Unquiet Lands

By Giles Broadbent, gilesb@dircon.co.uk. Reproduced courtesy of Today magazine, a publication of Courier Newspapers.

If the standing of writers was tradable like stocks, what price would you get for a Kipling? A scant few pennies? Certainly just a fraction of the value of, say, a Churchill. Whereas trade in the former has virtually ceased, Churchills gain in value by the year.

And why should that be? Both were men of their age (that euphemism suggesting the maintenance of views unpalatable to modern tastes). Their lives spanned the pomp of imperialism and witnessed the decline of empire brought about by the horrors of war. Both railed against this erosion and both expended energy and time on fruitless attempts to rebuild the nation’s appetite for influence. Both were militaristic, yet sentimental about the plight of the “Tommy”. Both were prone to depression and garrulousness. Both had seen action and were men of conviction. Both had charm, yet were impatient, irascible and hard-won. Both were men of the people despite erudition and intellect.

Yet, despite all this, Churchill remains a popular folk icon while the legacy of Kipling has hardened and crumbled. A hard man to like, suggested the obituaries of the time, yet few could be found to own up to their dislike.

So much for the man considered to be the people’s poet, a man of extraordinary literary prowess, born of a journalistic tradition, whose work was capable of adaptation for musical hall ditties and Sunday service hymns. Whose tales for children, such as The Jungle Book, were so whimsical that they have become beloved of Disney cartoons. Whose grasp of detail and description made him this country’s first Nobel prize winner for literature and whose finest novel Kim encapsulates this country’s ambivalent relationship to the subcontinent in a way that the enlightened products of modern multiculturism have yet to match.

Kipling fell victim to the passing of time and the transient appetites of fashion. The trade in Kiplings these days is under the counter and conducted in murky corners, pursued by mucky-handed revisionists who consider his bombast to be racist and his reputation – from alleged wife-bully to embittered war monger – to be fair game.

In Today last month the poet laureate Andrew Motion laid claim to a mission to bring poetry down from its lofty perch. No figure has done so with greater effect than Rudyard Kipling who shepherded verse and ballad into the mainstream and made it say things that people could understand. His poems filled newspaper columns and his polemics rhymed, scanned, and were frequently uttered in the dialect of the common man. They offered an earthy humour as well as an almost mystical hopefulness. They were as much part of the political landscape as a leader in The Times yet they educated in form as well as content.

Kipling was a man of his times. And he has stayed there, stuck like an insect in amber, only coming alive when his prose and poetry are revivified in the reading. His most famous poem “If” was recently voted the nation’s favourite. Yet the poet’s name is mumbled as an afterthought, almost an embarrassment. As if someone like him couldn’t possibly write something like that.

As a man obsessed with privacy, Bateman’s in Burwash was where Kipling constructed his castle and fortifications, surrounded by lands that he had accumulated to militate against intrusion.

Every writer has two lives; the one which he must occupy in order to understand the society that constructs the backdrop to his tales; and the place where he goes to retrieve the coloured threads of fiction that he weaves. Both are so very different and both must be protected one from the other. Kipling himself alluded to this duality in his autobiography Something Of Myself when he said: “The magic, you see, lies in a ring or fence that you take refuge in.”

Outside, the storm clouds of war might have been gathering but he could not let those everyday concerns contaminate his complex imagination, the sort of place where he would discover how elephants grew their trunks, and where wolves could raise a boy called Mowgli.

Kipling ensured that the “ring or fence” of Bateman’s was beyond reach and beyond breach. He moved into the house at the age of 36 in 1902 and was to stay there for the last 34 years of his life. A wealthy and successful man, his travels had taken him from India, where he was born in 1865, to South Africa at the time of the Boer War, and, to North America from where his wife hailed. He drew on the broadest of canvasses. Yet he chose to settle in a 17th-century sandstone former ironmaster’s residence with a gloomy interior of oak panels and small windows which only hinted at the lushness of the countryside into which it was sunk.

He was grieving the loss of his daughter Josephine who had died of pneumonia at six during a journey to America in 1899 at the time of the £9,300 purchase. He would never return to that continent again and, despite maintaining his extensive travels, he was never as carefree.

Bateman’s suited him and this new sombre outlook. Steeped in history and lost in the Sussex Weald it was “a real House in which to settle down for keeps”. Including his help, between 16 and 20 people lived full time at Bateman’s and, despite his love of privacy, he was a generous host and would bring down distinguished guests for dinner parties – journalists, politicians and the giddy gentry.

