Dec 302015


Today is the birthday (1865) of Joseph Rudyard Kipling, Nobel laureate and Anglo-Indian short-story writer, poet, and novelist. Kipling’s works of fiction include The Jungle Book (1894), Kim (1901), and many short stories, including “The Man Who Would Be King” (1888). His famous poems include “Mandalay” (1890), “Gunga Din” (1890), “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” (1919), “The White Man’s Burden” (1899), and “If—” (1910). He is regarded as a major innovator in the art of the short story and his children’s books are classics of children’s literature.


Kipling was one of the most popular writers in the United Kingdom, in both prose and verse, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Henry James said: “Kipling strikes me personally as the most complete man of genius (as distinct from fine intelligence) that I have ever known.” In 1907, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, making him the first English-language writer to receive the prize, and its youngest recipient to date. He was also sounded out for the British Poet Laureateship and on several occasions for a knighthood, both of which he declined.

Kipling’s subsequent reputation has changed according to the political and social climate of the age and the resulting contrasting views about him continued for much of the 20th century. Douglas Kerr sums it up “[Kipling] is still an author who can inspire passionate disagreement and his place in literary and cultural history is far from settled. But as the age of the European empires recedes, he is recognized as an incomparable, if controversial, interpreter of how empire was experienced. That, and an increasing recognition of his extraordinary narrative gifts, make him a force to be reckoned with.” I think you have it right there. If you want to know about the British empire in all of its complexity at the height of its power, read Kipling.

My views are deeply mixed. I was raised on Kipling in Australia in the dying years of the British empire, when England was still called the “mother country,” and the likes of “If—” and “Gunga Din” were standard fare in school poetry books. I was supremely happy as a Wolf Cub, modeled on The Jungle Book’s tales and characters, and played Kim’s game in the Boy Scouts. Then the ‘60s happened and the “white man’s burden” was seen for what it was – ethnocentric exploitation and brutality masking as the civilizing of the world. There’s no way to hide Kipling’s conservative, imperialistic views, even though his depictions of Asia are nuanced and often sympathetic. But his most general view of human character at its best is inspiring. That’s why “If—” is still popular (though parodied in the 1968 film of the same name).

Rudyard Kipling and wife

Rudyard Kipling and wife

I’d like to take “Mandalay” as a microcosm of his work. Here is the full version.

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the Temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”

Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’ fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China
‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,
An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat – jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:

Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud –
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd –
Plucky lot she cared for idols
When I kissed ‘er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’ fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China
‘crost the Bay!

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,
She’d git ‘er little banjo and she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!”
With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.

Elephants a-pilin’ teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’ fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China
‘crost the Bay!

But that’s all above be’ind me – long ago an’ fur away,
An’ there ain’t no buses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;
An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”

No! You won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly Temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’ fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China
‘crost the Bay!

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but what do they understand?

Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and –
Law! Wot do they understand?
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’ fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China
‘crost the Bay!

Ship me somewhere’s east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the Temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be —
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea;

On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’ fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China
‘crost the Bay!


Any man who prefers Mandalay to London has my vote. The British troops stationed in Burma were taken up (or down) the Irrawaddy River (the “road to Mandalay”) by paddle steamers run by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC). Rangoon to Mandalay was a 700 km trip each way. During the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885 9,000 British and Indian soldiers had been transported by a fleet of paddle steamers (“the old flotilla” of the poem) and other boats from Rangoon to Mandalay. Guerrilla warfare followed the occupation of Mandalay and British regiments remained in Burma for several years.

Kipling wrote “Mandalay” around April 1890, when he was 24 years old. He had arrived in England in October the previous year, after seven years in India. He had taken an eastward route home, traveling by steamship from Calcutta to Japan, then to San Francisco, then across the United States, in company with his friends Alex and “Ted” (Edmonia) Hill. Rangoon had been the first port of call after Calcutta; then there was an unscheduled stop at Moulmein. It is plain that Kipling was struck by the beauty of Burmese girls. He wrote at the time:

I love the Burman with the blind favouritism born of first impression. When I die I will be a Burman … and I will always walk about with a pretty almond-coloured girl who shall laugh and jest too, as a young maiden ought. She shall not pull a sari over her head when a man looks at her and glare suggestively from behind it, nor shall she tramp behind me when I walk: for these are the customs of India. She shall look all the world between the eyes, in honesty and good fellowship, and I will teach her not to defile her pretty mouth with chopped tobacco in a cabbage leaf, but to inhale good cigarettes of Egypt’s best brand.

You see both sides of Kipling in this poem – the condescending colonial master, and the sympathetic ex-pat – full of bravado mingled with longing. It was set to music many times. One of the most famous versions is by Peter Dawson but I much prefer Peter Bellamy’s because it captures the whole poem. It caused me to move to Mandalay 2 years ago where I taught for a while.

The song version is considerably shorter than the original poem, and much of the detail is lost. But the essence is there. It makes me miss my days in Asia terribly.

Do we really want to return to the days Kipling idolizes and laments in their passing? I don’t think so. But “The Man Who Would Be King” is still one of my favorite short stories, as is the movie made of it, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine giving impeccable performances. This scene always makes me laugh:

Classic !!

Apparently Kipling’s favorite food was pineapple upside-down cake, and old fashioned dessert you don’t see much any more. It’s very easy to make.


Pineapple Upside-Down Cake



50g softened butter
50g light soft brown sugar
7 pineapple rings in syrup, drained (with syrup reserved)
glacé cherries


100g softened butter
100g golden caster sugar
100g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs


Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/350°F.

Grease a 20-21cm (8”) round cake tin.

For the topping, beat the butter and sugar together until creamy. Spread this mix over the base and a quarter of the way up the sides of the cake tin. Arrange the pineapple rings on top, then place cherries (one or more) in the centers of the rings.

Place the cake ingredients in a bowl along with 2 tablespoons of the pineapple syrup and beat to a soft consistency. Spoon the cake mix into the cake tin on top of the pineapple and smooth it out so it is as level as possible. Bake for 35 mins. Leave the cake to stand on a wire rack for 5 mins, then turn it out on to a plate. Serve warm.