At the close of ‘Humboldt’s Gift’ by Saul Bellow, the narrator, Charlie Citrine visits Humboldt’s grave in New Jersey. Citrine’s friend, the redheaded tenor Menasha Klinger, spots tiny flowers struggling through the soil in the dreary cemetery.
“What do you suppose they’re called Charlie?” he asks.
Citrine replies: “Search me. I’m a city boy myself. They must be crocuses.”
I was reminded of this scene at the weekend during a walk through Kipling Gardens in Rottingdean. After a brutal winter in the UK it was stirring to see these harbingers of spring. It was freezing cold, though, in the wind – a reminder not to cast off the overcoat just yet. The gardens were originally an enclosed area surrounding The Elms, where Rudyard Kipling lived for five years from 1897 to 1902. As late as the mid-1980s the gardens were a wilderness. They were restored by the Rottingdean Preservation Society who then handed them over to the care of the council. The grounds feature a woodland garden; a rose garden; a small herb garden; and a chalk garden. Fans of croquet can enjoy the only formal lawn in the area.
There seems little prospect of a spring-like revival in the reputation of Rudyard Kipling but it is worth noting that he was once the most feted poet and writer in the country. Indeed it was the pressure of his fame which led him, in part, to leave Rottingdean to seek a more secluded place to live. Today he is mainly known as a jingoistic booster of the British Empire.
But Kipling genuinely broke new ground in his sympathetic portrayal of ordinary soldiers. At a time when our televisions show scenes of grief, as hundreds of people line the streets of Wootton Bassett to honour fallen servicemen, it is hard to imagine how soldiers were mocked, reviled and shunned by polite Victorian society. Kipling wrote: “For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’/ But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.”
No help for heroes from Britain’s imperial rulers.