Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Rudyard Kipling 1865 – 1936

Who hasn't read Rudyard Kipling? Many of us did as a child, some as an adult, but even those who have never read Kipling will probably have heard of him and his stories. The few who have not may be unaware that some phrases used by us all are actually those coined by Kipling ("You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din").

Visiting Bateman's last week-end - Kipling's house in Sussex now owned by the National Trust – we were delighted to be treated to a lecture of his life and work given by one of his knowledgeable fans. Even knowing a fair bit about the life of an author – or any historical figure – it always delights me to learn little known facts only the expert has wind of.

Knowing the desolate childhood Kipling had I am still surprised that he appears to have grown into a fairly balanced adult: the fact that he was also a spectacularly successful author and self-made man by the age of 25 is positively amazing. Read his short stories, his histories and poetry and marvel at the breadth of this man's ability and talent.

So much a part of popular culture was Kipling's work that even today bits keep cropping up all over the place. Take the story, .007, for instance. Can some expert tell me, is this where Fleming picked James Bond's code name from? And perhaps, could it be, this little tale written in 1908 was the inspiration for the Thomas the Tank Engine stories too?

When researching my novel, A Little Blue Jacket, set in South Africa, I inevitably came across Kipling as he was a great supporter of the Boer War, a friend of Cecil Rhodes and champion of Jamieson, Rhodes' nemesis. Many years previously I had been given Kipling's Barrack Room Ballads (thought it odd at the time but weird how things come to pass), mainly dramatic monologues written in the London vernacular, the third series of which dealt with the Boer War.

It is the verses of these series that many remember and repeat with affection (If, A Father's Advice to his Son or Mandalay perhaps) and it is the simplicity and general appeal of them that has to some extent caused many to view Kipling's work as 'popular' dum-de-dum poetry. But, in other poetry of his one cannot help but admire the more sophisticated and understated touches not obvious in the ballads.

I think his poem My Boy Jack illustrates just how he can get an emotion over without sentimentality or heavy handedness. Kipling's son, John, was killed in the First World War (even the rich and famous have tragedy in their lives: his beloved daughter – for whom he wrote The Jungle Book - also died prematurely aged six) and this poem is about his loss. Search it out and I defy you – knowing the facts – not to be moved to tears.

Whether interested in the exotic setting of India, the fate of the simple soldier or life of the jungle, there is a Kipling story out there for you. Search it out, read it and understand why so many of the best English authors – including Americans - think Rudyard Kipling was the greatest storyteller of all time.