A flying trip to Spitalfields London at the beginning of the month felt like an enchanting illusion, especially when returning to work, business as usual, on the Monday morning. But each moment of that brief weekend seemed somewhat unreal, starting with an early evening visit to Dennis Sever's house, 18 Folgate Street.
As you weave your way through the atmospheric rooms of the old 18th century townhouse, you become a spectator and two-bit actor in Sever's 'still-life drama' which leads you back through time in this 'historical imagination'.
Back on the street, however, you are quickly snatched from the state of dream-like reality of no:18 as its unique calm and beauty evaporate into the surge and clamour of 21st century life that looms all around.
If only the towering buildings that encircle the last remnants of old Spitalfields contented themselves with staring with conceit at the centuries-old architecture at their feet. But no, these playground bullies have already struck at their weaker prey, sweeping them off the board in this vicious game of redevelopment.
In this losers' game, the Water Poet pub (above) was drowned out by developers' ambition.
Punters' last orders were called in 2019, when the establishment finally closed its doors for good... or should I say bad... or worse? It still hangs onto its East End pitch, as a corner stone to a way of life that is being stealthily strangled and then slowly submerged by a sea of sleek concrete, steel and glass, hidden under shrouds of scaffolding.
Don't be fooled by the false veneer smile of façadism, as developers pay lip service to the preservation of the past by keeping a thin layer of centuries-old architecture on the front of some modern-day monolith. The rot has already set in...
Here's the gaping hole next to the Water Poet (photo from 2019), following a brutal extraction but 'compensated' by the maintenance of a slither of heritage. It is better than nothing, I suppose, but seriously, who are they kidding?
Other islands of the past cling on too, of course, resilient when the odds do not always appear to be stacked in their favour in the long term...
Meanwhile the dragon of the City boundary markers proudly guards over his ground, brandishing his shield of arms to hold off the enemy.
He still growls his Latin motto to the City - Domine dirige nos - Lord, direct us but at a time when money talks louder than anything else, his words are perhaps lost to the wind.
Of course, as in any time, business must largely prevail over other concerns, especially in the City - historic and present-day heart of finance, but at what price to the landscape around it?
In some respects, this vast contrast between past and present is so spectacular that it becomes grandiose, as skyscrappers dwarf the delicate brickwork forms of buildings that date back to centuries before. But the solemnity of these towers seems somewhat false to me.
Size belies the fact that this is construction with little to say, beyond the very real shock of the new and the stunning visual impact of such sheer, unapologetic volume. This may be statement architecture but what trace will it leave in the following decades or centuries. What will it write in the collective history of this part of London city? And more importantly, what was and will be erased to make room for it?
As night falls, the old cobbled streets are veiled in darkness and mystery whilst the modern roads are lit up by the vivid glare of traffic and the towering edifices from all round.
But in the early morning mist, as the (New) Old Spitalfields Market awakens, the boundaries between old and new, real and illusionary are blurred...
The blackcloth of modernity and that of the past are interchangeable...
Spires and facades of past and present cut into the horizon in dizzying variations.
Whilst migrants flow in as they always have over centuries of Spitalfields life, riding on the waves of change and time...
Here is a prime example of the perfect gentleman; always dressed up smartly in his dinner suit (and ever ready to dine with great relish at any moment of the day); polite but not to the point of self-effacement (ever willing to wade into a sparring match with upstart males deemed to be getting 'above their station'); affectionate and companionable (ever eager for a kiss between the ears, but a hasty pat or sweeping stroke will suffice), clean about his person and well-presented at all times (ever prepared to preen those sizeable whiskers or groom his fine feline moustache); reliable in his habits (ever poised on his sunlit perch or posted by the door, prepared to welcome passing visitors).
What more could you ask for from a cat?
Well, that is a question I ask myself every time I see him and the dozens of other beautiful beasts, with whom I have the privilege and great pleasure to spend time with each week. The reasons for their arrival are varied, and the manner in which they arrive too. Some are found errant in the city, some are brought in due to changes in their owners' circumstances, but others have fallen out of favour with the humans who initially (and presumably willingly) took them on, whilst others again are just unceremoniously dumped outside the establishment.
Every single one is surely bewildered and lost in every sense, yet they soon find new bearings. Some adapt and acclimatize quickly, others, frightened and fearsome, respond with hissing ferocity but all finally establish their own place in their new, hopefully temporary, surroundings. Contrary to common belief, many are actually quite content in their new milieu and everything is certainly done to ensure that this is the case for each one, means permitting. To observe a cat, scared and scary, open out to its companions - feline and human - is wonderful and humbling. Would we be so accommodating or gracious in the same position? I doubt it. The cats could teach us homo sapiens a thing or two about wisdom, though...
Hmm... Blogger is playing up - no way of using paragraphs in the following text!!!
