Something of Myself, For My Friends Known and Unknown, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter 8


Every man must be his own law in his own work, but it is a poor-spirited artist in any craft who does not know how the other man’s work should be done or could be improved. I have heard as much criticism among hedgers and ditchers and woodmen of a companion’s handling of spade, bill-hook, or axe, as would fill a Sunday paper. Carters and cattle-men are even more meticulous, since they must deal with temperaments and seasonal instabilities. We had once on the farms a pair of brothers between ten and twelve. The younger could deal so cunningly with an intractable cart-mare who rushed her gates, and for choice diagonally, that he was called in to take charge of her as a matter of course. The elder, at eleven, could do all that his strength allowed, and the much more that ancestral craft had added, with any edged tool or wood. Modern progress has turned them into meritorious menials.

One of my cattle-men had a son who at eight could appraise the merits and character of any beast in his father’s care, and was on terms of terrifying familiarity with the herd-bull, whom he would slap on the nose to make him walk disposedly before us when visitors came. At eighteen, he would have been worth two hundred a year to begin with on any ranch in the Dominions. But he was ‘good at his books,’ and is now in a small grocery, but wears a black coat on the Sabbath. Which things are a portent.

I have told what my early surroundings were, and how richly they furnished me with material. Also, how rigorously newspaper spaces limited my canvases and, for the reader’s sake, prescribed that within these limits must be some sort of beginning, middle, and end. My ordinary reporting, leader — and note-writing carried the same lesson, which took me an impatient while to learn. Added to this, I was almost nightly responsible for my output to visible and often brutally voluble critics at the Club. They were not concerned with my dreams. They wanted accuracy and interest, but first of all accuracy.

My young head was in a ferment of new things seen and realised at every turn and — that I might in any way keep abreast of the flood — it was necessary that every word should tell, carry, weigh, taste and, if need were, smell. Here the Father helped me incomparably by his ‘judicious leaving alone.’ ‘Make your own experiments,’ said he. ‘It’s the only road. If I helped, I’d hinder.’ So I made my own experiments and, of course, the viler they were the more I admired them.

Mercifully, the mere act of writing was, and always has been, a physical pleasure to me. This made it easier to throw away anything that did not turn out well: and to practise, as it were, scales.

Verse, naturally, came first, and here the Mother was at hand, with now and then some shrivelling comment that infuriated me. But, as she said; ‘There’s no Mother in Poetry, my dear.’ It was she, indeed, who had collected and privately printed verses written at school up to my sixteenth year, which I faithfully sent out from the little House of the Dear Ladies. Later, when the notoriety came, ‘in they broke, those people of importance,’ and the innocent thing ‘came on to the market,’ and Philadelphia lawyers, a breed by itself, wanted to know, because they had paid much money for an old copy, what I remembered about its genesis. They had been first written in a stiff, marble-backed MS. book, the front page of which the Father had inset with a scandalous sepia-sketch of Tennyson and Browning in procession, and a spectacled schoolboy bringing up the rear. I gave it, when I left school, to a woman who returned it to me many years later — for which she will take an even higher place in Heaven than her natural goodness ensures — and I burnt it, lest it should fall into the hands of ‘lesser breeds without the (Copyright) law.’

I forget who started the notion of my writing a series of Anglo–Indian tales, but I remember our council over the naming of the series. They were originally much longer than when they appeared, but the shortening of them, first to my own fancy after rapturous re-readings, and next to the space available, taught me that a tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked. One does not know that the operation has been performed, but every one feels the effect. Note, though, that the excised stuff must have been honestly written for inclusion. I found that when, to save trouble, I ‘wrote short’ ab initio much salt went out of the work. This supports the theory of the chimaera which, having bombinated and been removed, is capable of producing secondary causes in vacuo.

This leads me to the Higher Editing. Take of well-ground Indian Ink as much as suffices and a camel-hair brush proportionate to the inter-spaces of your lines. In an auspicious hour, read your final draft and consider faithfully every paragraph, sentence and word, blacking out where requisite. Let it lie by to drain as long as possible. At the end of that time, re-read and you should find that it will bear a second shortening. Finally, read it aloud alone and at leisure. Maybe a shade more brushwork will then indicate or impose itself. If not, praise Allah and let it go, and ‘when thou hast done, repent not.’ The shorter the tale, the longer the brushwork and, normally, the shorter the lie-by, and vice versa. The longer the tale, the less brush but the longer lie-by. I have had tales by me for three or five years which shortened themselves almost yearly. The magic lies in the Brush and the Ink. For the Pen, when it is writing, can only scratch; and bottled ink is not to compare with the ground Chinese stick. Experto crede.

