Kipling’s ‘The Sons of the Suburbs’

I’m currently enjoying Peter Keating’s 1994 book, Kipling the Poet. (Peter Keating was one of my course tutors when I did my M.A. at the University of Leicester, back in the early seventies, and I can hear his voice in the book.)
The chapter ‘Armageddon’, on the poetry Kipling wrote during the Great War is especially interesting, and I was rather surprised to find there i poem that I had not previously come across. It is called The Sons of the Suburbs, and is not included in the standard Collected Poems (though I expect it is in Pinney, which I can’t afford).
The story behind it is that Kipling was asked for a contribution to the Christmas 1916 issue of Blighty, weekly magazine issued free to World War I troops. It was distributed by the War Office, the Admiralty and the Red Cross, and subsidised through donations and sales to the general public. As it happens, I’ve got a facsimile copy of that 1916 Christmas issue (reprinted some years ago by the IWM).

blighty

It’s a jolly enough magazine, with plenty of cartoons based on jokes sent in by soldiers. It includes no Kipling poem, but does have a rather awful versified Christmas greeting by the Poet Laureate (poor Robert Bridges just wasn’t really cut out for this sort of work):

To the men of spirit unconquerable
Who battle to dhield our homes from hell,
This tenderest greeting of love and pride
From those who at home must watch and abide

Whence ever of British race ye are sprung
Who hail each other in Shakespeare’s tongue,
However your Christmastide be spent,
We wish you good joy and merriment.
……and so on for several more awful verses.

The poem Kipling sent the magazine was very different from that sub-Hallmark stuff. It was witty and sharp, and touched lightly on the theme of how war can unleash the unexpected in people. I think it would definitely have cheered up the magazine’s soldier readers. The editorial board of Blighty, however, contained several clergymen and respectable ladies, and they didn’t like the aspersions cast on clergymen’s daughters. They asked Kipling to change it, and he very properly stood firm. He does not seem to have tried to place the poem elsewhere, and did not collect it in a volume. Roger Lancelyn Green wrote about it in the Kipling Journal back in 1979.

I didn’t know the poem before, and even though it may be old hat to some of this blog’s very erudite readers, I thought I’d reprint it here, just to spread the pleasure:

The Sons of the Suburbs

The sons of the suburbs were carefully bred
And quite unaccustomed to strife;
The lessons they learned in the books they had read
Had taught them the value of life.
From Erith to Ealing they cherished a feeling
That battle and slaughter were sin;
From Hendon to Tooting they didn’t like shooting
And did not intend to begin.
If the clergyman’s daughter drinks nothing but water
She’s certain to finish on gin

The tribes of the Teutons were otherwise trained,
And accustomed to bloodshed from birth.
Their ministers preached and their masters maintained
That they had only one duty on earth,
And what they were for was sanguineous war
The rest didn’t matter a damn.
Being also intent on culture, they went
For the voters of Wanstead and Ham;
But reading the name on the tin of the same
Doesn’t give you the taste of the jam.

The sons of the suburbs were firm but polite;
Each rose in his place with a gun
And a live bayonet to express his regret
At the actions of Herman the Hun.
It likewise appears they flung bombs round his ears,
Which caused a percentage of slain,
And finding it sport, I regret to report,
They did it again and again.
If the wife of the vicar never touched liquor,
Look out when she finds the champagne.

The sons of the suburbs awoke to the fact
That fighting has points of its own,
As giving a spice their existence had lacked
So they rarely left Herman alone.
They were young it was true, and the business was new,
But youth is the key to all arts,
That’s why a beginner’s so often a winner
At capturing trenches or hearts.
If the churchwarden’s wife never danced in her life
She’ll kick off your hat when she starts.

There are things in the breast of mankind which are best
In darkness and secrecy hid;
For you never can tell, when you’ve opened a hell,
How soon you can put back the lid.
Now Herman’s annoyed with East Finchley and Croyd-
On, Penge, Tottenham, Bromley and Kew.
It wasn’t their fault they commited assault
But the rest, I’ll leave it to you.
If you and your friend never go on a bend
It’s Bow-street and gaol when you do.

What interests me most about this is the connection to ‘Mary Postgate’ (1915).

If the wife of the vicar never touched liquor,
Look out when she finds the champagne.

Poor Mary had gone through her life experiencing not very much, but when she discovers hatred – ‘Look out!’ indeed!

 

2 Comments

  1. Posted April 6, 2016 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    This has reminded me of Death on the Nile, those great quotes

  2. Posted April 8, 2016 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    ‘If the clergyman’s daughter drinks nothing but water
    She’s certain to finish on gin’
    I like these lines very much, and I think Kipling’s potential soldier readers would have enjoyed them, too.
    I started to think about the phrase ‘a clergyman’s daughter’. It’s the title of Orwell’s 1925 novel, of course, but I had a feeling it had other connotations, too.
    This useful glossary of Edwardian slang ( http://www.edwardianpromenade.com/resources/a-glossary-of-slang/ ) confirmed my suspicion.
    ‘Clergyman’s daughter’ was a slang euphemism for prostitute. The joke of it being the apparent disparity between the young lady of the vicarage and the young woman of the streets. Kipling would certainly have known the phrase, and his teasing use of it is maybe a way of reminding us that the pair were sisters under the skin.


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