Friday, 14 August 2009


Still on the subject of Kipling: Must the nation's favourite poet really be Kipling? The Guardian Books blog looks at the current BBC Nation's Best Poet poll, for which Kipling is a likely favourite (his If—, from the anthology Rewards and Fairies, was voted Nation's Favourite Poem in 1995 in a similar pseudo-poll 1).

If—, written in 1895, rapidly became the standard litany in praise of British stiff upper lip. Obviously it's an "author is dead" situation, but the background is interesting; in Kipling's autobiographical Something of Myself, he describes it as alluding to the Jameson Raid. This was a nasty piece of military-political manoevering, a British-supported attempt to destabilise the Transvaal Republic that was, ultimately, one of the factors precipitating the Boer War. The poem's advice is evidently to the expedition's leader, Dr Leander Starr Jameson, who was covertly supported by the British government, but disavowed when the attack failed (although newspapers spun it as a victory).

If— has attracted many ripostes and pastiches. For instance, Shackleton's last voyage. The story of the Quest (Internet Archive shackletonslastv00wilduoft) tells how Sir Ernest Shackleton had two verses of If— put on brass plate by the bridge of his ship, The Quest. His crewman Leonard Hussey, after a gruelling stint coaling the ship in bad weather, wrote:

If you can stand the Quest and all her antics,
If you can go without a drink for weeks,
If you can smile a smile and say, "How topping!"
When someone splashes paint across your "breeks";

If you can work like Wild and then, like "Wuzzles," 2
Spend a convivial night with some "old bean,"
And then come down and meet the Boss at breakfast
And never breathe a word of where you've been;

If you can keep your feet when all about you
Are turning somersaults upon the deck,
And then go up aloft when no one told you.
And not fall down and break your blooming neck;

If you can fill the port and starboard bunkers
With fourteen tons of coal and call it fun.
Yours is the ship and everything that's on it,
Coz you're a marvel, not a man, old son....

Witha less macho flavour, the Jamaican feminist Una Marson wrote her version of If— about the role of a wife in the sexist culture of 1930s Jamaica

(from see 20th-century Caribbean literature, Alison Donnell). Or there's Rudyard Kipling as a Job Consultant from Frank Jacobs' 1994 Pitiless parodies and other outrageous verse. Or HAC Evans' version about business ethos, If Not, in New Statesman in 1975. The list is probably endless.

There's an excellent story, "The Man Who Would Be Queen", with some vicious Kipling parodies, in the National Lampoon's The Book of Sequels. This untold Kipling tale, an account of a soldier's impersonation of a Maharani to gain possession of a prized ruby, includes several pseudo-Kipling poems from the character Old Ruddy's best-selling anthology Jingo Doggerel Ditties.

Old Ruddy began to recite from memory:

O, the 'eathens of the 'indu Kush
They stank like a 'erd o' goats,
And when they weren't grovellin' at our boots,
They was slashin' at our throats.
We'd come to teach 'em the Rule of Law
But for all the thanks we got,
We might 'ave been dealin' with Micks or Spics
Or the bone-rained 'ottentot.
An' 'alf the time they was 'umble an' meek,
An' 'alf the time they was snoooty,
So we shot 'em down like a pack o' curs,
As is a soldier's dooty,
And we shouted in battle frenzy
Through lips that were flecked with foam,
'If you don't like it in Injah,
Why don't you go bloody 'ome?'

There's also a version of If— that I hope is ridiculing sexism.

If you can fix your hair when all about you
Are tearing theirs out, blaming it on you;
If you can tell him he can go without you,
The pout, because you wanted to go, too;
If you can wink, and sigh, and be vivacious,
And paint your lips and eyes and scent your bust,
And after acting utterly flirtatious,
Take great offense at man's unseemly lust;

If you can dress in feathers, fur, and leather
While swooning over kittens, fawns, and chicks;
If you can never quite remember whether
A half a dozen is the same as six;
If you confuse 'withdrawal' with 'deposit'
When dealing with the bank account you share,
If you can shop for clothes and fill your closet,
and never have a decent thing to wear,

If you can picket, bluster, march, and bellow
For equal rights—protest and suffragette it—
Demanding the same treatment as a fellow,
Then wail and weep and blubber when you get it;
If you can fill with guilt the hearts and spouses
For everything they've done—or haven't done
You'll wind up with both town and country houses,
And—which is more—you'll be a WOMAN, son!

1. I use the term because you don't actually get to vote for your favourite, only for your favourite out of a set of options pre-selected by the poll creators (in this case, the list was "compiled in consultation with The Poetry Society and The Arts Council". So no luck that I like the work of RS Thomas and David Dabydeen. It's pretty elitist too that the popular poet Pam Ayres isn't on the list.
2. The Captain, Frank Worsley.

- Ray

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