[December 2nd 2008]
This entertaining story of early motoring first appeared for the general public in December 1902 in the Windsor Magazine It thus came out before ‘The Bonds of Discipline’ and ‘Their Lawful Occasions’, and by way of introduction it was preceded by a letter from the author to Petty Officer Pyecroft, who figures in all three stories.
The story and letter also appeared in the United States in the Saturday Evening Post of 6th December 1902, accompanied by the poem "The Necessitarian". In the United States, it was preceded, for copyright purposes, by a twelve-page, ten cent edition by the Curtis Publishing Company.
There are many petty textual differences between the Windsor Magazine version and the collected one, but they do not affect the story. They are set out in the attached note. The story was collected in:
Since the collected stories appeared in chronological order of events, the letter preceding the magazine version was omitted as being unnecessary.
In the Windsor Magazine there were six black-and-white illustrations by C H Jalland. This Editor has been unable to find anything about Jalland, and can only say that his style is similar to the better known illustrator and artist, G.L Stampa, who was a contemporary, and also worked for the Windsor Magazine. Stampa's illustrations also appear in the various collections of Kipling's dog stories.
The narrator, a barely-disguised Kipling, and his chauffeur-engineer are driving through west Sussex in his steam car, en route to a luncheon engagement, when they meet Petty Officer Pyecroft and Mr Hinchcliffe, Engine-Room Artificer 1st Class. The narrator forgoes his lunch engagement and offers Pyecroft and Hinchcliffe a lift. Hinchcliffe takes the controls, and they suffer a series of mechanical mishaps such as Kipling himself had experienced with his Locomobile steam car.
They are stopped for speeding (unjustifiedly) by a plain clothes policeman, and agree to take him, it may be assumed, to the nearest magistrate to pay the fine. But it appears that the constable is not carrying his warrant card, and on the pretext that he might be an impostor, they ‘kidnap’ him, to show him what the alleged speed of twenty-plus miles an hour was really like.
After a cross-country diversion to avoid another police trap, the car breaks down, but luckily they fall in with the narrator’s prospective luncheon host in his big petrol-engined car. He, too, is out of charity with the Sussex constabulary, having just been stopped on a trumped-up charge, and so the unspoken message is that they will have their revenge on the constable, who is treated to a circular tour of Sussex, and finally is left at dusk, close to where the story started, in the middle of a private zoo-park.
Kipling was one of the earliest serious motorists in England, acquiring his first car, a hired petrol-engined “Embryo", which at times could cover eight miles an hour, in December 1899. Despite its many shortcomings, he made some journeys which, for pioneer motoring and given the state of the roads, were quite long. However, throughout his life, he never drove himself, always employing a chauffeur, who became a member of his household staff.
After a year, he bought an American-made ‘Locomobile’ steam car, and it is this car which features in "Steam Tactics". He put up with her foibles for over a year (though, since the family spent the winters in South Africa at this time, never through an English winter) before buying a new Lanchester petrol car. Frederick William Lanchester was a self-taught engineer, who built well-engineered cars of superior quality. His company lasted from 1894 to 1933, when it was taken over by Daimler-BSA. Lanchester cars continued to be produced until 1955.
The "Octopod" rescue car in the story is possibly based on the new Lanchester car, of which Kipling had taken delivery in June 1902. Its fictional driver, Kysh, is thought to have been based on Max Lawrence, works manager of the Lanchester factory. As regards the route taken through the Sussex countryside, a number of attempts to identify the various places have been made: these are summarised by the ORG Editors in the attached note with the addition of some map references to help readers to identify some of the Sussex place-names. We have also included a further note on Kipling as an early motorist, from the ORG.
Early motorists, like many today, had little reason to love the Law, whether in the form of the legal restrictions which Parliament imposed, or the police, whose zeal in enforcing those restrictions was resented by all right-thinking motorists. (See "The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat", in A Diversity of Creatures, and the comment in "The Vortex" (A Diversity of Creatures), which speaks of: 'the mustard-coloured scouts of the Automobile Association; their natural enemies, the unjust police'. So the revenge on the policeman would have appealed to many motorists, being, one might think, the fictional realisation of their dreams.