Until recent storms ripped through the city, uprooting, overturning and worrying at anything that resisted the gusts of wind, I was surprised to see a particular set of large panels, boarding off one of the building sites alongside a busy road. These must have been blown away or perhaps were taken down in accordance with the dictates of a social climate that fights intolerance promotes inclusiveness. Either way, the panels have now disappeared, but prior to that drivers waiting for the traffic lights to change, had been offered the various verses of the poem If, should they care to read… I could not help wondering who had come up with this nice touch of introducing poetry to conceal an ugly concrete sprawl and, more precisely, why this specific work had been chosen for the task. After all, this once greatly-appreciated poem must have able to make its appearance here through linguistic stealth with a French version Si enabling it to disassociate itself from its disgraced author – himself lost in translation, so to speak. Anyway, more about him later…
Cut free from its origins, the inconspicuous, unassuming roadside Si - could only be read at face value, unfettered by the cultural or social considerations that are now reflex responses to any form of expression; the poem could be appreciated for its own artistic merit and nothing more. Today, rightly or wrongly, we must be able to read ‘into’ a work through its origins and associations – for with art must come the artist. In an age where literature, and the reading thereof, has lost ground to other means of education, entertainment and expression, the name of a writer and especially their newly revised reputation, are often the only things retained. There is an unprecedented, all-consuming need to package people and their production into categories of ‘them or us’, enforcing the ticking of only one box of the two in the real or virtual world. There is no room for any hesitation, uncertainty or ambiguity in such a culture – you either approve or disapprove – and hope that you have selected the ‘right’ box in this often politicised, moral game. You may feel incapable or unwilling to choose your ‘camp’ in a war you had not knowingly signed up for, but that is not an option; you will be chastised – at best for inexcusable ignorance. Of course, art and its appreciation have always reflected values and a given position or had the potential to do so. Yet can we judge, categorize and censure a work by the real or perceived messages or socio-cultural stance behind it? More relevant here, should we do so when dealing with works from the past? Should these be blanked out - cancelled - when found wanting or manifestly unacceptable by today’s standards of what is and isn’t morally or culturally correct?
Not having any concrete answers, I am surely deserving of a Medieval witch trial – drowned if guilty or innocent (ignorant) of the crime at hand. That’ll teach me a lesson in an age when educating often means removing from the system anything that might go against, or simply question it. Debating or discussion not only appear to be surplus to requirement, they are frowned upon, if not downright considered heinous in their turn as criminal acts of violence. Where we once felt contempt for our adversary and their values, we now are encouraged to experience and express hatred to shut them down. Know thy enemy is now hate anyone who fails to sign up visibly or vocally for a set stance – ‘silence is violence’. Indeed, the wrong words will embroil you even faster or further in hatred and outrage. Debates lead from a set motion – a position to uphold or overturn – through arguments and examples from both proposers and opposers. From there, debating could be seen as propagandist – but discussion surely not? How can we ground ourselves and our opinions if we stand on moral high ground without even listening to and disproving the opposing party’s views? How can we hope to understand and live with others if we have no idea of what they believe in or why? That surely breeds greater rabid fear. And how can we accommodate each other, assuming that we do ‘agree to disagree’ - a position which now seems nigh impossible? What is to be done with historic values and their reflection – direct or indirect – in art or other cultural landmarks? How can we track the errors committed in our past, however remote or recent, if we remove their very trace from our collective history so that we wander lost in a culturally-cleansed, photoshopped past? Does a refusal to censor and cancel art taken from its historic context actually mean condoning ideas and acts that may lie behind them?
With wrongdoers banished, out go the marks of their wrongs too. What can we learn from a Disneyfied version of The Past? Purification may give instant results but does not guarantee long-term resistance to chronic illness since it also weakens the immune system. Lest we forget were actually Rudyard Kipling's words from his 1897 poem Recessional. You see the same words inscribed on war memorials and I remember reading them at Auschwitz too. They offer a telling warning to all future generations of the danger of obliterating past events and ideology, even with the best intentions in doing so. Exposure and acknowledgement would offer greater closure whilst opening onto new possibility of combatting the same social ills that have mired Mankind since time immemorial, not just the last few centuries. Retroactive blame and blanking out is not enough. Without some form of understanding of where we come from, however tainted our origins, we are in danger of re-inventing the past, in a manner which may best suit the new moral agenda in the short term but would ultimately work against any lasting positive social outcome. Worse still, we are perhaps destined to relive the failings of the past, again and again.
