Monday 30 December 2013

Mr Kipling

The timelessly hilarious joke was used by Donald McGill in his most successful picture postcard - it sold 6 million copies - but was not original to him: it has a long history.  Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay on 30 Dec 1865 and was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1907.  He was the first and still the youngest English language writer to win the accolade.  There is suspicion that it was a Buggins' Turn award, the previous winners having been French, German, Norwegian, French, Spanish Polish, Italian.  But he's probably the only winner of that first decade who is still read today and certainly the only one who has inspired Walt Disney.

His reputation has not been favourable in all times and places.  He was a galloping Unionist and a personal friend of Sir Edward Carson.  His strange poem Ulster [fulltext] published at the height of (yet another) Home Rule Crisis wasn't calculated to win friends in Dublin or Cork:
We know the hells declared
For such as serve not Rome --
The terror, threats, and dread
In market, hearth, and field --
We know, when all is said,
We perish if we yield.
What answer from the North?
One Law, one Land, one Throne.
If England drive us forth
We shall not fall alone!
And five other stanzas in similar vein.  FE Smith, Lord Birkernhead, biographer of Kipling, staunch Tory and one time Lord Chancellor called Ulster "This crazy outburst marked the lowest point yet reached by Kipling's sagging reputation.".  There is a considered critique of that poem here.

From about 1912, for the next two generations, Kipling was despised as a lick-spittle imperialist, shameful in his By Jingo patriotism and his uncritical belief in the white-man's burden.  Because his critics knew that Empire was really a black man's burden and that people 'at home' lived like princes on the back of exploited coolies.  But as George Orwell points out in his critical essay on Kipling's verse that such knee-jerk assessments by people who had not read extensively or at all in Kipling's work are contemptible in their hypocrisy.  Orwell had first hand experience of working, as a police officer in Burma, at the shitty end of Empire.  His despair at having to act out a despicable role at the very edge of his competence is no more heart-wrenchingly felt than in his essay Shooting an Elephant which starts "In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me".   Orwell coined the phrase "good bad verse" to describe Kipling's: it's memorable, it sings and it stirs but we feel a bit guilty about our enjoyment. Orwell is not contemptible, he's Left, but not uncritically Left and he's thoughtful.  Critical essay on the critical essay on Kipling here. All of Orwell's work is at, and if you don't get the reference to Donald McGill, there's a whole PC essay on him there.

Kipling has been having a bit of a revival since we shed the benefits and guilt of Empire (and middle-class Irish people were beneficiaries of Empire just as much as mill-workers in Manchester and cotton pickers in Sind were oppressed) in favour of globalisation.  His romances are romatic. An Habitation Enforced is one thread that bound us to find The Farmlet where we now live.  The Brushwood Boy is so evocative and compelling is gives me goose-bumps just thinking about it; even though it has strains of Kipling's most annoying baby-talk. Cue Dorothy Parker's "Tonstant Weader fwowed up". The baby-talk is, of course, most apparent in Just So Stories which I never read to my girls because the stories all made me wince and there was never a near enough bucket.  Nevertheless I rate the sign off to The Cat That Walked by Himself: "Then he goes out to the Wet Wild Woods or up the Wet Wild Trees or on the Wet Wild Roofs, waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone".    If  you're a (civil) engineer you should enjoy The Bridge Builders.  The Finest Story in the World is great time-travel sci-fi. 

So for me Mr Kipling makes exceedingly fine short stories. He's out of copyright now, having died in 1936 so you can get e-copy of a great selection. Not all of them are great - some are dated, some are jaded, some are obsessive about things I care not a jot about - but the best are among the things I'd take to my desert island.  So yes, I have Kippled.

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