In fact, it was based on an actual occurrence involving F.W. Lanchester at a rally of the Midland Automobile Club in 1902, when a policeman who was exceeding his duty was carried from Solihull to Stow-on-the-Wold, some 40 miles, and back again. An account of the incident will be found in Kipling’s Sussex, by Michael Smith, (Brownleaf, Rottingdean, 2008):
Fred and George Lanchester both attended a rally of the Midland Automobile Club in 1902, with a luncheon party at the George Hotel, Solihull. The former drove a car on final test for a customer and George was in a car ready for delivery to the War Department. It was painted in glossy khaki and had the King’s cipher emblazoned on one of the panels. During testing it had almost certainly exceeded the speed limit of 12 m.p.h. George asked Fred his opinion of the car as he climbed in [to the driver’s seat] with a passenger, Sidney Pinsent, a draughtsman employee.There is a fuller account in Lanchester Motor Cars (Anthony Bird and Francis Hutton-Scott, Cassell, 1965)
Kipling as an early motorist
In Kipling's autobiography, Something of Myself, the references to motoring reveal his early enthusiasm for this new and liberating technology:
A friend cried at our door, Mr. Harmsworth has just brought round one of those motor car things. Come and try it. We returned, white with dust and dizzy with noise. But the poison worked from that very hour...There are also many references to motoring in Kipling's letters (edited by Thomas Pinney):
[20 July 1900, to John St. Loe Strachey]Critical responses
Although critics are now inclined to class ‘Steam Tactics’ amongst Kipling’s stories with a ‘revenge’ motive, it must be remembered that when it was written, civility and service could still be confidently hoped for from most employees of Government; two world wars had not yet occurred to make the public docile, humble and ready to put up with petty tyranny from jacks-in-office, and more emphasis was still placed upon individual responsibility than upon collective guilt. Punishment for aggressive bad manners could then be held to be simple justice, untainted by revenge. In any case, the story, as an imaginative extravaganza, is not to be taken too seriously.
On the whole Kipling’s biographers and critics have not taken much notice of this tale, regarding it as a lightweight humorous tale with overtones of revenge. Charles Carrington merely mentions it in connection with the chapter entitled ‘A Home in Sussex’. In it, he remarks that the coming of the motor-car “released them from restraints that were beginning to bear heavily”. He adds that, having bought the Locomobile, for two years they:
...drove it from end to end of Sussex, in a world still unprovided with petrol pumps, spare tyres or repair shops. Every motorist had to be his own mechanic and had to learn how to do running repairs as new problems arose. Two or three times a week Rudyard and Carrie set off for long drives with the ‘engineer’, and her diary gives the impression that few mishaps were completed without mishap...In her Chapter II, ‘Laughter’ J M S Tompkins discusses those tales which, although farcical, have a hard core of bitter revenge. In particular she cites "The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat", concluding that: 'To be able to break so noxious an insect (the reference is to Sir Thomas Ingell, the ‘villain’ of the story) on so huge, glittering, vibrating and maddening a wheel as modern publicity, is no simple joke; it is really not a joke at all.' She goes on:
It is unnecessary to take the flouting of police authority in ‘Steam Tactics’ so seriously. The tale is compounded rather than developed, and the ingredients are the antics of the narrator’s incalculable steam-car, naval characters on leave, the Sussex countryside with its landowners, cottagers and police, and the black twenty-four-horse Octopod, humming uphill into the future at a ‘resonant fifteen against the collar’. To confound the politics of the police and frustrate their knavish tricks [the reference is to the second verse of the National Anthem] – those who think that the plain-clothes officer was merely doing his duty should look again at what is said about Agg the carrier and the measured quarter-mile – chance puts fantastic weapons into the motorists’ hands; indeed, the last page reads like one of the Brushwood Boy’s dreams. The victim is not much the worse; his quandary cannot be equated with the ruin of Major Kniveat in ‘Beauty Spots’ or Sir Thomas Ingell in ‘The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat’; but the element of resentment and malicious triumph in his instructors brings ‘Steam Tactic’ nearer to ‘Brugglesmith’ in tone than to ‘Aunt Ellen, though it is much more loosely constructed.”Later, in the same chapter, Professor Tompkins discusses how Kipling 'examines the achievements of orgiastic laughter and begins to set it in what came to be almost mystical relations with the powers that rule life'. A page further on, she remarks:
And who or what is the Power of whose mysteries he is so richly rewarded to minister? We cannot expect a categorical answer in so sportive a medium. . . . In ‘The Necessitarian’, however, the verses prefixed to ‘Steam Tactics’, we meet the suggestion that, like all Kipling’s ultimate powers, this Power too is outside man. Time, Chance and Circumstance are merely the instruments of the unknown Jester, the culmination of whose play is called the Sacredly Absurd, as if a manifestation so excessive, so unaccountable and so complete must, like lunacy in former ages, somehow belong to the divine.Andrew Lycett makes brief, but not unimportant, references to the story, saying that it 'tells of his pleasure in the temperamental, two-cylinder, ten-horsepower, air cooled car'; this is emphatically NOT the steam car, but the ‘Octopod’, which rescues the narrator, and carries him and his hostage round Sussex in one long summer’s afternoon.
Later, Lycett remarks that 'Boundaries of space and time are broken down with motor-cars and telegraphy in ‘Steam Tactics’ and ‘Wireless’.' He also comments that Kipling had 'referred (in ‘Steam Tactics’) to the healing power of laughter (or mirth, as Rudyard archaically called it)' And finally, he comments that in this story and "The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat" Kipling was satirising 'the flat earthers who wanted to hold back the progress of mechanical transport'.
©Alastair Wilson 2008 All rights reserved