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Dare we read Kipling today? PETER FROST thinks we should.

I have trouble with Rudyard Kipling. Despite all the people who tell me I shouldn’t I really like him I still enjoy his stories and poems. Nobody has captured the English countryside and the rich history of the far from ordinary people of England like Kipling.

I do love England. Not in that awful jingoistic way that assumes we are better than the rest of the world but in the same way that the Vietnamese, Scots, Iraqis, Palestinians, Cubans, South Africans, all the nations on the globe in fact, can love their own countries, their cultures, their landscape and their histories without embarrassment or guilt.

Sadly England’s far from noble history of imperialism and racist wars seems to have undermined, in my mind at least, the right to be proud of the country of our birth.

A myriad of organisations from Mosley’s blackshirts in the 1930’s to today’s English Defence League seem to have stolen away the right to be English and proud without being racist and hateful.

Billy Bragg wrestled with some of the same issues in his book The Progressive Patriot. Bragg loves, and sings, Kipling too.

I’ve never hidden my love of the poet. Indeed when his copyright ran out in 2006, a publisher who was considering publishing some of his work told me “I’m amazed that an old commie like you is still reads Kipling.”

I had to tell him I wasn’t the only old commie either. Bertolt Brecht loved the man and his poetry and even translated some of his poems and used them as songs in his plays.

True, Kipling was in many ways the spin doctor for a British Empire on which the sun never set.

However if you are ever looking for an epitaph for all those who died in the Iraq War – on either side – you won’t find a more appropriate one than Kipling’s

             “If any question why we died,Tell them, because our fathers lied.”  

Kipling wrote that about his 18 year old son John who died in the First World War. Every time I read it I see Blair and Bush lying through their teeth.

When Blair, Cameron and Clegg are finally laid to rest I for one would like to propose a bit more Kipling. Some lines from his poem ‘A Dead Statesman’ would do the job perfectly.

              I could not dig: I dared not rob:
             Therefore I lied to please the mob.
             Now all my lies are proved untrue
             And I must face the men I slew.

Perhaps you begin to see why I like Rudyard Kipling and his writing? It’s also because no one has ever been as good at capturing the voices of ordinary English working people speaking to us down through the centuries. No one either was better at capturing the essence of the English countryside in which they lived.

He never tired of listening to ordinary people, in the London Music Halls he loved, with the foot soldiers in the British army in India, in the trenches of the First World War and the country folk around his final home – a yeoman’s house – in the Sussex Weald.

Take his poem The Land. It’s about that very house, Bateman’s, near Burwash in East Sussex.

The poem looks at the house and the land it stands in through the eyes of two groups of people. Firstly we meet the so called important people who owned the land and the house. And then the common folk from around who know the land well and usually get the better of the owner.

First owner is Julius Fabriciusa Roman Sub-Prefect. Sixteen hundred years ago he is having trouble with flooding so he takes advice from Hobdenius.

The aged Hobden tells him

“I remember as a lad,  My father told your father that she wanted dreenin’ bad.”

They still find bits of roman clay pipe from the draining on the estate today.

Then came Ogier the Dane. His Hobden advises adding lime to the land.

Chalk and flints still turn up in the ditches from time to time.

Anglo-Saxons then held sway until William landed at nearby Hastings.

The little brook floods the Norman’s land and Hob the local bailiff offers his advice. The remains of his elm planks, hard as iron, are still in the ground today.

More history and then its 1915 and Kipling buys Bateman’s. Kipling knows he owns the trout but Hobden tickles. The game is Kipling’s but it ends up in Hobden’s pot. Kipling ends it much better than I.

          His dead are in the churchyard – thirty generations laid.
Their names were old in history when Domesday Book was made;
And the passion and the piety and prowess of his line
Have seeded, rooted, fruited in some land the Law calls mine.

The first time I visited Batemans the little brook that has powered the water mill for centuries had just overtopped its banks and Kipling’s precious book-lined study was in danger of flooding. National Trust staff were rolling up precious carpets and hurriedly sandbagging the doors.

