Harrison Birtwistle @ the Queen Elizabeth Hall

24 May 2012

To the Queen Elizabeth Hall for an evening with (Sir) Harrison Birtwistle, each piece prefaced by an interview/explanation from the Grand Old Man himself (78) in conversation with Tom Service. The pieces being:

  • Cortege
  • Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum
  • 5 Distances for 5 Instruments
  • In Broken Images (UK premiere)

I think I learned to take this sort of music when studying Webern about ten years ago. This taught me to open my ears to music beyond the thousand varieties of McFlurry represented by pop, rock, jazz etc; to think about each note, each musical moment, as a potentially isolated event in an acoustic field with no boundaries and no limits.

Once you begin to do that – once you relinquish the childish hankering for a key, a beat,  a tune – you can begin to understand each musical event in its own right, and begin to sense or understand other kinds of ways in which they can be connected or disconnected. And that principle opens up the world of contemporary classical music, the world whose offputting sound has dominated the last hundred years of ‘serious’ music.

There’s no denying it’s hard to listen to, and easy to tune out of but, like parenting or gardening, what you get back directly correlates to the amount of effort you’re prepared to put in. Like learning a new sport or computer program, it’s challenging for a while, until you suddenly ‘get it’, crack it,  and begin to operate inside the game, not outside looking in.

In an era when pop music has been Cowellised within an inch of its life, or so technologically democratised that anyone can start a band and post on YouTube their tired copies of the look, sound and swagger of the three or four generations of bands which came before them, music like this is refreshingly difficult. Rebarbative. Not designed by computer and tested on focus groups to be aural ice cream, mass manufactured to touch as many pleasure points as possible, all the while maximising a record company’s ROI; or to satisfy some kids’ fantasy of being Mick and Keef.

It can’t be repackaged, resold, set to an advert, used in a film or TV show, or exploited in any of the other ways our culture has developed to push our buttons and make us endlessly shallowly consume, consume, consume. Difficult, sui generis, isolated, it speaks of another place, somewhere weird and unsettling, not at all designed for our listening comfort, not available as a download for our convenience, nor prepackaged for our advert-length attention spans.

As in all Birtwistle the element of ritual was strong. In ‘Cortege’ 10 of the 14 instrumentalists take it in turn to get up from their seats and come to the front to do a brief intense solo, before another one arrives beside them; then soloist A went and sat in soloist B’s seat, giving a solemn processional affect. At the end the flautist went round to each of the musicians bidding them play their last notes. ‘Harry’ explained beforehand that he imagined the musicians laying flowers, but what on and why, remained mysterious.

He was funny. For a man of 78 he had great comic timing, repeatedly upstaging the eloquent exuberance of the man asking the questions, chubby Tom Service, the Guardian’s music critic. The most illuminating thing he said was that he thought of himself as a 1910 Modernist, and compared himself to Braque and Picasso’s cubism, then explained how the Carmen is made of disparate blocks of music, sections or units, harshly juxtaposed with no bridging passages. A sort of musical cubism, but which also made me think of the 1960s ‘Brutalist’ architecture of the building we were sitting in, part of the South Bank Centre, its great chunks of concrete assembled without softness or compromise.

Tastes change, but the costiveness of this music doesn’t. Harry is, arguably, the greatest living English composer, the musical equivalent of David Hockney. Yet the QEH was half empty. 99% of the people in his own country have never heard of him and never will.

Harrison Birtwistle – Carmen arcadiae mechanicae perpetuum on YouTube

Life’s Handicap by Rudyard Kipling (1891)

After Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), Kipling’s next volume of short stories was Life’s Handicap (1891). There doesn’t seem to be a decent edition in print or in the London Library System; a few of the stories are gathered into some of the cheap ‘Best of…’ selections, but to read the whole book you have to go online.

The volume carries on where the Plain Tales left off by collecting together 27 short (sometimes very short) stories, many published in the newspaper young Rudyard worked for, the Civil and Military Gazette, from as far back as 1885 when the prodigy was only 20.

