Outside his own immediate interests the boy is as ignorant as the savage he so admires; but he has also the savage’s resource.
Rudyard Kipling, Stalky & Co. (1899)
It is an exposure of life in a public school from the point of view of the scholar, and is written with the spirit, dash and masculine energy which characterize Kipling’s best work.
Dundee Advertiser (1899)
Rudyard Kipling didn’t like school stories, which may well be why he wrote the best of them all. Or, at least, the best boys’ school story – I’m not qualified to comment on the girls’ equivalent.
So we’re back in 1881, in Devon (‘that county of easy kisses, the pleasantest under the sun’), at a school referred to only as the College, an establishment attended by the children of servicemen and imperial administrators: ‘the last census showed that eighty per cent of the boys had been born abroad – in camp, cantonment, or upon the high seas.’ In fact, it’s based closely on the United Services College in Westward Ho!, attended from 1878 by Kipling himself, and he puts his younger self into the story as one of the three central characters.
These are, starting at the top of the pecking order: Arthur Corkran, aka Stalky, a languid leader of men who’s off to Sandhurst as soon as he leaves school; William M’Turk, aka Turkey, son of an Irish landowner (though his comrades ‘had carefully kicked him out of his Irish dialect!’) – he’s destined for the Royal Indian Engineering College at Cooper’s Hill; and, finally, their chronicler, Reginald Beetle, the Kipling self-portrait.
They are the stuff of a schoolmaster’s nightmares. ‘Why can’t you three take any interest in the honour of your house?’ demands Prout, their greatest enemy amongst the teachers, a man baffled by their refusal to embrace the public-school spirit:
Boys that he understood attended house-matches and could be accounted for at any moment. But he had heard McTurk openly deride cricket – even house-matches; Beetle’s views on the honour of the house were incendiary; and he could never tell when the soft and smiling Stalky was laughing at him.
It’s not so much that they’re openly disobedient – though on occasion they are – but more that they seem so self-contained, so separate, so subversive. ‘They are unboylike, abnormal, and, in my opinion, unsound,’ Prout worries. ‘The moral effect of their performances must pave the way for greater harm.’ But the problem is knowing what to do with them; they take umbrage very easily, and are likely to respond to any attack by exacting a subtle, unpredictable revenge that might disturb the equilibrium of the school still further. As a prefect points out: ‘They’re rather influential. They have a knack of upsettin’ things in a quiet way that one can’t take hold of.’
The trio have no interest in team sports, though Turkey is keen on hunting and shooting. Neither are they academic, despite Beetle’s knack for writing parodic verse. They’re just boys, boys who are made of the right stuff, the creative, non-conformist, self-reliant sorts that the Empire needs – and that need an Empire if they are to realize their full potential.
It’s in their battles with authority, not in the classroom, that they find their education. In an early incident, they’re confronted by Prout over some wrongdoing, and deliberately withhold the justification for their actions so that they can reveal it later, at a time of maximum embarrassment to him:
Their eyes ceased to sparkle; their faces were blank; their hands hung beside them without a twitch. They were learning, at the expense of a fellow-countryman, the lesson of their race, which is to put away all emotion and entrap the alien at the proper time.
He knows they’re cheeking him, of course, and that only enrages him further.
On the other hand, the Head is treated with reverence and respect, perhaps because they only encounter him when they’ve gone too far and are summoned for a caning. ‘He licks across the shoulders,’ says Beetle, almost admiringly, ‘an’ it would slam like a beastly barn-door.’ During the course of one such beating, the Head sums up the strange paradox at the heart of public-school discipline: ‘Among the – lower classes,’ he reflects (and the dash represents a stroke of the cane), ‘this would lay me open to a charge of – assault.’
The boys aren’t averse to inflicting some physical violence themselves, but only according to their own moral code. In one of the more memorable episodes, they discover that a younger boy is being bullied by a couple of ‘precocious hairy youths between seventeen and eighteen, sent to the school in despair by parents who hoped that six months’ steady cram might, perhaps, jockey them into Sandhurst’.
And so the trio decide to bully the bullies, using a variety of tortures, none of which is described, which only makes them sound even more disturbing: Head-knuckles, Brush-drill (‘No brush is employed in Brush-drill’), the Key (‘which has no key at all’ and ‘hurts excessively’), the Corkscrew (‘this has nothing to do with corkscrews’ and ‘is keener than the torture of the Key’), Rocking to Sleep (‘It needs three boys and two boxing-gloves to rock a boy to sleep’), and an Ag Ag.
The best sequence of all concerns the visit of an MP named Raymond Martin, ‘an impeccable Conservative’, ‘a tall, generously designed, pink-and-white man’. The school padre was at college with him: ‘He was without form and void, so far as I remember, but desperately earnest.’
