asks, 'Is Kipling still relevant today?' The answer must surely be 'Yes', if only because his poetry and fiction tell us so much about the world in which he existed – a world from which our own is, in large part, descended. It is all too easy to misread an author by assuming that his opinions and those of his characters, including the narrator of the poem Gunga Din
, are identical.
I recently read, for the first time, the whole of Kipling's long poem McAndrew's Hymn
, in which he impersonates that stereotype of empire, the Scottish engineer. It contains the famous couplet:
From coupler-flange to spindle-guide I see Thy Hand, O God –
Predestination in the stride o' yon connectin'-rod.
But there is much, much more going on in the poem than stereotyping, and Kipling even makes a pretty good stab at a Scots accent and Scots vocabulary. It is certainly still worth reading and reflecting on, as is Gunga Din
Party conference season is when one starts to get nostalgic for those lost days when the parties used to go round the country to places like Margate and Southport and Bournemouth. Now it seems to depend on the size of the convention centre.
My first one was in 1967 in Scarborough, when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister and George Brown was Foreign Secretary. Labour then would hold a big conference dance – Conseratives held balls – for the delegates to which the press could go. Brown had just returned from New York where he had been photographed at a party on the Queen Mary dancing the Frug with a lady wearing a low-cut dress. The inevitable happened and the resulting photograph made the headlines.
I discovered later how easy it is to seem to behave like that because once at Chichester, the cast of the Beggar's Opera
at the end asked people from the front row to dance on stage. I found myself clutching the small Millicent Martin. I looked down at her and got the filthiest look after which our coupling concluded.
But back to Scarborough. On the way home from the dance we looked in, as was the custom, at the conference hotel just to check things were quiet. Suddenly Harold and Mary Wilson swept through the lobby looking less than pleased. They did not pause and headed up the grand staircase to their room. We were about to go when the reason for their grim faces appeared. George and Sophie in some disarray. They also went upstairs except Brown stopped halfway and leaning over the banisters told us just what he thought of the British press and the photographers who had, of course, spent the evening at the dance trying to get a repeat shot of him doing whatever it was he had done on the Queen Mary. While he ranted, the long-suffering Sophie further up the stairs kept urging him to come to bed. Nowadays, I doubt if we would have been allowed inside that hotel – security has changed where you can go – and the 'Brown In A Rant' stories would not have appeared.
As for the other venues, it took two conferences in Blackpool, where the weather was always awful, to discover that, as well as the promenade with the famous lights, there was a second one below it before you reached the golden sands. In Bournemouth, I caught Ken Dodd doing one of his legendary lasting-long-after-midnight shows.
But the most memorable of all was my last party conference in 1984 when, just before I climbed into bed, I heard a noise like breaking glass outside on the road and decided to look out the window. I phoned the office and said that the Prime Minister's hotel had just been blown up, which is as near as I will ever get to saying 'Stop the press'. It was, of course, in Brighton where I had been lodged in the Metropole next door to the Grand Hotel. On the way home after dinner, we had resisted the temptation to go in for one last drink or we would have been sitting right under where the floors collapsed.
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