  1. The Lang Men O’ Larut
  2. Reingelder And The German Flag
  3. The Wandering Jew
  4. Through The Fire
  5. The Finances Of The Gods
  6. The Amir’s Homily
  7. Jews In Shushan
  8. The Limitations Of Pambe Serang
  9. Little Tobrah
  10. Bubbling Well Road
  11. ‘The City Of Dreadful Night’
  12. Georgie Porgie
  13. Naboth
  14. The Dream Of Duncan Parrenness
  15. The Incarnation Of Krishna Mulvaney
  16. The Courting Of Dinah Shadd
  17. On Greenhow Hill
  18. The Man Who Was
  19. The Head Of The District
  20. Without Benefit Of Clergy

21. ‘At The End of The Passage’ (1890) Four men in the service of the British Empire in India – a doctor, a civil servant, a surveyor, and an engineer, Hummil. Each week they meet up at Hummil’s station to play cards and eat the horrible food which is all that’s available. It is the summer and blisteringly hot on the plains of northern India, like living in an oven, with nothing to do, no ice, horrible food, barely any drinks. Although there’s a plot of sorts, really this is an evocation of the terrible isolation and mental strain suffered by men given huge responsibilities in an alien and inhospitable land.

They were lonely folk who understood the dread meaning of loneliness. They were all under thirty years of age — which is too soon for any man to possess that knowledge.

Their conversation is about colleagues who’ve died of disease, for example as a result of the continual cholera epidemics, have become lonely alcoholics, or have simply killed themselves – a fairly common occurrence. The doctor, Spurstow, realises their host, Hummil, is at the end of his tether. He is tetchy with his guests and when the other two leave, Spurstow volunteers to stay and Hummil breaks down completely and confesses that he hasn’t slept for days and days, and begs for sleeping pills. Spurstow realises that Hummil has put a spur in his bed to stop himself drifting into the shallow sleep of nightmares. Spurstow disables Hummil’s guns and gives him sleeping draughts.

When the three rendezvous at Hummil’s a week later none of them are surprised to find him dead in his bed. But he didn’t kill himself. In a strange technical twist, Spurstow uses a Kodak camera to take a photograph of the dead man’s eyes and then, minutes after he’s gone into a darkened room to develop the images, the others hear the sound of smashing and breaking. ‘It was impossible,’ he repeats to the others, ‘impossible’. Spurstow obviously saw images of unspeakable horror imprinted on the dead man’s retinas.

The thrust of all these early India stories is the immense sacrifice made by the white men who ran the Empire, in the teeth of resentful ungrateful natives and despite concerted opposition from ignorant Liberals and politicians back home. Their strength is the powerful evocations of India in all its moods: 

There was no further speech for a long time. The hot wind whistled without, and the dry trees sobbed. Presently the daily train, winking brass, burnished steel, and spouting steam, pulled up panting in the intense glare.

And the sense of men at the very limits of endurance is powerfully present and, on a human level, is persuasive. But their weakness is their crudity and the bitter sarcasm and contempt for anyone who opposes his Imperial views which run through them like cheap fabric. And, almost needless to say, the obvious fact that it depicts this vast country overwhelmingly from the point of view of the colonial masters, whose interactions with the native inhabitants all too often are limited to kicking and cursing.

22. The Mutiny of The Mavericks (1891) A satirical and comic story about nameless conspirators in America (highly reminiscent of the American scenes in the early Sherlock Holmes novels) who fund an Irish conspirator to join ‘the Mavericks’, nickname of a (fictional) Irish regiment in the British Army in India. This conspirator, Mulcahey, tries to spread sedition and is quickly recognised for what he is by the men, led by Dan Grady and Horse Egan, who come up with the simple idea of playing along, and telling Mulcahey everything he wants to hear, in exchange for an endless supply of beer.

One fine day Mulcahey sees the barracks in uproar, the men chanting and shouting, officers running in fear, the men consorting with native Indians – at last! The mutiny has broken out! But Kipling is taking the mickey. The men have been told they’re going to the Frontier to see some fighting and are excited about it. Moreover, Dan and Horse now make it crystal clear to Mulcahey that he’s not wriggling out of it, he’s coming along too. And when the battle starts they’re digging a bayonet into Mulcahey’s calf, so the only way is forwards. In fact Mulcahey goes wild with panic-fear, storms a compound, leads others to capture enemy artillery and then runs on, bereft of gun, hat or belt after the fleeing Afghans, one of whom turns and runs him right through the chest with a large knife. Dead.

