Today we publish the first in a series of posts by our good friend Alan Mason. For more of Alan’s work please click here – Alan Mason – Deskarati.

As a small child I learned to read quite quickly, and began reading widely, anything which came to hand, often which now seem unsuitable. It was clear that I had a very good memory for recalling the plot and characters of a story, or the broad themes of a non-fiction book. Now in my seventies, looking back, I remember reading books from each decade of the twentieth century, some soon after they were published. The earliest book that I can recall was a children’s story I read before I was eight. I have not seen it across the intervening 66 years but I remember the plot and characters. It was the first book I read which moved me emotionally.

I have enjoyed making this overview of books of the twentieth century, and I have divided it into decades, each with several books.

The chosen works are either typical of their period, or of a particular writer’s style. Sometimes an author recollects a particular period, but publishes his book some years later, so I have given myself some latitude about the decade in which to place books. Thus the publication date is not the sole criterion for selection.

I have tried to avoid books which are very well known, or which everyone, “ought to read”, in favour of ones which are less well-known, or a bit off the beaten track.

In, “Hitler’s Private Library” by Timothy W Ryback, the author gives a most illuminating and surprising account of Hitler’s literary interests, including the fact that he thought Shakespeare, (in German translation) far superior to Goethe or Schiller, (2). He goes on, “Walter Benjamin (the German-Jewish scholar who died in 1940 while fleeing the Nazi invasion of France) once said you could tell a lot about a man by the books he keeps. He proposed that a private library serves as a permanent and credible witness to the collector’s character, leading him to the philosophic conceit that we collect books in the belief we are preserving them, when in fact, the books preserve their collector.”

So, do I stand revealed by my review list of interesting books? Not entirely. It charts only a small fraction of the books I own and have read, but it is a distillation of my favourite books that have stood re-reading across the decades.


1 Riddle of the Sands………………… Erskine Childers ………………..1903

2 Hadrian the Seventh………………. Frederick Rolfe ………………….1904

3 The Watcher by the Threshold …. John Buchan …………………….1902

4 White Fang …………………………… Jack London ……………………..1905

5 A Shropshire Lad …………………… A E Housman …………………….1906

6 Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man ….. Siegfried Sassoon ………………1928

7 Kipling’s Verse ………………………. Rudyard Kipling ………..1900-1910


We have come to think of this decade as the Edwardian late afternoon before all that was safe and secure blew away in the First World War. It was also a forward-looking period of a brand-new and optimistic twentieth century. Change was in the air, but then it always is.

I was keen to include one or other of E M Forster’s novels, “A Room with a View ” (1908) or “Where Angels Fear to Tread” (1905), but as they are now so familiar, after the excellent Merchant-Ivory film adaptations, I decided on some less well-known books.

1 Riddle of the Sands……………. Erskine Childers ………………..1903

The author was a British Civil Servant who was deeply worried about the competition between the British and Germans over naval supremacy, and the weakness of Britain in meeting the challenge.

This was the “cold war” of those days preceding the actual war in 1914. Childers thought the best way of bringing his worries to a wider public was to write a novel. He succeeded beyond his expectations in terms of public support as well as political and military planning to promote British naval supremacy.

He begins with a fascinating tale of investigation and mystery, set among the flat sandy islands of the north German coast. We follow two young men who were exploring the geography of the area, in a small yacht, “Dulcibella”. It becomes clear that they are on to something. They had come close to the solution but were skilfully diverted away from the vital location by men who they realise must be German secret agents. Once the reader’s attention has been grabbed by the detective and espionage mystery, the author is ready to expound his political ideas in a chapter entitled, “The Theory”

I quote directly as Davies, the civil servant with a liking for sailing and espionage, explains everything to his friend, “Look first at this map (4) of Germany. Here’s this huge empire, stretching half over central Europe – an empire growing like wildfire, in people, and wealth, and everything. They’ve licked the French, and the Austrians, and are the greatest military power in Europe.

What I’m concerned with is their sea-power. They can’t protect their huge commerce without naval strength. The command of the sea is the thing nowadays, isn’t it?