Let us now consider the Personal Daemon of Aristotle and others, of whom it has been truthfully written, though not published:—

This is the doom of the Makers — their Daemon lives in their pen. If he be absent or sleeping, they are even as other men. But if he be utterly present, and they swerve not from his behest, The word that he gives shall continue, whether in earnest or jest.

Most men, and some most unlikely, keep him under an alias which varies with their literary or scientific attainments. Mine came to me early when I sat bewildered among other notions, and said; ‘Take this and no other.’ I obeyed, and was rewarded. It was a tale in the little Christmas magazine Quartette which we four wrote together, and it was called ‘The Phantom ‘Rickshaw.’ Some of it was weak, much was bad and out of key; but it was my first serious attempt to think in another man’s skin.

After that I learned to lean upon him and recognise the sign of his approach. If ever I held back, Ananias fashion, anything of myself (even though I had to throw it out afterwards) I paid for it by missing what I then knew the tale lacked. As an instance, many years later I wrote about a mediaeval artist, a monastery, and the premature discovery of the microscope. (‘The Eye of Allah.’) Again and again it went dead under my hand, and for the life of me I could not see why. I put it away and waited. Then said my Daemon — and I was meditating something else at the time —‘Treat it as an illuminated manuscript.’ I had ridden off on hard black-and-white decoration, instead of pumicing the whole thing ivory-smooth, and loading it with thick colour and gilt. Again, in a South African, post-Boer War tale called ‘The Captive,’ which was built up round the phrase ‘a first-class dress-parade for Armageddon,’ I could not get my lighting into key with the tone of the monologue. The background insisted too much. My Daemon said at last ‘Paint the background first once for all, as hard as a public-house sign, and leave it alone.’ This done, the rest fell into place with the American accent and outlook of the teller.

My Daemon was with me in the Jungle Books, Kim, and both Puck books, and good care I took to walk delicately, lest he should withdraw. I know that he did not, because when those books were finished they said so themselves with, almost, the water-hammer click of a tap turned off. One of the clauses in our contract was that I should never follow up ‘a success,’ for by this sin fell Napoleon and a few others. Note here. When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey.

I am afraid that I was not much impressed by reviews. But my early days in London were unfortunate. As I got to know literary circles and their critical output, I was struck by the slenderness of some of the writers’ equipment. I could not see how they got along with so casual a knowledge of French work and, apparently, of much English grounding that I had supposed indispensable. Their stuff seemed to be a day-today traffic in generalities, hedged by trade considerations. Here I expect I was wrong, but, making my own tests (the man who had asked me out to dinner to discover what I had read gave me the notion), I would ask simple questions, misquote or misattribute my quotations; or (once or twice) invent an author. The result did not increase my reverence. Had they been newspaper men in a hurry, I should have understood; but the gentlemen were presented to me as Priests and Pontiffs. And the generality of them seemed to have followed other trades — in banks or offices — before coming to the Ink; whereas I was free born. It was pure snobism on my part, but it served to keep me inside myself, which is what snobbery is for.

I would not today recommend any writer to concern himself overly with reviews. London is a parish, and the Provincial Press has been syndicated, standardised, and smarmed down out of individuality. But there remains still a little fun in that fair. In Manchester was a paper called The Manchester Guardian. Outside the mule-lines I had never met anything that could kick or squeal so continuously, or so completely round the entire compass of things. It suspected me from the first, and when my ‘Imperialistic’ iniquities were established after the Boer War, it used each new book of mine for a shrill recount of my previous sins (exactly as C—— used to do) and, I think, enjoyed itself. In return I collected and filed its more acid but uncommonly well-written leaders for my own purposes. After many years, I wrote a tale (‘The Wish House’) about a woman of what was called ‘temperament’ who loved a man and who also suffered from a cancer on her leg — the exact situation carefully specified. The review came to me with a gibe on the margin from a faithful friend; ‘You threw up a catch that time!’ The review said that I had revived Chaucer’s Wife of Bath even to the ‘mormal on her shinne.’ And it looked just like that too! There was no possible answer, so, breaking my rule not to have commerce with any paper, I wrote to the Manchester Guardian and gave myself ‘out —— caught to leg.’ The reply came from an evident human being (I had thought red-hot linotypes composed their staff) who was pleased with the tribute to his knowledge of Chaucer.

