1957: Stalky and Co (by Rudyard Kipling, 1899)
This is, I think, my second published article; I was asked to review a classic school story (by my English teacher, Mr Grose, to whom belated thanks). It appeared in the Bradfordian (magazine of Bradford Grammar School), December 1957.
A boy’s probable motive for reading a school-story is to see an idealised picture of himself. If he wants excitement or escapism there are many more fertile topics; but none of these can give him more than a superficial sense of identification with the hero. This is all very well with contemporary books, but when we are presented with a ‘classic’ example of the type, like Stalky and Co., which our fathers and grandfathers read, and we are told that this, by a famous novelist and poet, is far better than the stuff that is written nowadays, we are apt to be disappointed, and consider that its fame results from nostalgia rather than literary merit.
We soon accept the superficial trappings of the period, and convince ourselves that phrases like ‘Pon my sainted Sam’ might once conceivably have been a current expression. And then we find much that is amusing and enjoyable in the story. Its heroes are three boys named Stalky, Beetle and McTurk; they are not the conventional public-school heroes, and it makes a change to read of boys who, far from hitting the winning runs for their house, stubbornly refuse even to attend house cricket matches. Their pleasures include the fairly common one of smoking to vomiting-point, and one which seems almost incongruous, the reading of Ossian. They have a healthy hostility towards the staff (apart from one rather over-sentimental episode where the Head is cheered by the whole school for having sucked out an obstruction from the throat of a boy dying of diphtheria). They induce a drunken carrier to wreck a master’sroom, lead a master on to private land so that he is caught for trespassing , and put a dead cat under the floor-boards of a rival house. They are highly organised to the extent that they do each other’s homework, and pawn each other’s property.
To this we can make no moral objection, and if the story remained at this it would be very amusing (there is an almost Amisian touch in the comment on an unpopular visiting speaker: ‘Happy thought! Perhaps he was drunk!’) The trouble is that Kipling (who in a popular encyclopedia illustration is shown set against the shadowy forms of two turbaned Indians) cannot leave it at that. A school-story does not ask for a justification, but Kipling provides his own unsatisfactory one in the comment of one of his boys: ‘And all to be cut up by those vile Afghans.’ The school in question exists solely for the purpose of getting boys into Sandhurst, the military tradition is strong, with old boys returning to address the headmaster as ‘head sahib,’ and the news of an old boy’s death in battle being greeted by the comment ‘Nine to us, up to date.’ Kipling cannot leave an action to stand by itself, but produces annoyingly omniscient comments such as ‘This is that Perowne who was shot in Equatorial Africa by his own men.’ The last chapter, showing Stalky’s exploits as a mature soldier, transforms the whole book. The youthful reader can no longer identify himself with the hero, but is given a kind of romantic adventure-story, set in an age before 1914, when war was regarded with an utterly different eye. It is Kipling’s jingoistic attitude, which sees the school as the formative cradle for the Army, which is foreign to our modern outlook, and makes the book uncongenial to the modern reader.