Our heroes take against Martin from the outset, when M’Turk hears him querying the cab-fare on his arrival, a clear sign of a bounder (‘Shouldn’t be surprised if he was a Radical’). But not even they could imagine the horror that was about to unfold, when the MP addresses the assembled school on the subject of patriotism. It’s worth giving Kipling a chance to describe the speech at length:
The reserve of a boy is tenfold deeper than the reserve of a maid, she being made for one end only by blind Nature, but man for several. With a large and healthy hand, he [Martin] tore down these veils, and trampled them under the well-intentioned feet of eloquence. In a raucous voice, he cried aloud little matters, like the hope of Honour and the dream of Glory, that boys do not discuss even with their most intimate equals, cheerfully assuming that, till he spoke, they had never considered these possibilities. He pointed them to shining goals, with fingers which smudged out all radiance on all horizons. He profaned the most secret places of their souls with outcries and gesticulations, he bade them consider the deeds of their ancestors in such a fashion that they were flushed to their tingling ears.
And then, to add injury to insult, he produces a Union Jack, which he unfurls and waves about him as he delivers his peroration. The boys are stunned into disgusted silence by such behaviour. Why on earth would anyone flaunt a Union Jack?
They had certainly seen the thing before – down at the coastguard station, or through a telescope, half-mast high when a brig went ashore on Braunton Sands; above the roof of the Golf-club, and in Keyte’s window, where a certain kind of striped sweetmeat bore it in paper on each box. But the College never displayed it; it was no part of the scheme of their lives; the Head had never alluded to it; their fathers had not declared it unto them. It was a matter shut up, sacred and apart. What, in the name of everything caddish, was he driving at, who waved that horror before their eyes?
Afterwards, the boys discuss their feelings. ‘Mr Raymond Martin, beyond question, was born in a gutter, and bred in a board-school,’ they conclude. ‘He was further (I give the barest handful from great store) a Flopshus Cad, an Outrageous Stinker, a Jelly-bellied Flag-flapper (this was Stalky’s contribution), and several other things which it is not seemly to put down.’
Regrettably (I think), this reticence concerning overt displays of supposed patriotism is less in evidence today than it was then. Lord knows what Stalky and Beetle would make of the displays of the Cross of St George, or of politicians – from Tony Blair to Nigel Farage – wrapping themselves in the flag with no sense of shame whatsoever.
As the stories progress, an awareness of the outside world and of the future creeps in. ‘Don’t you want to die for your giddy country?’ asks M’Turk, and Stalky retorts: ‘Not if I can jolly well avoid it.’
But some of the minor characters have their fates sketched, and they add a sobering undertone to the narrative. There’s Hogan, ‘not foreseeing that three years later he should die in the Burmese sunlight outside Minhla Fort’, and there’s ‘Perowne who was shot in Equatorial Africa by his own men’.
There is a real pride in the sacrificial service of old boys. One such is ‘Fat-Sow’ Duncan, whose death in India is recorded by one of the current pupils as making it ‘nine to us in the last three years’. When another old boy, ‘Toffee’ Crandall, who ‘was rather knocked about, recovering poor old Duncan’s body’, visits the school, he tells the story late at night in the dormitory:
‘He’d been shot through the lungs, poor old man, and he was pretty thirsty. I gave him a drink and sat down beside him, and – funny thing, too – he said, “Hullo, Toffee!” and I said, “Hullo, Fat-Sow! hope you aren’t hurt,” or something of the kind. But he died in a minute or two – never lifted his head off my knees.’
That was a world that Kipling knew by the time he wrote Stalky. What he couldn’t know, of course, was the world that was to come, the very different warfare that saw the death of his eighteen-year-old son at the battle of Loos in 1915.
Which makes the final pages especially poignant. A few years on from the main part of the story, some of the old boys meet up, including Beetle and M’Turk, and the talk eventually comes around to tales of the absent Stalky, who’s proving himself ‘the great man of his century’. His courage and imagination, as the leader of a unit of Sikh troops, has already become part of College legend. He’s turned into the exemplar of Empire that he always promised to be. But he’s not the only one.
‘India’s full of Stalkies,’ declares Beetle. ‘Cheltenham and Haileybury and Marlborough chaps that we don’t know anything about, and the surprises will begin when there is really a big row on.’
Stalky would have been fifty by the time the ‘big row’ came in 1914, too old for regular service. But then he never was very regular, and he probably would have wangled his way into some Greenmantle-type escapade. As Beetle says: ‘Just imagine Stalky let loose on the south side of Europe with a sufficiency of Sikhs and a reasonable prospect of loot. Consider it quietly…’