All this time Mulcahey had been drawing funds from his ‘mother’ in New York, a front for the anti-British conspirators. The story ends on a comic note as the ‘mother’ receives a letter of condolence saying Mulcahey died bravely in battle and would have been recommended for a Victoria Cross, had he survived – which happens to arrive at the same time as a crudely forged letter from Dan and Horse promising to keep up the subversive work, if only they can be sent some more funds, on behalf of Mulcahey, who’s a bit under the weather, like.

Kipling is astonishing assured and confident of his subject i.e. the structure, organisation and morale of Irish regiments within the British Army. The American secret society comes over as melodramatic, but events in Ireland during this period involved conspiracies and atrocities. Although he is optimistic about the attitude of the average Irish soldier, it’s the detail and thoroughness of the portrayal, combined with schoolboy high humour, which impresses. Who else was trying anything like this kind of depiction of the reality of the British Empire?

23. The Mark of the Beast (1890) In India, some chaps get drunk on New Year’s Eve and one of them, Fleete, blind drunk, rushes into a temple they’re passing and stubs out his cigar on the forehead of a statue of Hanuman the Monkey God. A leprous priest of the god appears from nowhere and grapples with the drunk, biting him on the breast. Almost immediately Fleete falls ill with a fever. The following day he asks for raw chops as the mark on his chest grows. The narrator and his friend, the policeman Strickland, become concerned. They keep Fleete at Strickland’s house and within days he is howling like a wolf and grovelling in the dirt. At this stage I was speculating that they’d either find a cure for the way Fleete appears to be becoming a werewolf, or that Fleete turns completely wolf and has to be hunted down and shot with a silver bullet!

Neither. Instead, Strickland and the narrator hear the leper priest (in a horrible detail, the leper is incapable of speaking – he has only a ‘slab’ for a face – and can only make a horrible mewing noise) prowling round outside the house. So they nip out and grab him, bring him inside and then – in a sequence that is actually far worse than the werewolf/possession description – they torture the leper priest by tying him to a bedstead and applying red-hot gun barrels heated in a fire.

Eventually, unable to bear the torture any longer, the priest is released, staggers over the feverish Fleete and simply touches him on the chest and the curse is lifted – simple as that. Strickland and the narrator release the priest, who goes off without a sound, not even mewing. Within a few hours Fleete has had a bath and is restored to jolly good humour, imagining he’s been on a long drunk. Only Strickland and the narrator know – not only what was happening to Fleete but, what they both know is worse, that they have behaved immorally enough to be dismissed from the Service.

This is a harsh initiation into the sadism and cruelty which lurks beneath the surface and sometimes is just on the surface, of so much of Kipling’s early writing.

24. The Return of Imray (1891) Another story collected in Plain Tales From the Hills, told by the same narrator and also featuring Strickland from the Police, as above. A man called Imray goes missing and, after a while, Strickland rents his bungalow. The narrator comes to stay. It rains and Kipling describes India in the casually knowledgeable way he did in scores of stories and poems, making the place his imaginative fiefdom for generations of readers.

The heat of the summer had broken up and turned to the warm damp of the rains. There was no motion in the heated air, but the rain fell like ramrods on the earth, and flung up a blue mist when it splashed back. The bamboos, and the custard-apples, the poinsettias, and the mango-trees in the garden stood still while the warm water lashed through them, and the frogs began to sing among the aloe hedges.

But Strickland’s dog, Tietjens, refuses to enter the bedroom, preferring to be outside in the rain. Our chaps ponder this odd behaviour. Then they notice some snakes’ tails dangling through the gap between the fabric ceiling and the rafters in the bedroom. Strickland pulls that part of the ceiling away to reach the snakes and discovers – the mummified of Imray carefully hidden among the rafters! It emerges that Imray’s servant, who Strickland has inherited – Bahadur Khan – murdered and hid his master because Imray patted his son on the head and soon after his son sickened and died.

There is a harshness in the story itself – but even in details it is repellent. Here, as in so many other places, Kipling goes out of his way to be offensive to women.

If a mere wife had wished to sleep out of doors in that pelting rain it would not have mattered; but Tietjens was a dog, and therefore the better animal.

Maybe he thought this was funny, maybe he was trying to fit in with the boys, maybe he thought this was ‘manly’ talk. But this kind of throwaway insult damages his stories not because it’s offensive (though it is offensive) as that it’s just crude, and it tends to bring out the crudeness of the rest of the narrative with it.

