The wrong (and excruciating) answer to this is: ‘I don’t know, I’ve never kippled’ (this joke is courtesy of my father, more than 50 years ago, and it works a tiny bit better if spoken rather than read). I haven’t kippled to any great extent, actually: I read Puck of Pook’s Hill as a child, and didn’t enjoy it much – certainly not enough to advance to Rewards and Fairies. I never read any of the Jungle Books, and only two of the Just So Stories have stuck in my mind.
There are some poems which resonate – not the over-blown ‘If’, or ‘The White Man’s Burden’ (the latter apparently urging the United States to acquire its own empire in the Philippines), or ‘Recessional’ – all as full of quotations as Hamlet, and which solidified Kipling’s reputation as cheerleader and apologist for imperialism – but the haunting ‘The Way though the Woods’, the creepy ‘Smuggler’s Song’, or the heart-breaking ‘My Boy Jack’.
But I now have to start all over again, re-read and re-think, because I have just encountered Kim, and all the preconceptions about jingoism, racial superiority, etc., have been blown out of the water. The only things I knew about Kim were that it had been filmed in 1950 (with Errol Flynn as an Afghan horse-trader…) and that it had influenced Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, to the extent that one of the weird rituals I had to perform many years ago as a Brownie was the unutterably boring ‘Kim’s Game’, where you had to memorise a number of items on a tray (comb, matchbox, spoon, yawn, pebble, yawn, yawn…).
This extraordinary book was published as a serial in 1900–1, and the first book edition, which we have just reissued, followed in October 1901. I’m not going to bother you with the plot, because it is almost irrelevant: what matters is the vivid, detailed yet sweeping, nostalgic and loving depiction of India, from the plains to the hills, on the Grand Trunk Road and on the ‘te-rain’. The British encountered are mostly idiots, the ‘natives’ (encompassing Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, the said Afghan horse-trader, the Tibetan lama, the ressaldar, the Woman of Shamlegh, the babu (and master of disguise) Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, the old lady of Saharunpore …) are wise, honest, hospitable, tolerant, and brave.
The so-called ‘Kim’s Game’ is actually ‘the Play of the Jewels’ – the tray contains sapphires, turquoises, emeralds, topaz and rubies – and is played in the house of the enigmatic Lurgan Sahib, ‘healer of pearls’, curio-dealer and spy-master, who is one of the very few white characters who is not an idiot. The reason for this is that he has studied and become an adept of the many forms of Eastern wisdom available to those foreigners whose minds are not closed by the conviction of their own innate superiority. Another such is Colonel Creighton, ostensibly of the ‘Ethnographic Survey’, another key player in the ‘Great Game’ between Britain and Russia which had been played since before the first Afghan War. Kim brought the phrase into common usage, though it may have been coined by Arthur Conolly, one of its earliest British victims. (An interesting blog could be written about the numbers of nineteenth-century archaeologists, ethnographers and surveyors whose valuable research work was also useful cover for espionage…)
The third ‘good’ Westerner appears first in the story, and is not named. He is the ‘white-bearded Englishman’ who is the curator of the ‘Wonder House’, the museum at Lahore. He receives the lama courteously, speaks to him in Urdu, understands his belief in the Wheel of Life, respects his search for the River of the Arrow, and gives him his own spectacles to replace the lama’s scratched and heavy horn-rims. This man is Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, artist, designer and museum curator (and incidentally the brother-in-law of Edward Burne-Jones), who created the striking bas-relief images which illustrate the first edition of the book.
This is a wonderful read, from the first plunge into the street life of Lahore to the moving (and ambivalent) end. By coincidence (and for once it really is a coincidence), our ‘new books’ colleagues at Cambridge University Press have just published a three-volume scholarly edition (edited by the doyen of Kipling studies, Thomas Pinney) of Kipling’s collected poems. The edition includes some poems never before anthologised – occasional pieces filed away, or given away, and forgotten – and this has meant a mild flurry of publicity worldwide: there have been pieces on the BBC, on Russian and Polish television, and in British, US and Spanish newspapers. So one way and other, Kipling is very much in the air at the moment – a good time to get kippling, and you might even like it!