So back to If…. Rudyard Kipling was the author, a name little known today except perhaps for its link to that cinema staple of childhood, The Jungle Book, Disney’s adaptation of the novel. Yet alongside a seemingly avuncular image of the man who also wrote Kim and the Just So Stories, runs that of a stuffy, belligerent beast. Kipling can be taken as a prime specimen of the jingoistic racist, upholder of colonialism and war - a supreme White suprematist. So powerful the distaste for the expression of his views, even at later periods in his own lifetime, that today, his art is now overlooked at best, and at worst, banned, with the man himself being condemned as reprehensible. Indeed, in 2018, a mural of If was defaced and finally removed from the student union in Manchester University due to Kipling’s toxic past with a political position and posse of acquaintances that could not be tolerated by a place of learning in a more enlightened 21st century.
And yet, despite the fading clamour surrounding Kipling it is in fact quite challenging to define the man and his art as a whole - for me at least. He may well stand guilty of the litany of accusations against him, he is still more than the sum of these. As an individual of many traits and talents – often seemingly incompatible to the point of appearing wholly contradictory - Kipling infuriates a modern age when all must be clearly labelled; composition carefully detailed and expiry date plainly visible. Many aspects of the Kipling name and his output stuck in our collective craw in decades past, but now his time is up. Today, he is deemed unfit for human consumption, unworthy of shelf space and thus has been withdrawn from public circulation. What was acceptable and even admirable in the past must be reassessed by the new standards that reflect present values and future aspirations for society but surely this process cannot be rigidly applied to the extent that the grey areas or dark periods of the past must be fully cleansed away to leave a bright, shiny veneer? The strict confines of categories, censorship and cancellation cannot be conducive to healthy growth, can they?
And what did Kipling himself grow from? Born in India (Bombay) in 1865, at the height of the Great Empire, Rudyard Kipling spent his first years plunged in this rich, exotic culture before being shipped off with his sister to pursue a childhood education in Victorian Britain. Much is made of the unquestionable hardships of these schooldays, with the cruel teachers, dour, cold conditions and even colder climate but I wonder how much these formative years would go on to mould and cultivate Kipling? Despite not seeing his parents for years, from his immediate family came artistic influence and insight. Not only was his father, John Lockwood Kipling, an artist and teacher of architectural sculpture in India, his uncle was the great Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Many of the illustrations to Kipling’s work were in fact from his own hand and these are no amateur doodles of a Sunday sketcher. My favourite one is set alongside the Cat Who Walked Alone…
Meanwhile, Rudyard’s literary abilities were fostered in the college he attended from the age of 12 until finally leaving to return to India in 1882, and starting journalistic work in Lahore for the Civil and Military Gazette. Finding himself literally thrown in at the deep end meant that the young reporter had to mature quickly and prove his worth both professionally and socially. To prepare and write articles, a precocious Kipling was obliged to interview men far older than himself – he was only 16 years old at the time – and to frequent places that would make many an adult male blanch! Perhaps these were the experiences that further enabled him to adapt and acclimatize to any environment – to survive and thrive throughout life. He certainly appeared to build on the inner grit and determination that had allowed him to get through his early schooling. He continued to seek entry into the ‘big boys’ club’ in order to observe and frequent its members. Perhaps the rejection and isolation he had experienced as a boy unable to play in the team due to poor health and deplorable eyesight never left him. Whatever its origin, such was the adult Kipling’s chameleon ability to fit in that Kipling could easily speak and give voice to the humble soldier or the greatest head of State - King George V being a personal friend in later life.
Alongside his early reporting, Kipling also wrote short stories based on what he had seen and heard around him, with his Barrack-Room Ballads meeting with instant success when published as books on his return to England in 1889. As a remarkably young man, in his early 20s, Rudyard Kipling was an acclaimed writer, famous in Britain and beyond. He travelled widely, in youth and for the rest of his life and spent much time in various different countries but mainly England, the US and South Africa, cultivating a large network of friends and acquaintances. His wife, Carrie, was herself American and, reading between many lines (and perhaps misfiring!), one of her chief attributes was the fact that she was the sister of Kipling’s friend and literary agent, Wolcott Balestier. Ever the 'man’s man', Kipling maintained a very close relationship with Wolcott, with whom he even co-wrote pieces – and when Wolcott died in 1892, Kipling promptly married the sister. A poem initially addressed to the ‘Dear Lad’ is said to have been altered to start ‘Dear Lass’ when it was re-used for the newly-wed’s honeymoon. Kipling is not thought to have been homosexual, and himself warned of the dangers of "beastliness" but many expressed surprise that he should have chosen a bride deemed unattractive, unfeminine and out-spoken. Carrie was ‘a good man spoiled’ in the words of Kipling’s father!
Settling in New England, the Kiplings started a family and it was there that Rudyard wrote some of his famous works – The Jungle Book (1894) being just one.
