Buckle Up

Gordon Torr
14 min readOct 3, 2017

Chapter 23 — The Blasphemy of Optimism

Just when I was beginning to think that my interest in fin de siècle English literature was on the brink of becoming an unhealthy obsession, Boris Johnson went to Myanmar.

The news footage shows him striking the ancient bell at the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon, the country’s most important Buddhist temple. He turns away as if in a trance. The bell has stirred something in his memory, fragments of a poem he can’t help voicing aloud, “The temple bells they say…” And then, “Come back, you British soldier…”

“You’re on mic,” says the very anxious British ambassador Andrew Patrick.

But Boris is on a roll. “The wind is in the palms trees, the temple bells they say…”

“Probably not a good idea,” says Patrick.

“What?” says Boris, “The road to Mandalay?”

Patrick is firm. “No. Not appropriate.”

Boris is visibly confused; visibly hurt, like a four year old reproved by his mother for farting in public. The words of Mandalay have all come flooding back to him, and he knows that there’ll never come a time, a place or a context more exquisitely appropriate for reciting it than right here, right now.

There are five verses in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, but the first two will give you an idea of the rest:

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…

You don’t need to know an awful lot about the British colonisation of Burma to understand why Ambassador Patrick was right to be anxious.

The First Anglo-Burmese War, instigated by Britain in 1824 to protect its interests in North-eastern India, cost over fifteen-thousand European and Indian lives, and was the most expensive war in the history of the Empire when it ended in 1826. There is no record of the number of lives lost on the Burmese side.

The Second Anglo-Burmese War, 1852–1853, ended with British annexation of the lower portion of the Irrawaddy River Valley, including Prome, where British troops looted the pagodas for their gold, silver and Buddha statues.

After the Third Anglo-Burmese War, which lasted less than two weeks during November 1885, British troops entered Mandalay, and Burma was officially attached to the British Empire on 1 January 1886.

Opposition to direct rule from Britain continued in the 20th century. To root out resistance at the village level, according to Wikipedia, “…the British implemented a ‘strategic hamlet’ strategy in which they burned villages and uprooted families who had supplied villages with their headmen, sending them to lower Burma. Once these troublesome or unloyal Burmese were forced out, the British replaced them with strangers they approved of. If the British considered any Burmese to be criminals, they would act as both judge and jury, giving the Burmese no chance to a fair trial.”

It’s no surprise in finding Boris Johnson making an insensitive fool of himself. The fascinating thing about watching this is seeing how readily Mandalay rose to the surface of Johnson’s mind: how available it was to his recall, hovering all these many years just beneath the surface of consciousness as if in anticipation of this moment — and how suggestive it is, seeing this now, of a mind so thoroughly schooled by 19th century jingoism, so convinced of the universal pre-eminence of English thought and literature, that its first reflex is to assume his audience in Yangon, with their quaint gods and meagre culture, will be thrilled at the privilege of hearing “Come you back, you British soldier” recited in the original British accent; and extempore, too, to crown its magnificence.

This is a mind conditioned to believe that political considerations should stand aside when in the presence of a good rhyme; that sentimentality is a more than acceptable substitute for empathy if it’s done with panache and a good natured Tommy grin.

I was conditioned by the colonial echoes of the same mentality, quite content to equate the virtuoso doggerel of Kipling with an inherent moral virtuousness; with that peculiarly English condition of mind that allows it to believe that Englishness is virtuous because it is English. And axiomatically, then, that the degrees of virtuousness of other nations were to be measured in degrees of approximation to Englishness, which brings us back to the present.

This obvious nonsense of this is sustainable only because — unlike the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Russians and almost all of the other European, African, Asian, Eastern and South American nations — the English have no memory of having disgraced themselves on home soil. There are no guillotines or gulags in English history; no skeletons in mass graves; no gas chambers, no firing squads, no killing fields, no inquisitional tortures, and no public executions except those conducted with royal decorum.

Such horrors as occurred in the Tower of London in the 16th and 17th centuries were exorcised from the national conscience in 1840 by William Harrison Ainsworth’s treatment of them as A Historical Romance; and its 19th century conversion into a theme park with thrills confirms that romantic revisionism with each new passing tourist. Poland, by comparison, has Auschwitz.

