by Meryl Macdonald
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|At either end of Rudyard Kipling's long worktable in his study at Bateman's, stand two large globes. Across the room a model of an eighteeth century three masted frigate catches the eye. Nearby are two leather map cases marked R. Kipling; one for Great Britain, and the other, larger one, for France. Both contain stiff, cloth-covered maps, sprinkled with pencilled notes in their owner's hand - mileages from A to B and the time taken by motor car. The floor to ceiling bookshelves reveal all the conventional classics of prose and poetry and reference - but also Pepys's Naval Review, Hakluyt's Voyages, and books on sailing ships and maritime history.|| Keen-eyed visitors enquire if Kipling had been connected with the navy. And he might have been in the navy had not fate, in the form of extreme short-sightedness, decreed otherwise. |
However, with India the land of his birth and his father's work, and England the land of his people and his schooldays, young Rudyard became accustomed to sea travel from the age of two.
By the time he returned home to India in his seventeenth year, to work on the local newspaper, he had already made the long voyage three times.
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|But it was not until he returned to England again seven years later, in 1889, in a series of screw-driven three- and four-masted schooners (it was the 'belt-and-braces' period when ships carried both sails and engines so that the shipping lines did not have to rely entirely on either) that his interest in the sea and ships was awakened - and his travel writing begun. Commissioned to write regular Letters of Travel for his old newspaper, Kipling had little difficulty - apart from a 'glorious idleness' - in finding material for his pen throughout the voyage, in fair weather and foul.||From the sailors trying 'to steady the ship who refuses to be steadied' in a cross sea and with a wet sail above them, to 'the 'Globe Trotters' who also refuse to be steadied. A Globe-Trotter is extreme cosmopolitan. He will be sick anywhere.'
In the years ahead, and often on doctor's orders, Kipling would take ship for the Antipodes, the Far East, North America or South Africa - a Globe-Trotter extraordinary. Throughout his life he travelled to an extent unheard of by the average civilian (or serviceman, come to that) of his day.
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|The trading routes, the ships that sailed them, and the sailors who manned them, became his familiars.
In time he would become the poet of the Passenger Liner, the Voice of the Silent Service, and an honoured guest aboard any naval ship; be it the three hour speed trial of a new torpedo boat, or two weeks on manoeuvre with the Channel Squadron, or going down in a submarine off Portsmouth, which he did not enjoy.
Kipling's lifetime spanned the most significant period of technological development since man invented the wheel and hoisted his first sail.
|While for many the passing of sail meant the end of romance at sea, it was not so for Kipling after he had discovered the enormous 'slam-bangin'' marine engines under the care of McAndrew, the the old Scottish engineer. It was on the long run 'fra Capetown to Wellington', where he found too that the engines' rhythm was uncommonly helpful in the writing of verse. The eventual outcome was McAndrew's hymn, 188 lines of technical know-how, in one of which the old man prays: 'Lord, send a man like Robbie Burns to sing the Song o' Steam!' One is tempted to think his prayer was answered in Kipling's ensuing flow of poetry and tales of the sea.|
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|Just a year after the Wright Brothers first took to the air in powered flight (1903) Kipling wrote his first 'sci-fi' tale, With the Night Mail (A Story of 2000 AD). It describes in some technical detail a regular mail flight across the Atlantic, with navigation by cloud-piercing light beams, gas-turbines, radio-telephony, wide-ranging weather forecasts, and world-wide flying control. He took a 'keen pleasure' in its writing. So too did the crew of the R34 airship, making their first double-crossing of the Atlantic in 1919. A copy of Actions and Reactions (the volume in which the story is collected) was the one book they took with them.||They read Kipling's story over and over again, astonished at its technical accuracy, even to their mutual first sighting of land at Trinity Bay. |
Kipling spoke the language of the engineer and yet was 'no good' with his hands; in much the same way he became an early motorist without ever taking the wheel himself. (see Kipling the Motorist) He saw a parallel between an engine's performance - depending absolutely on the load sharing ability of each of its component parts - and his own philosophy; that only by Discipline and Duty could Law and Order be maintained for the universal good.
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