My Great and Only

by Rudyard Kipling

WHETHER Macdougal or Macdoodle be his name, the principle remains the same, as Mrs. Nickleby said. The gentleman appeared to hold authority in London, and by virtue of his position preached or ordained that music-halls were vulgar, if not improper. Subsequently, I gathered that the gentleman was inciting his associates to shut up certain music-halls on the ground of the vulgarity afore-said, and I saw with my own eyes that unhappy little managers were putting notices into the comers of their programmes begging the audience to report each and every impropriety. That was pitiful, but it excited my interest.

Now, to the upright and impartial mind—which is mine—all the diversions of Heathendom—which is the British—are of equal ethnological value. And it is true that some human beings can be more vulgar in the act of discussing etchings, editions of luxury, or their own emotions, than other human beings employed in swearing at each other across the street. Therefore, following a chain of thought which does not matter, I visited very many theatres whose licenses had never been interfered with. There I discovered men and women who lived and moved and behaved according to rules which in no sort regulate human life, by tradition dead and done with, and after the customs of the more immoral ancients and Barnum. At one place the lodging-house servant was an angel, and her mother a Madonna; at a second they sounded the loud timbrel o’er a whirl of bloody axes, mobs, and brown-paper castles, and said it was not a pantomime, but Art; at a third everybody grew fabulously rich and fabulously poor every twenty minutes, which was confusing; at a fourth they discussed the Nudities and Lewdities in false-palate voices supposed to belong to the aristocracy and that tasted copper in the mouth; at a fifth they merely climbed up walls and threw furniture at each other, which is notoriously the custom of spinsters and small parsons. Next morning the papers would write about the progress of the modem drama (that was the silver paper pantomime) , and “graphic presentment of the realities of our highly complex civilisation.” That was the angel housemaid. By the way, when an Englishman has been doing anything more than unusually Pagan, he generally consoles himself with “over-civilisation.” It’s the “martyr-to-nerves-dear” note in his equipment.

I went to the music-halls—the less frequented ones—and they were almost as dull as the plays, but they introduced me to several elementary truths. Ladies and gentlemen in eccentric, but not altogether unightly, costumes told me (a) that if I got drunk I should have a head next morning, and perhaps be fined by the magistrate; (b) that if I flirted promiscuously I should probably get into trouble; (c) that I had better tell my wife everything and be good to her, or she would be sure to find out for herself and be very bad to me; (d) that I should never lend money; or (e) fight with a stranger whose form I did not know. My friends (if I may be permitted to so call them) illustrated these facts with personal reminiscences and drove them home with kicks and prancings. At intervals circular ladies in pale pink and white would low to their audience to the effect that there was nothing half so sweet in life as “Love’s Young Dream,” and the billycock hats would look at the four-and-elevenpenny bonnets, and they saw that it was good and clasped hands on the strength of it. Then other ladies with shorter skirts would explain that when their husbands

Stagger home tight about two,
An’ can’t light the candle,
We taik the broom ’andle
An’ show ‘em what women can do.”

Naturally, the billycocks, seeing what might befall, thought things over again, and you heard the bonnets murmuring softly under the clink of the lager-glasses: “Not me. Bill. Not me!” Now these things are basic and basaltic truths. Anybody can understand them. They are as old as Time. Perhaps the expression was occasionally what might be called coarse, but beer is beer, and best in a pewter, though you can, if you please, drink it from Venetian glass and call it something else. The halls give wisdom and not too lively entertainment for sixpence—ticket good for four pen’orth of refreshments, chiefly inky porter—and the people who listen are respectable folk living very grey skys who derive all the light side of their life, the food for their imagination and the crystallised expression of their views on Fate and Nemesis, from the affable ladies and gentlemen singers. They require a few green and gold maidens in short skirts to kick before them. Herein they are no better and no worse than folk who require fifty girls very much undressed, and a setting of music, or pictures that won’t let themselves be seen on account of their age and varnish, or statues and coins. All animals like salt, but some prefer rock-salt, red or black in lumps. But this is a digression.

Out of my many visits to the hall—I chose one hall, you understand, and frequented it till I could tell the mood it was in before I had passed the ticket-poll—was bom the Great Idea. I served it as a slave for seven days. Thought was not sufficient; experience was necessary. I patrolled Westminster, Blackfriars, Lambeth, the Old Kent Road, and many, many more miles of pitiless pavement to make sure of my subject. At even I drank my lager among the billycocks, and lost my heart to a bonnet. Goethe and Shakespeare were my precedents. I sympathised with them acutely, but I got my Message. A chance-caught refrain of a song which I understand is protected—to its maker I convey my most grateful acknowledgments—gave me what I sought. The rest was made up of four elementary truths, some humour, and, though I say it who should leave it to the press, pathos deep and genuine. 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 my verses were just the thing and annexed them. 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.