The next thing is, what is her coast-line? It’s a very queer one, as you know, split clean in two by Denmark, most of it lying east of that and looking on the Baltic, which is practically an inland sea, with its entrance blocked by Danish islands. It was to evade that block that William (Kaiser Wilhelm II) built the ship canal from Kiel to the Elbe, hut that could be easily smashed in war-time.

Far the most important bit of coast-line is that which lies west of Denmark and looks on the North Sea, (5). It’s there that Germany gets her head out into the open, so to speak. It’s there that she fronts us and France, the two great sea-powers of Western Europe, and it’s there that her greatest ports are and her richest commerce.

Even on this small map you can see at once, shoals and sand everywhere, blocking nine-tenths of the land altogether. In the event of war it seems to me that every inch of it would be important, sand and all. Take the big estuaries which, might be attacked or blockaded by an enemy. Their main channels, in time of peace, are buoyed and lighted like streets, open to the whole world, and taking an immense traffic; well charted, too, as millions of pounds in commerce depend on them.

But now look at the sands they run through, intersected by threads of channels, tidal for the most part, and probably only known to smacks and shallow coasters.

In a war, a lot might depend on these, both in defence and attack, for there’s plenty of water in them at the right tide for patrol-boats and small torpedo craft. Now, say we were at war
with Germany — both sides could travel between the three estuaries; and a small torpedo-boat could cut clean through from the Jade to the Elbe and play the deuce with the shipping there.”

None of these military considerations are relevant to the enjoyment of a fascinating story of investigation and mystery, set in and among the flat sandy islands of the north German coast. Excellent maps are provided, so by the end of the story we not only know the names of the islands but we have an understanding of the problems of small-boat-sailing in those shallow waters.

2 Hadrian the Seventh…………….. Frederick Rolfe ………………….1904

Frederick Rolfe was a deceitful, raffish and criminal character with a range of talents, but he was certainly an accomplished writer. He was an adult Catholic convert, and had tried to enter the priesthood twice, but his bizarre and arrogant character led the seminary authorities to expel him.

He frequently described himself as “Fr Rolfe” claiming that “Fr” was merely an abbreviation of his Christian name, Frederick, but knowing it would be assumed that “Fr” meant “Father” and that he was an ordained priest.

He is shown in a photograph, (6) dressed in the high-collar soutane (long tunic) and biretta (hat) worn by the Catholic clergy of those days, and obviously masquerading as a priest.

The book, which is semi-autobiographical, is an enormous act of wish-fulfilment, whereby the hero, George Rose, becomes Pope. He has been unfairly denied the priesthood for many years. His bishop approaches him to make financial and ecclesiastical amends. He is consecrated priest and then travels with his bishop to Rome where a series of hung papal elections have resulted in a total impasse.

The cardinals are now free to find a new Pope outside their own ranks.

Rose waits with his bishop outside the Consistory (electoral court). “The door of the Cystine Chapel was open. Conclavists from all quarters hurried towards it. George and his bishop found themselves impelled through the portals. Beyond the delicate marble screen, gleamed the six steady flamelets of the candles on the altar.

The silence, the stillness, the dim light, where motionless forms of cardinals curved like the frozen crests of waves carved in white jade and old ivory on a sea of amethyst, were more than marvellous.

A voice came out of the gloom, an intense voice,

‘Reverend Lord, the Sacred College has elected thee to be the Successor of St Peter. Wilt thou accept pontificality? (Are you willing to become Pope?)

He was prompted, ‘The answer is Volo or Nolo‘. (I wish it / do not wish it.) He took one, long slow breath…I will”. He adopts the name, Hadrian, in recollection of the last English Pope, Hadrian the Fourth, (8), Nicholas Breakspear in the twelfth century.

As Pope, Hadrian wants to break with needless formality and tradition. He wishes to bless the crowds of people below in St Peter’s Square, (7), and asks, ‘Which window looks out over the City?’ `

‘Holiness, that window was bricked up in 1870; and has not been opened since.’ ‘Let it now be opened.’ Cardinal Ragna snarled, ‘It is impossible. Impossible! Capisce? (Understand) The rust of the stanchions, the solidity of the cement’

Hadrian commands the master-mason to break open the window on to the City, to let the people see their new Pope.