Per contra, I have had miraculous escapes in technical matters, which make me blush still. Luckily the men of the seas and the engine-room do not write to the Press, and my worst slip is still underided.

The nearest shave that ever missed me was averted by my Daemon. I was at the moment in Canada, where a young Englishman gave me, as a personal experience, a story of a body-snatching episode in deep snow, perpetrated in some lonely prairie-town and culminating in purest horror. To get it out of the system I wrote it detailedly, and it came away just a shade too good; too well-balanced; too slick. I put it aside, not that I was actively uneasy about it, but I wanted to make sure. Months passed, and I started a tooth which I took to the dentist in the little American town near ‘Naulakha.’ I had to wait a while in his parlour, where I found a file of bound Harper’s Magazines — say six hundred pages to the volume — dating from the ‘fifties. I picked up one, and read as undistractedly as the tooth permitted. There I found my tale, identical in every mark — frozen ground, frozen corpse stiff in its fur robes in the buggy — the inn-keeper offering it a drink — and so on to the ghastly end. Had I published that tale, what could have saved me from the charge of deliberate plagiarism? Note here. Always, in our trade, look a gift horse at both ends and in the middle. He may throw you.

But here is a curious case. In the late summer, I think, of ‘13, I was invited to Manoeuvres round Frensham Ponds at Aldershot. The troops were from the Eighth Division of the coming year — Guardsmen, Black Watch, and the rest, down to the horsed maxims — two per battalion. Many of the officers had been juniors in the Boer War, known to Gwynne, one of the guests, and some to me. When the sham fight was developing, the day turned blue-hazy, the sky lowered, and the heat struck like the Karroo, as one scuttled among the heaths, listening to the uncontrolled clang of the musketry fire. It came over me that anything might be afoot in such weather, pom-poms for instance, half heard on a flank, or the glint of a helio through a cloud-drift. In short I conceived the whole pressure of our dead of the Boer War flickering and re-forming as the horizon flickered in the heat; the galloping feet of a single horse, and a voice once well-known that passed chanting ribaldry along the flank of a crack battalion. (‘But Winnie is one of the lost — poor dear!’ was that song, if any remember it or its Singer in 1900–1901.) In an interval, while we lay on the grass, I told Gwynne what was in my head; and some officers also listened. The finale was to be manoeuvres abandoned and a hurried calling-off of all arms by badly frightened Commandants — the men themselves sweating with terror though they knew not why.

Gwynne played with the notion, and added details of Boer fighting that I did not know; and I remember a young Duke of Northumberland, since dead, who was interested. The notion so obsessed me that I wrote out the beginning at once. But in cold blood it seemed more and more fantastic and absurd, unnecessary and hysterical. Yet, three or four times I took it up and, as many, laid it down. After the War I threw the draft away. It would have done no good, and might have opened the door, and my mail, to unprofitable discussion. For there is a type of mind that dives after what it calls ‘psychical experiences.’ And I am in no way ‘psychic.’ Dealing as I have done with large, superficial areas of incident and occasion, one is bound to make a few lucky hits or happy deductions. But there is no need to drag in the ‘clairvoyance,’ or the rest of the modern jargon. I have seen too much evil and sorrow and wreck of good minds on the road to Endor to take one step along that perilous track. Once only was I sure that I had ‘passed beyond the bounds of ordinance.’ I dreamt that I stood, in my best clothes, which I do not wear as a rule, one in a line of similarly habited men, in some vast hall, floored with rough jointed stone slabs. Opposite me, the width of the hall, was another line of persons and the impression of a crowd behind them. On my left some ceremony was taking place that I wanted to see, but could not unless I stepped out of my line because the fat stomach of my neighbour on my left barred my vision. At the ceremony’s close, both lines of spectators broke up and moved forward and met, and the great space filled with people. Then a man came up behind me, slipped his hand beneath my arm, and said; ‘I want a word with you.’ I forget the rest; but it had been a perfectly clear dream, and it stuck in my memory. Six weeks or more later, I attended in my capacity of a Member of the War Graves Commission a ceremony at Westminster Abbey, where the Prince of Wales dedicated a plaque to ‘The Million Dead’ of the Great War. We Commissioners lined up facing, across the width of the Abbey Nave, more members of the Ministry and a big body of the public behind them, all in black clothes. I could see nothing of the ceremony because the stomach of the man on my left barred my vision. Then, my eye was caught by the cracks of the stone flooring, and I said to myself ‘But here is where I have been!’ We broke up, both lines flowed forward and met, and the Nave filled with a crowd, through which a man came up and slipped his hand upon my arm saying; ‘I want a word with you, please.’ It was about some utterly trivial matter that I have forgotten.

