Some years ago I found myself on a canoeing safari in Zimbabwe. It was an exhilarating experience, but I couldn’t shake off the suspicion that our hardy, fearless guide saw me as a ridiculous tenderfoot. Then, one evening by the campfire, a poem by Rudyard Kipling changed everything.
I’d discovered “The Way Through the Woods” as a schoolboy, and remained in thrall to the incantatory rhythms and internal rhymes evoking a summer’s evening, “When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools/ Where the otter whistles his mate”. Called upon to entertain my travelling companions, I recited it from memory – and found our guide staring at me with undisguised awe. Kipling himself could hardly have devised a better example of his work’s transcendent appeal.
One hundred and fifty years after his birth in Bombay, the first British writer to win the Nobel prize hovers on the edge of acceptability. To some he will always be a shameless apologist for colonialism; to others, the avuncular author of the “Just So Stories”. But the conflict in Afghanistan has given his insights into the Great Game new currency, while our obsession with the first world war has highlighted his contribution to its remembrance – above all, the simple but moving phrase found on thousands of anonymous headstones: “A soldier of the Great War known unto God”.
It was Kipling’s work for the Imperial War Graves Commission that inspired “The Gardener” – in my view, one of the best short stories ever written. It tells of a bereaved woman, Helen Turrell, who travels to France to visit the cemetery where the young soldier she treated as a son is buried. Bewildered by “a merciless sea of black crosses”, she meets a man whom – in a deliberate echo of the Easter story – she mistakes for a gardener; and the few words he speaks to her turn our understanding of her life upside down. It’s a tale of grief and compassion which encapsulates the suffering of an entire generation, and what is most brilliant about it is that the revelation which shakes the reader is something Helen hardly notices.
T.S. Eliot argued that Kipling was a rare example of a writer who was equally good at poetry and prose. But his versatility goes beyond this: he produced first-class novels, short stories and children’s books; he was a master of adventure, comedy, tragedy and – what is often forgotten – satire. His poem “Mesopotamia, 1917” was directed at stay-at-home warmongers, but could have been written for the architects of our present-day economic crisis:
Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?
When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power,
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?
It’s hard, too, to think of a writer with greater historical and geographical scope. His children’s book “Puck of Pook’s Hill” ranges from Roman times to the 18th century; his short story “The Limitations of Pambé Serang” tells of a feud between two sailors pursued from Yemen to England by way of Bombay and Hong Kong.
It was his breadth of vision – together with an ear for a multitude of voices, from Cockney to Hindi – that made Kipling the great chronicler of the British Empire. This is not, of course, a fashionable thing to be in a post-colonial age, and one cannot deny that he shared his contemporaries’ fondness for generalising about races, often in patronising and sometimes in denigrating terms; but he is more a portraitist than a propagandist. Though he sees the British as born rulers, there is no pretence that they are in every way superior, and to write him off as a bigot is hopelessly simplistic. One of his most heartbreaking stories, “Without Benefit of Clergy”, focuses on an ill-fated love affair between a British official and an Indian woman; at the end, the Englishman wishes to preserve their house as a shrine to past happiness, but his Indian landlord is wiser: “It shall be pulled down, and the Municipality shall make a road across, as they desire, from the burning-ghat to the city wall, so that no man may say where this house stood.”
As for class and creed, Kipling is remarkably unprejudiced. The hero in “Kim” has grown up as a penniless bazaar boy and is none the worse for it: open to every new experience, he is happy to throw in his lot with an elderly Tibetan lama who seems at first a comic figure but proves to be the novel’s philosophical lodestar. The India Kipling celebrates is one in which holy men are respected even by those of other faiths – and perhaps his most important message for our own century is one of religious tolerance:
My brother kneels (so saith Kabir)
To stone and brass in heathen wise,
But in my brother’s voice I hear
My own unanswered agonies.
His God is as his Fates assign –
His prayer is all the world’s – and mine.