Nowadays, it is usual for Popes to address the crowds in St Peter’s Square, not only after their election, but at Christmas and Easter every year. Rolfe’s Hadrian VII, was well in advance of the Vatican traditions of his time. It took the real Church something like thirty years to catch up with the ethos of Hadrian.

The bullet-proof “Popemobile”, was used, following the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. Again, Rolfe was 70 years ahead of real-life when his Pope is shot at the end of the novel.

I remember the stage play, “Hadrian VII” at the Mermaid Theatre in the City of London. It was so successful that it transferred to the West End with Derek Jacobi in the lead (9).

The stage set of the Papal Election was spectacularly memorable with rows of red clothed cardinals.

The play’s success meant Rolfe became a cult figure in the 1960s, with his fascinating writing style, and expertise about the minutiae of church affairs, Catholic liturgy and Papal elections. He was a pedant, choosing perfectly correct but unusual spellings of familiar words, (Cystine Chapel, basons).

He wrote several books and worked as an artist on various commissions. Frequently he styled himself “Baron Corvo”, as he claimed to have been given an Italian title. As something of a mystery man he was captured in a book by A J A Symons “The Quest for Corvo – Genius or Charlatan” (1934). He died in Venice in 1913, and was buried on the cemetery island of San Michele. (10)


3 The Watcher by the Threshold……….John Buchan ……………1902

John Buchan is well-known as the author of a series of adventure novels, the most famous of which is “The Thirty-Nine Steps”. I have chosen one of his less well-known works which I find intensely gripping. Buchan was rather contemptuous of his novels which he described as “shockers”, written purely to make money and fund his lifestyle.

Ironically, it is on these despised novels that his reputation rests. All his grandiose attributes in the conventional fulsome biographies are found to rest on sand, when one examines them closely.

He was supposedly a scholar, an academic, a lawyer, a soldier, a politician and a statesman, (12) but in reality he was effective in none of these things. It is only as a novelist that he was and still continues to be significant. I am no Buchan expert, but I have read his puzzling autobiography, “Memory Hold-the-Door”, and a biography which answers many of the unanswered questions contained in it.

Buchan and I are united in one thing – an admiration of the border country between England and Scotland and the people who live there.

Though Buchan was a Scot, he came from Kirkcaldy in Fife, the other side of the Firth of Forth, which was, in his youth, a grim manufacturing town. He spent each summer with his grandparents who farmed in the Border Country where he was free to roam and explore the mountains and moorlands. This leads us to “The Watcher by the Threshold”.

Buchan sets his story in an imaginary landscape, with invented topographical names, but he intends it to be in the wilds of the Galloway Hills (13) in the south-west corner of Scotland.

One of the characters soon sets the scene for us, “I believe there are traces of an old culture lurking in those hills and waiting to be discovered. We never hear of the Picts (14) being driven from the hills. The hills were left unmolested. We hear of no one going near them except outlaws.

And in that very place you have the strangest mythology. Take the story of the Brownie. What is that but the story of a little Swart man of uncommon strength and cleverness, who does good and ill indiscriminately, and then disappears?”







Buchan identifies these mysterious, small, aboriginal people as Picts, probably because in his day little was known about them. A hundred years later, we have far more knowledge of them. Burghead was a Pictish promontory fort, and the stone head (14) shows almond eyes and a drooping moustache. The Pictish house (15) appears in the Buchan tale, but perhaps the biggest fault is the fact that the Picts lived much further north than the Galloway of SW Scotland

The curious title of the novel is taken from a rather eerie medieval quotation preceding the story. “Among the idle men, there be some who tarry in the outer courts, speeding the days joyfully with dance and song. But the other sort dwell near the portals of the House, and are ever anxious and ill at ease that they may see something of the Shadows which come and go. Wherefore, night and day they are found watching by the threshold, in fearfulness and joy, not without tears.”—Extract from the Writings of DONISARIUS OF PADUA, circa 1310.

Buchan’s tale is highly atmospheric, gripping, and terrifying as the hero tries to penetrate the mystery behind the kidnapping of young girls and the killing of moorland sheep.

