Rudyard Kipling was a journalist, a novelist and a writer of short stories. He was born in India but was sent to school in England when he was five years old. He subsequently lived in the U.S.A. and South Africa before settling first in Rottingdean and then Burwash in East Sussex. His world view now appears to be full of contradictions, mixing enlightened views with an unyielding belief in the integrity and birthright of the English ruling class. In his poem, “If…”, he was able to write “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same” but conclude it with “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, and—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son”. Advocating a balanced view to life indicates a thoughtful man of much wisdom but concluding by indicating that a white man can rule everything and everyone makes him a man of his times. George Orwell wrote about Kipling that he “is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.” His poem, “The White Man’s Burden”, whilst being an artistic work of beauty, advocates American dominance of The Philippines. The title of the poem has come to mean that imperial dominance by white men is necessary to impose civilisation on primitive people. The cost is likely to be high but is a price worth paying for introducing Western culture into other parts of the globe. Writing this in the middle of the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, the phrase “white man’s burden” seems particularly misguided and shocking. Despite all this, Kipling’s understanding of humanity is evident in “If…” and “The Pict Song”. Cancel culture might suggest that we disregard all of Rudyard Kipling’s work. Personally, I think it’s worth exploring, dissecting and putting into context.
The Picts lived in Northern and Eastern Scotland between the 3rd and 10th centuries. They formed an effective resistance against the expansion of The Roman Empire. The name “Pict” is believed to be a derivation of a word for “tattooed people,” as The Picts generally covered their bodies with blue tattoos. “Our infantry,” Julius Caesar wrote, “were but poorly fitted for an enemy of this kind.” The Picts were farmers and were a peaceful people who focused their faith on nature. They believed a goddess had walked through their lands and that every place where her foot had landed was sacred. Their fierce commitment to their ancestral land is likely what motivated them to become fearsome protectors of it and a dangerous enemy to the Romans.
In 1906, Rudyard Kipling published a fantasy book called “Puck Of Pook’s Hill”, consisting of a set of short stories set in different historical periods of British history. The stories are told to two children living in Burwash by a magical elf called Puck, who could remove characters from different times and places to tell their stories. Each story has an associated poem. One of the stories is called “A Pict Song” and Billy Bragg set this poem to music on “William Bloke”. He changed one or two words; in particular, when Rudyard Kipling writes that the Picts “can bring down the great“, Billy Bragg sings that they can “bring down the State“. It’s a magnificent poem, describing how the little people are “the worm in the wood, the rot at the room, the germ in the blood, the thorn in the foot”. Rudyard Kipling, despite (or because of) having been a firm believer in the might and right of The British Empire, shows a sophisticated understanding of the power of devious and underhand resistance. “We are the Little Folk – we! Too little to love or to hate. Leave us along and you’ll see how we can drag down the Great!” As Billy Bragg sings the song, with fierce distorted electric guitar to accompany him, the power of a persecuted minority is clear. The tyranny of an invading force can be overcome by underhand and devious methods.
Of course, at the moment, the Taliban are taking over in Afghanistan as Western forces abandon the people of the country. The terror that the Taliban are likely to inflict upon the country, with terrible consequences for women, should not to be trivialised by reference to a poem written by a man who believed in the subjugation of the natives. Afghanistan is a country that has been invaded by aggressive forces ranging from Alexander The Great and Genghis Khan via Britain in 1833 and the Soviet Union in 1978 to the U.S.A. in 2001. All the time, the invading forces were resisted by the peoples native to the area. Sympathies lie with The Picts but not with The Taliban. It’s a mess. What’s so funny about Peace Love And Understanding?
Billy Bragg has an unerring ability to switch easily and quickly from the political to the personal. (Is there a difference?) “Brickbat” follows “A Pict Song” and describes an argument between parents of a young child. He refuses to say that he’s sorry but he also refuses to say that the relationship is over. He feel stuck with the baby and has to accept that his priorities have changed. he used to “want to plant bombs at the Last Night of the Proms” but now he’s bathing the baby, “listening to the sound of the sea” in a seashell. In the last verse, he has stayed in bed and watched his wife return to their bedroom. As the sun came up, he recognised that “the light shone in on everything” and, in a remarkably emotional way, he manages to make “I love you” sound genuine and cathartic. It’s a beautiful song and Billy Bragg’s singing proves that it’s possible to draw a deeply emotional response from the most tuneless voice as long as it’s heartfelt.
“Northern Industrial Town” is a clever song. Some might call it a smart-arse song which is probably why I love it. He describes a town in the North of the U.K. with hills on the outskirts, terraced housing, a wet climate, some crime and pubs full of people celebrating pay day. “There are only two teams in this town and you must follow one or the other“. In the last verse, he tells us which town he is singing about. “It’s not Leeds or Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield nor Glasgow. It’s not Newcastle-on-Tyne, it’s Belfast. It’s just a northern industrial town” “William Bloke” was released on 10th September 1996, during the talks that led to The Good Friday Agreement of 10th April 1998.
Invading imperialist forces undermined by small terrorist organisations, fighting for the right to govern themselves. The Picts. The Taliban. The IRA. Which side are you on?
One thought on “William Bloke by Billy Bragg”
A great read – I learned a few things about the album, which I’ve never loved as much as many of his others. You may be interested in my “Album by Album” look at Bragg here: https://undilutableslangtruth.wordpress.com/2021/06/07/album-by-album-billy-bragg/
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