25. Namgay Doola
26. Bertran And Bimi
27. Moti Guj–Mutineer

Commentary

I had so expected Kipling to be a blustering Imperialist that I am continually surprised that his main vein is the uncanny and the grotesque. The Wandering Jew (1889) is about a white man who goes mad and travels continuously round the world in order to add days to his life. Through the Fire (1888) is about an Indian pair of lovers who immolate themselves on a pyre. The Finances of the Gods about the elephant god Ganesh tricking a wicked moneylender. Bubbling Well Road (1888) about a white man who goes hunting for pig in the man-high grass only to stumble over a deep well in which seem to be trapped human or semi-human creatures. The Limitations of Pambe Serang about a feud between two sailors, a drunk African and a Malay who dedicates his life to taking revenge for his insulted honour.

Although the stories have throwaway racist comments these don’t spoil my enjoyment for three reasons.

  1. They’re obviously part of the broader ready-made categorisations or stereotyping of peoples which were common and maybe necessary in the world’s largest, polyglot Empire, the kind of sweeping generalisations Sherlock Holmes gets away with in the stories published at exactly this time.
  2. Kipling flings his stereotypes and insults widely; no-one escapes; and the stereotyping is as likely to be favourable as critical i.e. no one single race or group is singled out for consistent denigration.
  3. Far from being a white supremacist, Kipling’s universal cynicism scathes the white characters just as much as the others. In Pambe Serang the loser is the foolish clergyman who imagines he has converted Pambe to Christianity. He is depicted as pitifully ignorant of the Oriental mind. Same in Through the Fire where the white policeman, again, is the outsider figure, unable to fathom the shocking suicides of the lovers. Jews in Shushan concludes with a soldier whistling a ‘racist’ ditty at the station as the last survivors of the Jewish community of Shushan board the train back to Calcutta. But, although the story includes indisputably racist remarks (the Jews’ ‘dread breed’) the overall thrust of the story is a kind of tough-minded sympathy for the tragic events which overtake the tiny Jewish community, and is more about the tragic insignificance of all of us in the vast swirl of India. The whistling soldier plays the same role as the ploughman blithely unaware of the calamity occurring under his nose in Auden’s great poem, Musee des Beaux Arts; both work to emphasise the modern Tragedy of Indifference.

There is no doubt Kipling’s attitude to his characters is consistently harsh and heartless, but it’s not (at least not in these early stories) in the name of Imperial Triumphalism – it’s more a young man’s braggadochio, each story a medal displaying Rudyard’s toughness and his ability to see into the dark heart of things.

I’m getting to really like the quick, hot weirdness of these tales.

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The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling

I assumed I must have read the Jungle Book in my youth until I sat down to reread it as part of my Kipling season. No, I’d have remembered. For a start there are two Jungle Books (1894 and 1895), typically for Kipling who gushed forth poems and stories in an unstoppable torrent (compare the two series of Barrack Room Ballads or Puck of Pook’s Hill and its sequel Rewards and Fairies).

Then, also typically, each of the books is a miscellaneous collection (Kipling published collections of stories almost every year in the 1890s) including – and here’s the surprise – a number of completely unrelated stories, stories not even about India let alone about Mowgli the man-cub.

Of the seven stories in Jungle Book 1 only three are about Mowgli – the other three are set in India and are about animals, but there the connection ceases, and the seventh story is as remote as can be, being about a seal in the Arctic Circle.

Of the eight stories in Jungle Book 2, three are nothing to do with Mowgli, one is about an Indian holy man and another is set among Eskimo in the Arctic (?).

So the first challenge is making sense of this hodge-podge, which is typical of Kipling’s lack of ‘artistic’ concern. He dashed off stories for newspapers and magazines, collected them in his miscellanies, and then hurried on to the next thing with little care or attention.

Even if you only read the Mowgli stories in these two volumes, there are several puzzling aspects. For example, the Mowgli stories are a bit tangled: the second story should really have been inserted a few pages into the first story, since the first one covers Mowgli’s expulsion from the wolf pack, whereas the second one describes a period earlier on when he was a happy member of it.

Despite this scrappiness, these stories are masterpieces. They take you to somewhere very deep indeed. They don’t feel like they’ve been written, but have always existed somewhere. They are told with utter conviction and impress themselves on your mind immediately.