But how, and why, had I been shown an unreleased roll of my life-film? For the sake of the ‘weaker brethren’— and sisters — I made no use of the experience.

In respect to verifying one’s references, which is a matter in which one can help one’s Daemon, it is curious how loath a man is to take his own medicine. Once, on a Boxing Day, with hard frost coming greasily out of the ground, my friend, Sir John Bland–Sutton, the head of the College of Surgeons, came down to ‘Bateman’s’ very full of a lecture which he was to deliver on ‘gizzards.’ We were settled before the fire after lunch, when he volunteered that So-and-so had said that if you hold a hen to your ear, you can hear the click in its gizzard of the little pebbles that help its digestion. ‘Interesting,’ said I. ‘He’s an authority.’ ‘Oh yes, but’— a long pause —‘have you any hens about here, Kipling? ‘I owned that I had, two hundred yards down a lane, but why not accept So-and-so?’ ‘I can’t,’ said John simply, ‘till I’ve tried it.’ Remorselessly, he worried me into taking him to the hens, who lived in an open shed in front of the gardener’s cottage. As we skated over the glairy ground, I saw an eye at the corner of the drawn-down Boxing–Day blind, and knew that my character for sobriety would be blasted all over the farms before night-fall. We caught an outraged pullet. John soothed her for a while (he said her pulse was a hundred and twenty-six), and held her to his ear. ‘She clicks all right,’ he announced. ‘Listen.’ I did, and there was click enough for a lecture. ‘Now we can go back to the house,’ I pleaded. ‘Wait a bit. Let’s catch that cock. He’ll click better.’ We caught him after a loud and long chase, and he clicked like a solitaire-board. I went home, my ears alive with parasites, so wrapped up in my own indignation that the fun of it escaped me. It had not been my verification, you see.

But John was right. Take nothing for granted if you can check it. Even though that seem waste-work, and has nothing to do with the essentials of things, it encourages the Daemon. There are always men who by trade or calling know the fact or the inference that you put forth. If you are wrong by a hair in this, they argue ‘False in one thing, false in all.’ Having sinned, I know. Likewise, never play down to your public — not because some of them do not deserve it, but because it is bad for your hand. All your material is drawn from the lives of men. Remember, then, what David did with the water brought to him in the heat of battle.

And, if it be in your power, bear serenely with imitators. My Jungle Books begat Zoos of them. But the genius of all the genii was one who wrote a series called Tarzan of the Apes. I read it, but regret I never saw it on the films, where it rages most successfully. He had ‘jazzed’ the motif of the Jungle Books and, I imagine, had thoroughly enjoyed himself. He was reported to have said that he wanted to find out how bad a book he could write and ‘get away with,’ which is a legitimate ambition.

Another case was verses of the sort that are recited. An Edinburgh taxi-driver in the War told me that they were much in vogue among the shelters and was honoured to meet me, their author. Afterwards, I found that they were running neck-and-neck with ‘Gunga Din’ in the military go-as-you-pleases and on the Lower Deck, and were always ascribed to my graceful hand. They were called ‘The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God.’ They described an English Colonel and his daughter at Khatmandhu in Nepal where there was a military Mess; and her lover of the name of ‘mad Carew’ which rhymed comfortably. The refrain was more or less ‘And the green-eyed yellow Idol looking down.’ It was luscious and rampant, with a touch, I thought, of the suburban Toilet–Club school favoured by the late Mr. Oscar Wilde. Yet, and this to me was the Devil of it, it carried for one reader an awesome suggestion of ‘but for the Grace of God there goes Richard Baxter.’ (Refer again to the hairdresser’s model which so moved Mr. Dent Pitman.) Whether the author had done it out of his own head, or as an inspired parody of the possibilities latent in a fellow-craftsman, I do not know. But I admired him.

