The Soldiers of the Queen patrol the streets of old Kabul. Down on the North-West Frontier, Peshawar or Quetta may erupt at any time. A vanguard of the white sahibs pursues bandit fugitives across the Afghan peaks. And over in the Kashmir hills, more sedition stirs...
Although the calendar reads "2002", the new year's headlines suggest it must have skipped a century. As high-minded imperialism makes its curious comeback, and the craggy fringes of the Raj again become a playground for plotters, Her Majesty's Royal Mail has delivered the spirit of the age. Today, a new set of stamps marks the centenary of the Just So Stories for Little Children. They will, quite literally, bring back into the public gaze the most gifted writer ever to promote the British Empire and its martial mission as what Tony Blair would call "a force for good" - Rudyard Kipling.
The stamps depict the tales that the author started to write for his three children - Josephine, Elsie and John - in the late 1890s. Already an international celebrity, Kipling remained nomadic, unsettled, and - after the death of "Effie" aged six in 1899 - shadowed by grief. Yet these stories, which date from a time of bereavement and upheaval, draw with zest and glee on a multicultural mythology. They mingle the wildlife and folklore of Asia, Africa, Arabia, Australia and Amazonia, as Aesop-style fables sit alongside sly Darwinian jokes. The yarns account whimsically for how the elephant got his trunk, the camel his hump, the whale his throat, the rhinoceros his horn, the leopard his spots, and so forth.
These are stories fashioned for telling as much as reading, crammed with clever nuances of rhythm. Kipling's kids demanded that they always be recounted "just so". In fact, they survive better from the parent's mouth than on the cold page - whether with the Cat That Walked by Himself, "waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone", or the elephant child who tangles with a crocodile "at the very edge of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees".
Sharad Keskar, the Bombay-born editor of The Kipling Journal, reports that the writer had a sing-song voice that children loved. However, teachers surveyed recently felt more self-conscious about Kipling's cadences than their pupils: "They thought the language was archaic, not of the playground. But it's not that the children have lost their innocence; the adults have lost theirs."
What the Just So Stories never do is condescend. Too much of Kipling's imagination stayed rooted in the story-filled bazaars of late-Victorian Lahore for him to neglect the child's eye and ear. G K Chesterton noted that the fables, far from sounding childish, read like "fairy tales told to men in the morning of the world".
In our present time-warp, with distant Pashtuns and Tajiks the stuff of media chit-chat, it comes as no surprise that Kipling's ambiguous magic works again. The Prime Minister has reportedly taken down the wonderful 1901 novel, Kim, from the shelves at Chequers. Nearby, he could surely find a copy of the story "Dray Wara Yow Dee". Here, a horse-dealer, one of Kipling's many brave but wild Afghans, tries to lure the narrator up to his chilly northern paradise, where "a hundred fires sparkle in the gut of the Pass, and tent-peg answers hammer-nose, and pack-horse squeals to pack-horse across the drift-smoke of the evening".
Afghani scenes and characters always represented risky excitement for Kipling. As a young reporter in Lahore, he interviewed a captured Afghan bigwig who had annoyed the Raj. The chieftain tried to secure his help with offers of first cash, then a gorgeous Kashmiri girl, and finally (his top whack), seven handsome horses. The Afghan province of "Kafiristan" features as a Utopian journey's end in that magnificent satire on the whole imperial shooting- match, The Man Who Would Be King. …