Names Kipling is very bad with names. Nobody nowadays would recognise Mrs Hauksbee (the comic heroine of the Plain Tales) or Learoyd, Mulvaney and Ortheris (the heroes of Soldiers Three) and Dick Heldar was not a very memorable name for the hero of his first novel The Light That Failed.

But Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo, Kaa and Shere Khan are namings of genius. Sure, the universal popularity of the Disney cartoon helps, but they are still brilliant.

Myth The characters leap off the page with the power of myth. Kipling is tapping into something very deep and primal. He handles all kinds of archetypes and narrative topoi:

  • the basic Bildungsroman of the growth and development of a mind (the child Mowgli)
  • the legend of a child blessed by the gods growing into his kingdom
  • stories of gods and heroes who can talk to animals, as Adam could
  • the laughing Nietzschean unafraidness of a Herakles or a Samson
  • along with darker, northern images of the fated death of the Leader (Akela)
  • the Final Fight, the last Battle, which dominates Germanic myth
  • and the departure of the king from his kingdom, from Jesus to Beowulf

Kipling taps all these stories, myths and legends but wrought into a new thing, in a new setting – the jungles of India – completely new to his English readers, and yet profoundly ancient at the same time.

The Bible In an A-level essay you’d score double for pointing out that both Kipling’s grandfathers were Methodist preachers, and that he had the Bible thrashed into him at his hated Portsmouth boarding house. If you’re forced to read the whole Bible you realise there’s a lot more Old Testament than there is New, and that the Old Testament God is one of fire and revenge.

In Kipling’s ‘ordinary’ short stories one stumbling block for the modern reader is his use of Old Testament diction, lots of thees and thous (just as Kipling’s poetry is tremendously anti-modern, with its thumping rhythms and hymn-like stanzas). But in The Jungle Books he finds a subject perfectly suited to the pomp and portentousness of his Bible-heavy style. It is imaginatively perfect when Bagheera or Kaa say: ‘Thou shalt learn thy error, O son of man.’

Violence For the supposed poet laureate of the British Empire Kipling is oddly silent about the religion which underpinned official attempts to bring ‘civilisation’ to the dark corners of the earth i.e. Christianity. One of the powerful themes in the stories is The Law of the Jungle. (I can’t presently discover whether Kipling actually coined this phrase.) Though much is made of it, Mowgli appears to break it with impunity (as a god is free to break merely human laws). In fact, the books allow Kipling not only to dig deep into a primeval level of mythmaking, but to express to the full the sadism and bloodthirstiness which are only hinted at in his other, ‘official’, stories.

It was partly this thirst for blood and revenge – licensed and appropriate in stories about jungle animals – which were to break out in Kipling’s later writings in other, inappropriate settings – in newspaper rants against Liberal politicians and anti-Imperialists and anyone who supported independence for British colonies etc.

Kipling’s growing rage, fuelled by personal embitterment, political conviction and given a vicious edge by the sadism of his schooldays, turned early fans against him, and helped cast a deepening shadow over his reputation which lasts to the present day.

Movies

Everyone knows the 1966 Disney cartoon version. Less well-known is the 1942 live-action movie starring the boy star Sabu.

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Walk: Churt

20 May 2012

Churt is a small village on the western, Hampshire, border of Surrey. In fact it’s a linear settlement straddling the A287 which runs from Farnham south to Haslemere. To the east the land is raised heathland, leading to the famous landmark, the Devil’s Punchbowl. The soil is infertile and acid, supporting heather, gorse, conifers and, around the many plush houses hidden down private drives, banks of rhododendrons. The eastern part of the walk was along lanes with names like  Crabtree Lane, Old Barn Lane, Green Lane.

The best bit was to the west of the A road where the land fell away steeply into Whitmoor Vale, giving views across and along the Vale of uninterrupted forest.

View across Whitmoor Vale

View across Whitmoor Vale

Down by the thin straggling Whitmoor stream were damp deciduous woodlands and muddy paths  lined by wildflowers. The bluebells and buttercups are fading, but greater stitchwort, garlic mustard were everywhere, along with great swathes of ramson, sending their strong damp garlic scent in all directions.

