Just so-so tale of a born writer;Books

12th February 1999 at 00:00
THE UNFORGIVING MINUTE: A life of Rudyard Kipling. By Harry Ricketts. Chatto amp; Windus. pound;25.

Nicholas Tucker reads the latest life of Rudyard Kipling.

Kipling was a born writer, forging a unique style in his early twenties and proceeding with confidence and seeming effortlessness. Turning his back on the fashionable literary scene, he produced works crammed with colour and drama that were enjoyed by readers of all ages and classes. Like Dickens, another youthful prodigy, he won a platform through his early fame from which he addressed first Britain and the Empire but later the world on matters political. Here the record is not so good. Harry Ricketts's biography reveals Kipling as an anti-Semitic nationalist whose hatred of socialism led him to speak admiringly about a thug like Mussolini.

His prose and verse live on, though at an ever-diminishing level of public demand. While "If" has been voted The Nation's Favourite Poem in a BBC poll, few could quote from many other former favourites. Children today know The Jungle Book, but usually from the Disney film. Other once famous novels made into films, such as Captains Courageous, Kim and The Man Who Would Be King have retreated into fictional and screen obscurity.

This neglect is a sad waste of his authentic, unpredictable, sometimes irascible, genius. Stalky amp; Co, whose 100th anniversary falls this year, is easily the most convincing schoolboy yarn ever written, and the Just So Stories are masterpieces of verbal richness combined with his genius for economy when making his most important points.

But time moves on, and children brought up in front of a screen could well find his language and literary conceits too rich on the printed page. Lines such as "The great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo river" depend heavily for their full effect on a teacher or parent with the time to read them aloud - an activity sadly in decline these days. Those popular songs based on Kipling's poems are also less heard now. The vicar shown in a 1950 strip-cartoon advertisement singing "The Road to Mandalay" at a church social as proof of the new energy granted to him after drinking Horlicks every night would today probably be portrayed displaying disco-dancing skills.

Ironically, episodes from Kipling's own life are now sometimes better known than his stories. Recent plays and one-man shows have feasted off some of his personal tragedies and contradictions; an outcome that this private and often angry man would have hated with all his troubled soul. Various existing biographies have been used to fuel these imagined extrapolations, and a further one is due this April. But in essence, the whole story is now fairly well known, and it is not clear why Kipling continues to find so many new biographers.

Ricketts describes the life adequately enough, but has disappointingly little to say about the major works in all their glory. He correctly disputes recent claims that Kipling was homosexual, but is reticent about his relationship with his wife, particularly in the tragic days after the death of their young soldier-son.

Local opinion at Burwash in Sussex, where the Kiplings lived from 1902, has it that she was something of a battle-axe. On her death, Lionel Dunsterville, immortalised as the name character in Stalky amp; Co, received the following rhyme from another of Kipling's former school friends, J H C Brooking: "Piles of cash, but a shrewish wifePoor old Ruddy, what a life".

There is no special mention of this in Ricketts's book, but more such incidental detail might have helped invest this rather colourless biography with more of a sense of the high emotion and charged atmosphere surrounding Kipling in his own lifetime.

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