Big Steamers

The new Fringes of the Fleet CD has arrived from Amazon, and very satisfactory it is, too. It has Elgar’s settings of Kipling’s poem-cycle, of course (with a version of the sinister  Tin Fish that should get anyone’s neck-hairs tingling), but there are also instrumental pieces by John Ansell and Haydn Wood and a setting by John Ireland of Brooke’s The Soldier that I didn’t think much of  at first, but which is growing on me with repeated hearings.

Maybe most interesting to me are two settings of Kipling’s poem Big Steamers, one by Elgar and one by Edward German, who I gather was Kipling’s composer of choice. (During the War, I’ve heard that George V was listening to a band playing selections from Merrie England, and asked ‘Who’s the composer?’ A  courtier told him, ‘Actually, he’s German, sir.’ To which the King replied, ‘Yes, most of them are.’)

The two settings are both good. Maybe Elgar’s has the fancier tune, but German’s has a feel for the rocking of a ship on the waves. Anyway, the two settings directed my attention to the words:

“OH, where are you going to, all you Big Steamers,
With England’s own coal, up and down the salt seas? ”
“We are going to fetch you your bread and your butter,
Your beef, pork, and mutton, eggs, apples, and cheese.”

“And where will you fetch it from, all you Big Steamers,
And where shall I write you when you are away? ”
“We fetch it from Melbourne, Quebec, and Vancouver.
Address us at Hobart, Hong-kong, and Bombay.”

“But if anything happened to all you Big Steamers,
And suppose you were wrecked up and down the salt sea?”
“Why, you’d have no coffee or bacon for breakfast,
And you’d have no muffins or toast for your tea.”

“Then I’ll pray for fine weather for all you Big Steamers
For little blue billows and breezes so soft.”
“Oh, billows and breezes don’t bother Big Steamers:
We’re iron below and steel-rigging aloft.”

“Then I’ll build a new lighthouse for all you Big Steamers,
With plenty wise pilots to pilot you through.”
“Oh, the Channel’s as bright as a ball-room already,
And pilots are thicker than pilchards at Looe.”

“Then what can I do for you, all you Big Steamers,
Oh, what can I do for your comfort and good?”
“Send out your big warships to watch your big waters,
That no one may stop us from bringing you food.”

For the bread that you eat and the biscuits you nibble,
The sweets that you suck and the joints that you carve,
They are brought to you daily by All Us Big Steamers
And if any one hinders our coming you’ll starve!”

Kipling wrote this for C.R.L.Fletcher A School History of England (1911) as an illustration of the importance of Free Trade to England. The last two stanzas, though, are a strong argument for maintaining the strength of the armed forces, and keeping up with Germany in the naval race.

Can you imagine a schoolbook today being as frank about the real political facts of life? I can’t.

In 1919 this poem was given the sub-heading ‘1914-18’, which indicated, I suppose that the protection of food supplies was an exceptionally important issue during those years, but blurred the fact that Kipling had seen the problem coming.

On the Kipling Society’s website there are excellent notes on the poem, written by Peter Keating, one of my tutors at Leicester many years ago, and a very nice man.


One Comment

  1. Posted November 29, 2009 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    The students and I had been very interested in the history and architecture involved with Lockwood and Rudyard Kipling, and found wonderful architecture and landscape connections.

    We then found literary references in his work to those places that had been important to him. I put just one Mumbai example in my post:

    But the connection with Elgar is possibly not as well known, so your post was important.

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