If there is one writer I associate with The Weald I live in it’s Rudyard Kipling. Of course AA Milne and even Arthur Conan Doyle had strong associations with the wider Weald, but Kipling lived near to where I grew up in the High Weald and knew the same villages I know. He wrote about them too. Ticehurst Church features in Puck of Pook’s Hill. He talks about the iron foundries forging canon for the ships that turned back the Armada and he places them firmly in the communities that I live amidst.
Kipling was a masterful storyteller. I read Luca ‘If—’ a few weeks ago. I don’t know what, if anything he made of it. It’s a little repressed, perhaps a little too concerned with a notion of self control that seems to belong to another age, but for all that it’s as good a blueprint for a very particular sort of English masculinity as I know.
The last verse, especially its first two lines, really resonates with me:
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
It’s a hard ideal to live up to, but then ideals are. It’s in striving to live up to them through which we grow.
I hope it doesn’t turn into a celebration. 1914 saw the most unseemly rush to war in our history. Kipling was part of that rush. He wrote propaganda for the British government supporting war against Germany and wrote the appalling line “Today, there are only two divisions in the world…human beings and Germans.”
Kipling’s son John was rejected for active service and only made it into the Irish Guards because his father pulled strings for him. He was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915. He was 18 years old; a child, not a man.
After the war Kipling was instrumental in encouraging the building and dedication of war memorials. Lt. John Kipling’s name is one of those on the war memorial in Burwash. After John’s death Kipling wrote; “If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied.”
2014 is a dismal anniversary. If we remember anything it should be how lightly we go to war and how heavily we bear its losses. It seems we have still learned next to nothing from the slaughter of The Somme and so many other beturmoiled fields in France.
Kipling may have written for us an example of how to live but he also showed us how not to,. Keeping your head and being a man also means being prepared to swim against the tide when you know it’s right, even if you’re hated for it.
When it mattered most Kipling swam with the tide and his son paid for that mistake with his life.