WE ALL recall the footage. On an official visit to Myanmar, Boris Johnson, then the British Foreign Secretary, was being shown round Yangon’s celebrated Shwedagon Pagoda. A monumental gaffe was narrowly averted when, just in time, the British ambassador stopped our Boris from reciting Rudyard Kipling’s The Road to Mandalay.
Much in Kipling is indeed “not appropriate” — to use the ambassador’s words on that occasion. In this fascinating study of Kipling’s Just so Stories, John Batchelor acknowledges that a good deal of what Kipling wrote, especially in the lingering twilight of his advancing years, was marred by a calcified colonialism and casual racism.
The Just so Stories largely — if not entirely — escape the charges justifiably made against Kipling’s work. For Batchelor, these freshly minted creation myths are “like fairy tales told to men in the morning of the world”, and he renews our gratitude for them.
Batchelor discusses each of the stories in turn, interweaving his erudite commentary with a penetrating exploration of Kipling’s own story, and of his genius as a writer — not overlooking the brilliance of Kipling as illustrator of his own work.
AlamyThe Elephant’s Child in an illustration by Rudyard Kipling for the 1902 edition of his Just So Stories
What lingers in the memory — especially if the stories were first read to us when we were small by someone with an ear for language — is the sound of the words. The Elephant’s Child, we are told, sets off for “the great grey-green greasy Limpopo river, all set about with fever trees”. Much may be forgiven someone who could write such incantatory prose.
Batchelor reminds us that Kipling’s own children were the first audience for the Just So Stories. Hence this book’s subtitle. Kipling’s daughter Josephine was just six when she died of the pneumonia that nearly killed her father. Kipling never conquered his grief, any more that he overcame the loss of his son, John, in the First World War. Batchelor quotes in full Kipling’s transposition of his anguish in his haunting, heart-breaking, ballad “My Boy Jack”.
So, what, today, are we to make of this lifelong Freemason who penned “The White Man’s Burden”, and who coined the phrase “lesser breeds without the law”? All we can do is to reread his best work, the Just So Stories, and, above all, his towering masterpiece Kim — surely among the most open and generous affirmations of our common humanity in the canon of English literature.
The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.
How the “Just So Stories” Were Made: The brilliance and tragedy behind Kipling’s celebrated tales for little children
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