4 White Fang …………………………….Jack London …………………….1905

Jack London was a splendid example of a rare American type, a socialist, and his political philosophy enlivens his books. “White Fang” is a member of a rather easily dismissed literary genre, that of animal biography, with “Black Beauty” by Anna Sewell as the doyenne of this form. We hear of White Fang’s origins and history and of his final dramatic end. The author uses this opportunity to comment on the iniquities of the American judicial and penal system.

Jack London had an unusual background and a variety of experiences. He was born in San Francisco, California, in 1876.

His mother was Flora Wellman and he was probably the illegitimate son of William Chaney. When Chaney repudiated Flora she attempted suicide, and after the birth of her son he was given into the care of Virginia Prentiss, an ex-slave, as his foster mother.


In late 1876, Flora Wellman married John London, and took back baby Jack into her new home. The baby was given the surname of her new husband, but his foster-mother, Virginia, continued to be a major influence in the life of Jack London.

At the age of thirteen, Jack began working in a fish cannery on a 12 hour day. To escape the drudgery he borrowed money from his black foster-mother, Virginia, to buy a boat and became an “oyster-pirate”, but this career ended with the boat damaged beyond repair. He joined a sealing schooner on a trip to Japan in 1893. On his return, in the same year, he worked in a jute mill and a power plant, before abandoning paid work and becoming a hobo or tramp. In 1894 he was jailed for 30 days for vagrancy.

Feeling the need for education, he entered Oakland High School in 1894, aged 18, and had his first writing published in the school magazine. He was keen to enter the University of California, Berkeley, and he achieved this in 1896 after borrowing money from a friend who owned a bar. His university career ended in 1897 when he sailed to Alaska to join the Klondyke Gold Rush.

He returned in 1898 and began working in earnest as a writer, making use of his sailing experiences and those of other sailors he had met. The Alaskan experiences formed the basis of his books, “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”.

London became a great enthusiast for the big white country of the northern Americas, Canada and the Yukon. He opens, “Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean towards each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land.” (White Fang)

Jack London had about 18 years as a successful writer. He made enough money to buy “Beauty Ranch” in 1905. It was on the eastern slope of Sonoma Mountain. He wrote that “Next to my wife, the ranch is the dearest thing in the world to me.”

The ranch was an economic failure, due to bad luck, being ahead of its time, bad management, or alcoholism, depending on who one believes.

London died at the age of forty, in 1916, He was in extreme pain from renal colic and uraemia (kidney stones and bloody urine) and it is possible that an accidental overdose of morphine, contributed to his death. (The reader is recommended to the wikipedia article on Jack London which gives a much fuller analysis of the odd circumstances of both his birth and his death.)

5 A Shropshire Lad ………………………..A E Housman …………………..1906

Housman had to pay to have his poems published privately. Since then they have never been out of print across the intervening century. His poetry is much loved because it is readily accessible to ordinary people. One does not need a literary degree to understand the meaning of each poem. They are also of a beguiling simplicity that makes them easy to learn by heart.

Unhappiness is a major feature of the poems, like lost love, and death. The sadness of the human condition is the poet’s prime concern. Housman was not a happy man, but it would be unfair to suggest that all his poems were joyless. He has told us that the poems were “like a morbid secretion”, the pearl of an oyster, which came to him almost fully formed, at times when he was ill, unhappy, tired or depressed.


It needs to be explained that the “Shropshire” of the poems is not a real place. It is a landscape of the heart; a rural idyll of the mind. It is true that Housman refers regularly to actual places in Shropshire like Ludlow, Wenlock Edge, Hughley or Clun, but he has constructed a literary pastoral landscape through which he can move as his alter ego “Terence Hearsay”, the Shropshire Lad.

