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Recent stories about World War I have sent PETER FROST to his bookshelf in search of an unlikely poet

A number of recent stories in the Morning Star have made me think. Don’t they always? That’s why I read the paper.

Perhaps more expectedly, a few of them have made me think of Rudyard Kipling.

The jingoism of the official celebration centenary of the first world war, alongside the reports of casualties of the current Afghan war, reminded me of one of the poet’s greatest verses.

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.

Kipling had pulled strings to get his son into the army despite his poor eyesight. John’s death, in 1915 at the battle of Loos, wiped away the last shreds of jingoism in the poet’s work.

Those lines were, of course, also a perfect epitaph for all those who died in the Iraq war – on either side.

Every time I read those lines I see Tony Blair and George Bush, or David Cameron and Nick Clegg 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 Kipling and his writing?

Those of us on the left have often had a real problem with Kipling and his poems written in what he saw as the glory days of the British empire.

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 Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts in the 1930s 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 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.

Anti-imperialists at the time quipped that the reason was God didn’t trust the British in the dark.

Another reason I still read Kipling is 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 to visit, with the foot soldiers in the British army in India, in the trenches of the first world war and with the country folk in the fields around his final home – a yeoman’s house – in the Sussex Weald.

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

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The poem looks at the house and the land it stands in through the eyes of two groups of inhabitants.

First we meet the so-called important people who owned the land and the house over the centuries. And then the common folk from round about who know the land well and usually get the better of the owner.

The first owner is Julius Fabriciusa, Roman Sub-Prefect. Sixteen-hundred years ago he is having trouble with the same level of flooding that is making the headlines in the Morning Star today. The sub-prefect takes advice from Hobdenius. The aged local 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 plank channels, hard as iron, are still in the ground today.

More history and then it’s 1915, the first world war, and Kipling buys Bateman’s.

The poet knows he owns the trout, but Hobden tickles them. The game birds are Kipling’s but they end 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.

A few years ago when I visited Bateman’s, the little brook that has powered the clacking water mill for centuries had just overtopped its banks and Kipling’s precious book-lined study was in danger of flooding.

batemans
Kipling’s library at Batemans

National Trust staff were rolling up valuable 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?

I’m following similar flood stories in the Morning Star today, the slashing of jobs and funding from the Environment Agency speak of exactly the same arrogance of ignorance Kipling describes in his landowners.

The waters are rising at Bateman’s, but sadly Kipling’s hero, the latest Hobden, will be signing on down at the jobcentre.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star 22 January 2014

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