I like Rudyard Kipling’s house. ‘Bateman’s’ nestles on the Weald of Sussex, a grey stone house, with AD1634 inscribed above the door.

It’s a foursquare stately pile with great towering chimneys and dreamy gardens packed with exquisitely stocked borders. It has a ponderous grace, and inside it is stocked with many of the artefacts belonging to a man who was so widely travelled, and who knew the British Empire at intimate first hand.

The house is comfortable; it envelops you as you walk in. But in every room are outlandish reminders of lands far away, of exotic peoples and stories their owner will, now, never be able to tell.

Around seven years before the Kiplings moved into Batemans, its future owner published a poem which encapsulates a mindset.

It is called, simply, ‘If.’

It’s a sentimental sermon, a slightly de trop piece of lacy late Victoriana, a voice which has always appealed to those for whom shades of reason come second to the strongly held opinion.

And it is modelled on a man who could be said to be instrumental, in part, for starting the second Boer War.

He who controlled Johannesburg controlled the gold fields which had been unearthed in 1896.

But the Boers held the city: and the Brits coveted it.

And so, nothing if not experienced,the British went about inciting insurrection within the city. Johannesburg must revolt and overpower the Boer army.

That would be the perfect window for Leander Starr Jameson, his 400 mounted police and 200 volunteers, to nip across the border and ostentatiously ‘restore order.’

But it all went very wrong: there was insurrection within the ranks of the insurgent, and they wanted Jameson to stand down. But when they send a message to tell him, his men had already cut the telegraph wires to Cape Town, and he set out anyway.

It may still have turned out differently, if only Jameson’s men had not mistaken the telegraph wires to Pretoria for a fence. They cut the fence instead: and calls for help travelled at speed, ensuring Jameson’s army never had a chance. He was quickly forced to surrender.

If, indeed. If only.

So Kipling celebrates the resilience of this man, who came back from utter defeat to become Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, and one of the founders of the Union of South Africa.

He made good, and worked all his ‘if’s’ to his advantage.

As did a man who made an extraordinary rise in society: from humble newsagent to First Lord Of The Admiralty. William Henry Smith, son of William Henry Smith, wanted to go to Oxford and take Holy Orders. But his father was the man who hit upon the idea of using the morning mail coaches instead of night mail, thus getting current news to the provinces faster.

Henry the Younger had a bent for business. He realised that railway travellers were a captive audience, and set up bookstalls at all the major termini and across the regions.

Henry James writes about these little news booths in his ‘Essays in London’ (1896) :”It is a focus of warmth and light in the vast smoky cavern; it gives the idea that literature is a thing of splendor, of a dazzling essence, of infinite gas-lit red and gold. A glamour hangs over the glittering booth, and a tantalizing air of clever new things. ”

Smith made his booths discerning and respectable after the best Victorian fashion. And he was credited with ‘improving’ the British public, making the Man On The Clapham Train much cleverer.

He was a measured, calm, principled man. The very model of a Victorian philanthropist.

So much so, indeed, was he a hero of these rigidly principled times, that powerful eyes followed him wherever he went.

Smith had dabbled in running for parliamentary office; but finally succeeded in being elected MP for Westminster; in 1874 he became financial secretary to the Treasury; and Disraeli made the decision, around three years later, to appoint him to the stellar position as First Lord of the Admiralty.

Consternation! To offer such an honour to a mere London tradesman! WS Gilbert lost no time in lampooning the decision in the lyrics of HMS Pinafore: the First Lord’s Song is merciless satire, ending: “Stick close to your desks and never go to sea and you all may be rulers of the queen’s navy…”

But Smith had managed his ‘if’s’ prudently. They rarely became ‘if only’. Writing to Queen Victoria in support of Smith’s appointment, Disraeli says: “‘The Admiralty requires a strong man & Mr. Smith is such; combining vigilance & vigour with a perfect temper and conciliatory manners”.

