There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Road to Mandalay - Kipling's Version: Interlude in Myanmar, Land of Gold

The next day we drove north from Bagan to Mandalay. Before, quite literally, taking the road to Mandalay, I am going to look at Kipling’s poem of the same name. Why? Because I like it (despite the geographical howlers) and that is good enough for me.

As the ‘Poet of Empire’ Kipling ought to be out of fashion, but he isn't. His novels are in print, his stories are desecrated by the Disney Corporation and If is regularly voted the ‘nation’s favourite poem.’

He was born in Bombay in 1865, but his parents had met in Burslem and whilst courting had enjoyed picnics beside Rudyard Lake. When awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907 he was (and remains) the youngest recipient of the prize, the first writing in English, and the only one to be named after a lake in Staffordshire.

Rudyard Lake, North Staffordshire

Leaving school at 16, he returned to India, worked as a journalist and wrote prolifically. He came back to England in 1889, travelling the long way round. The first leg of his journey took him to Moulmein (now Mawlamyine). The brief stop-over was his sole experience of Burma; he never visited Mandalay. This may account for his geographical ignorance, but he should have taken a glance at a map when writing the poem (which he did in England in 1890). His excuse: ‘poetry should not be taken too literally,’ is not quite good enough.

Mandalay is as well-known as a song as a poem, the music being written in 1907 by Oley Speaks. I always liked the version sung by Alfred Marks, a comic actor and occasional bass but can’t find it on YouTube. The best I could find is a splendid, if scratchy 1923 recording by the American baritone Louis Graveure. The worst is by Frank Sinatra (so bad I won’t even link to it) where the clash of English and American cultures creates more dissonance than Kipling found in the clash of east and west.

And so to the poem, a lament by a discharged soldier nostalgic for his Burmese days.


Verse 1

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' eastward to the sea
A glance at a map shows that at Moulmein you would look WESTWARD at the sea. Some printings have ‘looking lazy at the sea’ which Kipling has in the final verse, but not here.
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
Frank Sinatra sings ‘Burma broad a-settin’, an expression rarely used in British English, certainly not by a 19th century British soldier, nor, indeed, by Kipling.
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"
Burma was administered as part of British India from 1885-1948. Troops were billeted in Mandalay’s royal palace, renamed Fort Dufferin


Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay;
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay,
British troops were transported between Rangoon and Mandalay by the paddle steamers of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
Not much. Rangoon to Mandalay is 700km, all but the first 20km up the Irrawaddy River. All 64 species of flying fish live only in the sea.
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!
Did Kipling ever look at a map? Had he any idea where Burma was? The country’s entire coastline is on the Bay of Bengal. ‘An’ the evenin’ falls like thunder inter India ‘crost the Bay’ is not such a good line, but at least it is accurate.

The Road to Mandalay
A modern 'paddle steamer' cruising the Irrawaddy from Bagan to Mandalay

Verse 2
'Er petticoat was yaller an' 'er little cap was green,
An' 'er name was Supi-yaw-lat—jes' the same as Theebaw's Queen,
Thibaw Min,the last independent king of Upper Burma, was deposed by the British in 1878. He and Queen Supayalat left Mandalay and lived the rest of their lives in exile
An' I seed her first a-smokin' of a whackin' white cheroot,
Burmese cheroots are of varying length but always thin. They are smoked in a cigarette holder like a bowl-less pipe which holds them in a vertical position. I do not recall seeing women smoking, but in 1889…?
An' a-wastin' Christian kisses on an 'eathen idol's foot:
What were Christian about her kisses? Beats me.
Bloomin' idol made o' mud—
Today Burmese Buddhas are carefully crafted, extravagantly decorated and often gilded. They are certainly not made o’ mud, and I doubt they were in 1889
What they called the Great Gawd Budd—
The Buddha never claimed to be god, nor to be a messenger from god. These are the words of a private soldier (I hope Kipling knew better) and, doubtless, many NATO troops in Afghanistan today are equally ignorant of the religion of the country in which they fight.
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed 'er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay, etc.

Manufacturing Burmese cheroots
Lake Inle
Verse 3
When the mist was on the rice-fields an' the sun was droppin' slow,
She'd git her little banjo an' she'd sing "Kulla-lo-lo!"
Kulla-lo-lo – ‘hello, stranger’
With 'er arm upon my shoulder an' 'er cheek agin my cheek
We uster watch the steamers an' the hathis pilin' teak.
Hathi’ is Hindi for ‘elephant’ - not that Hindi is spoken in Burma

Elephints a-pilin' teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence 'ung that 'eavy you was 'arf afraid to speak!
I like this line, pity about the one before
On the road to Mandalay, etc.

Sludgy, squdgy creek?
Lake Inle

Verse 4

 But that's all shove be'ind me—long ago an' fur away,
An' there ain't no 'busses runnin' from the Bank to Mandalay;
But there is now an Airbus from Heathrow (change at Bangkok and Rangoon)
An' I'm learnin' 'ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
"If you've 'eard the East a-callin', you won't never 'eed naught else."

No! you won't 'eed nothin' else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees an' the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay, etc. 

Verse 5

I am sick o' wastin' leather on these gritty pavin' stones,
An' the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
And the arthritis in my knuckles
Tho' I walks with fifty 'ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An' they talks a lot o' lovin', but wot do they understand?
There’s a feminist argument here about power and relationships which I shan’t go into. And then there’s the racism aspect and….no, I can’t be bothered

Beefy face an' grubby 'and—
Law! wot do they understand?
I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
Burma is very green, and so is England, but perhaps not the bit between Chelsea and the Strand.
In 1890, with factory chimneys, coal fires and steam trains the London air was hardly breathable and everything – building, trees and people (if they stood still long enough) was covered with a film of soot.
In 2013 London is relatively clean; Burma is covered in litter – the curse of the plastic bag.

On the road to Mandalay, etc.
Green Burma
Inwa, near Mandalay
Verse 6 

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Sounds good, but the more I think about this line, the less it means
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;
He certainly can. Myanmar Beer is not one of the world’s great brews, but it hits a spot.
For the temple-bells are callin', and it's there that I would be—
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea.
Yep, you can look lazy, you just can’t look east

On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
Despite his woeful geography, Kipling remains a class act.  After 56 lines setting up Burma as paradise, he subverts the whole idea in six words
Oh the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!
Nope. That still can’t happen no matter how often it’s repeated

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