Delighted to welcome Mike Biles, author of A Bit About Britain’s History as a guest writer until the end of the year. In his first post, Mike visits the home of author and poet Rudyard Kipling.
We travelled to Bateman’s, Rudyard Kipling’s Sussex home for 34 years, through the impossibly pretty village of Burwash, all whitewash and weatherboard. You reach the house down what Kipling described as “an enlarged rabbit-hole of a lane” to arrive in what is now a car park. I wondered how it had all looked when the Kiplings first saw, and fell in love with, the place.
“At very first sight the Committee of Ways and Means (Kipling and his wife, Carrie) said: ‘That’s her! The only She! Make an honest woman of her – quick!’ We entered and felt her Spirit – her Feng Shui – to be good. We went through every room and found no shadow of ancient regrets, stifled miseries, nor any menace, though the ‘new’ end of her was three hundred years old.”
Joseph Rudyard Kipling is a controversial literary figure. Described by George Orwell as a “prophet of British imperialism”, Kipling was probably all that Orwell implied, including a racist; he was also a satirist, a master story-teller and, in my humble opinion, a fascinating egotist. Born in Bombay (now Mumbai) on 30th December 1865, though educated in England, Kipling was in many ways a product of the British Raj and, inevitably, a man of his time; why should he be otherwise? Judge Kipling with narrow political correctness and you are not only missing the point but also bound to come away disappointed.
The man brought us so many familiar characters – Mowgli, the man-cub, Akela, the great lone grey wolf (and scout leader), Baghera the black panther, Baloo the bear and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the brave mongoose – the tales of the ‘Jungle Book’ (written for his daughter, Josephine), ‘Just So Stories’, ‘Kim’ and ‘The Man Who would Be King’. Where would Walt Disney and Michael Caine be without Kipling? Then there was his poetry – ‘Gunga Din’, ‘White Man’s Burden’ and ‘If’, written for his son, John. ‘If’ was runaway winner of The Bookworm’s quest to discover the nation’s favourite poem in 1995, beating anything by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or anyone else, hands-down.
I found, on my bookshelves, an 1897 edition of ‘Barrack Room Ballads’ that had belonged to my grandfather and a 1942 compilation, ‘Humorous Tales’ and dipped into them both. I confess to finding a portion of the work almost totally incomprehensible and Kipling’s habit of writing in an excruciatingly awful mock cockney accent when reporting some speech – notably of private soldiers and NCOs – a little irritating: “I went into a public ‘ouse to get a pint ‘o beer, The publican ‘e up an’ sez, ‘We serve no red-coats here.’ ” I wonder what he’d make of ‘East Enders’? But the imagination is astonishing, the phrases are page-turners and a rather innocent humour rubs shoulders with a desire to explain why things are the way they are.
If there’s romance in Kipling’s work, maybe he inherited it. He was named for Rudyard Lake in Staffordshire, where his parents courted; presumably, a friend of mine had a similar idea when he called his son ‘Ford’. Kipling himself married Caroline (Carrie) Balestier, sister of a close American friend, in London in 1892 and the couple settled for awhile in Vermont. First, they rented a simple home called – I like to think appropriately – Bliss Cottage. They then built their own house, Naulakha, where ‘Jungle Book’ was written. The house is still there, and you can stay in it if you’ve a mind to – it sleeps 8 and you can take a look at it via the Landmark Trust’s website.
In 1896, circumstances brought the Kiplings, with two young daughters, to England – which they can hardly have known – first to Torquay and the following year to Rottingdean, near Brighton. Here, they rented “The Elms” (on the market for £1.45 million in May 2014), where their son was born and they were happy for awhile. But tragedy struck in 1899 when their elder daughter Josephine died, aged six, from pneumonia. They needed to escape memories and, apparently, trippers gawping at the house – Kipling was a celebrity, probably the most famous author in Britain at the time.
