Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Kipling and Sinatra in Burma

The words Kipling chose should not be cancelled even if Frank Sinatra had a bit too much fun with them

Artillery Row

Frank Sinatra, who was quick to slug an offending critic, croupier, or Ming vase in a hotel suite, had a beef with the Kiplings. His landmark 1958 album Come Fly with Me featured a swinging version of Rudyard Kipling’s poem Mandalay, but Kipling’s daughter didn’t like Sinatra’s take, which swapped the word “broad” for “girl” and substituted “cat” for “man.” The Kipling estate muscled Capitol Records into deleting the track from albums sold in what was left of the British Empire. Nonetheless, Sinatra dared to perform the number before British audiences and taunted Miss Kipling, calling her “chicken.” 

But sixty years later, Kipling’s non-musical original was also cancelled, after Boris Johnson recited a few lines while visiting a temple in Myanmar. Britain’s ambassador to the former Burma hushed Johnson on camera, scolding that it was “not appropriate.” (In a 2019 episode of The Crown, Lord Montbatten stirs a crowd with the poem, while scheming to overthrow Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s government.) 

Why does Kipling’s work, banned in Burma and written when he was just twenty-four, show up in the mouths of such disparate characters, a Hoboken-born Rat Pack legend and an Oxford-educated politician? While some critics, including the Guardian’s reporter covering Johnson’s visit, dismiss the poem as a “pro-colonial” paean, the truth is more piquant. The verses speak of longing, desire, and regret, and they do so in the lingo of a Cockney who feels anything but empowered. 

This alleged zealot for English superiority never felt at home in England itself

Published in the 1892 compendium Barrack Room Ballads, in Mandalay a young British soldier who has served in Burma laments that he is back in dreary London, with its “blasted English drizzle.” He misses a girl named Supi-yaw-lat, who would smoke cheroot, strum a banjo, and sing Kulla-lo-lo while the wind whistled through the palms. Critics who accuse Kipling of “orientalism” and “imperialism” interpret the soldier as a conqueror and Supi-yaw-lat as an untutored but alluring native, sort of a “noble savage” but with a curvier body and a bark-stained smile. Rodgers and Hammerstein would display a similar innocent in South Pacific and, of course, Puccini created Cio-Cio-San in Madame Butterfly, who naively awaits the return of Lieutenant Pinkerton.

But depictions of Kipling as a colonial celebrator are too conveniently shrink-wrapped for cancellation tribunals. In fact, Kipling’s narrator does not portray England as more advanced, more intelligent, or more refined. Mandalay is as much an indictment of Victorian ways as a yearning for a return to youthful adventure. And note, that unlike Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the narrator suffers no loss of sanity while on the road to Mandalay.

Instead it is leaving Asia that stings. Back in London he walks from Chelsea to London’s Strand and winces at the hard looks he receives. The passersby may speak of a “lot o’ lovin,” but with “Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and –” At the end of this line, he suddenly cuts himself off because he cannot put into words his pain and loss. The dash is followed by an exasperated “Law[d]! Wot do they understand?” No wonder that in the final stanza, he longs for someone to “ship me somewhere east of Suez.”

130 years after Kipling’s composition, young soldiers may again find themselves sailing back up on the Irrawaddy

The narrator’s regret reflects Kipling’s own story. Born in Bombay in 1865, at age five his parents shipped him to England for schooling, where he was taunted, paddled and diddled by cruel overseers. This alleged zealot for English superiority never felt at home in England itself, and wrote some of his best works while in India, South Africa, and Vermont, where The Jungle Book was born.  Kipling later would ask, who bears the burden for fighting wars and keeping the Empire’s peace? In 1915 his son John would be killed, as British forces attacked the Germans in Loos, France, the first time the British would unleash poison gas in World War I. Scarred by it all, Kipling would turn down a offers to be poet laureate or a knight of the British empire. 

The road to Mandalay was not, in fact, pavement, but a 400-mile trek up the Irrawaddy River on rickety paddle boats, which in 1885 carried 9,000 British soldiers to the combustible Burma/India border. Barrack Room Ballads also contains the stunning poem Tommy, in which Kipling points out that the common soldier – the name Tommy is akin to an American GI Joe —  starts out in peacetime as a young ruffian disdained for ill manners and quick temper.  But once the country needs a fighting man, they dress him up and send him off, perhaps, to die:  

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ Chuck him out, the brute!

But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot!  

Mandalay does not endure solely for its message but also for its meter and mesmerising words. Start with the lovely three-syllable Mandalay. Its euphony conjures an Edenic place. Daphne du Maurier’s noirish novel Rebecca (recently remade into a Netflix film) begins with a misty, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” a similarly-named haven. Kipling brings in another exotic locale when he describes the trip from “Rangoon to Mandalay.” Barbara Streisand liked the word so much that in the Playbill for her Broadway debut she claimed to have been “born in Madagascar and reared in Rangoon.” A long way from Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Kipling’s poem would be boring if it dwelled only on words that remind us of swinging hammocks. Instead, it quickly switches gears, asking whether we can hear the boats with “their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?” How many other writers would use the word “chunkin’ to describe the mini-crashes of a waterwheel? He then throws in a phrase later cited by the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, declaring that “the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay.” With paddles chunkin’ and dawn thundering, the poem shakes us from any slumber.

Today Myanmar faces more than thunder and chunkin’. 130 years after Kipling’s composition, young soldiers may again find themselves sailing back up on the Irrawaddy River. The story Kipling told, and the words he chose, should not be cancelled, even if Frank Sinatra had a bit too much fun with them in his days of swinging rat packs and jazz cats.

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