Delayed on a train last week, I reached for my Kindle, and decided to read some Kipling short stories. I have long thought him the best, most skilled and versatile, and most psychologically perceptive short story writer in English – and three stories, chosen almost at random, did nothing to change that view: The Bridge Builders, The Walking Delegate, and The Ship That Found Herself. Each of these is 20 or 30 pages at most, yet each encompasses a whole world with conviction, passion, humour and the ability (to use a Kipling phrase) “to see further through a millstone than most”.
In The Bridge Builders, an engineer sees his new bridge, not quite complete, threatened by the violent and unseasonal floods of “Mother Ganga”, after a heart-breaking struggle with the bureaucrats to turn drawings into reality. Finlayson knows the
violent and awful rage against red tape half frenzying a mind that knows it should be busy on other things ... and the blank despair that a man goes to bed upon, thankful that his rifle is all in pieces in the gun-case.
The floods come, and his bridge is saved, not before he has worked all night – honest work is Kipling’s God – and his native overseer has urged his men on with abuse:
“O sons of unthinkable begetting - children of unspeakable shame - are we here for the look of the thing?"
And in the night, Finlayson, half dead with fatigue, hunger and opium, sees the Hindu gods argue about the bridge, and the end of the world, and the love of the common man. And every word of it, oh best beloved, is true!
In The Walking Delegate, a group of horses on a farm – every one a wonderfully drawn individual - see off a visiting horse preaching rebellion, because they know that the Utopia of now work he promises is illusory. You learn how they all work, and one of them, who used to pull trams in
And The Ship That Found Herself is a warm tale of a new ship which, in an Atlantic storm, ceases to be a collection of parts, and becomes a whole. The description of the storm is masterly, as is the description of the ship working; but the genius is in the understanding of the individuals becoming first a team and then a unity.
Brilliant, quite, quite brilliant!