So it was necessary that Bateman’s should contain no regrets or stifled miseries; it would become a sanctuary, “The very-own house” and “A good and peaceable place”, situated in a tiny corner of the Sussex Weald, the Dudwell valley, and close to a rich English heritage that often inspired Kipling’s tales. Rudyard and Carrie bought Bateman’s for £9,300 in 1902. It had no bathroom, electricity or upstairs running water. But Kipling was earning around £5,000 a year, a huge amount in those days, and could afford to dabble. Within the 33 acre estate was an old mill; Kipling had the 18th century mechanism decommissioned and a modern water turbine and generator installed to bring electric light into the house.
He enlisted the help of Sir William Willcocks, who had installed the first Aswan Dam (“a trifling affair on the Nile”), on the project. And that’s another thing about Kipling: he was extraordinarily well-connected. Stanley Baldwin, politician and three times Prime Minister, was a cousin and particular friend. Other chums included Henry James, H Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, Cecil Rhodes, Max Aitken and King George V. By all accounts, he loved visitors and you get a sense of this from wandering round the house. It was built in 1634 for a local ‘ironmaster’ (iron producer); iron had been worked in this part of Sussex since before the Romans came. Yet despite its antiquity, Bateman’s is stuck firmly in a time somewhere between late Victorian and the 1920s. Which is exactly right – and what you want. It was bequeathed to the National Trust on Carrie’s death in 1939, and a first-class job has been done preserving the place so that it speaks of the man and his family.
Outside, garaged and unfortunately behind glass, is Kipling’s 1928 Rolls Royce. He loved motoring, though he never learned to drive himself. The grounds, which in Kipling’s lifetime were gradually expanded, include a delightfully aromatic herb border. We watched iridescent-blue dragonflies skim around the pond, paid for out of the Nobel Prize Kipling won in 1907. “I was just going to inspect my navy”, was Kipling’s opening to a youthful American visitor, meeting Kipling for the first time; he led his guest to the pond, where there was a 6-foot hand-cranked paddle-boat. Beyond the pond, an informal wild garden provides a riot of colour and the river Dudwell – a tiny apology for a river, really – flows gently through the estate. Inside, the house is full of treasures – genuine valuables, family paraphernalia and, like a memory of elderly relatives’ houses, fragments of old empire.
One room is furnished for their son, John. Kipling was immensely influential and, after the First World War began in 1914, was delighted to write propaganda for the government in support of Britain’s war aims – one of 25 well-known authors to be invited to do so. Kipling viewed the war as a crusade against German aggression. He also used his influence, and friendship with Field Marshall Earl Roberts, to get John a commission in the Irish Guards. John, like his father hopelessly short-sighted, had already been turned down by the navy and other branches of the army. He was just 18 when he went missing at the Battle of Loos in September 1915. His parents searched for years but never found their son. He was last seen blundering myopically toward enemy lines, screaming and with his face torn. This particular episode in Kipling’s life was captured in the play, and subsequent film, “My Boy Jack” by David Haig. The film starred Haig as Kipling, Kim Cattrall as Carrie and Daniel Radcliffe as John. Lieutenant Kipling’s body was tentatively identified in 1992, but the remains may be someone else’s.
After the war, Kipling developed a close association with the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission and suggested “Their Name Liveth for Evermore”, from the book of Ecclesiastes, which is inscribed on the Stones of Remembrance in larger war cemeteries, and the phrase “Known Unto God”, which is inscribed on the graves of soldiers who could not be identified. He was vehemently anti-Communist and, as fascism grew in the 1920s and 30s, vehemently anti-fascist too. He continued writing at Bateman’s and died of a duodenal ulcer aged 70 on his wedding anniversary, 18th January, 1936. His ashes are interred in Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey.
Batemans is a worthwhile visit, whether you want to sense something of the man who most recently lived there, or just enjoy wandering round pleasant houses and gardens. There is humour, and sadness, there. The staff were friendly and helpful when we last went, and there is the ubiquitous National Trust shop and café – where you’d like to think they sold exceedingly good cakes.
There’s an interesting postscript: – The Kiplings’ surviving daughter, Elsie, had married Captain George Bembridge in 1924. They purchased Wimpole Hall, the largest house in Cambridgeshire, in 1938 and allegedly used the inheritance from Elsie’s father to restore the property. George died in 1943. They had no children. Elsie collected and catalogued many of her parents’ papers and, on her death in 1976, left both the property and the archive to the National Trust.
