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A matter of fact - Kristina Chetcuti

Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind (1896) by Jean-Léon Gérôme.Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind (1896) by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Sometimes it happens that a book picks you instead of the other way round. This week, an old, red book sort of tipped forward from its place on the shelf. I was sitting on the sofa enjoying a brief moment in the chaos of a dark summer week, when I noticed the movement.

I got up and pulled the book out. Ah, Rudyard Kipling’s Many Inventions. It had been years since I leafed through it. I had saved it from some flea market, at a time when I was going through a bit of a crush for Kipling. He’s the man who wrote Jungle Book, forever etching in our hearts the story of Mowgli, the little orphan boy who was raised by a bear and a panther, persecuted by that vengeful tiger, Shere Khan.

I flicked the book open and it fell on one of his short stories – A Matter of Fact. I noticed that when I had read it the first time round, I had underlined the first sentence faintly in pencil (never a pen or a highlighter on my beloved books).

“Once a priest, always a priest; once a mason, always a mason; but once a journalist, always and forever a journalist.” Because Kipling was, in fact, not just a fiction writer but also an early 19th- century journalist, which is why his writings have always been of great interest to me.

A Matter of Fact is a story about three journalists travelling on a steamer from Capetown to Southampton: Keller, an American journalist, Zuyland a half-Dutchman who owned and edited a paper in Johannesburg and Kipling himself.

One balmy warm night the three of them were sitting on deck and noticed that the boatswain was having trouble; although the sea was smooth, the ship was not steering well. Suddenly the captain ran out of his cabin, jumped on the bridge, tore away at the wheel and swung the steamer round 180 degrees.

The ship was raised by the acute tilt in the sea. It was like they were on top of a hill made of water, which then came crashing down. When the crew gathered their wits about them, they speculated it was a tidal wave caused by an underground volcano. But there was a horrid rancid smell in the air.

I closed the book and put it back on its shelf. It is human nature to not want to get out of the comfort zone and that is why we are happy to be told that truths are lies

“Not ten thousand alligators could make that smell,” said Zuyland. But at that very moment, their eyes began to start from their head, and their jaws fell.

There, in front of them, framed in fog, was a Face. “It was not human, and it certainly was not animal, for it did not belong to this earth as known to man.” Then came a shrilly scream, and a second head and neck tore through waters. Sea-serpents. The journalists and crew watched in fear and fascination until one of the monsters died and the other ebbed away.

The three journalists set about writing down what they had seen in a flurry. Zuyland wrote a very unsensational piece giving approximate lengths and breadths and a whole list of witnesses. Kipling wrote a ‘bourgeois column’ and Keller wrote a red-top stunner calling it: ‘The death of the sea-serpent’. The three agreed that it was the biggest story they would ever write.

But after a while, they tore up their articles. They realised that no newspaper would ever publish the story.

“What are you going to do?” Keller asked Kipling.

“Tell it as a lie,” Kipling said.

“Fiction?”

“You can call it that if you like. I shall call it a lie,” said Kipling.

The story concludes like this: “And a lie it has become; for Truth is a naked lady, and if by accident she is drawn up from the bottom of the sea, it behoves a gentleman either to give her a print petticoat or to turn his face to the wall and vow that he did not see.”

I closed the book and put it back on its shelf. It is human nature to not want to get out of the comfort zone and that is why we are happy to be told that truths are lies.


I want to thank all those friends who came up with suggestions for this column. There was the one who suggested I write about the pig whose house was not blown away by the big, bad wolf despite all the huffing and puffing because the foundations were rock solid.

There’s the one who suggested Julius Caesar Act III Scene One, when Caesar utters the words, “Et tu, Brute?”, which I considered, but Brutus wept for the friendship he killed, not sneered with glee. Another one suggested revisiting the classic tale of the Trojan Horse, which may well be a story for another day. 

To these and more, many, many more, thank you.

krischetcuti@gmail.com
Twitter: @krischetcuti

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