»  The New Criterion

March 2000

   Rudyard Kipling and the God of Things As They Are


How fortunate we are! After eighty-five years of assorted errors and miseries, the human race has emerged into sunlit uplands. There is no major war, nor any visible prospect of any. Utopian socialism, the principal motive for revolutions throughout the industrial age, has been discredited beyond hope of revival. There is hardly a city anywhere on our planet that does not bustle with enterprise — with healthy, well-dressed people engaged in interesting work. All is calm, all is bright, and even the wretched of the earth have cell phones.

Is it all a fool's paradise? Do we really face decades of peace and prosperity in a world dominated by a single free, civilized and reflective superpower with primarily mercantile interests? Shall we and our children live out our threescore and ten in the security of bourgeois triumphalism, free to accumulate money, enrich our arts and advance our sciences? Or is something horrid lurking below the horizon, waiting to mangle our children and poison our culture? Is this 1820, or 1900? I look at my son, four years old, and wonder.

Rudyard Kipling's son, John, was born in 1897 and died eighteen years later at the Battle of Loos. No remains were ever found, though in 1992 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission claimed to have identified a previously unnamed body in one of their cemeteries as John Kipling's. The credibility of that claim, the short life of Rudyard Kipling's only son and the progress of his parents' grief have recently been made into a book by the British military historians Tonie and Valmai Holt. (My Boy Jack? Published by Leo Cooper, £19.95.)

On a slight acquaintance with Kipling's reputation it might seem that the death of his son was ironic. Kipling, as everyone knows, was an imperialist and a militarist. In the years before the war he had campaigned for universal military service in Britain. He sent John to Wellington, a school with strong military connections — it was founded in memory of the duke — and obviously intended him for a military career. A month into the war Kipling published, in The Times of London, "For All We Have and Are", one of the finest patriotic poems in our language. The poem closes with those soaring subjunctives that must have sent many a young Englishman off to the recruiting office and the Flanders mud: "What stands if freedom fall? / Who dies if England live?"

When John Kipling's very poor eyesight (6/36 in both eyes — he could not read the second line of an optician's chart unaided) threatened to prevent his enlisting at the outbreak of war, his father pulled strings to secure him a commission in the Irish Guards. John was killed in his first action, on one account being shot in the head while storming a German machine-gun position, on another "crying" — probably a euphemism for "screaming" — in agony with half his face blown away. It is possible that he had lost his glasses somehow and stumbled away from his unit. With casualties running at eighty per cent, his comrades were in no condition to go out looking for him. If not killed on the spot he probably crawled into a shell-hole to die, on a battlefield that was then very thoroughly recycled by three further years of incessant shelling.


In fact there was no irony, only tragedy. Kipling himself attended a military school, the United Services College, and had a happy — and very literary — time there. The profession of military officer in Kipling's youth was not sensationally dangerous. Nobody anticipated the appalling military massacres of World War One. Furthermore, Kipling had been warning his countrymen for years about German militarism. It can fairly be claimed that no other public figure in Britain worked harder to avert that war. "For All We Have and Are" reflected the mood of the day: that this was a war against barbarism, against "a crazed and driven foe". This view of things survived the war itself, at any rate officially. I have in my possession the Victory Medal issued to No. 35103 Pte. J.R. Derbyshire of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, inscribed The Great War for Civilisation 1914-1919 (dating the war to the peace treaty, not the armistice). That was how people felt. The Germans had to be stopped for the sake of civilization. By the time John Kipling came out of training the odds for subalterns on the Western Front were pretty clear to everyone, and his parents saw him off to France with grim fatalism. As the boy's mother expressed it to her own mother: "There is nothing else to do. The world must be saved from the German … one can't let one's friends' and neighbours' sons be killed in order to save us and our son."

Nor was Rudyard Kipling any armchair militarist, nor the twitching sadistic soldier-Dad of recent Hollywood coinage — Dead Poets' Society, for example. He had seen battle at close quarters in South Africa and spent his early adulthood hanging around officers' messes in India. A loving and dutiful son to his own parents, he was a tender father whose heart had already been broken once by the death of his daughter Josephine, aged six, in 1899. He loved John dearly and his letters to the boy at school are full of concern and gentle encouragement, family jokes and private language. John Kipling seems, from the Holts' account, to have been an amiable and rather endearing youth, not especially distinguished in any way, definitely not intellectual (at age fourteen he had read none of his father's books), but witty and good-natured, chiefly interested in playing cricket.

