As a consequence, I find myself belatedly picking up these best-beloved books to read. The latest in this line of never-too-late classics has been Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories. Like Treasure Island, these stories are already over-familiar to everyone who has never read them. So much so, I could barely bring myself to read "How the Elephant Got His Trunk" (or, as I now know to call it, "The Elephant's Child"). What would be the point? Yeah, yeah, the crocodile bites his nose and pulls it.
Well, you might as well ask, "Why bother to see Hamlet yet again?" I discovered that these are genuinely, startlingly original pieces of writing. They are truly spellbinding, begging to be read at bedtime, again and again, by a talented reader capable of bringing to life and inhabiting the different voices and registers that Kipling weaves so inventively, and so intimately. Where else will you find something as delightful as "he smiled one smile that ran all round his face two times"? As vivid as "Off ran Dingo -- Yellow-Dog Dingo -- always hungry, grinning like a coal-scuttle"? Or as memorable as "One, two, three! And where's your breakfast?"
True, there are moments when cloying cuteness threatens to break out. Victorian and Edwardian gents were 'sclusively sentimental about characterful little girls. But when you learn that Kipling was still mourning the death of his own eldest daughter, Josephine, the sentiment seems more heart-breaking than toe-curling. Little Taffy in "How the First Letter Was Written" is clearly the great-grandmother of many feisty little heroines who neglect and reject their household duties in favour of more inciting adventures.
True, there are some dodgy undertones that bubble up ("'Oh, plain black's best for a nigger,' said the Ethiopian"). But I think Kipling both honours and teases the language, traditions and manners of India and Africa, just as he does those of the common British soldier in Barrack-Room Ballads. Nobody loves slightly bent English as much as Kipling.
With hindsight, this may be condemned as colonial "orientalism", or simple condescension, but his attitude could never be described as malevolent. Kipling is an imperialist, but very far from racist. That unfortunate swastika on the rock in the illustration to "The Crab That Played With the Sea" is a Hindu symbol for "auspiciousness", which is why it also appeared on the covers of Kipling's collected works. Kipling himself ordered it to be removed as "defiled beyond redemption" after the Nazis had usurped it in the 1930s.
The tone of the stories is one of controlled but intense playfulness. It's a story-telling voice, rather than a story-writing voice. It is the relaxed, unbuttoned, domestic voice of upper-middle class Imperial Britain in 1902, heard in a nursery within a large house, buffered from routine by servants, nannies, and cooks, and secure behind the impenetrable firewall of the greatest Army and Navy the world had yet seen.
Then there are Kipling's own illustrations. They are bold, Beardsley-esque, and really not very good. Often described as "woodcuts", I'm pretty sure they are actually ink drawings in the woodcut style (though I'd be interested to know for sure?). The Cat That Walked By Himself is an exception, and rightly popular, though few people seem to realise it is by Kipling himself. Most of them are crowded, mannered, uncertain of line, and too reliant on the use of large black shapes -- they have none of the delicate clarity of a Beardsley, but no compensating vigour of shape or composition. Above all, it's hard to make out what they're meant to be -- never a good thing in an illustration -- and it's no wonder Kipling felt the need to write a commentary on each. Some of these commentaries are so whimsically strange you have to wonder what Kipling used to put in his pipe.
But I am much taken with them, Best Beloved, and if I am ever blessed with grandchildren I shall scare them something hijjus at bedtime with my gritted-teeth rendering of the Crocodile in "The Elephant's Child".
Royal Mail Just So centenary stamps
Illustrations by Izhar Cohen