Occasionally one could test a plagiarist. I had to invent a tree, with name to match, for a man who at that time was rather riding in my pocket. In about eighteen months — the time it takes for a ‘test’ diamond, thrown over the wires into a field of ‘blue’ rock, to turn up on the Kimberley sorting-tables — my tree appeared in his ‘nature-studies’ name as spelt by me and virtues attributed. Since in our trade we be all felons, more or less, I repented when I had caught him, but not too much.

And I would charge you for the sake of your daily correspondence, never to launch a glittering generality, which an older generation used to call ‘Tupperism.’ Long ago I stated that ‘East was East and West was West and never the twain should meet.’ It seemed right, for I had checked it by the card, but I was careful to point out circumstances under which cardinal points ceased to exist. Forty years rolled on, and for a fair half of them the excellent and uplifted of all lands would write me, apropos of each new piece of broad-minded folly in India, Egypt, or Ceylon, that East and West had met — as, in their muddled minds, I suppose they had. Being a political Calvinist, I could not argue with these condemned ones. But their letters had to be opened and filed.

Again. I wrote a song called ‘Mandalay’ which, tacked to a tune with a swing, made one of the waltzes of that distant age. A private soldier reviews his loves and, in the chorus, his experiences in the Burma campaign. One of his ladies lives at Moulmein, which is not on the road to anywhere, and he describes the amour with some minuteness, but always in his chorus deals with ‘the road to Mandalay,’ his golden path to romance. The inhabitants of the United States, to whom I owed most of the bother, ‘Panamaed’ that song (this was before copyright), set it to their own tunes, and sang it in their own national voices. Not content with this, they took to pleasure cruising, and discovered that Moulmein did not command any view of any sun rising across the Bay of Bengal. They must have interfered too with the navigation of the Irrawaddy Flotilla steamers, for one of the Captains S.O.S.-ed me to give him ‘something to tell these somethinged tourists about it.’ I forget what word I sent, but I hoped it might help.

Had I opened the chorus of the song with ‘Oh’ instead of ‘On the road,’ etc., it might have shown that the song was a sort of general mix-up of the singer’s Far–Eastern memories against a background of the Bay of Bengal as seen at dawn from a troop-ship taking him there. But ‘On’ in this case was more singable than ‘Oh.’ That simple explanation may stand as a warning.

Lastly — and this got under my skin because it touched something that mattered — when, after the Boer War, there seemed an off chance of introducing conscription into England, I wrote verses called ‘The Islanders’ which, after a few days’ newspaper correspondence, were dismissed as violent, untimely, and untrue. In them I had suggested that it was unwise to ‘grudge a year of service to the lordliest life on earth.’ In the immediate next lines I described the life to which the year of service was grudged as:—

Ancient, effortless, ordered — cycle on cycle set — Life so long untroubled that ye who inherit forget It was not made with the mountains; it is not one with the deep. Men, not Gods, devised it. Men, not Gods, must keep.

In a very little while it was put about that I had said that ‘a year of compulsory service’ would be ‘effortless, ordered,’ etc. etc. — with the rider that I didn’t know much about it. This perversion was perversified by a man who ought to have known better; and I suppose I should have known that it was part of the ‘effortless, ordered’ drift towards Armageddon. You ask; ‘Why inflict on us legends of your Middle Ages?’ Because in life as in literature, its sole enduring record, is no age. Men and Things come round again, eternal as the seasons.

But, attacking or attacked, so long as you have breath, on no provocation explain. What you have said may be justified by things or some man, but never take a hand in a ‘dog-fight’ that opens ‘My attention has been drawn to,’ etc.