The news that his son was missing was delivered to Kipling by his friend Andrew Bonar Law, then leader of the Conservative Party. Kipling uttered "a curse like the cry of a dying man." He thereafter handled the tragedy with a proper and manly reserve; but echoes of his grief can be found all through his later poetry — most unbearably in "The Children."

That flesh we had nursed from the first in all cleanness was given
To corruption unveiled and assailed by the malice of Heaven —
 … …
To be senselessly tossed and retossed in stale mutilation
From crater to crater. For this we shall take expiation.
But who shall return to us our children?

It is plain that Kipling's great powers of imagination had allowed him to see the fate of his beloved boy's corpse all too clearly. From motives of duty, and perhaps therapy, he wrote The Irish Guards in the Great War (1923), a formal history of John's regiment. He also served on the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission, where he was especially assiduous in making sure that the sensibilities of Hindus and Muslims were respected — something to bring to mind next time you hear Kipling called a "racist."


Though acquainted with Kipling's books since childhood I had until recently never read a scholarly biography of the man, having found Kingsley Amis's brief but pithy and well-illustrated effort — Rudyard Kipling in Thames and Hudson's "Literary Lives" series — quite sufficient to satisfy my curiosity. Well, I have now read two scholarly biographies, both published last year in England. One of them, Harry Ricketts' Rudyard Kipling: A Life, has been brought out in the U.S. by Carroll & Graf. For the other, Andrew Lycett's Rudyard Kipling, no U.S. publication date has yet been announced. Both books, of course, cover much the same ground and I cannot see why anyone but a reviewer would need to read both; yet it is difficult to recommend one over the other. Both are worthy books, each in its own way.

Andrew Lycett's is the bigger of these two new biographies — 660 pages against 440 — and has a greater density of detail. In the way of simple facts, it is difficult to believe the author has missed anything at all. He notes, for example, that John Kipling's death was foreseen in the prewar French novel Dingley, by Jean and Jérôme Tharaud. Dingley, whose origins were in the anti-British feeling engendered, or intensified, in France by the Boer War, featured an imperialist British author who was forced to tone down his bellicosity after his son was killed by the Boers. Lycett gives us many fascinating oddities like this, and altogether has accomplished prodigies of research. I wish he would not keep twitting Kipling for "Orientalism," as if a faddish 1970s essay by a scholar of, if I have not misunderstood recent revelations, no very scrupulous veracity should be the last word on the Anglo-Indian outlook. I am also not sure that Lycett has actually read The Light That Failed — his account of it is very garbled. Still, we should all hope to write a 660-page book with so few faults. Lycett is the biographer of James Bond's creator, Ian Fleming. (Who, by the way, married the great-granddaughter of Mary Wyndham, a close friend of the Kiplings. This is one of those biographies that seem to include everybody you ever heard of. And I have just noticed that ".007" is the title of one of Kipling's short stories.)

It takes more than mere accumulation of detail to succeed at biography, of course, and I think that while Lycett's book is very valuable in its own way, it is Harry Ricketts who has netted the butterfly. Though lighter on detail, marred by some omissions and repetitions, and occasionally wrong-headed (in its discussion of "Recessional", for example — one of the half-dozen finest poems in our language), Ricketts' book is more sympathetic to its subject and has, I think, attained clearer insight into Kipling's personality and writings. He brings out the man's charm — "a Fascinator," Thackeray's daughter called him. His superstitious nature, too: for example, Kipling would not take any payment for "Recessional," nor for any other of what he called his "serious" poems. In his mind, works of that sort were not articles of commerce but propitiatory offerings. Ricketts is also the better-read of these two biographers. His selection of other writers' remarks about Kipling is very precise and revealing, in both directions. The extract from Gissing's novel The Whirlpool in Chapter 15 — unabridgable and too long to re-quote here — is a bullseye, and has put Gissing back on my personal reading list all by itself.

Kipling's published works consist of three and a half novels (The Naulahka was a collaboration with Wolcott Balestier, whose sister Kipling married), eleven short story collections, six books of stories regarded by most people — though not necessarily by Kipling — as being for children, a collection of travel pieces, a brief autobiography, the regimental history mentioned above and about six hundred poems.

With one exception time has not been very kind to Kipling's prose fiction. This is mostly the result of changes in public taste. The laddish banter that occupies much of The Light That Failed now seems quaintly unconvincing. Similarly, nobody cares to read labored reproductions of dialect speech any more, certainly not when they are as various and as festooned with apostrophes as those in Captains Courageous and Soldiers Three. Some of the short stories, especially the earlier ones, are still fresh, but many more are not. Of Kipling's development as a prose writer, Amis observed: "Kipling developed early and he went off early." Something similar can be said of his reputation.

