industrial complexes themselves gathered into regions linked by communications and transport. Hobsbawm mentions the vast industrial conurbation taking shape in the Ruhr region of Germany or the growth of the steel industry around Pittsburgh in America. The point is that these operations became far too large for one man and his son to run; they required managers experienced at managing industrial operations at scale, and so this gave rise to a new class of high level managers and executives. And to the beginnings of management ‘theory’, epitomised by the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor (born 1865 in Pennsylvania) which introduced concepts like, to quote Wikipedia:

analysis; synthesis; logic; rationality; empiricism; work ethic; efficiency and elimination of waste; standardization of best practices; disdain for tradition preserved merely for its own sake or to protect the social status of particular workers with particular skill sets; the transformation of craft production into mass production; and knowledge transfer between workers and from workers into tools, processes, and documentation.

Population growth

Europe’s population rose from 290 million in 1870 to 435 million in 1910, America’s from 38.5 million to 92 million. (All told, America’s population multiplied over five times from 30 million in 1800 to 160 million by 1900.)

Consumer capitalism

This huge population explosion led to a rapid expansion of domestic consumer markets (p.53). There was still much widespread poverty in the cities, but there was also an ever-growing middle and lower-middle-class keen to assert its status through its possessions. This led to an fast-expanding market for cheap products, often produced by the new techniques of mass production, epitomised by the radical industrial organising of Henry Ford who launched his Model T automobile in 1907.

Department stores and chain stores

Another symbol of this explosion of consumer culture was the arrival of the department store and the chain store in the UK (p.29). For example, Thomas Lipton opened his first small grocery shop in Glasgow in 1871 and by 1899 had over 500 branches, selling the characteristic late-Victorian product, tea, imported from Ceylon (p.53; British tea consumption p.64).

Or take Whiteleys, which began as a fancy goods shop opened in 1863 at 31 Westbourne Grove by William Whiteley, employing two girls to serve and a boy to run errands. By 1867 it had expanded to a row of shops containing 17 separate departments. Whiteley continued to diversify into food and estate agency, building and decorating and by 1890 employed over 6,000 staff. Whiteleys awed contemporaries by its scale and regimentation: most of the staff lived in company-owned male and female dormitories, having to obey 176 rules and working 7 am to 11 pm, six days a week.

Mass advertising

The arrival of a mass consumer market for many goods and services led to an explosion in the new sector of advertising. Many writers and diarists of the time lament the explosion of ads in newspapers, magazines and, most egregious of all, on the new billboards and hoardings which started going up around cities.

The poster

Hoardings required posters. The modern poster was brought to a first pitch of perfection during what critics consider ‘the golden age of the poster’ in the 1890s (p.223) (something I learned a lot about at the current exhibition of the poster art of John Hassell at the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner).

Hire purchase and modern finance

New ways for the financially squeezed lower middle classes to pay for all this were invented, notably hire-purchase or instalment payments (p.49).

New popular technologies

Entirely new technologies were invented during the 1880s and 1890s, the most notable being the internal combustion engine and the car, the bicycle, cinema, telephone, wireless and light bulb (pages 19 and 28 and 53).

Competition for resources

New discoveries in industrial chemistry and processes required more recherché raw materials – oil, rubber, rare metals such as manganese, tin and nickel (p.63). The booming consumer market also developed a taste for more exotic foodstuffs, specifically fruits, bananas, cocoa. (Apparently it was only during the 1880s that the banana became widely available and popular in the West.) Where was all this stuff found? In the non-European world.

Imperialism

Growing need for all these resources and crops led to increasing competition to seize territories which contained them. Hence the 1880s and 1890s are generally seen as the high point of Western imperialism, leading up to the so-called Scramble for Africa in the 1880s.

(Interestingly, Hobsbawm notes that the word ‘imperialism’, used in its modern sense, occurs nowhere in Karl Marx’s writings, and only became widely used in the 1890s, many commentators remarking [and complaining] about its sudden ubiquity, p.60.)

Globalisation

During the 1860s and 70s the world became for the first time fully ‘globalised’, via the power of trade and commerce, but also the physical ties of the Railway and the Telegraph (p.13).

The major fact about the nineteenth century is the creation of a single global economy, progressively reaching into the most remote corners of the world, an increasingly dense web of economic transactions, communications and movements of goods, money and people linking the developed countries with each other and with the undeveloped world. (p.62)

During the 1880s and 1890s this process was intensified due to the growth of direct competition between the powers for colonies and their raw materials. Until the 1870s Britain ruled the waves. During this decade international competition for territories to exploit for their raw resources and markets became more intense (p.51). Imperialism.

A world divided

The final mapping of the world, its naming and definitions, led inevitably to the division of the world into ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’ parts, into ‘the advanced and the backward’.

For contemporaries, the industrialised West had a duty to bring the benefits of civilisation and Christianity to the poor benighted peoples who lived in all the ‘undeveloped’ regions. Hobsbawm, with the benefit of hindsight, says that the representatives of the developed part almost always came as ‘conquerors’ to the undeveloped part whose populations thus became, in Hobsbawm’s phrase, ‘victims’ of international capitalism.

On this Marxist reading, the imperial conquerors always distorted local markets to suit themselves, reducing many populations to plantation labour reorganised to produce the raw materials the West required, and eagerly helped by the tiny minorities in each undeveloped country which were able to exploit the process and rise to the top as, generally, repressive local rulers (pages 31, 56, 59).

In the second half of the twentieth century, many nations which had finally thrown off the shackles of colonialism found themselves still ruled by the descendants of these collaborationist elites, who modelled themselves on their former western rulers and still ran their countries for the benefit of themselves and their foreign sponsors. Further, truly nationalist revolutions were required, of which the most significant, in my lifetime, was probably the overthrow of the American-backed Shah of Iran by Islamic revolutionaries in 1978.

New working class militancy

Working class militancy went into abeyance in the decades 1850 to 1875, politically defeated in 1848 and then made irrelevant by a general raising of living standards in the mid-century boom years, much to Marx and Engels’ disappointment.

