Category Archives: Rudyard Kipling

NS28: Poor honest men

This is one of the poems which convinced Peter Bellamy that Rudyard Kipling wrote with traditional songs in mind; it’s a perfect fit for the tune of Spanish Ladies, which is what you can hear in Bellamy’s arrangement.

The song itself is a lot of fun; it’s a vivid depiction of the hard life of a Georgian tobacco smuggler, liable to get shot by both sides in the Napoleonic Wars as well as by the authorities in both Britain and the United States. Kipling pushes the tag-line in the title further and further as the poem goes on. To begin with we can just about accept that people running American tobacco across the Atlantic might be trying to make an “honest” living buying and selling, even if their activities aren’t necessarily welcomed by the authorities. By the end of the story, though, our poor honest men seem to be guilty of a hatful of offences, up to and including murder. Which is when Kipling pulls the rug with the wonderful last verse:

To be drowned or be shot
Is our natural lot,
Why should we, moreover, be hanged in the end –
After all our great pains
For to dangle in chains
As though we were smugglers, not poor honest men?

This turns the entire poem on its head – suddenly the speaker isn’t complaining about all the hardships encountered in crossing the Atlantic (relative to which he could genuinely claim to be “honest”, or at least innocent), but about the sheer effrontery of being treated as, as… a smuggler! The irony’s black as night and ultimately rather nasty – having set the speaker up as a smuggler from the first line, the poem is implicitly stating that dangling in chains is about what he deserves. I think this song lies behind the similar but more sympathetic trick Bellamy worked in “Us poor fellows“: there we begin with “poor fellows” looking for work and end with a “poor fellow” going out on the rob, but without losing our imaginative identification with him.

Arrangement: almost identical to Bellamy’s on Oak, Ash and Thorn, where he was accompanied by Barry Dransfield on fiddle. The accompaniment here is drums and English concertina.

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NS29: Big steamers

This is Kipling in full jingoistic mode, beating the drum for British naval supremacy. The children who were this poem’s original audience were children of the Empire – an empire that included Hong Kong and Bombay as well as Hobart, Melbourne, Quebec and Vancouver – and Kipling wanted to make sure they knew it.

What’s interesting is the terms in which he gets the message across. British imperialism, and the military strength needed to support it, are justified on the most basic terms possible: we need the warships, because we need to be able to send the “big steamers” to India, Australia and Canada; and we need to do that because we need to eat. We need to rule the world because we’re so weak, in other words. It’s reminiscent of the patriotic mindset Anthony Barnett describes in this piece, in which Britain is at once a humble underdog (“It is a nasty world and, surrounded by it, we are but a modest, embattled island nation.”) and a world superpower (“Our goodness gives us an inner strength and integrity which, with our long experience, means we can suggest with all due modesty that the world needs our leadership”).

The poem gets noticeably darker as it goes on; the last verse, and the last line in particular, spells out what’s at stake in no uncertain terms. Interestingly, the last verse appears to be addressed to an audience of adults as well as children – at least, we assume that the people who carve joints of meat aren’t the same as the ones who suck sweets and nibble biscuits.

A hundred years on, of course, Britain’s still a net importer of food, but we manage to get by without imperial supremacy; we’ve got globalisation instead.

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NS26: Follow me ‘ome

Although it’s in a very different style, this poem shares its central situation with Ford o’ Kabul River: two men are in the army, one is killed and the other is… well, ‘heartbroken’ seems the only word. The loss of a beloved close friend is initially sketched in lightly, even flippantly, by a speaker who knows that other people aren’t grieving as much or at all. By the end of the poem, the same plain diction expresses an overwhelming loss:

’E was all that I ’ad in the way of a friend,
An’ I’ve ’ad to find one new;
But I’d give my pay an’ stripe for to get the beggar back,
Which it’s just too late to do.

Right at the end, there’s a kind of lexical focus-pull: the song shifts registers to speak from somewhere outside the speaker:

Oh, passin’ the love o’ women,

2 Samuel, chapter 1, verse 26: “I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” I remember my mother citing this to me in the course of a “some people are gay” conversation when I was quite young (she almost certainly didn’t use the word ‘gay’).

So, was there a gay subtext? It depends what you mean by ‘subtext’. Was Kipling writing, in a way he thought his readers would understand without having it spelt out, about two lovers? Certainly not – I think the idea would have horrified him, not to mention his audience. Was he writing about a loving friendship between two men, who were closer to each other than either of them was to a woman? Yes – it’s right there in front of you. And, for me at least (and I am writing as a straight man), whether or not we think of this particular loving friendship as sexual is much less important than the attention and tenderness with which the poem brings it to life. Growing up in a gender-segregated environment, young men like these could both have been straight and still never have had any emotional involvement with a woman to match the friendship they had. Lives are complicated, sex lives in particular.

