Rudyard Kipling still has them laughing in Edinburgh

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The Independent Online
GEORGE MIKES once told me that it was very instructive to examine the school history books of other countries, and see the way the subject is taught in their schools, because you then begin to realise how history is angled towards the viewpoint of those who tell it.

'I once came across a French school history book,' he told me, 'and was amazed to find how many little things still rankled with the French, small incidents that are completely unknown to the British, such as the Fashoda episode.' (I looked this up once, and yes, the French did have something to brood over, but I have forgotten entirely what it was about now.) 'But the thing I remember most was that the Battle of Trafalgar was described in the French textbook as 'an indecisive naval engagement in which the British leader was killed . . . .'

I had forgotten all about this history lesson from George Mikes until I came home the other day here in Edinburgh and found my landlady chortling over an old book she had bought in a junk shop.

'What's so funny?' I asked.

'It's a book by Kipling,' she said.

Nice to know that old Rudyard still makes people laugh, I thought.

'What's it called?'

'A History of England. Listen to this, from the chapter on William the Conqueror. 'So at last there was going to be a real government in this country, and it was going to do its duty. Few kings in the Middle Ages had any high idea of their duty towards their people, such as a great Roman Emperor had, or such as King George V has . . .'

Spirited stuff] I attempted to ease the volume away from her. She resisted.

'And listen to this . . . 'It was, however, a misfortune for Britain that Rome never conquered the whole island. The great warrior Agricola did, between AD 79 and 85, penetrate far into Scotland; but he could leave no traces of civilisation behind him, and Ireland he never touched at all. So Ireland never went to school, and has been a spoilt child ever since; the most charming of children, indeed, full of beautiful laughter and tender tears, full of poetry and valour, but incapable of ruling herself, and impatient of all rule by others.' '

We both fell silent at the end of the reading. There was nothing to say. This was political incorrectness on a scale undreamed of, not to mention subjective history. I could only beg her to leave the book lying around in the kitchen so that I could read it when she was out, and she has, and I have, and I can now tell you that Kipling quite enjoyed summing up races in quick sketches. 'The prosperity of the West Indies, once our richest possession, has very largely declined since slavery was abolished in 1833. There is little market for their chief products and yet a large population, mainly black, descended from slaves imported in previous centuries, or of mixed black and white race; lazy, it must be owned, and perhaps incapable of serious improvement, but physically fine and strong and goodtempered. In such a climate a few bananas will sustain life quite comfortably; why should a negro work hard to get more than this? and indeed, any extra wages he may earn he will probably spend upon finery . . . .'

To be fair, Kipling wasn't any softer with our own forebear, the Saxon, whom he saw as 'a savage, with the vices and cruelties of an overgrown boy; a drunkard and a gambler, and very stupid. But he was a truth-teller, a brave, patient and cool-headed fellow . . . He never knew when he was beaten, and so he took a lot of beating.'

This meant that Kipling expresses great admiration for all those who can fight, like the Sikhs and Maoris, and scorn for those who don't, like the Australian natives, 'a few miserable blacks, who could hardly use even bows and arrows in fight'. It also means, surprisingly, that he thought the Battle of Hastings had the right result.

'The Battle of Hastings decided that the great, slow, dogged, English race was to be governed and disciplined (and severely bullied in the process) by a small number of the cleverest, strongest, most adventurous race then alive. Nothing more was wanted to make our island the greatest country in the world. The Saxons had been sinking down into a sleepy, fat, drunken, unenterprising folk. The Normans were temperate in food and drink, highly educated, restless and fiery. They brought England back by the scruff of the neck into the family of European nations . . . .'

Food for thought there, I think. More history from the kitchen table some other time.