Two contemporaries: Jameson, who faced his ‘if’s’, the decisions of his life, and bumbled a few, still rising to achieve Prime Minister; and Smith, a safe pair of hands who micro-managed every ‘if’ – Oxford, training for the Clergy, the railway bookshops, political office – until, never having commanded a boat in his life, he was appointed Lord of the Admiralty.

It does bring Kipling’s closing lines to mind:

“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!”

Written in response to Side View’s weekend theme, which this week is : “What if?”

You can find details here


19 thoughts on “If

    1. Only because Kipling talked about it a lot really. I keep stumbling upon it in his writing, and when you visit Batemans it’s featured a lot. Famous is probably an overstatement….might take that out, Tilly 🙂

  1. Kate, this reminds me of a Masterpiece Theater airing this winter, My Boy Jack, which is about Kipling and his son, Jack, who died in WWI. It was Kipling’s influence that made it possible for Jack to enter the military at the age of 17, with tragic, tragic results. Daniel Radcliffe plays Jack. I cried for Jack, and all the young boys who were lost and thought it was well done, if you haven’t seen it.


    I would love to one day see Kipling’s house. You write the best posts!

    1. Penny, you would adore his garden, the National Trust keeps it beautifully graceful, every border is a delight. And you can sit and enjoy a cream tea in the gardens too! Thanks, I haven’t seen this, I’ll follow the link now.

  2. If Rudyard Kipling had never written ‘If’ I would still keep him in high regard for all the others contained in my Definitive Edition of his verse, and particularly ‘A Code of Morals’ which has given me great amusement since boyhood. It has some really hilarious lines in it.

    It has become fashionable to regard British covetousness and the Raid as playing a major part in the Boer War, but the story from my grand uncles who fought in it (two on either side) show it in a different light, even from the ones on the Boer side. The Boers had pushed the Brits just that bit too far.

    I love Gilbert’s chorus that goes, ‘He polished up the handle so carefully, that now he’s the ruler of the Queen’s Navy…’ and the Sullivan tune is in my mind as I write.

    1. There’s something very Gilbert-esque about your verse style, Col 🙂 I often feel as if there’s a tune playing away in the background.
      Th origins of any war are so complex. A chapter of design and accident. I’m not sure they ever unravel completely. I’m off to check out A Code Of Morals now!

  3. What if?
    For me I suspect Johannesburg would still have been my home. How different it would have been I can’t guess. My city built on gold, with more trees than other cities.

    What if, in relation to human lives can be interesting or the path to self destruction………….

    1. It can. I listened to the news about Amy Winehouse last night with dismay. I know, with my mind, that the owner of that extraordinary voice was set to self-destruct, yet some illogical part of me keeps trying to work out all the alternatives.
      My two Victorians had different paths but their ‘setting’ was for long life and success. Perhaps it doesn’t mater if we fluff a few little ‘ifs’, so long as that default setting is positive.

  4. ‘If’ was hand written into a book my Techie was given as a little chap by his life mentor (he wasn’t Christened so doesn’t have God parents) – before then I hadn’t known it –

    but, Kipling wrote our school song, ‘Land of our Birth’ which was sung to a music score which alternated between two tunes for verse and chorus, which I can’t find. VERY stirring! Here are the lyrics, out of interest:

    1. Gracious! i feel like standing up and saluting! Henry James is reputed to have said “Kipling strikes me personally as the most complete man of genius (as distinct from fine intelligence) that I have ever known.” He had a feel for the zeitgeist of the time, and this lives on in his work. Jolly stirring stuff.

  5. WS Gilbert lost no time in lampooning the decision in the lyrics of HMS Pinafore: the First Lord’s Song is merciless satire, ending: “Stick close to your desks and never go to sea and you all may be rulers of the queen’s navy…”

    I’ll be singing this for the rest of the day. 😀

    What if . . . music had never been invented? Or satire? Och . . . what a dreary world ‘twould be.

  6. A fascinating bit of history! Thank you. I love ‘If’ – I read it periodically to my son as he was growing up — usually when he was bed-ridden with the flu or something, (otherwise he wouldn’t have stood for it.) I also have Kipling’s collection of “Just So Stories”. They’re wonderful.

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