Housman explained that he had “a sentimental attachment for Shropshire, because its hills formed our western horizon”. His family home was a large, comfortable middle class house in Bromsgrove, (now an hotel). There was a small hill, given the Biblical nickname “Mount Pisgah” by Housman’s teenage siblings and friends, from which the distant Shropshire hills can be viewed. It was the place where the sun went down and the shadows lengthened. Unfortunately it is no longer accessible to the casual visitor. (The real Mount Pisgah was the hill from which the biblical Moses was allowed to see, but not enter, the Promised Land)


The pastoral conventions of the poems hark back to a time when the poet was young and carefree, happy with his friends. The coming of maturity brought exile and loss from this Eden of landscape and simple pleasures.


Housman’s great love was the classical literature of Greece and Rome. He was a university dropout who worked in London for many years in a dull job as a clerk in the Patents Office. Meanwhile he applied himself to a critical study of the works of the classical authors and regularly published scholarly papers. Eventually he left patents to become Professor of Classics in a one-man department at University College, London, and finally transferred to a Professorship at Cambridge.

“Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,

Twenty will not come again,

And take from seventy springs a score,

It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom

Fifty springs are little room,

About the woodlands I will go

To see the cherry hung with snow.”

 Although Housman’s Shropshire is not real, the actual county of today is well worth visiting.

It has some of the oldest geology in Britain, dating back to the Pre-Cambrian, some high moorland in The Long Mynd, several unusual hills like Caer Caradoc, the Stiperstones, or the Clee Hills, and an ancient coral reef now a long limestone escarpment, Wenlock Edge.

There are medieval castles, the finest of which is at Ludlow, and medieval religious buildings, either as abbey ruins or parish churches. There are Iron Age hillforts and the remains of one of England’s largest Roman cities, Viroconium, still almost totally unexcavated at the village of Wroxeter. Part of the bath complex has walls up to fifteen feet high, and has a good claim to be one of Arthur’s bases in the sixth century resistance to Saxon invasion.

(A much fuller description of the poet, and the significance of his work, is provided by an earlier deskarati post. FAVOURITES, ALAN MASON, A E HOUSMAN)

6 Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man …………Siegfried Sassoon……..(1928).

Sassoon is famous as a poet of the WW1 and a critic of its conduct. This book is semi-autobiographical and gives a flavour of the long Edwardian summer afternoon. The squeamish need not fear as there is very little about killing foxes, but it is a fascinating evocation of the manners and social conventions of the times.

The hero of the memoirs is called George Sherston, the alter ego of Sassoon, enabling him to avoid offending relatives and friends by describing his own life.

The key person behind nine-year-old George Sherston’s development into a “fox-hunting man” was a family servant, Dixon, the groom-handyman, as is explained in the opening of the novel.

“My father and mother died before I was capable of remembering them. I was an only child, in the care of an unmarried aunt who lived quietly in the country, in a comfortable, old-fashioned house with its large, untidy garden. (23) The radius of her activities was no further than the eight or ten miles which she could cover in a four-wheeled dog-cart driven by Tom Dixon, the groom. The rest of the world was ‘beyond calling distance’.

Dixon was a smart young man who would have preferred a livelier situation. He persuaded my aunt to buy my first pony. I was nine years old. Dixon had taught me to ride, and my admiration for him was unqualified. He was what I learnt to call ‘a perfect gentleman’s servant’, he never allowed me to forget I was ‘a little gentleman’: he always knew exactly when to become discreetly respectful. In fact, he ‘knew his place’.”

Dixon carefully prepared the timid and hesitant George, by taking him out regularly to ‘see the hounds’ and to meet various member of the local Hunt. He is befriended by Mr Gaffikin, who was “about 35, voluble, slangy and easy-going, and very much the sportsman.” George buys his first hunter, Harkaway, from Mr Gaffikin.

He has a new whip with a very long lash (used to control foxhounds) and “somehow the end of it arrived at the rump of Jaggett’s roan mare; with nervous adroitness she tucked in her tail with my lash under it. She then began kicking, and in my efforts to dislodge the lash I was ‘playing’ Jaggett and his horse like a huge fish.”

To my surprise Mr. Gaffikin came up and congratulated me admiringly on the way I had ‘pulled Bill Jaggett’s leg’. He said it was the neatest thing he’d ever seen and he wouldn’t have missed it for worlds. He slapped his leg in a paroxysm of amusement, and I modestly accepted the implication that I had done it on purpose. ‘Stick close to me,’ said Mr. Gaffikin in a low voice. ‘The old devil’s got a drag laid, as sure as mutton.’