Ramsons

Ramsons

Close up of Ramson flowerhead

Close up of Ramson flowerhead

Walk: Cranleigh

12 May 2012

By train to Ockley in Surrey, a few stops south of Dorking. Cycled 6 miles to Cranleigh through the villages of Ewhurst and Forest Green. For the first few miles the tower of Leith Hill was continuously in sight and in the sunshine, revealed by a clearing in the trees on the ridge. Somehow comforting. St Margaret’s church, Ockley. St Peter and St Paul, Ewhurst. Cranleigh styles itself the biggest village in England. I didn’t like the high street, disfigured by all the usual chain stores, nor the leisure centre and scrappy playground at the end of a tarmac cul-de-sac. Here the 30 mile long muddy Downs Link path comes to a temporary end, obliterated by a shopping centre. But…

But walk back along the sports centre track to Knowle Lane, turn left, and in a hundred yards you come to a gap in the hedge on the right. Walk through it and this is what you see.

Knowle Park, Cranleigh

Knowle Park, Cranleigh

Knowle Park is a white Victorian mansion, built on a commanding bluff, overlooking miles of farmland to the distant North Downs, now converted into a care and retirement home. The walk skirts the edge of the grounds with magnificent views in every direction.

view of Knowle Park

view of Knowle Park

Reluctantly you leave the views behind upon joining Alfold Road, stroll along a few hundred yards before turning down a gravel drive to the impressive Utworth Manor. Through a gate into fields, across an old wooden bridge and you reach the lazy Wey and Arun canal, built in the 1810s and abandoned as long ago as 1870, lined with trees, a haven for wildflowers and a wonderful walk.

footpath beside the Wey and Arun canal

footpath beside the Wey and Arun canal

Everywhere I saw red campion, little blue germander speedwell, greater stitchwort and – a flower new to me – ground ivy. After half a mile the canal ends and becomes the dry moat for a farmhouse. You cross an ancient brick bridge decorated with lichen, and squelch through boggy fields to a fine timbered house, Great Garson.

Great Garson

Great Garson

In a pond I saw marsh marigolds and next to it red and purple orchids. The drive brings you back to Alfold road, open views of wide fields, with a little verge of bluebells, beneath an English summer sky…

view from Alford road, Cranleigh

view from Alford road, Cranleigh

…and then into bluebell woods lining Lion’s Lane, a half a mile ambling track through old woods. Across a few grassy fields belonging to Snoxhall Farm, and up steps onto the embankment which formerly carried the Cranleigh to Guildford railway. Closed in the 1960s this now forms a long straight section of the Down Links path. Half a mile of ferns and dog violets and you’re back in Cranleigh.

Cycling back to Ockley station, I was struck by this very red example of Surrey architecture, note the decorative brickwork and hanging tiles. It was not a rich man’s house, which made the effort which had clearly gone into building and decorating it all the more striking.

Surrey architecture, on the Ockley road

Surrey architecture, on the Ockley road

For photos of the flowers I saw on this walk, go to English Wild Flowers.

Walk: Albury Park

7 May 2012

Just as I stepped off the train at Clandon it started to rain. I thought I’d figured a neat short cut to Albury without quite realising it involved cycling over the North Downs. In the rain. With the wind in my face. Still it was downhill on the other side to Silent Pool, where I locked the bike and strolled through the Victorian village of Albury, all decorated brick, mock Tudor chimneys and – if you looked closely enough – wild flowers in the rain.

Forget-me-nots in Albury

Forget-me-nots in Albury

Up the hillside to the Victorian church of St Peter and St Paul. Strange how ugly Victorian churches can be. A pile of red bricks surrounded by dismal cracked flagstones, it felt like a factory or a workhouse. Reminded me of the horrible brick church in the village where I grew up, Chavey Down. And the vast empty barn of a church round the corner from me, St Thomas’s, Streatham Hill. But in the rainy churchyard there were primroses and cowslips.

Primroses in the graveyard of St Peter's church, Albury

Primroses in the graveyard of St Peter’s church Albury

Up a deep muddy country lane in the rain to Albury Warren, conifer woods at the top, then through a gate into the 150 acre grounds of Albury Park, still dominated by  its Victorian mansion, the hillside landscaped with rhododendrons, and more flowers: I saw goose grass, dog’s mercury, white dead nettle, archangel, scads of dandelions but not many bluebells.