But in the 1880s it came back with a vengeance. Across the developed world a new generation of educated workers led a resurgence in working class politics, fomented industrial unrest, and a significant increase in strikes. There was much optimistic theorising about the potential of a complete or ‘general’ strike to bring the entire system to a halt, preliminary to ushering in the joyful socialist paradise.

New socialist political parties, some established in the 1860s or 1870s, now found themselves accumulating mass membership and becoming real powers in the land, most notably the left-wing German Social Democratic Party, which was the biggest party in the Reichstag by 1912 (chapter 5 ‘Workers of the World’).

Incorporation of working class demands and parties into politics

The capitalist class and ‘its’ governments found themselves forced to accede to working class demands, intervening in industries to regulate pay and conditions, and to sketch out welfare state policies such as pensions and unemployment benefit.

Again, Germany led the way, with its Chancellor, Bismarck, implementing a surprisingly liberal series of laws designed to support workers, including a Health Insurance Bill (1883), an Accident Insurance Bill (1884), an Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill (1889) – although, as everyone knew, he did this chiefly to steal the thunder from the German socialist parties.

Whatever the motives, the increasing intervention by governments across Europe into the working hours, unemployment and pension arrangements of their working classes were all a world away from the laissez-faire policies of the 1850s and 60s. Classical liberalism thought the forces of the market should be left entirely to themselves and would ineluctably resolve all social problems. By the 1880s it was clear to everyone that this was not the case and had instead produced widespread immiseration and poverty which states needed to address, if only to ensure social stability, and to neutralise the growing threat from workers’ parties.

Populism and blood and soil nationalism

But the rise of newly class-conscious workers’ parties, often with explicit agendas to overthrow the existing ‘bourgeois’ arrangements of society, and often with an internationalist worldview, triggered an equal and opposite reaction: the birth of demagogic, anti-liberal and anti-socialist, populist parties.

These harnessed the tremendous late-century spread of a new kind of aggressive nationalism which emphasised blood and soil and national language and defined itself by excluding ‘outsiders. (Chapter 6 ‘Waving Flags: Nations and Nationalism’).

Some of these were harmless enough, like Cymru Fydd, founded in Wales in 1886. Some would lead to armed resistance, like the Basque National Party founded 1886. Some became embroiled in wider liberation struggles, such as the Irish Gaelic League founded 1893. When Theodor Herzl founded Zionism with a series of articles about a Jewish homeland in 1896 he can little have dreamed what a seismic affect his movement would have in the second half of the twentieth century.

But the point is that, from the time of the French Revolution through to the 1848 revolutions, nationalism had been associated with the political left, from La Patrie of the Jacobins through the ‘springtime of the peoples’ of the 1848 revolutionaries.

Somehow, during the 1870s and 80s, a new type of patriotism, more nationalistic and more aggressive to outsiders and entirely associated with the political Right, spread all across Europe.

Its most baleful legacy was the crystallisation of centuries-old European antisemitism into a new and more vicious form. Hobsbawm makes the interesting point that the Dreyfus Affair, 1894 to 1906, shocked liberals across Europe precisely because the way it split France down the middle revealed the ongoing presence of a stupid prejudice which bien-pensant liberals thought had been consigned to the Middle Ages, eclipsed during the Enlightenment, long buried.

Instead, here it was, back with a vengeance. Herzl wrote his Zionist articles partly in response to the Dreyfus Affair and to the advent of new right-wing parties such as Action Francaise, set up in 1898 in response to the issues of identity and nationhood thrown up by the affair. (In a way, maybe the Dreyfus Affair was comparable to the election of Donald Trump, which dismayed liberals right around the world by revealing the racist, know-nothing bigotry at the heart of what many people fondly and naively like to think of as a ‘progressive’ nation.)

But it wasn’t just the Jews who were affected. All sorts of minorities in countries and regions all across Europe found themselves victimised, their languages and dialects and cultural traditions under pressure or banned by (often newly founded) states keen to create their own versions of this new, late-century, blood and soil nationalism.

The National Question

In fact this late-nineteenth century, super-charged nationalism was such a powerful force that socialist parties all across Europe had to deal with the uncomfortable fact that it caught the imagination of many more members of the working classes than the socialism which the left-wing parties thought ought to be appealing to them.

Hobsbawm’s heroes Lenin and ‘the young Stalin’ (Stalin – yes, definitely a man to admire and emulate, Eric) were much concerned with the issue. In fact Stalin was asked by Lenin in 1913 to write a pamphlet clarifying the Bolsheviks’ position on the subject, Marxism and the National Question. Lenin’s concern reflected the fact that all across Europe the effort to unify the working class into a revolutionary whole was jeopardised by the way the masses were much more easily rallied in the name of nationalistic ambitions than the comprehensive and radical communist overthrow of society which the socialists dreamed of.

In the few years before Stalin wrote, the Social Democratic Party of Austria had disintegrated into autonomous German, Czech, Polish, Ruthenian, Italian and Slovene groupings, exemplifying the way what ought to be working class, socialist solidarity was increasingly undermined by the new nationalism.

Racism

Related to all these topics was widespread racism or, as Hobsbawm puts it:

  • Racism, whose central role in the nineteenth century cannot be overemphasised. (p.252)

This is the kind of sweeping generalisation which is both useful but questionable, at the same time. Presumably Hobsbawm means that racism was one of the dominant ideologies of the period, but where, exactly? In China? Paraguay? Samoa?

Obviously he means that racist beliefs grew increasingly dominant through all strands of ‘bourgeois’ Western ideology as the century progressed, but even this milder formulation is questionable. In Britain the Liberals consistently opposed imperialism. Many Christian denominations in all nations very powerfully opposed racism. For example, it was the incredibly dedicated work of the Quakers which underpinned Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807.The missionaries who played such a vital role in funding expeditions into Africa did so to abolish the slave trade there and because they thought Africans were children of God, like us.

A key point of the Dreyfus Affair was not that it was a storming victory for antisemites but the reverse: it proved that a very large part of the French political and commenting classes, as well as the wider population, supported Dreyfus and condemned antisemitism.

