There was still a faint whiff of paint in the newly grey Library of The Questors this week, but that wasn’t what was giving the poetry world a headache. Rather, the revelation of how the foreign secretary had a Kipling reverie in a Buddhist temple in Myanmar came to light, and fair to say that the popular press could not hold their heads when all around were keeping theirs. Despite their best effort to agitate, declaim and demonise, the great British public saw the words poem and recital and shuddered in schoolday-induced union.
It may surprise regular readers to hear that not all of the unpaid interns in the Pitshanger Archives are foreign exchange students or culture-seeking migrants, and a fair few hale from these very shores. Since these young things are of course much closer to their schooling than their grizzles, bewhiskered mentors, it is from them that we learn what is afoot of late in the world of educatulocution. And judging by their awed amazement at our mop-topped diplomat-in-chief’s ability to recall on command a line-and-a-half of verse with only the one mistake of substituting ‘British’ for ‘English’, we deduced that compulsory learning of five Kiplings, three Popes, ten Shakespeares and a Rossetti for the girls is no longer beaten into the brains and the backsides of the modern pupil, more’s the pity.
Nobody at this week’s workshop delivered their pieces from memory, such is the slippage of standards, but at least they were fine enough works to be worth getting word perfect on the page. Michael Harris cleared the first throat and delivered a poem based around a homophone phrase that could be heard two ways, to which John Hurley rebutted with a shaggy dog story about some scruffy Satanic birds a poitín-and-shotgun Sir. Next upto the lectern was Anne Furneaux, reciting a litany of woe that rang out to the very ends of the land, followed by a nocturne stage-whispered by Alan Chambers as he waits up for his Muse, and a fine oration from Samir Hazlehurst, being heckled by an impish Eros walking on his neck. Pat Francis sighed her ode to an unexpectedly-still kingfisher, while Peter Francis eulogised both a fallen woman and an raised-up hillock, though in truth they both fell rather flat. It was a wistful Nick Barth who intoned his eternal questions about humanity, god, and one lump or two, and finally Martin Choules recited that old hymn of the humane heretics.
So, what would the Empire’s laureate have made of the recent kerfuffle over his ballad of the cockney sapper and his still-remembered Burmese beauty ? Well, upon his return from the subcontinental jewel in the colonial crown in 1890, he popped into the Pitshanger Poets of a Tuesday to scandalise the regulars with his wicked tales of comingling cultures, but the one which most filled the fainting couches was Mandalay. For some, it was the mere suggestion of a this mixing of the races, for some it was the mixing of the classes, and for one or two it was the mixing-up of geography (having dawn come up like thunder from across the bay, which inconveniently lies to the west – but he wouldn’t hear of their suggestion to change it to the dusk going down like drizzle.)
So was it insensitive of the right honourable Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson to recite this particular verse in that particular temple ? That is a question that this blog will leave to other best beloveds to answer. But it should be noted that Britain and Myanmar are not yet at war – though perhaps that has more to do with this modern trend of not drilling dozens of old imperial poems into their pupils.