The last time I heard Kipling read aloud was last week at a Scout Gang Show. It was the grand finale. Centre stage on a dais stood a serving soldier and noble looking ancient veteran. On either side, a group of Scouts, an organisation dear to Kipling’s heart, stood with outflung arms indicating these heroes, while somebody read ‘If’. In the background one was vaguely aware of ‘Nimrod’ playing. All the clichés were there, yet it was strangely touching.
One of Kipling’s gifts as a writer, both of prose and poetry, was his ability to connect with his audience, confirmed when, a few years ago, ‘If’ was voted the nation’s favourite poem. This connection was for good and ill. Kipling’s verse, at its best, is of the highest quality, at its worst it is deplorable — vulgar, cocky and embarrassing.