The exception is of course Kim, "the finest story about India ever written" (Nirad Chaudhuri), "one of the greatest novels in the language" (Amis), "a magnificent book" (Henry James). Lycett repeats the story, which I have heard elsewhere, that Kim is a cult book among spies; Allen Dulles, it is said, used to keep a copy beside his bed. I hope this is true — I mean, it would be nice to think that our intelligence operatives have such good literary taste. Kim, however, is not primarily a spy novel. Kipling did not, in fact, believe it a novel at all. In Something of Myself, the autobiographical fragment written at the end of his life, he regretted that he had never written a real novel. Kim, he said, was "nakedly picaresque and plotless"; The Light That Failed only a conte, a tale, not "a built book"; Captains Courageous mostly "reporterage". What Kipling meant by "a built book" was a big, structured, plotted work like the classic Victorian "three-decker," like a novel by Dickens or Trollope. In that strict sense he was correct, and no novelist. Few of us, however, would be as hard on Kipling as he was on himself. Personally, I would give an arm to have written a novel as good as Kim.

Still, it is hard to imagine that Kipling's prose alone would have kept his reputation afloat through the twentieth century. If he had written no verse we should now think of him in much the same terms as we think of his contemporary Sir James Barrie: as the author of some eminently Disneyable material for children (in Barrie's case Peter Pan) and a great deal of other stuff of entirely historical or academic interest. I do not say that this is a fair judgment on Kipling's prose, only that it is the position we should, in all probability, have arrived at. Kim is a very fine novel; but I don't know that it is superior to, for example, Lavengro — yet who reads Borrow any more? Who — outside the academy, I mean — reads Meredith, a much better novelist than Kipling? The world is full of good books. For a novel to be still in print after a century it is necessary that the novel be good, but it is not sufficient. All but the most celestial literary quality needs assistance from its author's name. The author must have done something else that keeps him in our mind, or at least must have been representative of something, or scandalous or controversial in some way.


The fact of Kipling's name still being known to the general educated public today rests on two of these props. In the first place he was representative of a cast of mind which later generations came to deplore. In the second place he was a great poet. The first is, to a large degree, consequent on the second, for it was through his verse that Kipling's opinions became widely and generally known. Midcentury intellectuals seeking to disparage Kipling did not quote Kim or The Jungle Books; they whacked you over the head with "the white man's burden" and "lesser breeds without the law". Kipling's fame, and his infamy too, rests above all on his verse.

This is a tribute, and a back-handed one, to the power of that verse. Kipling wrote exquisitely beautiful lines — sometimes whole stanzas of them together. He wrote some awful lines too, of course — "When 'Omer smote 'is bloomin' lyre" perhaps the worst. But most of Kipling's poetry is good, and a remarkable proportion of it is very good indeed. You can open The Definitive Edition of Rudyard Kipling's Verse at random and be pretty sure to find something worth reading. I have just tried this experiment, in fact, and found two poems I had never read before. Verso: "The Craftsman", about Shakespeare, seven quatrains in unrhymed dactylic tetrameter except that the fourth line of each is a dimeter. The bard is imagined talking in an inn with Ben Jonson, describing some of the real-life scenes that inspired his work. Recto: "Samuel Pepys", an appreciation of the seventeenth-century diarist in seven quatrains of iambic tetrameter rhymed abab. This is a better piece than "The Craftsman", marred somewhat by an oddly Augustan diction and too many classical references, but triumphing over these shortcomings in a beautifully-executed final stanza.

 … And Clio kissed;

Bidding him write each sordid love,
Shame, panic, strategem and lie
In full, that sinners undiscov-
ered, like ourselves, might say: — "'Tis I!"

Now, I am not saying that these are great poems. They are decently good poems, that is all: inspired by obvious feeling for their subjects, well thought out, crafted with discipline and grace and a touch of audacity (that tmesis of "undiscovered"). I do not expect to see either of them in future editions of The Oxford Book of English Verse and shall probably not return to either of them myself. Still I say they are good poems; and in an age that has produced so many bad poems, that is not nothing. I speak from some feeling here, having recently been involved in the production of a CD anthology of American poetry. By way of what Wall Street folk call "due diligence" in carrying out my editorial responsibilities I read all 722 pages of The Voice That Is Great Within Us, a popular collection of twentieth-century American verse, widely used in high schools. I can say with confidence that "The Craftsman" and "Samuel Pepys" are better poems than ninety-five per cent of what is gathered therein. (And note in passing that the latter poem was written when Kipling was 68 years old.)