It is one thing to make sweeping generalisations about the racism which underpinned and long outlasted the slave system in the American South, which Hobsbawm doesn’t hesitate to do. But surely, in the name of accuracy and real historical understanding, you have to point out the equal and opposite force of anti-racism among the well organised, well-funded and widely popular anti-slavery organisations, newspapers and politicians in the North.

I can see what Hobsbawm’s driving at: as the nineteenth century progressed two types of racism emerged ever more powerfully:

1. In Europe, accompanying the growth of late-century nationalism went an increasingly bitter and toxic animosity against, and contempt for, people identified as ‘outsiders’ to the key tenets nationalists included in their ideology (that members of the nation must speak the same language, practice the same religion, look the same etc), most obviously the Jews, but plenty of other ‘minorities’, especially in central and eastern Europe, suffered miserably. And the Armenians in Turkey, right at the end of Hobsbawm’s period.

2. In European colonies, the belief in the intrinsic racial superiority of white Europeans became increasingly widespread and was bolstered in the later period by the spread of various bastardised forms of Darwinism. (I’ve read in numerous accounts that the Indian Revolt of 1857 marked a watershed in British attitudes, with the new men put in charge maintaining a greater distance from their subjects than previously and how, over time, they came to rationalise this into an ideology of racial superiority.)

I don’t for a minute deny any of this. I’m just pointing out that Hobsbawm’s formulation is long on rousing rhetoric and short on any of the specifics about how racist ideology arose, was defined and played out in actual policies of particular western nations, in specific times and places – the kind of details which would be useful, which would aid our understanding.

And I couldn’t help reflecting that if he thinks racism was central to the 19th century, then what about the twentieth century? Surely the twentieth century eclipses the nineteenth on the scale of its racist ideologies and the terrible massacres it prompted, from the Armenian genocide, the Jewish Holocaust, the Nazi Ostplan to wipe out all the Slavs in Europe, the Japanese massacres in China, the anti-black racism which dominated much of American life, the Rwandan genocide, and so on.

Hobsbawm confidently writes about ‘the universal racism of the bourgeois world’ (p.289) but the claim, although containing lots of truth a) like lots of his other sweeping generalisations, tends to break down on closer investigation and b) elides the way that there were a lot of other things going on as well, just as there were in the twentieth century.

The New Woman

In 1894 Irish writer Sarah Grand used the term ‘new woman’ in an influential article, to refer to independent women seeking radical change and, in response, the English writer Ouida (Maria Louisa Rame) used the term as the title of a follow-up article (Wikipedia).

Hobsbawm devotes a chapter to the rise of women during the period 1875 to 1914. He makes a number of points:

Feminism

The number of feminists and suffragettes was always tiny, not least because they stood for issues which only interested middle-class women, then as now. The majority of British women were poor to very poor indeed, and most simply wanted better working and living conditions and pay. It was mostly upper-middle-class women who wanted the right to vote and access to the professions and universities like their fathers and brothers.

The more visible aspects of women’s emancipation were still largely confined to women of the middle class… In countries like Britain, where suffragism became a significant phenomenon, it measured the public strength of organised feminism, but in doing so it also revealed its major limitation, an appeal primarily confined to the middle class. (p.201)

Upper class feminism

It is indicative of the essentially upper-class nature of suffragism and feminism that the first woman to be elected to the UK House of Commons was Constance Georgine Gore-Booth, daughter of Sir Henry Gore-Booth, 5th Baronet, and Georgina, Lady Gore-Booth.

Nancy Astor

In fact, as an Irish Republican, Constance refused to attend Westminster, with the result that the first woman MP to actually sit in the House of Commons, was the American millionairess, Nancy Astor, who took her seat after winning a by-election for the Conservative Party in 1919. Formally titled Viscountess Astor, she lived with her American husband, Waldorf Astor, in a grand London house, No. 4 St. James’s Square, or spent time at the vast Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire which Waldorf’s father bought the couple as a wedding present. Hardly the stuff of social revolutions, is it? The exact opposite, in fact. Reinforcing wealth and privilege.

Rentier feminism

In the same way, a number of the most eminent women of the day lived off inherited money and allowances. They were rentiers, trustafarians aka parasites. When Virginia Woolf wrote that a woman writer needed ‘a room of her own’ what she actually meant was an income of about £500 a year, ideally provided by ‘the family’ i.e. Daddy. The long-running partnership of the founders of the left-wing Fabian Society, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, was based on the £1,000 a year settled on her by her father at her marriage i.e. derived from the labour of others, mostly working class men (p.185).

New secretarial jobs for women

Alongside the rise of a new managerial class, mentioned above, the 1880s and 1890s saw the rise of new secretarial and administrative roles, what Hobsbawm neatly calls ‘a tribute to the typewriter’ (p.201). In 1881 central and local government in Britain employed 7,000 women; by 1911 that number was 76,000. Many women went into these kinds of secretarial jobs, and also filled the jobs created by the spread of the new department and chain stores. So these years saw a broad social change as many middle-class and lower middle-class single women and wives were able to secure reasonable white collar jobs in ever-increasing numbers (p.200).

Women and education

Education began to be offered to the masses across Europe during the 1870s and 80s, with Britain’s patchy 1870 Education Act followed by an act making junior school education compulsory in 1890. Obviously this created a huge new demand for schoolteachers and this, also, was to become a profession which women dominated, a situation which continues to this day. (In the UK in 2019, 98% of all early years teachers are women, 86% of nursery and primary teachers are women, 65% of secondary teachers are women. Overall, 75.8% of all grades of school teacher in the UK are female).

Secretarial and admin, shop staff, and schoolteachers – the pattern of women dominating in these areas was set in the 1880s and 1890s and continues to this day (p.201).

Women and religion

Hobsbawm makes one last point about women during this period which is that many, many more women were actively involved in the Christian church than in feminist or left-wing politics: women were nuns, officiants in churches, and supporters of Christian parties.

Statistically the women who opted for the defence of their sex through piety enormously outnumbered those who opted for liberation. (p.210)

I was surprised to learn that many women in France were actively against the vote being given to women, because they already had a great deal of ‘soft’ social and cultural power under the existing system, and actively didn’t want to get drawn into the worlds of squabbling men, politics and the professions.

