It’s strange how sometimes we (that is to say, I – but I doubt that you’re any different) only want to read something new and contemporary while at other times we go back to what I suppose is the mental comfort food of books we have loved in the past. That’s certainly the mood I was in when I picked up Rudyard Kipling’s Collected Poems. I stuck to the early stuff, before he became the laureate of Empire, not because I don’t like his later work but because that was the mood I happened to be in. And I came across The Story of Uriah.
I’ve loved this poem since I was seventeen and in the first year of the Sixth Form and it was painstakingly explained to the English A-level class. If you know the background, pass on to the end where you will find the poem; if not, this might touch you as it did me all those years ago.
The title comes from the Book of Samuel which tells how David wanted Bathsheba so much and so illicitly that he sent her husband, Uriah the Hittite, to die in battle. Kipling leaves us in no doubt that that is the background to his tale because, as well as calling the poem The Story of Uriah, he quotes the words, “Now there were two men in one city; the one rich and the other poor” and the Bible tells us that the prophet Nathan used these words to begin a parable with which he rebuked David for arranging Uriah’s death. In that parable, the rich man has an abundance of domestic livestock while the poor man has only a single lamb, yet when a visitor needs to be entertained it is the poor man’s lamb that the rich man feeds him on. When David expressed disgust at the rich man’s actions, Nathan said, ‘You are that man.’ We are not, then, in any doubt about the poem’s subject.
And nor were Kipling’s fellow-expatriates when he published The Story of Uriah in The Civil and Military Gazette on March 3rd, 1886 because a quote from the time says, ‘Those who had known the real “Jack Barrett”, good fellow that he was, and the vile superior and faithless wife who sent him “on duty” to his death, felt the heat of the spirit which inspired Kipling’s verse in a way that gave those few lines an imperishable force.’
So that’s why I like it. And here it is:
Jack Barrett went to Quetta
Because they told him to.
He left his wife at Simla
On three-fourths his monthly screw.
Jack Barrett died at Quetta
Ere the next month’s pay he drew.
Jack Barrett went to Quetta.
He didn’t understand
The reason of his transfer
From the pleasant mountain-land.
The season was September,
And it killed him out of hand.
Jack Barrett went to Quetta
And there gave up the ghost,
Attempting two men’s duty
In that very healthy post;
And Mrs. Barrett mourned for him
Five lively months at most.
Jack Barrett’s bones at Quetta
Enjoy profound repose;
But I shouldn’t be astonished
If now his spirit knows
The reason of his transfer
From the Himalayan snows.
And, when the Last Great Bugle Call
Adown the Hurnai throbs,
And the last grim joke is entered
In the big black Book of Jobs.
And Quetta graveyards give again
Their victims to the air,
I shouldn’t like to be the man
Who sent Jack Barrett there.
I’d really like to know how Jack Barrett’s wife and her powerful lover felt at seeing their infamy displayed for all to see, but if anyone recorded that story I have yet to find it.
I’m asked where the character of Sharon Wright came from in a way that no one ever asks about Billy, the central character in Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. I don’t find that puzzling; it reflects the unwillingness of people to accept the pursuit of self-interest in a female character when it would not trouble them in a male. It’s clear that some people find Sharon disturbing. Personally, I love the woman 🙂
When my daughter was nine, we moved house. For the previous year or so she had told us that her ambition was to be a doctor; she returned home on the first day at her new school and said she planned to be a nurse. I said, ‘What happened to being a doctor?’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Boys become doctors. Girls become nurses.’ I took her out of that school and sent her to one that accepted only girls and they set about the business of reinstating her ambition and sense of self-worth and making sure she kept it. I had better make it clear right now that I mean nothing derogatory towards nurses – my problem was with people who accepted that there must be limits on a person’s ambition for no other reason than that the person lacks testicles.
I actually wrote Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper before Sharon Wright: Butterfly but Sharon Wright was published first for reasons that don’t matter here. Zappa’s Mam is the story of a young man who overcomes the disadvantages of an appalling home background, achieves his ambition and shines in the world. I wanted to write a similar book about a young woman and that book became Sharon Wright: Butterfly.
It’s true that Sharon puts herself first but that wasn’t always so – it’s learned behaviour. If she had always put herself first she would have taken the opportunity to go to college and lead, far from the place where she grew up, a life of the kind her schoolmates could only dream of. Just like Billy does. She would not have made her sad marriage to Buggy, the Loser’s Loser, and might instead have found someone to love with whom she could share a rewarding life. Just like Billy does. Only when she sees what other people are getting out of life does she begin to plot a better future for herself – but when she does begin, no holds are barred. She plans her wooing of Jackie Gough the way a female mantis might stalk the male, with every intention of consuming him for lunch when he has served his purpose. She’s helped by the fact that she understands the men in her life much better than they understand her. She says,
‘Jackie. You know what I’ve learned? Started learning when I first went to school, and went on learning? Men need to think I’m dumb. Because I’m a woman, and I’m blonde, well, men think I’m blonde, and I like to spend a lot of time on my back with my legs in the air, and I like men for what they have that makes them men, I have to be dumb. Well, I’m not dumb.’
And Jackie has begun to realise that dumb is the last thing she is. Then she says,
‘I pretend to be, if that’s the game the man needs me to play. But what I really want is to play the game where we’re both smart and we both know we’re both smart. Think you can play that game with me, Jackie? Please?’
And Jackie says he can. Because Jackie thinks he understands Sharon and he thinks she’s going to play the game his way.
I’m on Sharon’s side. How about you?