Wood cranesbill in Albury Warren

Wood cranesbill in Albury Warren

Finally, I escaped the rain in the historic Saxon church of St Peter and St Paul. This used to be the heart of the village till the early Victorian landowner turfed the villagers out, rebuilding their village a mile to the West. That explains why modern Albury is so Victorian in feel, and explains the horrible ‘new’ Albury church he built for them. He let the original medieval church slowly decay, till it was saved and restored in the 1920s and is now open to visitors, bare empty inside, except for a rare medieval wall painting – of St Christopher – and the florid family chapel designed by Augustus Pugin.

William Oughtred was rector here for 50 years in the 17th century. Who he? The leading mathemetician of his day who invented the slide rule in 1622, introduced the ‘x’ symbol for multiplication, and was tutor to Sir Christopher Wren. All that and a sermon every Sunday!

Moreover, Robert Malthus, the man who invented the gloomy Malthusian economics which dominated Victorian England, wrote his famous book here, ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’. It’s well worth reading in order to grasp the impact it had over the entire succeeding century. It was one spur for the drafting of the Poor Laws which led to the Victorian Workhouses which Dickens so railed against, and which Albury church so balefully reminded me of.

Malthus’s impact was felt not only here but in Britain’s Imperial colonies. In his wonderful book on Kipling, Charles Allen points out that it was the insistence of the Viceroy to India, Lord Lytton, appointed by Disraeli, that doctrinaire free market and Malthusian principles were followed during the famines of the later 1870s – directly causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Indians from starvation – that led to the founding of the Indian National Congress and the beginnings of the struggle for independence. Malthus hovered over all Victorian thought like the threat of nuclear annihilation dominated the later 20th century…

England has such depth, such resonance.  All this history and significance packed into a little stone building by a tiny gurgling stream (the ‘river’ Tilling). And the pretty flowers, blowing all around in the steady English rain…

Greater stitchwort, Albury Park

Greater stitchwort, Albury Park

Barrack Room Ballads by Rudyard Kipling (1892)

Kipling’s reputation leapt even higher on the publication in 1892 of the Barrack Room Ballads (known as ‘series 1’, since he ended up publishing a further set or ‘series 2’ in 1896).

It took me just over 40 minutes to read the 21 short poems in this book and, wow, what a punch they still pack! I love music hall songs, and so I love the voice and ballad form of these poems. I love the Cockney spelling, I love the humour which shines out of every line, the cheekiness of the soldier, and the cheekiness of Kipling’s romanticising the soldier. My favourite is Fuzzy Wuzzy, which I’ve read out numerous times to the kids (these poems being designed to recite, boom or chant out loud). There is energy and enthusiasm and verbal felicity, there is something to entertain, in every poem.

‘E rushes at the smoke when we let drive,
An’, before we know, ‘e’s ‘ackin’ at our ‘ead;
‘E’s all ‘ot sand an’ ginger when alive,
An’ ‘e’s generally shammin’ when ‘e’s dead.
‘E’s a daisy, ‘e’s a ducky, ‘e’s a lamb!
‘E’s a injia-rubber idiot on the spree,
‘E’s the on’y thing that doesn’t give a damn
For a Regiment o’ British Infantree!

For their late-Victorian audience, they also made their mark by giving ‘official’, published voice to the little-heard-from Tommy, the ordinary soldier, the backbone of the Army which policed the greatest Empire the world has ever seen. Their boisterous confidence of form and tone, their geographic sweep, their underdogs’ point of view, combined to make a great hit and Kipling into a literary sensation.

Contemporary relevance

These poems from the late 1880s refer to Britain’s ongoing wars in the Sudan, in Afghanistan and in Burma where we were attempting to bring Peace and Civilisation. I open today’s paper (May 2012) and read that civil war is once again threatening in Sudan, the Americans are finally considering ending their 10 year occupation of Afghamistan, and the Burmese military have only just allowed the first fair elections in a generation to their oppressed population. Kipling may seem like a buffoon to us now, but we’re not doing an exactly brilliant job of solving the problems his generation struggled with.

A video

I’ve found musical versions of some of the ballads, sung by the (then) world-famous Australian bass-baritone, Peter Dawson. I defy you not to smile!

Other Kipling reviews

The Light That Failed by Rudyard Kipling (1891)

The Light That Failed is Kipling’s first novel, completed in 1890 and published early the next year when he was just 26.