These two poems point up another fact about Kipling's poetry: not much of it — and even less of the best of it — is concerned with chaps in pith helmets keeping the wogs at bay on the Northwest Frontier. In June 1997 a British radio station, Classic FM, polled its listeners for their favorite poems. Following an overwhelming response they collected the results and published the top 100 poems as a boxed set of cassette tapes (Classic FM One Hundred Favourite Poems). Three of Kipling's poems are included: "The Glory of the Garden" at number 61, "The Way Through the Woods" at number 29 and "If—" at number 2. It is interesting that none of these poems contains any trace of the imperialist bombast, militarism or condescension towards other races that a person who is acquainted with Kipling only by reputation might expect. The first is in praise of gardening, the principal religion of the English. Far from condescending to anyone, it implies that the hired gardener, of whom there were many thousands in Kipling's time, is superior to the elegant folk who enjoy the fruits of his labor:

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing: — "Oh, how beautiful!" and sitting in the shade,
While better men than we go out and start their working lives
At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives.

The second is a charming piece of whimsy from the side of Kipling — more evident in his short stories — that flirted with the supernatural. The third is one of the three finest hortatory poems in our language, the others being Longfellow's "Psalm of Life" and Clough's "Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth." That there is a widespread public appetite for hortatory verse can be seen from the undiminished popularity of "If—", which is still seen on the walls of offices and schoolrooms all over the English-speaking world. It is an appetite that no good poet since Kipling has been able to supply — nor even, for all I can see, deigned to notice.


I do not mean to imply that there is anything wrong with the poems of Empire and army life. Some of them stand among Kipling's best. They are hardly ever bombastic and practically never militaristic. Kipling's entire view of the military experience, as lived by common soldiers, can be seen laid out for inspection (so to speak) in "The Young British Soldier." Here it is, as it undoubtedly was: cholera and foul liquor, sunstroke and the faithless wife, terror under fire and the horrible, utterly inglorious end.

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains …

Hardly a recruiting poster. Kipling knew that a British soldier was actually more likely to die of disease than in combat — a fact that remained true until World War One. (In the Boer War the ratio was five to one.) Here comes the old flotilla on the road to Mandalay, guns primed to teach King Thebaw a lesson, no doubt. But look a little closer: "With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!" There you have the Kipling touch, the stroke of raw realism that stops the eye and turns the mood — like those broken dinner-knives. Kipling's god was, in his own words, the God of Things As They Are. To say, in the common phrase, that he had a journalist's eye for detail is preposterously inadequate. It is hard to think of any writer, in any genre, that could put forward so precisely the telling detail, at so precisely the telling moment, as deftly as Kipling could. To return for a moment to the prose, look at the depth of detail in Kim. The novel is a rain forest of detail, with a thousand species of detail jostling together — the fold of a robe, the girth of a leg, the cut of a Marathi's turban, the handling of food and exchanging of courtesies both false and true, the taste of air in the hills and the color of twilight on the Grand Trunk Road. That is what makes the novel so unforgettable.

Not that Kipling ever let the God of Things As They Are stand between him and a beautiful line of verse. As everybody has noticed, there is no part of Burma from which the dawn comes up like thunder out of China 'crost the bay — certainly not Moulmein, which is on the east coast of the Martaban Gulf. Similarly with that fine thundering couplet in "Route Marchin'":

We're marchin' on relief over Inja's coral strand,
Eight 'undred fightin' Englishmen, the Colonel, and the Band.

Which loses nothing from our having been told in a previous stanza that the actual route being marched is from Umballa to Cawnpore — a road which is nowhere less than five hundred miles from the nearest coral strand!

