Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) published “If” in Rewards and Fairies in 1910. It is certainly one of the most well known poems in the English language, and was voted the most popular in the UK in a BBC television poll in 2005 and 2009. I first heard it as part of a Jungle-Book inclusive bedtime double-bill, a tranquil beginning to an otherwise sleepless first night away from home as an eight-year-old cub scout. Thirteen years later I read the poem to a room of burly athletes at Wilberforce road in Cambridge as they stitched light blue strips onto their shorts and tried not to contemplate likely defeat at the hands (and feet) of the muscular track gods of the OUAC. The silliness of the moment was beautifully interrupted by the realization that everyone knew “If”, and many silently mouthed the words. My most recent encounter with the poem was the day after the US Election in 2016. I read it aloud to a bemused Physics class. I couldn’t think of any other way of starting the hour.

“If” has been described as a ‘cultural touchstone’ for the stiff-upper-lipped British, with Kipling their Victorian stoic bard. “If” is a blueprint for a national heroic stereotype: think James Bond calmly flying a Spitfire against insurmountable odds while listening to Nimrod and wearing brogues. And it is pervasive. Glance up at the players’ entrance to Centre Court at Wimbledon, and you will read: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster / and treat those two imposters just the same”. Surely this is unarguable wise counsel for the ages?

But this is 2020. Are the opinions of an enthusiastic colonialist of any value? Edward Colston was a slave trader. Cecil Rhodes was certainly a white imperialist, and Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouting movement, unfortunately wrote in his diary that Mein Kampf is a “wonderful book, with good ideas on education, health, propaganda, organisation.” In the Guardian last week, George Monbiot described the concentration camps built and administered by the British in Kenya in the 1950s, five years after the liberation of Auschwitz. It appears the crimes committed against the Kikuyu people were actively suppressed until a secret Foreign Office archive was discovered in 2012. It is an awful truth. Not just any national institution, but our national institution, both “gave way to hating” and “dealt in lies.” Our current Prime Minister tells us: “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history.” Yet in Monbiot’s opinion: “Lies and erasures are crucial to the myths on which Britain’s official self-image is founded.” Orwell’s doublethink may be closer to satire than merely the imagined language of a fictional dystopia.

Have the guiding voices of our childhood now utterly lost their moral authority? Should we consign “If” to a Room 101 of taboo culture, and while we are at it, cancel the Rhodes Scholarships, tear down Whitehall’s most beautiful interiors and burn Scouting for Boys? Our past, both national and personal, is a body of progress built upon scar tissue. The uncomfortable facts should be taught, and the causes debated, so that the errors of history are not repeated. Justice, or at very least acknowledgement of wrongdoing, should be sought without barriers. Racism and prejudice in all its forms have no place in a modern society, and a ‘grown up’ society, as Monbiot puts it, should confront our foundation stories, no matter how unpalatable they may be. But in this process of truth seeking, let us not too closely associate the manners that made the men, with the ideas they bequeathed to the future.

To abandon all of Kipling’s art as anachronism, because we profoundly disagree with his views on non Anglo-Saxons, is surely wrong.. It is as ridiculous as removing Newton’s Laws of Motion from textbooks as retribution for his heinous persecution of Robert Hooke. I have always been rather uncomfortable with the individual hero worship that sometimes arises from Science, Literature and Music. Yes, the lives of Byron or Berlioz or Schrödinger were most definitely exciting and worthy of study, but the equation that bears the latter’s name transcends its creator. Working out the consequences of Quantum Mechanics is Physics, and it is honed continuously via the scientific method. How Schrödinger came to his personal enlightenment is interesting, but such juicy trivia should be decoupled from the concept itself and how it can, and could be applied.

I believe “If” lives on, independent of Kipling the man, and the truths he so beautifully elucidates can exist unshackled to the colonial regime that he espoused. “If” in meaning, and indeed in its proposition/ caveat structure, tempers aspiration with pragmatism. The wisdom that results is no less resonant in the uncertain period in which we presently find ourselves.

If Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) 
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

 

 

by Andrew French
Physics don

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