Even within the bourgeois liberal society, middle class and petty-bourgeois French women, far from foolish and not often given to gentle passivity, did not bother to support the cause of women’s suffrage in large numbers. (p.209)

Feminism, then as now, claimed to speak for all women, a claim which is very misleading. Many women were not feminists, and many women were actively anti-feminist in the sense that they devoutly believed in Christian, and specifically Catholic, values, which allotted women clear duties and responsibilities as wives and mothers in the home, but also gave them cultural capital, privileges and social power.

These anti-feminists were far from stupid. They realised that a shift to more secular or socialist models would actually deprive them of much of this soft power. Or they just opposed secular, socialist values. Just as more than 50% of white American women voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and did so again in 2020.

Sport

Hobsbawm mentions sport throughout the book. I knew that a lot of sports were given formal rules and their governing bodies founded during this era – the Football League founded in 1888, Rugby Football Union founded 1871, Lawn Tennis Association founded 1888. I knew that tennis and golf in particular quickly became associated with the comfortably off middle classes, as they still are to this day.

But I hadn’t realised that these sports were so very liberating for women. Hobsbawm includes posters of women playing golf and tennis and explains that clubs for these sports became acceptable meeting places for young women whose families could be confident they would be meeting ‘the right sort’ of middle class ‘people like them’. As to this day. The spread of these middle class sports significantly opened up the number of spaces where women had freedom and autonomy.

The bicycle

Another new device which was an important vehicle for women’s freedom was the bicycle, which spread very quickly after its initial development in the 1880s, creating bicycle clubs and competitions and magazines and shops across the industrialised world, particularly liberating for many middle class women whom it allowed to travel independently for the first time.

Victorian Women's Cyclewear: The Ingenious Fight Against Conventions - We Love Cycling magazine

The arts and sciences

I haven’t summarised Hobsbawm’s lengthy sections about the arts and literature because, as a literature graduate, I found them boring and obvious and clichéd (Wagner was a great composer but a bad man; the impressionists revolutionised art by painting out of doors etc).

Ditto the chapters about the hard and social sciences, which I found long-winded, boring and dated. In both Age of Capital and this volume, the first hundred pages describing the main technological and industrial developments of the period are by far the most interesting and exciting bits, and the texts go steadily downhill after that.


Credit

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback edition.

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Traffics and Discoveries by Rudyard Kipling (1904)

Kipling wrote some 250 short stories. He published them in all sorts of contemporary newspapers and journals throughout his long career, and it was his practice to bring them together into collections published every few years. These collections form milestones through his oeuvre.

It was also his habit to prefix or follow each story with a short poem commenting directly or obliquely on the narratives they decorate – a habit he picked up, apparently, from a favourite author, Ralph Waldo Emerson and took to new heights of complex interaction and subtle commentary.

This 1904 collection takes its name from The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation of Richard Hakluyt (c. 1552-1616), a compendium of exciting Elizabethan sailing expeditions. Traffics and Discoveries includes:

The Captive (1902) – This starts as a third-person account of a journalist (obviously Kipling) visiting a Boer prisoner of war camp during the Boer War (1899 to 1902). As so often the opening scene setting is vivid and powerful. Wandering among the men he gets talking to one, an American – Laughton O. Zigler from Akron, Ohio – who gives a long rambling first-person account of how he brought across the Atlantic a field gun and ammunition of his own design to sell to the Boers and ended up getting involved with one of their commandos, led by Adrian Van Zyl, helping them fight in the field against the British, until they were all captured.

Kipling characteristically stuffs the text with his technical know-how about artillery pieces, about the ‘hopper-feed and recoil-cylinder’, trying to out-man and out-engineer the reader, which isn’t very difficult. Zigler’s tone, his description of the sporadic artillery encounters with the Brits, is very casual; it’s hard not to find Zigler’s joking about ‘laying out’ the British boys with his gun, offensive.

‘They [the Boers] fought to kill, and, by what I could make out, the British fought to be killed. So both parties were accommodated.’

The war is seen as a comradely adventure between ‘friends’ and all the British officers Zigler meets admit to being ‘a bit pro-Boer’. (Is this how combatants saw the Boer War? Or is it the sentimental self-serving view of a privileged observer?) From Zigler’s account both sides spend half the time trying to kill each other and the other half being polite and complimentary. Often the combatants had actually met socially, dined and gossiped: now they are trying to kill each other.

The second half of the ‘story’ describes the dinner the British General and officers give for Zigler and Van Zyl, once they are prisoners, during which they compare notes like professionals. The British General is mighty lofty and complacent, hoping the war will go on another five years, so that he can knock his ragtag collection of floorworkers and stevedores into a professional army. Nothing is mentioned of the rank incompetence and idiocy which made the Boer War such a shambles for the British. (See The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham.) And a ghost walks over the text when the General boomingly declares:

‘It’s a first-class dress-parade for Armageddon.’

Yes, far more so than anyone knew. These are the kind of heartless pro-war sentiments for which Kipling would later be crucified.

As well as satirising the amateur, jolly-good-chap attitude of the British officers, using Zigler, an American, as a mouthpiece, means Kipling can also be sarcastic about the British political class, all couched in Zigler’s down-home terminology:

‘Well, you’ve an effete aristocracy running yours, and we’ve a crowd of politicians. The results are practically identical.’

‘I tell you, Sir, there’s not much of anything the matter with the Royal British Artillery. They’re brainy men languishing under an effete system which, when you take good holt of it, is England…’

The Captive is of a piece with Kipling’s other ‘warning’ poems and stories, warning that only eternal vigilance could keep Britain safe from her ever-present enemies, and lamenting the failure of peacetime politicians to pay enough heed, to take war seriously and to prosecute it whole-heartedly.

