Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

On Greenhow Hill

"On Greenhow Hill" is the third story in Life's Handicap. Like most of Kipling's longer stories it has a frame. The three soldiers- Mulvaney, Ortheris and Learoyd- are camped out on a Himalyan foothill, waiting in ambush for a deserter who has been showing up at night and firing into the camp. The landscape puts Learoyd in mind of his native Yorkshire- and as they wait out the day he talks about his first love, his involvement with the primitive Methodists and how he came to join the army.  The narrative- in anticipation of the cinematic flashback- moves between the two places- the hill in India and the hill in Yorkshire- and connections are made.  The deserter shows up. Ortheris shoots him. "Happen there was a lass tewed up with him too" says Learoyd.

It is a fearsome tale. A man is killed- lightly.  Learoyd is a dead-end kid- an Asbo kid with a fighting dog at his heel- who has wound up in a dead-end job. But just for a short while- on the brink of manhood- he might have gone a different route- a route that was blocked by the cussedness of things in general. An atmosphere of elegy- of that which could never have been- broods over past and present- and yet everywhere there are prickles- flashes, intuitions- of natural beauty and human grace.

Greenhow Hill is a real place.  I've been there.  Kipling understood- as Auden was later to write- that "place-names are an sich poetic". I'd go further; any place that people have named is, by virtue of its naming, holy.  Put a real place-name in your book and its ghosts will lend their shoulders to your wheel.  I'd reckon I'd like Hardy's novels better if The Mayor of Casterbridge were named- as it ought to be- The Mayor of Dorchester. And I've little doubt that Hard Times would be a better book if Dickens had taken his courage in both hands and engaged with real geography and called his industrial town Preston or Manchester instead of the generic Coketown.  Kipling's work is full of real place names. He loves them. "Rumbold's Moor stand up ower Skipton town, an' Greenhow Hill stands up ower Pately Brig" says Learoyd- and the roll of names is an incantation that brings the dead to life.

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