They’d called on some men from the village to help and thankfully they seemed to know just what to do. Kipling would have loved it. I just wonder if any of the local tradesmen were named Hobden?

Here is the whole poem.

The Land
by Rudyard Kipling

When Julius Fabricius, Sub-Prefect of the Weald,
In the days of Diocletian owned our Lower River-field,
He called to him Hobdenius—a Briton of the Clay,
Saying: “What about that River-piece for layin’ in to hay?”

And the aged Hobden answered: “I remember as a lad
My father told your father that she wanted dreenin’ bad.
An’ the more that you neeglect her the less you’ll get her clean.
Have it jest as you’ve a mind to, but, if I was you, I’d dreen.”

So they drained it long and crossways in the lavish Roman style—
Still we find among the river-drift their flakes of ancient tile,
And in drouthy middle August, when the bones of meadows show,
We can trace the lines they followed sixteen hundred years ago.

Then Julius Fabricius died as even Prefects do,
And after certain centuries, Imperial Rome died too.
Then did robbers enter Britain from across the Northern main
And our Lower River-field was won by Ogier the Dane.

Well could Ogier work his war-boat—well could Ogier wield his brand—
Much he knew of foaming waters—not so much of farming land.
So he called to him a Hobden of the old unaltered blood,
Saying: “What about that River-piece, she doesn’t look no good?”

And that aged Hobden answered: “’Tain’t for me to interfere,
But I’ve known that bit o’ meadow now for five and fifty year.
Have it jest as you’ve a mind to, but I’ve proved it time on time,
If you want to change her nature you have got to give her lime!”

Ogier sent his wains to Lewes, twenty hours’ solemn walk,
And drew back great abundance of the cool, grey, healing chalk.
And old Hobden spread it broadcast, never heeding what was in ’t.
Which is why in cleaning ditches, now and then we find a flint.

Ogier died. His sons grew English—Anglo-Saxon was their name—
Till out of blossomed Normandy another pirate came;
For Duke William conquered England and divided with his men,
And our Lower River-field he gave to William of Warenne.

But the Brook (you know her habit) rose one rainy autumn night
And tore down sodden flitches of the bank to left and right.
So, said William to his Bailiff as they rode their dripping rounds:
“Hob, what about that River-bit—the Brook’s got up no bounds?”

And that aged Hobden answered: “’Tain’t my business to advise,
But ye might ha’ known ’twould happen from the way the valley lies.
Where ye can’t hold back the water you must try and save the sile.
Hev it jest as you’ve a mind to, but, if I was you, I’d spile!”

They spiled along the water-course with trunks of willow-trees
And planks of elms behind ’em and immortal oaken knees.
And when the spates of Autumn whirl the gravel-beds away
You can see their faithful fragments iron-hard in iron clay.

O O O

Georgii Quinti Anno Sexto, I, who own the River-field,
Am fortified with title-deeds, attested, signed and sealed,
Guaranteeing me, my assigns, my executors and heirs
All sorts of powers and profits which—are neither mine nor theirs.

I have rights of chase and warren, as my dignity requires.
I can fish — but Hobden tickles. I can shoot — but Hobden wires.
I repair, but he reopens, certain gaps which, men allege,
Have been used by every Hobden since a Hobden swapped a hedge.

Shall I dog his morning progress o’er the track-betraying dew?
Demand his dinner-basket into which my pheasant flew?
Confiscate his evening faggot under which the conies ran,
And summons him to judgment? I would sooner summons Pan.

His dead are in the churchyard — thirty generations laid.
Their names were old in history when Domesday Book was made.
And the passion and the piety and prowess of his line
Have seeded, rooted, fruited in some land the Law calls mine.

Not for any beast that burrows, not for any bird that flies,
Would I lose his large sound council, miss his keen amending eyes.
He is bailiff, woodman, wheelwright, field-surveyor, engineer,
And if flagrantly a poacher — ’tain’t for me to interfere.

“Hob, what about that River-bit?” I turn to him again,
With Fabricius and Ogier and William of Warenne.
“Hev it jest as you’ve a mind to, but” — and here he takes command.
For whoever pays the taxes old Mus’ Hobden owns the land.

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