For more about Rudyard Kipling, you might find the Kipling Society’s website useful.
© Images Mike Biles 2019
A Bit about Britain’s History: From a long time ago to quite recently.
About the book
Could this short, elegant, volume be the only book on British history you’ll ever need?
A Bit About Britain’s History is for anyone who wants a serious, yet light, introduction to Britain’s amazing story. If you don’t know the basics, or would like a reminder, this book is for you. It is also perfect for those that didn’t enjoy history at school, but who have suddenly realised they’d like to understand it a bit better now.
What did the Romans achieve? How did Christianity arrive? Who are the English and why did they fight the French so often? What is Henry VIII’s greatest legacy? When did democracy start and people get the vote? Why on earth did Britain get involved in WW1?
Organised clearly and chronologically, A Bit About Britain’s History covers every period from a long time ago until quite recently. It begins by briefly mentioning that the place was once inhabited by extremely large lizards, and ends up with a post-war 20th century consumer society. Brief articles explain the essential aspects of Britain’s past, including how the ancestors of its current inhabitants arrived, how they fought each other, formed nations, fell out over religion, acquired a large empire, became gradually more democratic, helped win a couple of world wars and were left wondering what to do next. At the end of the book are detailed timelines for each period, which provide useful reference and make fascinating reading in their own right.
A Bit About Britain’s History might be the only book on British history you’ll ever need; or it might be your stepping stone to more in-depth academic reading
One of the recent reviews for the book
From the moment that Mr God approved the plans for a series of islands in the North Atlantic to the moment that Britain finally wore out and began to fall apart like an old teddybear, this book leads you through all of the key battles, important people and significant happenings. It’s serious, and yet it’s also funny in just enough places to keep your giggle-bone alert. It’s about Britain, so there’s a mon-u-mental amount of history to get through, but it’s about Britain, so there’s also heaps of self-deprecation to be thrown into the mix. This book will remind you of and reinforce all of those tales and facts and even dates (but not figs, there are no figs) that you heard in a million lessons in school but didn’t realise that your brain still remembered, sommewhere deep down. It’s not a “heavy” history – it’s “just enough” with a cherry on top.
The layout and formatting of this book has no errors that I tripped across. The writing style is what I would describe as “highly readable” – not hectoring, not difficult, it just works and works well, and that’s as it should be. I didn’t fall face-first over a single grammatical error or a creeping Americanism – most excellent indeed. Approachable by and suitable for all ages from “still dribbling but just in long trousers” through “know it all teenager” to “seen it all before adult” to “dribbling again old crusty with a Zimmerframe”. The only audience that this book might be unsuitable for would be the dead, but that’s just a feeling, I have no empirical evidence to offer (as yet; the local cemetery is always locked).
Did I enjoy reading it? Yes I did. I have limited bookshelf space, will I be keeping this book? Yes, it has permanent residence in my home now. Can I recommend it? More than “can”, I DO.
Read the reviews and buy the book in print and kindle: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mike-Biles/e/B07W928W23
And on Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Mike-Biles/e/B07W928W23
Follow Mike on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/19553725.Mike_Biles
About Mike Biles
Mike has lived in Britain all his life and generally loves the place, warts and all. He first learned history on his dad’s knee and went on to study medieval and modern British and European history at university. He was planning on teaching it, but then drifted into a career running his own business. Despite having worked with some of the UK’s most prestigious firms, he is often at his happiest with his nose in a history book, or exploring a historic site where the past is close. Several years ago, Mike began a blog – now an increasingly authoritative website – ‘A Bit About Britain’. He had to write a bit about Britain’s history for the website, and it seemed only sensible to put the material into his first book, ‘A Bit About Britain’s History’.
Connect to Mike Biles
Website home page – http://bitaboutbritain.com/
Blog page – http://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/
Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/bitaboutbritain/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/bitaboutbritain
Pinterest – https://www.pinterest.co.uk/bit1032/
My thanks to Mike for a fascinating look at the life of an author whose books have played such a prominent role in our childhoods. He would love to answer any of your questions.
Join Mike again next week for another glimpse into the history, people and places in Britain.