Magazine article The Spectator

Little Friend of All the World

Magazine article The Spectator

Little Friend of All the World

Article excerpt

Peter Hopkirk opens his Quest for Kim with the story of a young French officer in the first world war whose life was saved when a German bullet lodged in the copy of Kim which he was carrying in his breastpocket. To him, as to M. M. Kaye, Kim must have seemed `strong magic'. It has certainly woven a potent spell over many thousands of readers from T. S. Eliot to Tariq Ali, and over none more completely than the 13-year-old Peter Hopkirk, whose life and career were directly shaped by the experience. It led to his becoming a soldier, a journalist and a writer on the Byzantine struggle between the two great imperial powers, Britain and Russia, in the dangerous uncharted lands of Central Asia which lay beyond the Khyber Pass.

The phrase `great game' was coined by its brave but luckless exponent Captain Conolly, who was beheaded in Bokhara in 1842; it was popularised and dignified with capital letters by Kipling in Kim. Quest for Kim bears the subtitle In Search of pling's Great Game. Of course Peter Hopkirk, the acknowledged master of this exotic byway of history, is uniquely well placed to answer his own questions when they relate to the struggle for India's northern approaches. He explains how Kipling drew on the experiences of the 'Pundits', highly trained native employees of that legendary institution the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, who were sent on clandestine missions across the border into countries like Afghanistan and Tibet which were thought too dangerous for English cartographers. Some of their skills - how to map an area without telltale instruments by accurate pacing of distances, for instance - find their way into Kim, together with their mastery of disguise and their use of code names and numbers, C25, R17, E23.

Peter Hopkirk has succeeded in two respects in this well produced book with its evocative line drawings. He has obviously given himself enormous pleasure, interest and fun in his research and his travels. At the same time he has made the reader long to hurry back to Kim, ideally to start on the same journey in Lahore, where a little boy sits drumming his heels astride the great gun Zam-Zammah and a lama in his dingy robe, with his yellow and wrinkled face and his eyes `like little slits of onyx', shuffles round the corner from the Motec Bazaar.

In real life the Pundits were very few in number and their activities were confined to charting India and the surrounding territories. As so often in his work, Kipling used this as a starting-point from which he built up a whole network of secret agents under the direction of the omniscient Colonel Creighton, an organisation which had no true equivalent in the India of his day. Kipling had shown a precocious interest in the Russian threat in a schoolboy debate, successfully proposing the motion `The advance of the Russians in Central Asia is hostile to British power'. As a 19-year-old reporter on the Civil and Military Gazette he was sent to Peshawar to cover the meeting of the Viceroy and the Emir of Afghanistan. The Emir was delayed for a month, during which time the young reporter had to write 13 articles on the situation on the North-West Frontier and beyond. It was in Peshawar, `at the mouth of that narrow swordcut in the hills that men call the Khyber Pass', that he set one of his most powerful stories, The Man Who Was, in which the feline Russian, Dirkovitch, is entertained to dinner by the White Hussars on the night when one of their officers, missing since the Crimea, returns from the dead. …

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