Friday, 13 February 2009

Flannelled Fools and Muddied Oafs

The first day of the second test between England and the West Indies seems as good an occasion as any to revisit Rudyard Kipling's 'The Islanders'. The poem dismayed many of its readers when it was first published on 3 January 1902, and its relevance to our current situation ought still to make us uneasy.

'The Islanders' was written towards the end of the Boer War. It amounts to a fierce denunciation of the British public's priorities, and a demand for national service to prepare for the coming European war which Kipling foresaw. Rounding on those who sent an ill-trained army to fight on their behalf, Kipling condemns a nation rendered complacent by bread and circuses:

So? And ye train your horses and the dogs ye feed and prize?
How are the beasts more worthy than the souls, your sacrifice?
But ye said, “Their valour shall show them”; but ye said, “The end is close.”
And ye sent them comfits and pictures to help them harry your foes:
And ye vaunted your fathomless power, and ye flaunted your iron pride,
Ere—ye fawned on the Younger Nations for the men who could shoot and ride!
Then ye returned to your trinkets; then ye contented your souls
With the flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals.

At the time, those flannelled fools were touring Australia in the 1901-02 Ashes series. Meanwhile, poorly-equipped British and Australian soldiers were losing their lives in South Africa. Plus ├ža change: our soldiers still die for the want of basic equipment; and we are all aware of the money and attention invested in flannelled fools and especially muddied oafs. Even those who loathe football have heard of the Kop; far fewer know the battle (see its aftermath, above) after which it was named. Would wars be more urgently resolved, perhaps avoided, if the football and baseball seasons were suspended for as long as those wars continued?

Kipling did more than any poet before or since to raise the status of the British Tommy. He should be living at this hour: stories about soldiers being thrown off trains or refused a hotel room make 'Tommy' essential reading once again. For all its sound and fury, contemporary anti-war poetry ignores the experiences and usually even the existence of our soldiers. We know the reasons why, and it is not the soldiers who are discredited by them.

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