(The Hunt master had arranged an artificial trail for the hounds to follow.)

He was right. There was the huntsman going hell for leather down the slope with his hounds on one side of him. With my heart in my mouth I followed Mr. Gaffikin over one fence after another. Harkaway was a bold jumper and he took complete control of me. I can remember very little of what happened, but I was told afterwards that we went about four miles across the vale in the Potford country. The gallop ended with the huntsman blowing his horn under a park wall while the hounds scrabbled and bayed rather dubiously over a rabbit-hole.

There were only eight or ten riders up at the finish, and the credit of my being among them belonged to Harkaway. Daggett, thank heaven, was nowhere to be seen. The Master looked with grudging good humour at the remnant of his field and their heaving horses. ‘Now let the bastards say I don’t go well enough!’ he remarked, as he slipped his horn back in its case on his saddle.”

It is not necessary to be an enthusiast for fox-hunting to enjoy this book, which is principally about how a shy and awkward boy gradually emerges from his shell and begins to learn something of the world.

The book ends with our hero in the trenches of the Somme battlefield. “I sploshed back to the dug-out to call the others up for ‘stand-to’.”

7 Kipling’s Verse ………………………. Rudyard Kipling ………..1900-1910

Kipling published his verse during the whole of his life, (1865-1936) but I have chosen poems from about the first decade of the twentieth century. He has been called “the Poet of Empire”, because he reflected on the exotic cultures encountered by the British abroad as colonisers, and he was strong in defence of the common British soldier who held the Empire together.

His verse went through a period of critical unpopularity when Britain began its withdrawal from Empire in the 1940s to 1960s, but its popularity with ordinary people never waned, because Kipling’s verse is simple, direct and easily understood.

The poet, T S Elliot, published a selection of Kipling’s verse in 1941 with an appreciatory foreword, but he was rather ahead of his time. A re-appraisal of his work is now in progress, partly because of his love for the peoples and culture of the Empire, particularly the sub-continent of India. (29) Kipling’s verse, though still controversial, has been praised by English-speaking Indian intellectuals and academics.


Kipling coined many memorable phrases that have become so familiar as clichés in the press, that their origins are now forgotten. Notably, “plaster saints”, “thin red line”, “lest we forget”, “white man’s burden” “the captains and the kings depart” display his virtuosity.

The patriotism of Kipling was distilled in his deep love for the county of Sussex, now unaccountably split into East and West Sussex. This is illustrated by extracts from “Sussex”, a poem of 12 verses each of 8 lines. The poem has much resonance for me, because as a teenager, I escaped into Sussex from the London urban sprawl. (30)

I also spent five years working in Midhurst, Sussex. Poetry puts complex ideas and emotions, into simple language, so I have added some brief comments where appropriate.

SUSSEX (1902)

God gave all men all earth to love,

But, since our hearts are small,

Ordained for each one spot should prove

Beloved over all;

Each to his choice, and I rejoice

The lot has fallen to me

In a fair ground—in a fair ground—

Yea, Sussex by the sea!

No tender-hearted garden crowns,

No bosomed woods adorn

Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs, (32)

But gnarled and writhen thorn—

Bare slopes where chasing shadows skim,

And, through the gaps revealed,

Belt upon belt, the wooded, dim,

Blue goodness of the Weald.

(These last two lines are immensely powerful in capturing the essence of that landscape)


Here leaps ashore the full Sou’west

All heavy-winged with brine,

Here lies above the folded crest

The Channel’s leaden line;

And here the sea-fogs lap and cling,

And here, each warning each,

The sheep-bells and the ship-bells ring

Along the hidden beach.

(I had a friend who lived in Peacehaven on the Sussex coast, and the sea could be seen from her kitchen window exactly as in the poem. The beach, too, was quite hidden until one reached the head of the stone staircase leading down.)

Choose ye your need from Thames to Tweed,

And I will choose instead

Such lands as lie ‘twixt Rake and Rye,

Black Down and Beachy Head.