I came near to breaking this Law with Punch, an institution I always respected for its continuity and its utter Englishdom, and from whose files I drew my modern working history. I had written during the Boer War a set of verses based on unofficial criticisms of many serious junior officers. (Incidentally they contained one jewel of a line that opened ‘And which it may subsequently transpire’— a galaxy of words I had long panted to place in the literary firmament.) Nobody loved them, and indeed they were not conciliatory; but Punch took them rather hard. This was a pity because Punch would have been useful at that juncture. I knew none of its staff, but I asked questions and learned that Punch on this particular issue was — non-Aryan ‘and German at that.’ It is true that the Children of Israel are ‘people of the Book,’ and in the second Surah of the Koran Allah is made to say; ‘High above mankind have I raised you.’ Yet, later, in the fifth Surah, it is written; ‘Oft as they kindle a beacon-fire for war, shall God quench it. And their aim will be to abet disorder on the earth but God loveth not the abettors of disorder.’ More important still, my bearer in Lahore never announced our good little Jew tyler but he spat loudly and openly in the verandah. I swallowed my spittle at once. Israel is a race to leave alone. It abets disorder.

Many years later, during the War, The Times, with which I had had no dealings for a dozen years or so, was ‘landed’ with what purported to be some verses by me, headed ‘The Old Volunteer.’ They had been sent in by a Sunday mail with some sort of faked postmark and without any covering letter. They were stamped with a rubber-stamp from the village office, they were written on an absolutely straight margin, which is beyond my powers, and in an unEuropean fist. (I had never since typewriters began sent out press-work unless it was typed.) From my point of view the contribution should not have deceived a messenger-boy. Ninthly and lastly, they were wholly unintelligible.

Human nature being what it is, The Times was much more annoyed with me than anyone else, though goodness knows — this, remember, was in ‘17 — I did not worry them about it, beyond hinting that the usual week-end English slackness, when no one is in charge, had made the mess. They took the matter up with the pomp of the Public Institution which they were, and submitted the MS. to experts, who proved that it must be the work of a man who had all but ‘spoofed’ The Times about some fragments of Keats. He happened to be an old friend of mine, and when I told him of his magnified ‘characteristic’ letters, and the betraying slopes at which they lay — his, as I pointed out, ‘very C’s and U’s and T’s,’ he was wrath and, being a poet, swore a good deal that if he could not have done a better parody of my ‘stuff’ with his left hand he would retire from business. This I believed, for, on the heels of my modest disclaimer which appeared, none too conspicuously, in The Times, I had had a letter in a chaffing vein about ‘The Old Volunteer’ from a non-Aryan who never much appreciated me; and the handwriting of it, coupled with the subtlety of choosing a week-end (as the Hun had chosen August Bank Holiday of ‘14) for the work, plus the Oriental detachedness and insensitiveness of playing that sort of game in the heart of a life-and-death struggle, made me suspect him more than a little. He is now in Abraham’s bosom, so I shall never know. But The Times seemed very happy with its enlarged letters, and measurements of the alphabet, and — there really was a war on which filled my days and nights. Then The Times sent down a detective to my home. I didn’t see the drift of this, but naturally was interested. And It was a Detective out of a book, down to the very creaks of Its boots. (On the human side at lunch It knew a lot about second-hand furniture.) Officially, It behaved like all the detectives in the literature of that period. Finally, It settled Itself, back to the light, facing me at my work-table, and told me a long yarn about a man who worried the Police with complaints of anonymous letters addressed to him from unknown sources, all of which, through the perspicacity of the Police, turned out to have been written by himself to himself for the purpose of attracting notoriety. As in the case of the young man on the Canadian train, that tale felt as though it had come out of a magazine of the ‘sixties; and I was so interested in its laborious evolution that I missed its implication till quite the end. Then I got to thinking of the psychology of the detective, and what a gay life of plots It must tramp through; and of the psychology of The Times-ina-hole, which is where no one shows to advantage; and of how Moberly Bell, whose bows I had crossed in the old days, would have tackled the matter; what Buckle, whom I loved for his sincerity and gentlehood, would have thought of it all. Thus I forgot to defend my ‘injured honour.’ The thing had passed out of reason into the Higher Hysterics. What could I do but offer It some more sherry and thank It for a pleasant interview?

I have told this at length because Institutions of idealistic tendencies sometimes wait till a man is dead, and then furnish their own evidence. Should this happen, try to believe that in the deepest trough of the War I did not step aside to play with The Times, Printing House Square, London, E.C.

In the come-and-go of family talk there was often discussion as to whether I could write a ‘real novel.’ The Father thought that the setting of my work and life would be against it, and Time justified him.