"Route Marchin'" and many other of Kipling's poems were set to music and became staples of vaudeville and the lowbrow concert-hall. I was brought up with these songs: my father was a fan of the Australian bass-baritone Peter Dawson (1881-1961), who recorded dozens of them. Leonard Warren covered some of the same ground in America and many Americans, mostly of a certain age, can sing a few lines of "Boots" or "Danny Deever"; but Warren's renderings are, to my taste, over-dramatized and over-enunciated. Warren was too much the opera pro, ill at ease in a lowbrow repertoire. Dawson, though originally trained in opera and lieder, said he would rather sing Kipling's words than any other. His judgment was correct: his large, muscular voice actually strengthens the verses, so that it is hard to believe they were not originally intended as song lyrics. As perhaps they were: we have the word of one of Kipling's editors in his journalist days that he tried out a poem by humming it "in notes that suggested a solo on a bugle." Kipling seems not otherwise to have been very musical. His taste in performed music stopped at, or not very far beyond, Gilbert and Sullivan. Still, it is remarkable that a first-class writer who was also quite a gifted artist — he illustrated Just So Stories himself and his thorough knowledge of art technique can be seen in The Light That Failed — should have had so instinctual a feel for music at any level. One thinks of Doctor Johnson's definition of genius: "a mind of large general powers, accidentally determined to some particular direction." If Kipling had not started work young — he was sixteen — as a journalist, one wonders what other thing he might have become.


There is no doubt that Kipling looked down on the colored races, but "racism" is not the proper word for his attitude. He did not think them biologically inferior, only incapable of self-government at the time he found them. "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din": and the negro cook in Captains Courageous is treated with no more or less condescension than the other crew members, except that he has powers of clairvoyance. Ricketts gives us Kipling's very interesting definition of "white man", delivered in 1897: "the race speaking the English tongue, with a high birth rate and a low murder rate, living quietly under Laws which are neither bought nor sold." Those "lesser breeds without the law" were Germans; as Andrew Lycett makes clear, Kipling had just begun to obsess about the German threat at the time he wrote "Recessional." Even Edward Said in "The Pleasures of Imperialism," his essay on Kim, has trouble sticking a charge of racism on Kipling. (At least, I think he does: I confess to finding Professor Said next to unreadable.) The general tenor of Kipling's attitude to the colonialized peoples is the blend of paternalism and respect found in "Fuzzy-Wuzzy":

So 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your 'ome in the Soudan;
You're a pore benighted 'eathen but a first-class fightin' man …

I once found myself sharing a student dormitory in Peking with a Sudanese — a great strapping fellow full of Islamic fire and anti-Western contempt, who would indeed have been fearsome with his hair grown out and a spear in his hand. I sang "Fuzzy-Wuzzy" for him, or at least the two stanzas Dawson recorded, and wrote it out, and explained the references. Samy was delighted and pronounced Kipling "a very good poet" while General Gordon rolled and wept in his grave.

Kipling was even capable of expressing what in current American cant is called "a commitment to diversity." His poem "We and They," for example, would sit very comfortably on the wall of any present-day American schoolroom, between the pictures of Frederick Douglass and Sacagewea:

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!

And yet we have Kipling, a natural philosemite who lent a sympathetic ear to the British Israel cult (they believed the British were one of the lost tribes) and who detested Hitlerism with all his heart, telling Rider Haggard that: "we owe all our Russian troubles, and many others, to the machinations of the Jews." And we have Kipling the Francophile, who raised a family bilingual in English and French, who admired French literature and took an annual vacation in France, saying, after the Paris peace conference: "I dare say the French are pigs from certain points of view …"

I do not see why we should make much of this. It is ordinary everyday hypocrisy, of the kind that no harmonious society can altogether manage without. Kipling only ever vented such feelings in private, which indicates that he felt ashamed of them, as of foul language — in respect of which latter, Kipling had found hypocrisy indispensable in his work. What would the Barrack-Room Ballads have been if he had actually recorded the repetitive obscenity of soldiers' speech? Unpublished, that's what. Kipling had to invent a soldier-dialect of his own. George Orwell observed correctly that the soldier poems ("Follow Me 'Ome") read much better if you replace those damned apostrophes with the initial "h"s and terminal "g"s that Kipling dropped ("Follow Me Home" — perhaps the best elegy for a friend in English, unless you think "Lycidas" a good poem). One can do this without compunction in the knowledge that the result is very little further from nineteenth-century soldiers' actual speech patterns than the originals. No doubt Kipling suppressed much else, too. Some years ago a reporter for the Wall Street Journal tracked down one of the last surviving Indian mess servants. Here is the report, as reproduced in Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's book The Public School Phenomenon.

Drinks are served by Geba Kahn, first mess sergeant, who has been serving in the mess since 1910. At eighty-seven he must be one of the oldest soldiers anywhere.
The visitor asks Geba Kahn what the British officers used to do here in the evenings half a century ago.
"Play bridge, sir," says Geba Kahn.
"Oh, tell him what else," one of the Pakistani officers says.
"Sodomy, sir," Geba Kahn replies.