This collection of short stories is now picked over as proof of advocacy for colonialism. Indeed, The Jungle Book does indeed collate many of the themes and thoughts that were the driving force behind the personality and vision of Kipling, centred on an all-encompassing vision of might, duty and order. Throughout much of his life, he seems to have lionized the responsible, powerful being to the point of obsession. This supposedly selfless figure – a ‘real’ man - who can lead and elevate a society, state, country or army occupied a quasi-sacred role in Kipling’s eyes. In this Darwinian struggle for the survival of the fittest, no room was left for the weak-willed, vulnerable or lily-livered male. Any social or cultural considerations that did not fall in line with this great scheme of things would be discarded or dismantled since they broke the unity of the whole and thus diminished it; “For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.” (The Jungle Book). Did he really believe that this colonialist ‘pack’ society would embrace and eventually benefit all or did he merely disregard the needs and rights of the indigenous peoples from the very start? It would be difficult to plead Kipling’s innocence here, above all in hindsight, but did not the Victorian era offer the very best and worst in terms of knowledge, ignorance and indifference in the desire to learn and progress at whatever cost? What was not actively plundered or rent apart to satisfy the need to track and tame the world during Queen Victoria’s reign over the greatest and most brutal empire on Earth? We do not know the exact meaning or intention of his now infamous White Man’s Burden of 1899, viewing its controversial lines through our 21st century eyes.
It is certainly hard to give the author any benefit of the doubt. Could he really have held native people in such low regard that the supposed greater beings – White colonisers - had a moral duty to draw these ‘primitives’, from their uncivilized, ungodly state? Surely he could not have been so arrogant and ignorant in his perceptions, whatever the context or era? Perhaps it was not so surprising that Kipling was somewhat in awe and admiration of those figures that carved up continents according to expansionist ambitions. It would seem that he had always sought to befriend the big boys – becoming part of the group to enjoy its privileged camaraderie was the rite of passage to Manhood. The much-maligned, devoted empire-builder Cecil Rhodes (1853 – 1902) was a greatly admired friend of Kipling, whilst the personal qualities Dr Leander Starr Jameson of the Jameson Raid (1853 – 1917) are said to have inspired the poem If. In turn, Kipling himself earned the approval of people in the highest places. President Theodore Roosevelt even enthused over The Jungle Book’s call for manly challenges and adventure to build unity and virtue as a ‘moral equivalent of war’. The founder of the Scouting movement, Robert Baden-Powell, also became a friend of Kipling and started a programme inspired by Kipling’s stories – the cub scouts – believing this would build youngsters into fine British country men.
Photo - DIREKTOR - 2015
By the time Kipling was obliged to return to England in 1896 he was considered to be the People’s Laureate and poet of the Great British Empire but nothing would console him for the tragic loss of his young daughter in 1899. He chose to retire from public view by moving to a secluded home in Sussex but continued to air his political opinions and express his views on war with insistance. Not only did some of his writing raise money to support the British soldiers engaged in the Boer war, Kipling also addressed the nation to prepare for continental combat – thus predicting the outbreak of war of 1914 and drawing attention to the paltry state of the British troops. His immense national pride and jingoistic stance riled the liberals who regarded him as a reactionary. Undeterred by any slight or criticism, Kipling involved himself in the recruitment effort – actively encouraging young men to enlist to fight for their country against ‘the Hun’. His zealous enthusiasm indirectly led to the second tragedy to befall the family when the only son, John, was killed one day after his 18th birthday on his first day of combat in the Battle of Loos in 1915. Despite the fact that the adolescent had been turned down twice due to his dismal eyesight, his father had successfully pulled strings within his wide network of contacts, and had him signed up. Declared missing in action, no trace of John Kipling was found during his parents’ lifetime, despite them both devoting themselves to his search for the rest of their days. Consequently, Kipling was greatly involved in the operations of the Imperial War Graves Commission but perhaps his greatest legacy from his loss were his poems – amongst these the Epitaphs of the War with the lines;
If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
Whether Kipling considered himself to be one of these paternal liars is not clear, for he continued to believe in the validity of the war effort but felt the weight of his role in his son’s inscription and subsequent death for the rest of his life. When Rudyard died in 1936, the mourning for this great British poet was totally eclipsed by the funeral of his personal friend, King George V. And today, it feels as if Rudyard Kipling has been buried again - once and for all – in order to remove him from our collective conscience, his only epitaph being a tirade of insults and accusations, rightly merited or not. I wonder what he would now think of his past beliefs in the supposed civilizing forces of colonialism and his contribution to it? Would he too have changed with his times and revised his world view and come to regret and repent? I don’t know and there is no easy way of discussing any of the issues these questions bring up. Why? You are no longer permitted to talk about such subjects because a “line has been drawn” so that they are safely “off-limits”, to quote a student who issued the veiled warning (with a hint of menace). What does it mean when individuals are less eager to reflect, question and propose ideas and opinions than to virtue signal to the twittering crowd with a suitable selfie? If silence is golden, is it now a virtue too?