Now here is a curious thing. At the Paris Exhibition of 1878 I saw, and never forgot, a picture of the death of Marion Lescaut, and asked my Father many questions. I read that amazing ‘one book’ of the Abbé Prévost, in alternate slabs with Scarron’s Roman Comique, when I was about eighteen, and it brought up the picture. My theory is that a germ lay dormant till my change of life to London (though that is not Paris) woke it up, and that The Light that Failed was a sort of inverted, metagrobolised phantasmagoria based on Manon. I was confirmed in my belief when the French took to that conte with relish, and I always fancied that it walked better in translation than in the original. But it was only a conte — not a built book.

Kim, of course, was nakedly picaresque and plotless — a thing imposed from without.

Yet I dreamed for many years of building a veritable three-decker out of chosen and longstored timber-teak, green-heart, and ten-year-old oak knees — each curve melting deliciously into the next that the sea might nowhere meet resistance or weakness; the whole suggesting motion even when, her great sails for the moment furled, she lay in some needed haven — a vessel ballasted on ingots of pure research and knowledge, roomy, fitted with delicate cabinet-work below-decks, painted, carved, gilt and wreathed the length of her, from her blazing stern-galleries outlined by bronzy palm-trunks, to her rampant figure-head — an East Indiaman worthy to lie alongside The Cloister and the Hearth.

Not being able to do this, I dismissed the ambition as ‘beneath the thinking mind.’ So does a half-blind man dismiss shooting and golf.

Nor did I live to see the day when the new three-deckers should hoist themselves over the horizon, quivering to their own power, over-loaded with bars, ball-rooms, and insistent chromium plumbing; hellishly noisy from the sports’ deck to the barber’s shop; but serving their generation as the old craft served theirs. The young men were already laying down the lines of them, fondly believing that the old laws of design and construction were for them abrogated.

And with what tools did I work in my own mould-loft? I had always been choice, not to say coquettish in this respect. In Lahore for my Plain Tales I used a slim, octagonal-sided, agate penholder with a Waverley nib. It was a gift, and when in an evil hour it snapped I was much disturbed. Then followed a procession of impersonal hirelings each with a Waverley, and next a silver penholder with a quill-like curve, which promised well but did not perform. In Villiers Street I got me an outsize office pewter ink-pot, on which I would gouge the names of the tales and books I wrote out of it. But the housemaids of married life polished those titles away till they grew as faded as a palimpsest.

I then abandoned hand-dipped Waverleys — a nib I never changed — and for years wallowed in the pin-pointed ‘stylo’ and its successor the ‘fountain’ which for me meant geyser-pens. In later years I clung to a slim, smooth, black treasure (Jael was her office name) which I picked up in Jerusalem. I tried pump-pens with glass insides, but they were of ‘intolerable entrails.’

For my ink I demanded the blackest, and had I been in my Father’s house, as once I was, would have kept an ink-boy to grind me Indian-ink. All ‘blue-blacks’ were an abomination to my Daemon, and I never found a bottled vermilion fit to rubricate initials when one hung in the wind waiting.

My writing-blocks were built for me to an unchanged pattern of large, off-white, blue sheets, of which I was most wasteful. All this old-maiderie did not prevent me when abroad from buying and using blocks, and tackle, in any country.

With a lead pencil I ceased to express — probably because I had to use a pencil in reporting. I took very few notes except of names, dates, and addresses. If a thing didn’t stay in my memory, I argued it was hardly worth writing out. But each man has his own method. I rudely drew what I wanted to remember.

Like most men who ply one trade in one place for any while, I always kept certain gadgets on my work-table, which was ten feet long from North to South and badly congested. One was a long, lacquer, canoe-shaped pen-tray full of brushes and dead ‘fountains’; a wooden box held clips and bands; another, a tin one, pins; yet another, a bottle-slider, kept all manner of unneeded essentials from emery-paper to small screwdrivers; a paper-weight, said to have been Warren Hastings’ a tiny, weighted fur-seal and a leather crocodile sat on some of the papers; an inky foot-rule and a Father of Penwipers which a much-loved housemaid of ours presented yearly, made up the main-guard of these little fetishes.

My treatment of books, which I looked upon as tools of my trade, was popularly regarded as barbarian. Yet I economised on my multitudinous penknives, and it did no harm to my fore-finger. There were books which I respected, because they were put in locked cases. The others, all the house over, took their chances.

Left and right of the table were two big globes, on one of which a great airman had once outlined in white paint those air-routes to the East and Australia which were well in use before my death.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38