Magazine article The Spectator

The Grateful Dead

Magazine article The Spectator

The Grateful Dead

Article excerpt

MY BOY JACK: THE SEARCH FOR KIPLING'S ONLY SON

by Tonie and Valmai Holt

Leo Cooper, 19.95, pp. 256 couple of years ago I first read that the grave of Kipling's son John, who disappeared at Loos in 1915, had recently been identified. It seemed ironical that the grave should have been discovered far too late to bring solace to John's parents, who had longed so desperately for `an altar on earth where they might lay their love'. It seemed extraordinary that 80 years after the event new identifications were still being made, and it is one of the strengths of My Boy Jack that it explores the extraordinary achievements of the War Graves Commission which continue today.

Actually `the search', protracted and heartbreaking as it was in real life, occupies only a small part of the book. Nor is this a biography of John Kipling, who was, after all, barely 18 when he died. John's story is set within an account of Kipling's own life which has no new revelations to make and which is written in a breezy, casual style laced with the slang of our own day. The soldiers are `lovable, feisty rogues', Kipling's wife, Carrie, is 'a control freak', the baby communicates in `toddler-speak' and so on. All this can be distracting, but the authors, experts on military history and the first world war battlefields, are at their best on their own ground and the book comes to vivid life when John sets sail for France. His mother had no illusions, writing bleakly in her diary, `There is no chance John will survive - we know it and he does.'

Poor John was the much, perhaps too much, loved `man child , whose thick glasses and precocious moustache in the photographs of the boy soldier are so reminiscent of the young Rudyard. Kipling had enjoyed an exceptionally affectionate relationship with his own father and was famously good at relating to children, but John bore the double burden of being an only son whose adored elder sister had died in his babyhood. Added to this was the common problem of the father living through his son. John was destined from birth for the navy; then, when deteriorating eyesight in his teens made this impossible, was being redirected to Sandhurst when war broke out. It is difficult for us to enter into the fervour of 1914, or to understand the lengths to which the Kiplings went to wangle a place in the army for their son, not quite 17 and with very poor eyesight. …

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