It’s a mess, easier to pick apart than to take seriously as a whole. It concerns a cocky young artist, Dick Heldar (self portrait), who suffers a brutal childhood (self portrait), falls in love with his childhood sweetheart, Maisie, who’s also grown up to be an artist (which is what happened to Kipling), and then starts to go blind (Kipling’s own sight was permanently damaged in his childhood).

But before you start to get interested, the artist in question is not a greenery-yallery aesthete, neither one of Oscar Wilde’s decadent set or one of the late Victorian ‘Olympians’, but the bluffest of jingoistic public school cheps, who despises foreign ‘impressionism’, paints hyper-realistic portraits of fine, upstanding British soldiers, and is only really happy when he’s on a steamer heading East or in the deserts of Sudan along with the soldiers he adores.

The long middle section of the book, a chap’s spiffing views on art and ‘gells’ and chaps together, along with pen portraits of frightful working class types, is just bad. The boisterous cameraderie of him and his foreign correspondent friend, Torpenhow and the other two ‘legendary’ journalists is every bit as self-regarding and self-mythologising as such sets so often are. (The drunken banter of the oh-so-jaded, smugly superior public school foreign correspondents reminded me of the exact same milieu in which John Le Carre sets The Honourable Schoolboy in the 1970s. Thus does the drunk arrogant English white upper-class perpetuate itself for ever.)

The so-called love affair with Maisie never acquires any depth, revealing only a desperately immature mind. Kipling shows no insight into the male mind in love, or the female mind at all. The steady stream of fifth-form boys’ school ‘wisdom’ about women this and women that makes your toes curl with embarrassment. About P&O steamers and Martini rifles Kipling may know a thing or two. About women – nothing.

Kipling is very given to falling into Biblical cadences or even direct Bible quotes to try and lift his style above the dull and mundane. To see his style naked and unadorned is to realise how flat it is. He doesn’t really work the English language. This is hidden in the Plain Tales From The Hills by the liberal use of Indian, Urdu, Pathan or technically specialist jargons which fool you into thinking he’s doing something clever with the language.

Revealingly, the ‘foreign-words-hide-dull-style’ technique is central to his only successful full-length narrative, Kim, written ten years later. When he’s not using Biblical phraseology or quoting from hymns, he resorts to extensive use of spiffing public school banter – that hermetically-sealed escape from grown-up reality, that retreat into the cant of a privileged adolescence. This interweaving of Bible phrases, public school japes, along with a would-be military briskness (‘Step lively, sergeant-major!’) is just dire.

Only the opening chapter when he and Maisie are naughty children together, stealing an old gun and going down to the dunes to practice firing – and the two chapters set in the heat and dust of the Sudan – come alive. These chapters read like his better short stories, concentrated vignettes which obviously so engaged his imagination that his style comes to life, and you can really see and smell what he’s describing.

All that said, the central narrative of the artist as a jolly decent chap, struck down by Fate and tormented by unrequited Love, clearly pushed lots of buttons, then and for some generations afterwards. It was made into not one but three films. I’d dearly like to see the 1940 one starring the dashing Hollywood leading man, Ronald Colman. I can’t find it on Amazon or ebay, though you can buy the posters.

And finally: The long ending where Dick decides to escape from London and pack off abroad, to be back with the ‘boys’ as another ‘row’ (i.e. war) kicks off in the Sudan, leads to the climax of the book where he is killed by a shot to the head from the Fuzzy Wuzzies attacking the British army outpost, just as he arrives.

This abrupt ending makes a kind of impact on the reader – if only as a stereotype, a cliche, exemplifying a particular type of debased Romantic gesture; the hero, spurned in love, running off to meet a romantic end in the faraway struggles of the Glorious Empire etc.

But how terrible for Kipling, and what an indictment of his shallow, immature, jingoistic ideology, when his own son, Jack, was shot and killed on his first day at the Western Front to which his father had proudly sent him, early in the Great War, 20 years later. Dashing romantic gestures turned out not to be so glorious as the young Rudyard had imagined them to be, and as he had painted them in numerous stories and poems. War turned out not to be glorious, but cruel and desolating and that knowledge sheds a grim light on this bright, confident and appallingly shallow book.

Other Kipling reviews

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