I’m an admirer of Brian Cox so I was struck by a tweet of his yesterday, where he seemed to have encountered a scientific formula for the Antichrist. ‘If you removed all that is good in Britain, leaving only blimpish sludge, and emptied the residue into one man.’ It turns out that he was referring to the Foreign Secretary. The story in question was one where the Guardian claimed that Boris Johnson had ‘recited part of a colonial-era Rudyard Kipling poem’ in a Buddhist temple. The story was written to mislead the reader into thinking that Boris had read a poem in public in Burma, causing upset to guests. In fact, he’d been reminded of the Road to Mandalay, a poem that has inspired musicians (from Sinatra to Robbie Williams) for generations.
He had been asked to ring a temple bell in Burma. Not many will have heard the sound of those bells, but those who have heard of them will likely have done so via the Road to Mandalay. As a poem, it’s not at all well-known, but as a Sinatra number it’s certainly familiar to people of Boris’s generation. Here are the opening lines:-
BY THE old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
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!”
Sinatra was one of dozens of artists to put these mesmerising words to song (above). Charles Dance read the poem on VJ Day, chosen as it is a paean to the world ‘East of Suez’. Its appeal is simple: it’s about wanting to be somewhere else, dreaming about someone, and what might be waiting. A place, in Kipling’s words, where ‘the wind is in the palm trees’, and the ‘temple bells are calling’: a few lines that conjure a vivid mental picture. And there Boris was, in Burma, doubtless having heard the wind in the trees and actually been given the great honour of ringing one of those temple bells. And, who knows, perhaps having witnessed some of that Burmese beauty that so bewitched the 24-year-old Kipling in the first place.
So it’s easy to see why he thought of those Mandalay. And it was understandable why the ambassador might worry that his recollection might develop into a recital not entirely appropriate for a temple (Sinatra’s version refers to a ‘Burmese broad’ and Kipling’s original has a unreverential reference to Buddha.) But I doubt even Boris was going to go there. He’s not one of these deracinated, safety-first politicians: he thinks about poems, language, culture. It makes him more of a real person. That’s why he has a lot more fans (and detractors) than most Cabinet members.
But what’s striking is the extent that his detractors can so easily persuade themselves that a non-event like this is a diplomatic humiliation for Britain. Rushanara Ali even told the Guardian that Boris remembering Mandalay shows whybhe should not be Prime Minister. So much fuss, based on so little: what Boris might call an inverted pyramid of piffle.
This shrill, almost hysterical reaction to everyday Boris action is, I suspect, going to be a theme of the next few weeks. He seems to drive certain people quite mad. So I suspect we’ll see quite a few more of these non-scandals in the days ahead.