His life was managed by the ever-vigilant and often possessive Carrie who nurtured her own need for obsessive control in the wake of her child’s death.

Kipling’s acquisitions didn’t stop with Bateman’s. In 1905 he obtained the adjoining Dudwell Mill and farm and he removed the waterwheel and installed a generator. Keen to deter intrusions, he made 14 separate trades on lands adjoining the estate up to 1928, amassing 300 acres and absorbing farms and buildings in the vicinity. He stalked the land and enjoyed the mystical dark underworld of the woodlands, which inspired magical works such as Puck Of Pook’s Hill and Rewards And Fairies.

But politics, inevitably, intervened and fired his thoughts. He turned down honours, including a knighthood, and other formal recognition, fearing he would be constrained in what he had to say, particularly about the threat of conflict in Europe.

When the war that he had feared and prophesied finally became a reality, he was active in summoning support for the effort, aiding refugees and devoting time to the Red Cross. He was immensely proud that his 17-year-old son secured a commission with the Irish Guards. Although like his father, son John was shortsighted, Kipling managed to pull some strings to engineer the commission.

It was therefore of the greatest tragic irony that John was announced missing in the Battle of Loos in 1915 on his first day in action. His body was never found during Kipling’s lifetime and the loss was crippling, bringing excruciating physical ailments as well as mental anguish.

He joined the Imperial War Graves Commission as part of his continuing quest to find his son’s body and, unknown to most, he paid a British gardener to sound the Last Post at the Menin Gate every night in remembrance of John.

He was never to recover, from his personal grief and his horror at the atrocities of modern warfare. “The embalming of a race,” he said.

His work, dwindling in output, was shot through with this darkness, with themes of disease, pain and madness. Two of his three children had died and the third, Elsie, had married a man of whom her parents disapproved.

On the wider scene, Kipling began to realise that the “war to end all wars” was not the last act: he foresaw the rise of Hitler and he maintained a hatred of Germany, the country which had stolen away his precious son. With a nation tired of conflict, his urgent message of preparedness was unpopular. But he was as right about the second world war as he was about the first although he never lived to see the new horror commence.

Novelist Hugh Walpole gave a thumbnail portrait of Kipling’s final years at Bateman’s: “He’s a zealous propagandist who, having discovered that the things for which he must propaganda are now all out of fashion, guards them jealously and lovingly in his heart but won’t any more trail them about in public. His body is nothing but his eyes are terrific, lambent, kindly, gentle and exceedingly proud. Good to us all and we are all shadows to him.”

Rudyard Kipling died on January 18, 1936, aged 70. It was the 44th anniversary of his marriage to Carrie and just days before his friend, King George V died at Sandringham. Kipling’s ashes were laid in Poets’ Corner while the king’s body was lying in state in Westminster Hall.

“The king is dead,” said one paper. “And has taken his trumpeter with him.”

So what of Kipling’s fortunes today? Aside from the whimsy of his children’s pieces and his prolific collection of short stories and journalism. What would he write about in today’s Times say?

Consider this stanza from his most controversial work, White Man’s Burden.

Take up the White Man’s burden –
The savage wars of peace –
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Difficult as it is to read with its barbs and crudeness of language, is that not the self-same populist, whispered sentiment that emerged when the G8 met at Gleneagles? The weary West propping up corrupt regimes seemingly as a matter of eternal moral imperative?

Or this verse from Tommy.

Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;
An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.
Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy how’s yer soul?”
But it’s “Thin red line of ’eroes” when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it’s “Thin red line of ’eroes” when the drums begin to roll.

Is that not the sentiment that both summarises and chastises the liberal uncertainty about reactions to “Our Boys” in Iraq?

Kipling, through the modern prism, is politically incorrect. But he is influential, universal and uncompromising. As political correctness itself is fast becoming a dud currency – and a vile mechanic of self-censorship – the words of master craftsman Kipling, challenging, robust, pithy and apposite, may yet find a market.

Investment advice? Buy a Kipling or two. Their value can go down as well as up, but they will surely guarantee added interest to any long-term portfolio.

Bateman’s is maintained by the National Trust just as Kipling left it, displaying his strong associations with the east with the mill, his study and his Rolls Royce on display. The house closes in October for the winter but the extensive gardens, tea-room and shop remain open. Tel: 01435 882302, www.nationaltrust.org.uk