The Bonds of Discipline (1903) – Inspired by reading a book by a Frenchman who stowed away on a Royal Navy ship, the narrator travels to Portsmouth where he asks a publican to rustle up any sailors from the ship in question. He is introduced to Emanuel Pyecroft, second-class petty-officer, who serves on the very same ship and happened to be present when the French author of the book was caught masquerading as a Portuguese stowaway. He explains that the captain of the ship quickly realised the so-called Portuguese was in fact a french spy, and so proceeded to put on a lot of preposterous ship-board behaviour (including a mock execution) to rag and mislead him.

If The Captive allowed Kipling to showcase his knowledge of artillery, this story is a prolonged exercise in Kipling showing off his knowledge of naval speech rhythms, slang and technical gubbins aboard ship. The entire thing is told through the voice of Pyecroft which – like the voices of the three soldiers back in his Plain Tales period, or the rural dialect of his later Sussex period, is excruciatingly difficult to follow:

‘“When it comes to “Down ‘ammicks!” which is our naval way o’ goin’ to bye-bye, I took particular trouble over Antonio, ‘oo had ‘is ‘ammick ‘ove at ’im with general instructions to sling it an’ be sugared. In the ensuin’ melly I pioneered him to the after-‘atch, which is a orifice communicatin’ with the after-flat an’ similar suites of apartments. He havin’ navigated at three fifths power immejit ahead o’ me, I wasn’t goin’ to volunteer any assistance, nor he didn’t need it.’
“‘Mong Jew!’ says ‘e, sniffin’ round. An’ twice more ‘Mong Jew!’— which is pure French. Then he slings ‘is ‘ammick, nips in, an’ coils down. ‘Not bad for a Portugee conscript,’ I says to myself, casts off the tow, abandons him, and reports to ‘Op.

Like most of Kipling’s stories told by ‘characters’ in their slang and accents, it is almost unreadable (cf The Wish House). Kipling comes over as immensely pleased with himself and the bumptious diction of his music hall marine, revelling in his self-congratulatory facetiousness:

“In the balmy dawnin’ it was given out, all among the ‘olystones, by our sub-lootenant, who was a three-way-discharge devil, that all orders after eight bells was to be executed in inverse ration to the cube o’ the velocity. ‘The reg’lar routine,’ he says, ‘was arrogated for reasons o’ state an’ policy, an’ any flat-foot who presumed to exhibit surprise, annoyance, or amusement, would be slightly but firmly reproached.’

The ‘story’, as much as you can disentangle it from all this verbiage, is that the whole crew realised the Frenchie was a spy and so put on all manner of extravagant performances of incompetence and disobedience in order to mislead him, leading up to a faked execution by firing squad of a sailor. All of which is dutifully reported in the Frenchman’s book, which is the one the narrator was reading in the opening lines. Conclusions: Silly gullible French.

This is the first of six Pyecroft stories devoted to showcasing Kipling’s knowledge of naval matters and carry his booming calls for naval re-armament.

A Sahibs’ War (1901) – Umr Singh is a Sikh in the British Army who is in South Africa during the Boer War and has been tasked with going to ‘Eshtellenbosch’ to collect horses. The text is entirely his monologue to a Sahib who helps him get a ticket for the right train, in which he a) shows off his knowledge of Indian customs, religion, traditions and service in the Indian Army b) laments the British setbacks in the Boer War due to their being too courteous and considerate of the Boer guerrillas.

The Sikh thinks it silly of the British not to have used the Indian Army to put down the Boers, silly and subversive, for if the Brits fail in South Africa other colonies will take note of their weakness. That is the view of Umr’s ‘sahib’, his former master, Captain Corbyn or ‘Kurban Sahib’.

But privately to me Kurban Sahib said we should have loosed the Sikhs and the Gurkhas on these people till they came in with their foreheads in the dust.

The reason the Indian Army was forbidden to be involved is that it is a White Man’s war – white British against white Dutch. The actual African inhabitants of South Africa are hardly mentioned except insofar as they spark Umr’s own prejudices – he is not happy, when he arrives in Africa, to be given command of a load of ‘niggers’ – Kaffirs, who are ‘filth unspeakable’.

But the core of the story is how Umr and his Sahib, Captain Corbyn both volunteered to take ‘sick leave’ from their Indian regiment to come and fight the Boers – the kind of higher loyalty to the Empire and the Law which Kipling admires. They attach themselves to a regiment of Australians for whom Kipling has boundless admiration. In the central episode they are all tricked by the Boers inhabiting an ‘innocent’, ‘peaceful’ farmhouse, who are in fact organising an ambush of them all, a sudden fusillade of rifle shots, in which Corbyn is killed and Umr only just escapes.

In a rage Umr and the Muslim servant Sikandar Khan who they have picked up in their travels, go back to the farmhouse to take revenge, beheading one of the wounded Boers inside it and seizing the mentally sub-normal son of the householders to hang him in a nearby tree as punishment, as revenge on the treacherous farmer-priest and his wife.

But here – the irrational and uncanny in Kipling shows itself, as so often – for in the middle of this brutal wartime anecdote, the ghost of Kurban Sahib appears to Umr and three times forbids him from hanging the boy, ‘for it is a Sahibs’ war’.

This latter part of the text, the account of the ambush and then the narrator’s revenge, is vivid and powerful, and the appearance of the Sahib’s ghost eerie – it has a real imaginative force – Kipling’s daemon pushing through. But it is embedded in a text which overflows with contempt, hatred, resentment, is marinated in multiple types of racial prejudice, and is continually teetering on the edge of, not just violence but sadistic violence, vengeful hateful violence.

This is all epitomised in the last few lines of the text when Umr returns to the site of his Sahib’s death and rejoices to find, not only a memorial carved by the loyal and dutiful Australians – but that the Boer farmhouse, the well, the water tank, the barn and fruit trees – all have been razed from the face of the earth, by the ‘manly’ Australians, who aren’t shackled by the British concern for ‘fair play’.

The narrator rejoices, Kipling rejoices, and the reader is meant to rejoice in this act of nihilistic vengeance – the kind of scorched earth policy which will characterise so much of 20th century history.