The Great and Only possessed a voice like a bull, and nightly roared to the people at the heels of one who was winning triple encores with a priceless ballad beginning deep down in the bass: “We was shopmates—boozin’ shopmates.” I feared that song as Rachel feared Ristori. A greater than I had written it. It was a grim tragedy, lighted with lucid humour, wedded to music that maddened. But my “Great and Only” had faith in me, and I—I clung to the Great Heart of the People—my people—four hxmdred “when it’s all full, sir.” I had not studied them for nothing. I must reserve the description of my triumph for another “Turnover.”

There was no portent in the sky on the night of my triumph. A barrowful of onions, indeed, upset itself at the door, but that was a coincidence. The hall was crammed with billycocks waiting for “We was shopmates.” The great heart beat healthily. I went to my beer the equal of Shakespeare and Moliere at the wings in a first night. What would my public say? Could anything live after the abandon of “We was shopmates”? What if the redcoats did not muster in their usual strength. O my friends, never in your songs and dramas forget the redcoat. He has sympathy and enormous boots.

I believed in the redcoat; in the great heart of the people: above all in myself. The conductor, who advertised that he “doctored bad songs,” had devised a pleasant little lilting air for my needs, but it struck me as weak and thin after the thunderous surge of the “Shopmates.” 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:

“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.”

Twiddle – iddle – iddle’lum’tum-tum!” said the violins.

Ling – a-ling-a-ling-a-ling-ting-ling!” said the spurs of the Great and Only, and through the roar in my ears I fancied I could catch a responsive hoof-beat in the gallery. The next four lines held the house to attention. Then came the chorus and the borrowed refrain. It took—it went home with a crisp click. My Great and Only saw his chance. Superbly waving his hand to embrace the whole audience, he invited them to join him in:

“You may make a mistake when you’re mashing a tart.
But you’ll learn to be wise when you’re older,
And don’t try for things that are out of your reach,
And that’s what the girl told the soldier, soldier, soldier.
And that’s what the girl told the soldier.”

I thought the gallery would never let go of the long-drawn howl on “soldier.” They clung to it as ringers to the kicking bell-rope. Then I envied no one—not even Shakespeare. I had my house hooked—gaffed under the gills, netted, speared, shot behind the shoulder—anything you please. That was pure joy! With each verse the chorus grew louder, and when my Great and Only had bellowed his way to the fall of the Lifeguard and the happy lot of the Undercook, the gallery rocked again, the reserved stalls shouted, and the pewters twinkled like the legs of the demented ballet-girls. The conductor waved the now frenzied orchestra to softer Lydian strains. My Great and Only warbled piano:

“At the back o’ Knightsbridge Barricks,
When the fog’s a-gatherin’ dim.
The Lifeguard waits for the Undercook,
But she won’t wait for ’im.”

Ta-ra-rara-rara-ra-ra-rah!” rang a horn clear and fresh as a sword-cut. ’Twas the apotheosis of virtue.

“She’s married a man in the poultry line
That lives at ’Ighgate ’Ill,
An’ the Lifeguard walks with the ’ousemaid now,
An’ (awful pause) she can’t foot the bill r

Who shall tell the springs that move masses? I had builded better than I knew. Followed yells, shrieks and wildest applause. Then, as a wave gathers to the curl-over, singer and sung to fill their chests and heave the chorus through the quivering roof—alto, horns, basses drowned, and lost in the flood—to the beach-like boom of beating feet:

“Oh, think o’ my song when you’re gowin’ it strong
An’ your boots is too little to ’old yer;
An’ don’t try for things that is out of your reach.
An’ that’s what the girl told the soldier, soldier, so-holdierl”

Ow! Hi! Yi! Wha-hup! Phew! Whew! Pwhit! Bang! Wang! Crr-rash! There was ample time for variations as the horns uplifted themselves and ere the held voices came down in the foam of sound—

That’s what the girl told the soldier.”

Providence has sent me several joys, and I have helped myself to others, but that night, 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—their eyes sparkling, their mouths twisted with the taste of pleasure—I felt that I had secured Perfect Felicity. I am become greater than Shakespeare. I may even write plays for the Lyceum, but I never can recapture that first fine rapture that followed the Upheaval of the Anglo-Saxon four hundred of him and her. They do not call for authors on these occasions, But I desired no need of public recognition. I was placidly happy. The chorus bubbled up again and again throughout the evening, and a redcoat in the gallery insisted on singing solos about “a swine in the poultry line,” whereas I had written “man,” and the pewters began to fly, and afterwards the long streets were vocal with various versions of what the girl had really told the soldier, and I went to bed murmuring: “I have found my destiny.”

But it needs a more mighty intellect to write the Songs of the People. Some day a man will rise up from Bermondsey, Battersea or Bow, and he will be coarse, but clearsighted, hard but infinitely and tenderly humorous, speaking the people’s tongue, steeped in their lives and telling them in swinging, urging, dinging verse what it is that their inarticulate lips would express. He will make them songs. Such songs! And all the little poets who pretend to sing to the people will scuttle away like rabbits, for the girl (which, as you have seen, of course, is wisdom) will tell that soldier (which is Hercules bowed under his labours) all that she knows of Life and Death and Love.

And the same, they say, is a Vulgarity!