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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.”
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
is dead,” said one paper. “And has taken his trumpeter
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?
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.
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
mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation
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?
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.
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.
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