‘Their Lawful Occasions’ The narrator (pretty obviously Kipling) is invited to go down to Weymouth to go aboard ship and witness Royal Navy manoeuvres; but in the town he bumps into his old mucker, Emanuel Pyecroft (who we met in The Bonds of Discipline). Very like Mulvaney, one of the Three Soldiers, Pyecroft has a cheeky and facetious sense of humour with which he explains that his ship, 267, is being mocked up by its captain to look like a destroyer so it can steam out and take part in the naval wargames starting that night. The whole thing is told in a tone of forced humour and all the characters speak with elaborate facetiousness.

A thin cough ran up the speaking-tube.
“Well, what is it, Mr. Hinchcliffe?” said Moorshed.
“I merely wished to report that she is still continuin’ to go, Sir.”
“Right-O! Can we whack her up to fifteen, d’you think?”
“I’ll try, Sir; but we’d prefer to have the engine-room hatch open — at first, Sir.”
Whacked up then she was, and for half an hour was careered largely through the night, turning at last with a suddenness that slung us across the narrow deck.

With Kipling, you often have the feeling that a huge amount of effort, imagination and humour has been wasted on ‘stories’ which no way justify them. Here, for example, is our hero describing what a torpedo boat sounds like if you’re trying to get to sleep on it.

‘Sleepin’ in a torpedo-boat’s what you might call an acquired habit.”
I coiled down on an iron-hard horse-hair pillow next the quivering steel wall to acquire that habit. The sea, sliding over 267’s skin, worried me with importunate, half-caught confidences. It drummed tackily to gather my attention, coughed, spat, cleared its throat, and, on the eve of that portentous communication, retired up stage as a multitude whispering. Anon, I caught the tramp of armies afoot, the hum of crowded cities awaiting the event, the single sob of a woman, and dry roaring of wild beasts. A dropped shovel clanging on the stokehold floor was, naturally enough, the unbarring of arena gates; our sucking uplift across the crest of some little swell, nothing less than the haling forth of new worlds; our half-turning descent into the hollow of its mate, the abysmal plunge of God-forgotten planets. Through all these phenomena and more — though I ran with wild horses over illimitable plains of rustling grass; though I crouched belly-flat under appalling fires of musketry; though I was Livingstone, painless, and incurious in the grip of his lion — my shut eyes saw the lamp swinging in its gimbals, the irregularly gliding patch of light on the steel ladder, and every elastic shadow in the corners of the frail angle-irons; while my body strove to accommodate itself to the infernal vibration of the machine. At the last I rolled limply on the floor, and woke to real life with a bruised nose and a great call to go on deck at once.

Vivid, as are the descriptions of the ship and of the sea, the English Channel, in its changing lights – all excellent, down to the presentation of tiny and convincing details.

Presently a hand-bellows foghorn jarred like a corncrake, and there rattled out of the mist a big ship literally above us. We could count the rivets in her plates as we scrooped by, and the little drops of dew gathered below them.

But there is little or no plot to speak of and what there is is very hard to make out. Only slowly did I realise that the ‘267’ is going under cover so it can ‘bag’ the destroyers in the war games; i.e. it is joining the flotilla masquerading as another ship and then will sail close enough to the other ships to – I think – mark them with some kind of paint, indicating that it is an ‘enemy’ ship and has ‘destroyed’ them as part of the war games.

In practice this amounts to dialogue-overheavy larks in the Channel fog and dark, as the captain and crew dodge and weave between the vast destroyers on manoeuvres.

Kipling was thrashed and beaten as a boy at his miserable foster home in Portsmouth and then at public school. It is difficult to read a story like this and not see it as the troubled adult who emerged from this hellish childhood fantasising about being accepted on their own terms by manly men – one of the team, one of the crew, manfully shaking hands, drinking strong liquor and eyes shining with troubles and challenges shared and overcome.

The manliness, the obsession with technical detail and the brusque, obscure way in which it’s conveyed, can be read as all part of the bookish, short-sighted wimp’s massive over-compensation, his adoration of Real Men.

Hence also, maybe, the excessive anger and vengefulness, the addiction to kicking the weak and vulnerable, which disfigures so many of his stories.

The Comprehension of Private Copper (1902) – A Boer guerrilla captures Private Alf Copper who had strayed unwisely far from his platoon and into the bush. The Boer descants at length about how his father, a Transvaal shop-keeper, was deceived out of his livelihood by the British, along with numerous insults of the British fighting ability or the morale of the poor Tommy far from home.

But in saying all this the Boer gets just a bit too close to Alf Copper, who lays him out with one well-aimed punch. Hah! Decadent, demoralised Tomy, is he! that’ll show ‘im! Kipling couldn’t be more frothingly on the side of the British Army and against the treacherous deceiving Boers.

More propaganda follows when Alf gets his now-captive Boer captive back to his picket, where his mates are looking over a British Liberal paper which is blackening their names back home. One of the Tommies satirically quotes it:

‘You’re the uneducated ‘ireling of a callous aristocracy which ‘as sold itself to the ‘Ebrew financier. Meantime, Ducky”— he ran his finger down a column of assorted paragraphs —“you’re slakin’ your brutal instincks in furious excesses. Shriekin’ women an’ desolated ‘omesteads is what you enjoy, Alf . . ., Halloa! What’s a smokin’ ‘ektacomb?’

The general idea is that both the arrogant Boer and the treacherous Liberals back home think the British Tommy doesn’t know what he’s fighting for and is a poor, badly educated pawn – but oh yes he does and oh no he isn’t! The text sets out to humiliate the arrogant Boer and ridicule whining anti-Imperial Liberals.

Steam Tactics (1902) – Third of the six Pyecroft stories, in which the narrator – while driving in his new-fangled steam motor car – meets him and Hinchcliffe, the naval engineer, on leave in sunny Sussex. Taking the idea that there are all kinds of angers and revenges going on in Kipling’s mind and texts, stories like this provide plenty of examples of the way this anger operates not only at the level of storyline and character (arrogant Boer, stupid Liberals, dogged Tommy, in the stories above). It might also explain the deliberate, wilful and aggressive obscurity of individual paragraphs and sentences. For example:

A bluish and silent beast of the true old sheep-dog breed glided from behind an outhouse and without words fell to work.

