|notes on the text|
... I had found me quarters in Villiers Street, Strand, which forty-six years ago was primitive and passionate in its habits and population. My rooms were small, not over-clean or well-kept, but from my desk I could look out of my window through the fanlight of Gatti’s Music-Hall entrance, across the street, almost on to its stage. The Charing Cross trains rumbled through my dreams on one side, the boom of the Strand on the other, while, before my windows, Father Thames under the Shot Tower walked up and down with his traffic.In a diary-letter to Mrs Edmonia Hill on 15th November 1889, he recorded that he had ‘dined at the Italian restaurant and after dinner concluded to go to Gatti’s Music Hall’ . On 16th November, he ‘...wrote for the C&MG a thing called “A Legend of Great Honour”—an exposition of Music Halls’ (Letters 1, page 366). Thus, the basis for the events described in “My Great and Only” must have occurred between late October 1889 after his arrival in London and mid November 1889 when the story was completed and despatched to India.
I spent a penny on a paper which introduced me to a Great and Only who “wanted new songs”. The people desired them really. He was their ambassador, and taught me a great deal about the property-right in songs, concluding with a practical illustration, for he said that my verses were just the thing and annexed them.The song was “That’s what the girl told the soldier”, aimed at the redcoats who frequented the hall, and Kipling worked with the Great and Only to devise some appropriate business:
It was long before he could hit on the step-dance which exactly elucidated the spirit of the text, and longer before he could jingle a pair of huge brass spurs as a dancing girl jingles her anklets. That was my notion, and a good one. Whilst, the conductor, who advertised that he “doctored bad songs,” had devised a pleasant lilting air for my needs.But, there is competition – appearing before the Great and Only on the bill was:
one who was winning triple encores with a priceless ballad . . . "We was shopmates—boozin’ shopmates."This was lauded by the ‘billycocks’, civilian clerks and shop assistants, and dreaded by Kipling. However, all goes well on the night and:
as I looked across the sea of tossing billycocks and rocking bonnets, my work, as I heard them give tongue, not once, but four times ... I felt that I had secured Perfect Felicity.Commentary
...We were shipmates, loving shipmates.The parody sounds considerably more appealing!
We were shipmates, I and he;
And I know there's few in the world would do
All that he did for me.
“Twixt Love and Duty,” Leo Dryden has his hands full, to say nothing of his voice, which is equally full . . . Charles Ross, of Gaiety fame, so well known as the “Dainty Champion,” secures rounds of applause by the rendering of his new characteristic song entitled “She’s a real good mother” . . . James Fawn wants to know who cuts the policemen out? Why the soldier whom Fawn impersonated to the very life. He does like to be in the know, you know, equally so with his hearers, who would willingly sit out a whole night with him if he’d keep them “in the know” all the time, but James must draw the line somewhere, so he draws it at Gatti’s.Kipling had this to say about ‘my Great and Only’:
I glanced at the gallery—the redcoats were there. The fiddle-bows creaked, and, with a jingle of brazen spurs, a forage-cap over his left eye, my Great and Only began to “chuck it off his chest.” Thus:The song may not be the same, but James Fawn’s costume most certainly is. From the descriptions of his act, none of which mention any songs about soldiers, it is thought most unlikely that Charles Ross was “my Great and Only”. James Fawn was also appearing at the Alhambra, and a review of his act at that hall says:
“At the back o’ the Knightsbridge Barricks,
When the fog was a-gatherin’ dim,
The Lifeguard talked to the Undercook,
An’ the girl she talked to ’im.”
Mr James Fawn has a pendant to his “P’leeceman” delineation; but the military sketch does not at present reach the level attained by that admirable representation of the member of the force. (The Entr’acte - Alhambra review, 23rd Nov. 1889)The same source also reviews the Charing Cross Gatti show, where:
Mr James Fawn is under engagement here just now, and is trotting out his humorous gifts to the delight of his audience, who cordially applaud his three songs.Roger Lancelyn Green in the ORG notes that the only “turn” mentioned in The Stage of the period which might be Kipling's contribution is described on 22 November 1889 as being performed at the Cambridge (different halls had notices in turn):
Mr. James Fawn has three new songs; his latest, ”The Soldier”, is very funny and finds great favour.Peter Keating in Kipling the Poet (p.65) comments that:
Jacqueline Bratton has argued that this song [“That’s what the Girl told the Soldier”] was probably an adaptation of a James Fawn music-hall favourite of 1889, “The Soldier”. (Proceedings of the British Academy, 1978).The probability that James Fawn was ‘my Great and Only’ is enhanced by a reference to him at the end of “The Army of a Dream—Part II” and a song about “The Guardsman!” (Traffics and Discoveries): Why, that’s one of old Jemmy Fawne’s songs. I haven’t heard it in ages.
Kipling defends the music-hall song as a popular art form conveying ‘basic and basaltic truths’ about human nature, and gives a fictional account of his own experiment with the genre – fore-shadowing the Barrack Room Ballads on which he was to embark early in 1890.Charles Carrington writes:
Perhaps truth, perhaps fiction; but, truth or fiction, this is where the inspiration for the ballads comes from, and their execution recalls the technique of the old music-hall.Peter Keating (pp.64-68) gives a most coherent analysis of the story and its significance to Kipling’s art. :
...Villiers Street provided him with the crucial experience of music hall. The evidence of some of Kipling’s early poems, written while he was still at school, indicate a familiarity with music-hall songs long before he visited Gatti’s, and while in India he would have heard the more popular songs at entertainments organised by the Anglo-Indian community ... Like the narrator of “My Great and Only”, Kipling took to heart the lessons that music hall had to offer him, and then distanced himself from it ... His personal connection with music hall was brief, but to the end of his life he retained an interest in it that was essentially historical, regarding the music-hall songs of the second half of the nineteenth century as an irreplaceable source of information about “the national life”.