Monday, 15 October 2018


She don't say so much, these days, do she, ship-mates?

So, I hear you say, it's all very well, hiding behind Todd Hido, and his assertion that "As an artist I have always felt that my task is not to create meaning but to charge the air so that meaning can occur". But your Puck's Song stuff is clearly about something, isn't it? You can't invoke Kipling and then stand back looking all innocent, as if you had merely mentioned one of your colleagues at work, or the milkman.

OK. It's a fair cop. Let me venture into explicatory territory.

On one level, this series of images simply illustrate, stanza by stanza, one very partial account of the English national story, as told to children by Rudyard Kipling, through the character of the Oldest Old Thing in England, Puck, in Puck of Pook's Hill. If you don't know the book, or its companion, Rewards and Fairies (neither of which I'd read until quite recently: children's books were never my thing, even as a child) they're worth a look, if only to discover how "England" looked to a fairly unusual but prominent Englishman in the Edwardian high summer of 1906.

Now, looking a little deeper, many of us rightly regard with suspicion and dismiss as dangerous nationalism any concern with nativist narratives of nationhood, especially when coupled with an unexamined exceptionalism. In the (ironic) words of Flanders and Swann, "The English are moral, the English are good, and clever and modest and misunderstood". Oh, yes. We have also preferred to forget the Empire ever happened, or at least draw an imaginary line between "us" and "them". But I like this quotation from George Orwell:
But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.
George Orwell, England Your England
They are us, we are them, the same but different. Having been branded as an imperialist, a nationalist, and even as a racist, a writer as full of brilliance, empathy and insight as Rudyard Kipling can be conveniently forgotten, too. But it's no good, as a way of moving forward, to pretend the past never happened. Especially if your past has had serious negative impacts on the present of others. And the fact that a subject is dangerous in the wrong hands should not put it off limits for art; quite the opposite.

But, actually, if you take the trouble to read him, Kipling's version of "England" is not some chest-beating fantasy of racial purity and superiority: it is the story of a serial multicultural mashup, ever-changing, endangered, defended, conquered, transformed, volatile, yet with a base-note of continuity symbolised by the imagined anima loci Puck. England is a place, not a "people" or an idea, and yet it is a place where different ideas and many peoples have been layered into something as solid as geology. Had Kipling lived an improbably long life, Puck's Song would (and, in a sense, does) have verses that include Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, the "Windrush Generation", Ugandan Asians and, more recently, an infusion of young families from Eastern Europe. To Puck, we're all newcomers, all English, and to align Kipling with the likes of UKIP is to profoundly misunderstand him [1].

Also, although in a sense it's a case of the part standing for the whole, Puck is the spirit of a very particular place, the Weald of Sussex and Kent. I'd never visited the area until very recently, driving some of my pictures to hang in an exhibition in Battle, near Hastings. Kipling's house, Bateman's, is located nearby, and I'd meant to pay it a visit. But, having gone astray once too often in the Wealden maze of lanes and B-roads, I headed for the safety of the A27 and Brighton; another time. However, I couldn't help but get a strong sense of the layering of history that had so clearly impressed Kipling. This, after all, is where the original Stormin' Normans came through in 1066, upturning everything, including the language. It's also one of those places with a secret industrial past: guns were cast here for the Navy. The Weald had all the necessary ingredients to be a major centre for iron-founding from Roman times until coal replaced charcoal in the late 18th century. Located on the Channel, close to the shortest crossing routes, the Weald has always been among the first to experience the latest breaking wave of change.

So much for Kipling: what about me? What attracted me to this odd and clunky little piece of verse? Well, when I was building my photographic sequence based in the area around the Hockley Viaduct and St. Catherine's Hill near Winchester (self-published via Blurb as the book England and Nowhere) I had a very similar experience to that of Kipling in the the Weald: everywhere I looked there was evidence in the landscape of layer upon layer of occupation and industry, converging on a natural transport "pinch-point" into south Hampshire. Rather than repeat myself, here is a link to what I wrote at the time.

Trackway and Camp and City lost,
Salt Marsh where now is corn –
Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,
And so was England born!

I had come across that penultimate stanza of "Puck's Song" somewhere on the Web, and it seemed to encapsulate much of what I was trying to convey. So, even if I may have had nothing more profound than that to say, it still seemed worth expanding upon. It led me to read Puck of Pook's Hill, and to review my ideas about Kipling, and then subsequently to devote many hours to creating a suite of interpretive photo-collage illustrations that were originally intended as a sort of coda to England and Nowhere, but have actually become what is probably a more substantial and personal piece of work. Hopefully I have managed to "charge the air" a bit, too, so that more meaning can occur in the receptive viewer's creative mind.

1. If you've never read any of Kipling's work, you might  be surprised by it: why not try "Kim", or a few of the "Barrack-Room Ballads" (my favourite), or perhaps "Plain Tales From The Hills"? He is not what, perhaps, you have been led to believe: an orientalist, a racist, a proto-fascist, and a blinkered apologist for Empire. He is more multi-faceted than that, less dogmatic, more open to conflicting points-of-view, gifted with what Keats called negative capability: "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason". Even at his very worst, he is not simply or uncritically any of those bad things. "White saviour", certainly; "racist", no. Never forget that it was Kipling who wrote, after WW1, "If any question why we died, / Tell them, because our fathers lied" ("Epitaphs of the War"), and it was Kipling who insisted on properly acknowledging the contribution of Indian and other Empire troops to the war effort.


amolitor said...

I quite like Kipling, and I do think he gets a bad rap.

My favorite story of his, and I think the most telling perhaps, is A Sahib's War, in which you will quickly learn that Kupling's attitude toward the British Imperium is, well, it has facets as you suggest.

I can never quite decide if if poetry is just doggerel, or where it merely enjoys a powerful driven cadence.

Mike C. said...

The poetry is sophisticatedly bad, IMHO.

To see what can be done with such stuff, however, it's worth checking out folkie Peter Bellamy's renderings of the Barrack-Room Ballads.


Martyn Cornell said...

Kipling, of course, lost his son in the Firstt World War.

Mike C. said...


He did, and worse, he pulled strings to get him a commission when he was medically unfit due to extremely poor eyesight. "Because our fathers lied" must have touched a very sore spot.