I learned this from Peter Bellamy’s recording on Keep on Kipling, where it’s accompanied by Chris Birch’s violin as well as Bellamy’s anglo concertina. Adapting an anglo accompaniment for an English concertina isn’t always a good idea; the chordal accompaniment you can hear is mostly my own work.

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NS27: Ford o’ Kabul River

“Kabul town’s by Kabul river”, and they’re both an awful long way away from the England where Kipling’s audience lived. Plus ça change eh?

This song commemorates a real military disaster from 1879, in which a cavalry squadron lost its way while fording the Kabul river at night and got swept away; 46 men were lost, and only 19 bodies were found. Kipling’s poem takes a few liberties with the story, suggesting that it took place just outside Kabul and in the course of a campaign to take the city; in fact it happened near Jalalabad, seventy miles away, and the cavalry in question had been sent out to put on a show of strength and intimidate rebellious locals.

What’s particularly striking about Kipling’s poem, and gives it far more power than the rather grubby story it’s based on, is the personal framing: it’s spoken by a man who lost his best friend in the river and is now beside himself with grief. After a while, the refrain’s cheery repetitions –

Ford, ford, ford!
Ford o’ Kabul River,
Ford o’ Kabul River in the dark!

take on an oppressive, nightmarish quality: in his mind, you feel, the speaker is still at the ford of Kabul river in the dark, and perhaps always will be.

Peter Bellamy’s arrangement of this song (on Keep on Kipling) is brisk and tuneful, with an uncluttered fiddle accompaniment from Chris Birch; Bellamy’s uncompromising, caustic delivery works well, together with the Mixolydian mode of the tune, to stop things getting too jolly. For myself I didn’t want to take any chances, so I slowed it down a bit and added some percussive noise (which may be familiar from a recent shanty).

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NS24: Anchor song

This is another Bellamy arrangement of Kipling. The poem’s something of a tour de force in the sheer quantity of technical vocabulary that it manages to cram in, mostly but not exclusively in the odd-numbered verses; the ‘surface’ of the poem is at once off-putting and fascinating (“handsome to the cat-head now…”). The poet who this effect most puts me in mind of is W. H. Auden, of all people; I wonder if he ever acknowledged Kipling as an influence.

I haven’t been able to find any commentary on the poem. What seems to be going on is the launching of a small ship; the sail is unfurled in the first verse, after which attention switches to cables (I think) in the third, the eponymous anchor in the fifth and the wheel in the seventh. The terminology looks genuine, but I suspect it’s a bit overdone for effect; would anyone say “Up, well up the fluke of her!” when they could say “Raise the anchor”?

The tune is Bellamy’s; he took it at a similar pace. It’s an absolute sod to learn; even after I’d memorised it I had to sing it through several times before I was word-perfect. This recording was done in one take.

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NS22: Frankie’s trade

Let me put it on record here and now: I have no opinion on the virtues (personal, nautical, martial, political or literary) of Francis Drake. It’s not my period; I don’t know a lot about the man, and if I did I’m not sure I’d be a fan.

Kipling, however, was an admirer – or at least, he found it quite easy to put admiration of Drake into poetic form. Shanty form, even. Bellamy for his part had no particular objection to English patriotism, and he knew a good lyric when one stared him in the face.

And so we have this – and what a song it is. Every time I sing it I end up more than half persuaded that Drake was a great English hero, or at the very least that he was a very good sailor. Which may even be true. It’ll certainly seem true if you listen to the end.

Accompaniment: none. Arrangement: based on Bellamy’s simple but effective arrangement on Oak, Ash and Thorn, although I take it a bit quick.

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NS23: Roll down to Rio

This is another of Bellamy’s settings of Kipling. Unusually, this one isn’t from either of the Puck books or the Barrack-Room Ballads; it’s one of the poems interspersed through the Just-So Stories. There’s nothing really to it – it says one thing and then shuts up – but it has a simple eloquence which is very appealing. The last line probably relates to the age of the poem’s audience rather than its author; all the same, for me there’s a bit of poignancy in the realisation that I’m already older than Kipling when he wrote it, or Bellamy when he came up with the tune. Never been to Rio, either.

Accompaniment is English concertina, in a key that (I regret to say) suited my fingers better than my voice; I’ll do better (and go lower) another time. What with Bellamy’s brisk Anglo and Jon Boden’s beautifully wistful Maccann Duet accompaniment, this little song has now been recorded with all three of the main concertina systems. Anyone fancy setting it to a tango rhythm with bandoneon?

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