It is a credit to the strategic brilliance of Britain’s brand planners that the atrocities committed in the name of its Empire happened a very long way away from the view of a domestic public who tended to exhibit all the symptoms of an over-active conscience when the rules of fair play appeared to have been abrogated on foreign fields. It has been the genius of the English to blame instances of moral oversight, when news of them came home, on the British.

But for this extraordinary sleight of hand, this mythical split personality that confers on the English the innocence of a Dr Jekyll who knows exactly what Mr Hyde has been up to, the world might be a very different place.

If the British Empire had been known as the English Empire, which it was in all but name, the chickens of colonialism would have come home to roost in present day Westminster, not, as it seems to us now, to have disappeared into the unaccountable historical vacuum left by the British Empire’s absence. From the perspective of today, the English Empire would have had all the connotations we associate with German nationalism, Russian nationalism and every other kind of nationalism, none of them especially palatable.

The very idea of an English Empire equating in scale and consequence with the British Empire feels inconceivable, even logically impossible, as if without the help of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the English couldn’t possibly have accomplished so much, or wrought so much disaster. But in 1800 the combined populations of the home nations constituted less than 7% of the total population of the UK, and an even less significant percentage when The Great Northern War (1700–1721) against Kalmyk Khanate, the Cossacks, Denmark, Saxony, Poland, Lithuania, Prussia and Hanover became the first war fought in the name of Britain.

Britain was involved in one hundred and four wars between 1700 and the First World War, an average of one war every two years. None of them is known as an English war unless one accepts Anglo as its equivalent. France had 49 wars in the same period.

In the early 20th century the English wouldn’t have been quite as squeamish about describing their splendid military history (93 victories, 11 defeats) as English. The Scottish commentator Neal Ascherson, writing in the magazine Prospect, describes the subsequent revisionism like this:

…most foreigners still call the place “England” for short. And reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, you can see that the London upper classes in the 1920s would never have considered the monarchy, the government or themselves to be anything but “English”. The Empire — now yes, that was “British”. But soon after the Second World War, the idea spread that there was something a bit coarse, a bit hurtful to Welsh and Scottish feelings, to talk about stuff being “English”…

Very sportingly, the English brought themselves to do what seemed to be “inclusive” and, as it wasn’t yet called, “politically correct”; they began to talk about their own country as “Britain” and about “Britishness” instead.

…The change made talking about the English nation and Englishness seem “inappropriate”, even faintly racist, and this has helped to distort and stunt political expression in England to a frightening degree.

The foot soldiers of the First World War, that is, the non-commissioned troops sent “over the top” to die in droves as the behest of their upper class officers, were known generically as “Tommies”, the affectionate and indisputably English name derived from the apocryphal Tommy Atkins, supposedly named by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington after the Battle of Boxtel in 1794. The legend has it that the Duke came across one of his bravest soldiers, Private Thomas Atkins, terribly wounded. The private said “It’s all right, sir. It’s all in a day’s work” and died shortly thereafter.

Rudyard Kipling would have had Tommy Atkins in mind when he wrote Mandalay, the charmingly inarticulate working class bloke immortalised in the Barrack-Room Ballads which Kipling dedicated “To T.A.”

I’ve been avoiding Kipling. The amount of Kipling I grew up with is embarrassingly indicative of how thoroughly my own mind, like Boris’s, was conquered and occupied by the hosannas of Empire. But my main reason for avoiding Kipling until now is that he, more than all the other Allahakbarries combined, brings the Boer War to the forefront of my thoughts, and no one wants to think about the Boer War.

As long as I’ve been writing this series it’s been in the background, but very much in the distance, as far away from the objects of my attention as the Vaal River is from the Thames. And for most of that time I thought it was a coincidence that the Boer War was in progress just as the sensibilities that produced Middlemarch, Tess of the D’ Urbervilles and The Portrait of a Lady were hardening into the cynical pre-modernism of The Way of All Flesh, Heart of Darkness, Jude the Obscure and The Island of Dr Moreau.

