"A Friend of the
Family"


(notes edited
by Lisa Lewis and George Kieffer)




the story
notes on the text
[Apr 17 2004]


Publication

First published in MacLean’s Magazine, 15th June 1924, illustrated by A.C. Valentine; Hearst’s and Story-Teller August 1924. Collected, with some minor amendments, in Debits and Credits (1926).

The Story

Following a meeting of the Masonic Lodge described in “In the Interests of the Brethren”, “The Janeites” and “A Madonna of the Trenches”, a group of ex-soldiers get talking over the refreshments about the lack of justice in the post-war world. After the meal, Bevin, Pole and the Australian Orton forgather with the narrator.

Bevin tells a story of an Australian version of rough justice. Hickmot (or Hickmer), a Queensland drover from the outback, had grown up remote from civilisation. He attached himself to Bevin’s platoon after his own battalion was destroyed. Silent and unobtrusive, he excelled at night raids. He was befriended by a new arrival, Bert “the Grief” Vigors, a conscript from Bevin’s English village who had been refused exemption from military service, despite a good case as the only son of an ageing market-gardener.

Meanwhile the two Margetts boys, sons of a local rival, were granted exemption, with the result that the Vigors business went broke, while the Margetts family prospered. Bert was killed, after confiding in Hickmot, who lost a leg. Bevin, with mental and physical health problems, was sent home to act as a bombing-instructor. Hickmot came to stay with the Bevins. The night he left, the Margetts’s house and greenhouse were destroyed by bombs. A third bomb dammed a stream to make the pond that Mrs Bevin wanted for her ducks. Bevin realised that this was not due to an air raid (as officially reported), but was Hickmot’s retaliation for the injustice to Vigors, using grenades from the bombing-range. Hickmot’s only comment was “Bert was my friend.” The story told, Orton offers Bevin a lift home.

Background

There is a possible first mention of the story in Carrington’s notes from Mrs Kipling’s diaries on 27th July 1917, when her husband was writing something called “His Friend.” In January 1917 he had agreed to write The Irish Guards in the Great War, a history of his dead son’s regiment, for which he would have to read the letters and diaries of dead soldiers and interview survivors. That September he would be working on a Masonic story, believed to be “In the Interests of the Brethren.” Six years later, on 2nd November 1923, Mrs Kipling wrote that he was revising “A Friend of the Family”, and on 13th November that it was ready to be sent to his agent. The manuscript of the story in the bound volume in Durham University Library gives a version of the first five pages, but the rest is missing. As well as “A Friend of the Family,” it bears the alternative title “The Australian.” Hickmot is called “Smith.” Two passages are omitted in Debits and Credits that had been published in MacLean’s: both are made unnecessary by longer versions of them in “In the Interests of the Brethren” [see notes on page 307, line 8, and 308, line 22].

Bevin, Orton and Hickmot are all survivors of the disastrous Gallipolli campaign of 1915-6. The aim of this was to force a passage past a hostile Turkey into the Black Sea, so that the Allies could send supplies that way for the hard-pressed Russian army. It was also hoped that a drive could be made on Istanbul, perhaps knocking Turkey out of the war. A prolonged naval bombardment failed to take control of the straits. British, Australian, New Zealand and French troops were then landed on the Gallipolli peninsula, situated in European Turkey between the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmora. Casualties were heavy and they were unable to break through the Turkish lines; the last of them were evacuated in January 1916.

In the story Bevin tells, he and Hickmot are joined by Vigors on the Western front, to which they have apparently been sent in time for the Somme offensive of July 1916. We are not told whether Orton also served there, but during the course of the story he and Bevin (having met as strangers) are bonded by their shared experiences. It is Pole – also an ex-soldier, but unlike the others “some sort of professional man” – who raises the subject of post-war justice and who helps to draw out the story. The narrator is almost entirely silent.

Shortage of manpower had become acute and in the spring of 1916 the Military Service Act made it compulsory for healthy young men to join the army, although exemption was permitted in certain circumstances. One of these was hardship due to the loss of key workers in a family business, and this would have been the plea submitted by both Bert Vigors and the Margetts boys. Local authorities were required to set up tribunals to deal with such applications, but these were not always conducted equitably. Councillors frequently appointed themselves; their decisions could be affected by personal prejudice. Bevin and Pole unite in condemning this.

In his speech to the Royal Society of Literature on 7th July 1926, titled “Fiction” in A Book of Words, Kipling described “writers raking the dumps of the English language for words that shall range farther, hit harder and explode over a wider area than the service-pattern words in common use.” This, taken with the introductory poem “A Legend of Truth”, suggests the possibility that Hickmot’s bombing-raid is a metaphor for the writing of fiction.

Critical opinions

The story has been largely neglected by critics. In her chapter “Hatred and Revenge,” J.M.S. Tompkins wrote:

The story of “A Friend of the Family” is a comedy, but it is linked in the minds of teller and listeners, all ex-service men, with memories that are serious enough. Wherever possible, however, these are tilted a little towards the ridiculous or, at least, the odd, and the injustice of the exemption tribunal and its effects are made more tolerable by being seen, philosophically, as “the usual.” … As [Thomas Love] Peacock said, the worst thing is good enough to be laughed at; and Bevin, thinking of the Queensland drover and the Buckinghamshire market-gardener in his platoon, discussing sheep and blacks and glass and exemption tribunals, with “the men’s teeth chatterin’ behind their masks between rum-issue an’ zero,” exclaims: “Oh, there was fun in Hell in those days, wasn’t there, boys?”

This habit of thought and speech makes the occasional absolutely “straight” sentences more impressive, and these no longer carry the unmixed emotional overcharge we find in the early tales, but are cast in a more reflective mode. Before Bevin tells his tale, an allusion in talk to a bombed hollow near Thiepval causes him to remark that, the last time he saw the place, “I thought it ’ud be that way until Judgment Day,” and the great word Judgment, vibrating in the mind of the other speaker, diverts the conversation. [Quotes p. 306, lines 18-33; p. 307, lines 1-5]. This is the wide background for the retributory manoeuvres of Hickmot, the drover. They are a small queer, limited, marginal illustration of something fundamental in human nature, standing out uncompromisingly in the solitary man from the sheep station.
For Philip Mason:
In “A Friend of the Family” (1924) revenge is complete and successful, but it is taken on behalf of someone else and by a man who, as is continually insisted, is not quite like other people, having lived in the northern parts of Australia, among sheep and aborigines, and having never seen “a table-cloth, a china plate, or a dozen white people together” till he was thirty.




[L.L.]