I will go out against the sun


(Rake is a village not far north of where I lived, and so was Blackdown, at 919 feet above sea-level, giving wide views over Sussex and eastern Hampshire)

Where the rolled scarp retires,

And the Long Man of Wilmington

Looks naked toward the shires;

And east till doubling Rother crawls

To find the fickle tide,

By dry and sea-forgotten walls,

Our ports of stranded pride

(The Long Man (34) is a large figure cut in the chalk in Neolithic times. To reduce the work of scouring the ground of weeds each year, the figure is now composed of bricks which are whitewashed regularly.)

(The “ports of stranded pride” are the medieval Cinque Ports, (35) which were once on the coast but now are inland, separated from the sea by sand. Originally, there were five, or “cinque” in Old French.)




The phrase “Lest we forget” is often associated with the dead of the First World War, but it actually comes from an earlier period, at the time of the Boer War in South Africa, (36) in a Kipling poem of 1896, entitled “Recessional”. A recessional is a hymn or a piece of music which closes a religious service, when the clergy recess, or leave the church, as the people also go out. I have included selected parts of this poem of 5 verses each of six lines, mainly to demonstrate some of Kipling’s ringing phrases. The meaning of the poem is still a matter of debate. It is in the form of a prayer,
and I think it says, “Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
lest we forget you.” In the heat of battle it is easy to forget the God who created us and our enemies. It has been interpreted as “Lest we forget the dead.”


God of our fathers, known of old,

Lord of our far-flung battle-line,

Beneath whose awful Hand we hold

Dominion over palm and pine—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!


The tumult and the shouting dies;

The Captains and the Kings depart:

Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,

An humble and a contrite heart.

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

“The Road to Mandalay” is one of Kipling’s most successful poems celebrating the beauty and the magnetic power of the east upon the imagination of a poor British man, an ex-soldier, or ex-sailor, we assume.

It has been set to music and the Australian baritone, Peter Dawson, made a recording which caught the mood of the poem exactly. In the forties and fifties it was a popular request on radio record programmes, perhaps because there were many ex-servicemen to whom it brought back memories of the east. The line, “Come you back, you British soldier, come you back to Mandalay”, was especially evocative of 1943, when British forces were driven from Burma by the Japanese. After a hard-fought campaign the British defeated them and did return to Mandalay.

I have not given the whole poem but only fragments of the more memorable lines.

Modern Mandalay has its share of high-rise buildings, but Figure 37 gives some impression of the city known by Kipling.


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!’

Come you back to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay:

Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin’-fishes play,

An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!


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

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,

Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst ;

For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;

(The “paddles chunkin'” were on the steam warships of the Royal Navy Flotilla, 40 before screw propulsion had been introduced.)


The last poem in this selection of Kipling’s verse is “Danny Deever”, a most eloquent argument against capital punishment, although Kipling may not have intended it as such.


‘What are the bugles blowin’ for?’ said Files-on-Parade.

‘To turn you out, to turn you out,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.

‘What makes you look so white, so whiter said Files-on-Parade.

‘I’m dreadin’ what I’ve got to watch,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.

For they’re hangin’ Danny Deever, you can hear the Dead March play,

The Regiment’s in ‘ollow square—they’re hangin’ him to-day;

They’ve taken of his buttons off an’ cut his stripes away,

An’ they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.


They are hangin’ Danny Deever, they are marchin’ of ‘im round,

They ‘ave ‘alted Danny Deever by ‘is coffin on the ground;

An’ ‘e’ll swing in ”arf a minute for a sneakin’shootin’ hound

O they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’!

They are hangin’ Danny Deever; you must mark ‘im, to ‘is place,

For ‘e shot a comrade sleepin’—you must look ‘im in the face;

Nine ‘undred of ‘is county an’ the Regiment’s disgrace,

While they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.


‘What’s that so black agin the sun?’ said Files-on-Parade.

‘It’s Danny fightin’ hard for life,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.

What’s that that whimpers over’ead?’ said Files-on-Parade.


‘It’s Danny’s soul that’s passin’ now,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.