I have found no direct evidence to support this, but I’m now convinced that The Great English Novel, by which I mean The Great Novel written in English by English men or women, died in the concentration camps of Aliwal North, Balmoral, Barberton, Bethulie, Bloemfontein, Brandfort, Heidelberg, Heilbron, Howick, Irene, Kimberley, Klerksdorp, Kroonstad, Krugersdorp, Merebank, Middelburg, Norvalspont, Nylstroom, Pietermaritzburg and Pietersburg.

While Oscar Wilde was writing De Profundis in Wandsworth Prison, South African gold shares were at the centre of frenzied speculation at the London Stock Exchange. The usually reliable internet is oddly silent on the South African gold boom of 1895 from the perspective of British history, but the lead story of The San Francisco Call on 20th July 1895 reported it as follows:

For now almost a year London and for that matter all England have been growing more and more excited over the gold mines of South Africa. Within a year mining shares that were issued at a pound per share and often sold for only a portion of that, have sold up as £33 per share, and there are plenty of people in England who believe that these same shares will go to £100. France, too, has caught the excitement and is pouring money into South African investments and it is not impossible that mining shares of the South African properties will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange within the year.

Describing the South African gold boom as “the most remarkable commercial romance of the century”, the enthusiastic Carl Snyder goes on to inform his readers that “There are a dozen or more financial princes now dazzling London with their extravagant expenditures who shipped to South Africa a few years ago as colonists and many of whom were practically bankrupt. Perhaps the most remarkable product of the gold fields is B.I. Barnato, known from Capetown to London as “Barney” Barnato and the jolliest fellow in the world.”

There is a lot more in this vein, intriguing as much for its content as for its undisguised envy. The Call estimates the personal net worth of the jolliest fellow in the world, a former circus juggler and bankrupt, at £35,000,000, the equivalent of £2.7 billion in today’s money.

This is important only because it points to the subject most likely to have been occupying the thoughts of the English privileged classes in the decade between 1895 and 1905, which was this sudden and extraordinary windfall of Empire, and how to get a piece of it. I imagine The Times was more discreet about the fortunes being made out of Transvaal gold thanThe San Francisco Call. Charles Masterman, looking back at the period in his book The Condition of England (1909) wasn’t.

I found Masterman because the critic David Lodge mentioned him in Language of Fiction, and I found David Lodge because Linda Dryden mentioned him in Joseph Conrad and H. G. Wells; The Fin-de-Siècle Literary Scene, and you know how I found her.

Wikipedia doesn’t acknowledge his authorship of The Condition of England. Instead it tells me that “Charles Frederick Gurney Masterman PC (1873–1927) was a radical Liberal Party politician, intellectual and man of letters. He worked closely with such Liberal leaders as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill in designing social welfare projects, including the National Insurance Act of 1911. During the First World War, he played a central role in the main government propaganda agency.”

Which leads me to think that Wikipedia, in this rare instance, is being economical with the truth. Because The Condition of England reveals not a mild man of letters nor even an oxymoronic radical Liberal Party politician, but a fierce social critic who would have been appalled to find himself remembered as someone who worked closely, and apparently harmoniously, with the man suspected of culpability in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Indians during the Bengal famine of 1943, and who notoriously claimed it was their own fault for “breeding like rabbits”.

Of course Masterman didn’t live to witness the consequences of Churchill’s policies in India, Burma and elsewhere in the Empire, but he would have had a view on The Greatest Briton’s exploits in South Africa. Littered throughout The Condition of England are references to the South African gold that has made in England “the most unpremeditated, successful, aimless plutocracy that ever encumbered the destinies of mankind”; to “South African millionaires” buying up the country estates of an ailing aristocracy; to “the furious gambling mania” occasioned by “the South African promotions of 1895…from which the few astute suck no small advantage, and ultimately attain the honour which is the reward of great possessions.”

He sees a football crowd streaming out of “the Crystal Palace” and observes its strength “in number some five times as great as the total Boer commandoes which surrendered after the Peace of Vereeniging, which had defended a country half the size of Europe against all the armies of the British Empire.”

South Africa haunts the pages of The Condition of England the way the American Dream haunts The Great Gatsby. Its lure is irresistible, and its effect is incurably corrupting.