It is impossible from reading this to know what is going on; only the succeeding sentence makes it clear:

Pyecroft kept him at bay with a rake-handle while our party, in rallying-square, retired along the box-bordered brick-path to the car.

So ‘fell to work’ means the dog began barking and menacing them. Ah. In individual paragraphs, in sequences, and across entire stories, Kipling deliberately keeps things from the reader. Why? In a spirit of Modernist elitism and allusion? No. In order to beat the reader, to ‘best’ the reader. To be the winner, yah boo sucks.

This enjoyment of physical humiliation is present from the first few lines, where the narrator takes typically brutal pleasure in driving up behind the dawdling horse-drawn postal carrier and using his loud steam hooter to scare the horse so badly that it bolts into the hedgerow, scattering parcels all over the road. Ha ha ha, yah boo sucks. Kipling thinks this is hilarious. The reader thinks he’s a bully.

The ‘story’ only finally arrives after pages and pages of Pyecroft’s ship’s engineer, Hinchcliffe, and the narrator’s own chauffeur and mechanic poring over the steam car’s entrails to show us Kipling’s detailed technical knowledge.

The ‘story’ amounts to the car being pulled over by a man who pretends to be a special constable who will fine them for exceeding the speed limit. But Kipling, Pyecroft and Hinchcliffe suspect he is an imposter and con man. So they invite him into the car and immediately strong-arm and threaten and humiliate him. They’re discussing whether to strip him of his boots or just hang him, when another jalopy turns up, driven by Kipling’s friend Kysh, and they fall to discussing how the authorities have got it in for the poor motorist (the kind of aggressive self-pity which and aggrieved victimhood which all motorists still enjoy to this day).

Instead they drive in Kysh’s vast powerful petrol-fuelled Octopod across Sussex, then off the road into a private park all to deliberately maroon the poor policeman in an early version of a safari park, among bemused kangaroos in a rich man’s private game park. Yah boo sucks to all traffic police.

“Wireless” (1902) – An eerie supernatural story in which Kipling is invited to the local chemist’s shop where the tubercular chemist, Mr Shaynor, is allowing a young friend, Mr Cashell, to set up very early radio antenna and equipment to receive a signal from Poole.

But wile the engineer is fussing over his equipment a completely different signal comes through: for the young chemist is in love with a local girl called Fanny but he is tubercular and coughing blood. He dozes off in a corner then suddenly wakes and, in a kind of trance, starta to scribble verses which Kipling realises exactly match The Eve of St Agnes, a long poem by the Romantic poet John Keats. And now the narrator realises that Keats himself was a chemist’s assistant, he had tuberculosis, he also was in love with a young woman named Fanny. The narrator has a weird out of body moment as he realises that– maybe the chemist is channeling the spirit of the long-dead poet!

For an instant, that was half an eternity, the shop spun before me in a rainbow-tinted whirl, in and through which my own soul most dispassionately considered my own soul as that fought with an over-mastering fear.

Weird and uncanny, like most of Kipling’s many supernatural stories. (And always a relief that nobody gets beaten or humiliated.)

The Army of a Dream (1904) – the narrator falls asleep in his club and has a long and obscure dream in which he meets old military men who live in a parallel universe, in a society designed and run to create an unbeatable amry, a society in which they recruit and train men much earlier and better, in fact starting as early as six. Having had the new system explained to him in theory, the narrator goes to watch men practising with arms in the vast parade ground in central London, realising that passersby and lookers-on admire and envy the British Army – unlike the mockery and condescension it suffers in actual Victorian society.

In other words, this long fantasia stems from Kipling’s anger at the incompetent amateurishness of the British Army during the Boer War.

Kipling’s stories often teeter on the edge of having no plot: this one falls over the edge into being a kind of fictionalised pamphlet, advocating a recipe for the militarisation of society in a way familiar to students of Prussian society or Nazi Germany. And what could be more stirring than marching in shiny uniform through an adoring public.

I rejoiced to the marrow of my bones thus to be borne along on billows of surging music among magnificent men, in sunlight, through a crowded town whose people, I could feel, regarded us with comradeship, affection — and more.

As a rule of thumb, the more dialogue in a Kipling story the more incomprehensible it will be, as he exercises his unfailing enthusiasm to do funny voices at the reader’s expense.

“I was roped in the other day as an Adjustment Committee by the Kemptown Board School. I was riding under the Brighton racecourse, and I heard the whistle goin’ for umpire — the regulation, two longs and two shorts. I didn’t take any notice till an infant about a yard high jumped up from a furze-patch and shouted: ‘Guard! Guard! Come ’ere! I want you perfessionally. Alf says ‘e ain’t outflanked. Ain’t ‘e a liar? Come an’ look ‘ow I’ve posted my men.’ You bet I looked. The young demon trotted by my stirrup and showed me his whole army (twenty of ’em) laid out under cover as nicely as you please round a cowhouse in a hollow. He kept on shouting: ‘I’ve drew Alf into there. ‘Is persition ain’t tenable. Say it ain’t tenable, Guard!’ I rode round the position, and Alf with his army came out of his cowhouse an’ sat on the roof and protested like a — like a Militia Colonel; but the facts were in favour of my friend and I umpired according. Well, Alf abode by my decision. I explained it to him at length, and he solemnly paid up his head-money — farthing points if you please.”

The most telling moment of this long, long text comes in the last paragraph where the narrator suddenly sees all the bright young officers who have been showing him round the dream army, dining and bantering and chaffing – he sees them all dead or expiring on the dusty veldt of South Africa. A characteristically brutal and bitter and angry symbol of the price of the Army, and society’s, rank incompetence.