For they’re done with Danny Deever, you can ‘ear the quickstep play,

The Regiment’s in column, an’ they’re marchin’ us away;

Ho! the young recruits are shakin’, an’ they’ll want their beer to-day,

After hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’!



1. Reading from an Early Age (google images)

2. Hitler, the Shakespearean Enthusiast (detail from “A Pictorial History of Nazi Germany”, Erwin Leiser, Penguin, 1962)

3. The German Cruiser, “Emden” in 1914, Captain, Karl von Muller (“History of the First World War”, Purnell, 1970)

4. Nations of North-East Europe (Author)

5. The Frisian Islands, divided between the Netherlands and Imperial Germany (Author)

6. Frederick Rolfe as a Young Man (1860-1913) (google images)

7. Vatican City and St Peter’s Basilica in the City of Rome (“Rome in Colour” by Paolo Lozzi, Editrice Lozzi, c. 1980)

8. Pope Hadrian IV (“The English Cardinals” by Nicholas Schofield and Gerard Skinner, Family Publications, 2007)

9. Derek Jacobi in the part of Pope Hadrian VII (google images)

10. The Isle of San Michele, the Cemetery of Venice (google images)

11. John Buchan (google images)

12. John Buchan as Governor-General of Canada (google images)

13. The Galloway Hills (adapted from a google image)

14. Sculpted Celtic Head found at Burghead in Northern Scotland (“Picts, Gaels and Scots” by Sally M Foster, Batsford, 1996)

15. Pictish House of “Shamrock” shape, Orkney Isles, Scotland (Foster, op. cit.)

16. “White Fang”, a story of the Yukon territory (Cover of the Puffin edition)

17. Jack London, 1876-1916 (google images)

18. Jack London joins the gold prospectors on the Chilkoot Trail, Alaska. (google images)

19. A E Housman, 1859-1936, photographed as a young man. (google images)

20. The Clee Hills of Shropshire, seen from Yell Bank, a water-colour by Robin Bell Corfield ( “A.E. Housman – A Shropshire Lad”, illustrated by Robin Bell Corfield, with a foreword by Anne Carter, Walker Books, 1991

21. Flowering Cherry Tree (“The Victorian World of Helen Allingham” editor J. Marsden, Brockhampton, 1999)

22. Siegfried Sassoon as a young (google images)

23. Garsington Manor, a water-colour by David Gentleman (From the cover of “Siegfried’s Journey” by Siegfried Sassoon, Faber and Faber, 1945)

24. The Foxhunt draws a blank. (“Ratcatcher to Scarlet” by Cecil Aldin, Eyre and Spottiswood, no date, probably 1920s)

25. Fox cub in the reeds looking for wildfowl. (google images)

26. Chanctonbury Ring and the Vale below (Watercolour by A R Quinton, from “A R Quinton’s England” by Alan C Jenkins, Webb and Bower, 1987)

27. Siegfried Sassoon in the uniform of an Infantry Officer (google images)

28. Writer, Rudyard Kipling (google images)

29. Government House, Calcutta, India, coloured aquatint, 1807 (“British Adventure” edited by W J Turner, Collins, 1947)

30. Bodiam Castle, East Sussex (“Britain, The Mini-Book of Aerial Views” Photographs by Adrian Warren and Dae Sasitorn, Last Refuge, 2007)

31. South Pond, Midhurst, West Sussex (google images)

32. The South Downs of Sussex (google images)

33. The View from Black Down (google images)

34. The Long Man of Wilmington (“England, The Mini-Book of Aerial Views” Photographs by Adrian Warren and Dae Sasitorn, Last Refuge, 2005)

35. Rye, a Strand éd Cinque Port (google images)

36. The Boer War (“Fifty Years of Pictures” Daily Mail, 1946)

37. Mandalay, Burma (google images)

38. The Moulmein Pagoda, (google images)

39. East Gate, Mandalay, Burma (google images)

40. Royal Navy Paddle-Wheel Steam Warship (google images)

41. The British Army in the early 20 century (google images)

42. Rifleman, 1900 (“The Pictorial Encyclopaedia” edited Richard Haddon, Sampson Low, c. 1950)




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