Winston Churchill, Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling were all in South Africa during the Boer War. Kipling was its cheerleader, Conan Doyle its historian, Churchill its hero, and Rider Haggard provided the romantic backdrop. All four of them, along with Jerome K. Jerome, were freemasons. Of these five, only Churchill and Haggard didn’t play cricket for the Allahakbarries.

This was my version of the Boer War. Seen through the lens of apartheid in the 1960s it was a battle between English values and Afrikaner intransigence; between Sherlock Holmes and a bearded Moriarty with a Mauser; between Kim and some heartless poachers; between Robert Baden-Powell’s Wolf Cubs and an illiterate bunch of bad sports.

It’s a measure of the power of Kipling’s influence that I could walk through the veld on the outskirts of Estcourt and Colenso on a school history outing in 1967 and hear his Absent-minded Beggar begin to circulate in my head as soon as I saw the Boer and British graves:

When you’ve shouted “Rule Britannia”: when you’ve sung “God Save the Queen”

When you’ve finished killing Kruger with your mouth:

Will you kindly drop a shilling in my little tambourine

For a gentleman in khaki ordered South?

He’s an absent-minded beggar and his weaknesses are great:

But we and Paul must take him as we find him:

He is out on active service wiping something off a slate:

And he’s left a lot of little things behind him!

Duke’s son — cook’s son — son of a hundred kings,

(Fifty thousand horse and foot going to Table Bay!)

Each of ’em doing his country’s work (and who’s to look after the things?)

Pass the hat for your credit’s sake, and pay — pay — pay!

And a measure, likewise, of the efficacy of the war’s revisionists that I didn’t know that Kipling’s most famous poem, and Bruce’s favourite poem, was inspired by one Sir Leander Starr Jameson, 1st Baronet, KCMG, CB, PC, the man whose abortive raid on Johannesburg in 1895 made the later conflict inevitable; a man who most patently did not keep his head when all about were losing theirs, and who was able to treat triumph and disaster with equanimity only thanks to his connections in high places.

Both Churchill and Kipling would go on to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the former in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”; and the latter in 1907 “in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author.”

Martin Seymour-Smith’s biography of Kipling is sympathetic to Kipling the man and the author; far less so to the poet and the jingoist. Arriving in South Africa in February 1900, Kipling went directly to the Mount Nelson Hotel, “the heart of imperial things”, where he met up with other British war correspondents and befriended Julian Ralph, an American working for the Daily Mail, who would publish his impressions in War’s Brighter Side, 1901.

Seymour-Smith is as laconic about this as his is about Kipling’s indifference to the diseases that were ravaging the concentration camps; and equally so about the irony of Kipling’s one-eyed support for the German-educated Milner and his alliance with the German gold millionaires Beit and Wernher, without whose funds the Boer War could not have gone ahead, when Kipling’s “hatred of the Germans was one of the overriding passions of his life.

T.S. Eliot, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948 for “for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry”, used his considerable influence to put finally to bed any lingering doubts concerning Kipling’s respectability:

An immense gift for using words, an amazing curiosity and power of observation with his mind and with all his senses, the mask of the entertainer, and beyond that a queer gift of second sight, of transmitting messages from elsewhere, a gift so disconcerting when we are made aware of it that thenceforth we are never sure when it is not present: all this makes Kipling a writer impossible wholly to understand and quite impossible to belittle.

I’m not sure that Kipling is impossible to belittle. But Eliot’s observation that we are never sure when Kipling’s “queer gift of second sight” is “not present”, is extraordinarily perceptive. Kipling inhabits the English mind, attached to the English unconsciousness with the stickiness of his rhymes, hovering a fraction below conscious expression, filtering the complexity of the world through a sieve of English jolliness.

It is the “blasphemous optimism” Charles Masterman found in the writings of the anti-Semitic G. K. Chesterton, another Allahakbarrie:

“Mr Chesterton is convinced that the Devil is dead. A Children’s epileptic hospital, a City dinner, a political ‘at Home’, a South African charnel camp, or other similar examples of cosmic ruin fail to shake this blasphemous optimism.”

“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”