Saturday, November 21, 2009

A friendly introduction


Like many Britons (and all right thinking, properly educated, English speaking people), I am inordinately fond of the works of Rudyard Kipling. Especially "If", his inspirational exhortation to his doomed son.

This is something of a guilty pleasure for my generation. We were required to see him as an apologist for a frankly racialist mindset which underpinned the British Empire. He was the quintessential type of the hidebound establishment that we were supposed to be rebelling against. Here is a nice picture of Malcolm McDowell and friend picking off leaders of that establishment in the closing moments of the 1968 film of the same name.

Yet the poem holds up today. Written in a clean, natural rhythm, it simply lists the defining virtues for us all to aspire to. And they could have come straight off the blog of a life coach last night: grace under pressure; confidence; empathy; modesty; risk taking; accountability; persistence...

So all this sage advice was available a hundred years ago. (Each generation has to find out for itself, of course. Especially now, when the nuclear family restricts access to wise old uncles and aunts.) The message for today is clear: the Edwardians strove to meet the same ideals that we do. They may have fallen short in different ways, but the foundations for success have not moved an inch. Don't bother with blogs until you have digested the books.

So you chunter comfortably through the poem, checking off the virtues as so many slices of motherhood and apple pie. Then you double take as you realise what you've just read. Could he really have meant that?

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you
If all men count with you, but none too much
There's food for thought.

Nowadays we are to believe that, as far as relationships go, the deeper the better. We are to let down our defences, so our friends can hurt us. We are to welcome the inevitable pain as part of Life's Rich Tapestry.

I wonder.

Now, as then, one size does not fit all.