If it was hypocrisy on Kipling's part to spare us that in order to give us Plain Tales from the Hills, that is a hypocrisy I can live with very happily. And if he sometimes used the "n"-word in private to refer to those whose sensibilities he so watchfully guarded in his work at the War Graves Commission, I see no reason to think any the less of him for it.


The man's larger political views need to be seen in the context of the great social disturbances that roiled his country in the years before World War One — those disturbances described so readably by George Dangerfield in The Strange Death of Liberal England. Female suffrage: Irish republican agitation: the rising power of labor unions and the first stirrings of the welfare state: none of it made sense to Kipling and he expressed his feelings in public speeches, and in poems like "The City of Brass":

They said: "Who has hate in his soul? Who has envied his neighbour?
Let him arise and control both that man and his labour."
They said: "Who is eaten by sloth? Whose unthrift has destroyed him?
He shall levy a tribute from all because none have employed him."

Evelyn Waugh said it exactly: "[Kipling] was a conservative in the sense that he believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defences fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms." While a modern conservative can certainly follow Kipling's thinking here (I have just noticed the last line of that stanza, with a resonance of its own in the age of O.J. Simpson: "The slayer, too, boasted his slain, and the judges released him …"), it bears saying that there was one large area of human experience that was unknown to Kipling, and that has almost slipped from our own memories: the life of the industrial working class. For example: in 1908, when "The City of Brass" was written, several hundred thousand Englishmen — including both my grandfathers — worked as coal miners, doing hard labor in conditions of filth and danger for starvation wages. It is very hard to blame them for being unhappy with their lot. They strove to improve it; and did improve it, by dint of the kind of agitations that made Kipling froth and foam. They thereby made as large a contribution to the world of ease and security we now enjoy as did Kipling's box-wallahs.

It is curious that Kipling, for all his interest in machinery and his respect for "The Day's Work", seems hardly to have known of the existence of these working people. His books are full of his fascination with how things are made and done. "Troop says the most interesting thing in the world is to find out how the next man gets his vittles," says the preppie in Captains Courageous. This might almost be Kipling's life motto. Yet on closer inspection Kipling's interest in work processes was limited to those that had some connection with his core enthusiasms: India, the army, the sea.


Like all true Tories, Rudyard Kipling was a very democratic man. He had, as the English say, "no side." He would talk to — and, much more important for a writer, listen to — anybody at all. To the end of his life he refused all non-academic honors, though he was offered a knighthood and could have got a peerage with a word in the right ear. This is the more surprising when one recalls that British India of the 1880s, when Kipling was working his apprenticeship, was a place where snobbery, that most loathsome of English vices, flourished unchecked. As the son of a nobody — his father was an art instructor — practising a barely-respectable trade himself ("Who is it, Jenkins?"  "Two reporters, milord, and a gentleman from The Times") Kipling must have been on the receiving end of a great many slights. A lesser man would have sought compensation in his days of fame and wealth; but Kipling never troubled himself in the least about rank or status and never sought out great men. If he ended up with many such among his acquaintance, it was from their seeking out him.

Literary snobbery, when he first encountered it in London of the 1890s "Decadence", seems to have disgusted him. I doubt he was much bothered that at the end of his life he was as unfashionable as it is possible for a writer to be. You would have been thrown out of any self-respecting literary gathering in 1936 if you had quoted "Mandalay" (which Orwell, according to Malcolm Muggeridge, thought "the most beautiful poem in the English language"). Among the eight nominal pallbearers present to inter Kipling's ashes in Poets' Corner were the Prime Minister, a Field Marshal and an Admiral of the Fleet. The nearest thing to a literary person was Howell Gwynne, editor of the Morning Post.

Now we are wiser. After our time of nightmares, when the mass murder of unarmed civilians has routinely been used as an instrument of peacetime social policy over half the world, Kipling's reactionary blatherings seem merely crusty and feudal. Even the Raj doesn't look like such an unspeakably bad idea after the horrors of Partition and, what is it? three? Indo-Pakistani wars — the next one apparently to be fought with nuclear weapons. The hottest show on Broadway is The Lion King — whole sections of whose plot are lifted from The Jungle Book. On my table is a copy of Newsweek containing an interview with one of the founders of Medecins Sans Frontières, headlined: "A Man Who Fights the Savage Wars of Peace." Best of all, after a century of murderous political fantasies, great masses of the human race have returned in allegiance to the God of Things As They Are. For how long, this time around, that deity will be able to hold off the God of Wishful Thinking remains to be seen.