It is characteristic of Kipling’s impact in the real world of active men, that the following year he had this ‘story’ – really a prospectus for the organisation of a conscript army – printed as a six-penny pamphlet ‘as there have been numerous requests from adjutants of volunteers etc. to get it to their companies’. (Rudyard Kipling: His life and Work by Charles Carrington, Penguin edition, page 469)

“They” (1904) The unnamed narrator is driving his car round Sussex when he comes across a mysteriously beautiful and quiet country house, where he spies children playing amid the landscaped gardens, before meeting the owner, an elegant beautiful woman who is quite blind. It takes several visits and repeated hints from the remote butler, before the penny drops, and the narrator realises that the elusive children are ghosts – a realisation passed to him when one of the children kisses his palm in a way he realises, with a jolt, only his dead daughter did. A major feature of Kipling’s fiction is its tendency to be clipped and elliptical. Thus nowhere in the story does it say it was the kiss of the narrator’s child; I only learned this crucial fact from the Kipling Society website’s excellent notes on the story.

Atmosphere and description he does excellently well. Here is the narrator in his car:

As I reached the crest of the Downs I felt the soft air change, saw it glaze under the sun; and, looking down at the sea, in that instant beheld the blue of the Channel turn through polished silver and dulled steel to dingy pewter. A laden collier hugging the coast steered outward for deeper water and, across copper-coloured haze, I saw sails rise one by one on the anchored fishing-fleet. In a deep dene behind me an eddy of sudden wind drummed through sheltered oaks, and spun aloft the first day sample of autumn leaves. When I reached the beach road the sea-fog fumed over the brickfields, and the tide was telling all the groins of the gale beyond Ushant. In less than an hour summer England vanished in chill grey. We were again the shut island of the North, all the ships of the world bellowing at our perilous gates; and between their outcries ran the piping of bewildered gulls. My cap dripped moisture, the folds of the rug held it in pools or sluiced it away in runnels, and the salt-rime stuck to my lips.

Mrs. Bathurst (1904) Fourth of the stories about Petty Officer Emanuel Pyecroft. As with all Kipling’s stories told in dialogue it is difficult to follow and hard to care.

“Moon — Moon! Now where did I last . . .? Oh yes, when I was in the Palladium! I met Quigley at Buncrana Station. He told me Moon ‘ad run when the Astrild sloop was cruising among the South Seas three years back. He always showed signs o’ bein’ a Mormonastic beggar. Yes, he slipped off quietly an’ they ‘adn’t time to chase ’im round the islands even if the navigatin’ officer ‘ad been equal to the job.”
“Wasn’t he?” said Hooper.
“Not so. Accordin’ to Quigley the Astrild spent half her commission rompin’ up the beach like a she-turtle, an’ the other half hatching turtles’ eggs on the top o’ numerous reefs. When she was docked at Sydney her copper looked like Aunt Maria’s washing on the line — an’ her ‘midship frames was sprung. The commander swore the dockyard ‘ad done it haulin’ the pore thing on to the slips. They do do strange things at sea, Mr. Hooper.”

The narrator meets old friend Hooper, a railway official, at Simon’s Town, the naval base in South Africa. They’re enjoying a beer in a carriage near the beach when up comes none other than Pyecroft accompanied by a burly marine, Sergeant Pritchard, a Royal Marine.

As in so many Kipling stories they get to yarning and gossiping about people we’ve never heard of and don’t care about – to establish the mood – and this takes up a good half of the text, before they get round to discussing a particular tale. This concerns a man they know who deserted for the sake of a woman, a Mrs Bathurst, a widow who kept a bar in Auckland. He was Vickery, fifteen years in the service and just 18 months short of his pension, hopelessly smitten by the loyal Mrs B.

Eerie aspects:

1. Vickery has four false teeth in his lower left jaw. They don’t fit very well, hence his nickname ‘Clicks’. This is the kind of detail Kipling does well.

2. Vickery sees Mrs B in a very early cinematograph film shot at Paddington station and being shown as part of a travelling circus in the Cape. He insists on taking Pyecroft to it five nights in a row just to watch 45 seconds of Mrs B walking jerkily and silently towards the camera. This is one of the first mentions of a cinematoscope in fiction and typical of Kipling’s interest in gadgets and technology.

3. Hooper has been listening hard all this time, and asks whether Vickery had a tattoo before revealing that, as part of his work, he had to investigate the case of two corpses found burnt to carbon in a densely wooded part of the rail system in the interior – and one of them had a tattoo like Pyecroft describes, and four false teeth!

Victorian culture prevented any mention of sex or sexual attraction. Maybe what makes stories like this so unfulfilling is that Vickery clearly had some kind of burning obsession for Mrs Bathurst – but whatever its true nature, the repressed obsessiveness of it comes out in the bizarreness of the details of the text, which are almost like symptoms in a case study by Freud.

Below the Mill Dam (1904) – One of Kipling’s ‘objects and animals speaking’ stories. The mill is, of course, as old as he Doomsday book and the Mill Wheel talks, so do the Waters, and the Grey Cat and the Black Rat which inhabit it.

The joke is that they speak in ever-so-posh phraseology, presumably mocking the English upper classes.

The plot seems to be that the humans have rigged up a dynamo to the mill wheel which, towards the end of the story, they switch on and which floods the mill house with new-fangled electric light, much to all the inhuman characters’ amazement!

And the twist is that the Spirit of the Mill adapts wonderfully fast to the new electric turbines and all its advantages. Within a page or so it has taken the new-fangled technology in its stride and is telling the animals all about the benefits of electricity, for example illuminating the barn where cows can now calve at night etc.

It is powerfully done – but imagining animals and machinery talking isn’t really a story.

*****

Kipling and le Carré

In his aggressive public school facetiousness, Kipling reminds me exactly of the laboured humour of John le Carré:

After a great meal we poured libations and made burnt-offerings in honour of Kysh, who received our homage graciously.

I conceived great respect for Apothecaries’ Hall, and esteem for Mr. Cashell, a zealous craftsman who magnified his calling.

This is exactly the kind of pompous-sounding phraseology which mars so much of le Carré’s prose, as detailed in any of my reviews of his novels. Either the self-congratulatory and elaborately facetious lingo of the public school environment was remarkably consistent from the 1870s to the 1930s (when le Carré attended boarding school) or there’s a more direct influence of Kipling the Imperial propagandist on the twentieth century’s greatest spy writer. Would be interesting to know if a study has been made on the subject…


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