Michael Wesley takes a look at a new book by Andrew Selth and the story of how a poem by Rudyard Kipling took an empire in retreat by storm.

In May of 2004, Andrew Selth and I were in London. We were both intelligence officials, and had stopped into city on our way to a conference on new frontiers in intelligence analysis taking place in Rome.

We popped into the big Waterstones bookshop in Picadilly and spent an hour or so browsing. I emerged with several tomes on terrorism and world politics; Andrew came bounding out, eyes shining with excitement, bearing a large book on Burmese textiles.

It can only be this person who could produce a book like The Riff From Mandalay.

Its formal title, Burma, Kipling and Western Music, speaks to all of the bloodless logic of Google searches and citation indexes; a logic that would have forced Kipling to retitle his famous poem “Former Soldier Reflects on Visit to Moulmein”. God help us. In my small act of defiance, I’m going to call this book by the title Andrew obviously preferred, The Riff From Mandalay.

The book is the work of a unique individual: deeply in love with Myanmar in all its aspects; a bibliophile and obsessive collector (who built two extensions of his house to house his Burma collection); a ferocious researcher. There is a story to this book: in the midst of writing a book on the Myanmar Police, Andrew began following a strand of interest in Kipling and music which became all-consuming.

The result is a book that is as intriguing, beguiling and informative for the reader as the writer. Like a beautifully-cut Burmese gemstone, there are so many complementary facets to this work. Most basically, it is a micro-history of a popular craze; a meme; as my sons would say “Mandalay – that’s so mint right now”.

It is the story of a poem written by an author who never even visited the city in its title, who spent barely three days in Burma. A poem which overnight captured the imagination of the English-speaking world, inspiring hundreds of imitations, musicals, films, crockery, ships, streets, a Heinz sauce and a fruit-punch.

The book explores the why of the craze – what it was that so caught the mood of the time. It shows that the poem Mandalay says more about the writer and his audience than the subject of their beguilement. Apart from anything else, the poem and most of its imitators are deeply inaccurate – some would say ignorant – about Burma itself. But the poem speaks not to a need for geographic accuracy but for a romantic trigger.

As another great populariser of colonial Burmese exotica, Somerset Maugham, wrote:

First of all Mandalay is a name. For there are places whose names from some accident of history or happy association have an independent magic and perhaps the wise man would never visit them, for the expectations they arouse can hardly be realised … Mandalay has its name; the falling cadence of the lovely word has gathered about itself the chairoscuro of romance.

More recently, the travel writer Emma Larkin in her book on Orwell and Burma, Secret Histories, confesses to be underwhelmed by the reality of Mandalay, a city she finds to be devoid of much architectural or cultural interest. Nevertheless, she remains smitten by the name itself:

I always find it impossible to say the name ‘Mandalay’ out loud without having at least a small flutter of excitement. For many foreigners the name conjures up images of lost oriental kingdoms and tropical splendour.

Despite its falling cadence, the romance of the name can be attributed solely to Kipling’s poem, filled with lines such as:

For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
‘Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!’

Selth explores at some length why a doggerel poem, about a city almost no-one outside of Asia had heard of, in a colony very few even knew of, was so enthusiastically seized on by the Western imagination. He delves into the vast literature on the European cultural imagination during the age of imperialism to draw out some fascinating themes.

Kipling’s poem, a story of a former British soldier working in dreary London, and pining for a beautiful Burmese girl in Moulmein, struck a range of psychological chords. On the one hand, it is a whisper of exotic erotica. As Selth writes, “[Such] songs were not meant to be taken literally. Rather, they described a dream, a fantasy. The idea of an exotic, submissive girl in an exotic foreign land, who could fulfil the singer’s every desire, was a purely generic one.”

The idea took on that Burmese girls were beautiful, demure – and uninhibited. It was an idea that struck a chord in prudish Victorian Britain, among men who had never and would never travel further east than Essex.

There was a counter-impulse that gave the erotic whisper an extra charge – the censoriousness of Victorian morality, which abhorred such laxity, was horrified at the practice of taking ‘local wives’ in the Orient, and saw colonialism as a means for uplifting oppressed heathen women.

But even the missionary position was conflicted. As Selth puts it:

In their approach to women, Christian missionaries in Asia sought to achieve two contradictory aims. One was to free women who were believed to be trapped in ‘primitive’ and intolerant pagan cultures, while the other was to curb the freedoms and regulate the behaviour of women found in more open societies.

In many ways, the book is a meditation on the psycho-cultural politics of high imperialism, as glimpsed through the wild popularity of the original poem and then its musical legacy. By June 1890, when the poem first was published in the Scots Observer, the politics of imperialism were deeply conflicted in British society. The surge of liberalism that carried Gladstone to power in the 1860s carried with it a powerful repudiation of the idea of colonising other societies and peoples.

Evangelising missionaries provided the liberal press in Britain with a steady stream of accounts of the evils of imperialism, while the country’s declining economic performance focused much negative attention on the high costs of empire. But this was a time when surging competitors were contesting Britannia’s rule of the waves, and hitherto effortless supremacy over large swathes of Africa, the Pacific, and Asia. Britain, dogged with powerful anti-imperial voices at home, a very real fiscal squeeze, and colony-hungry competitors abroad, faced an agonising set of choices.

Should it formally annex territories in order to prevent its competitors gaining colonies next to its own imperial possessions, or bow to the fiscal realities and anti-imperial sentiments at home? In their dithering, British governments were not unreasonably likened to a dog in the manger by statesmen such as Bismarck. Amidst these excruciating choices, it’s little wonder that the pure romanticism of Kipling’s poem struck such a chord among the British public.

Imperialism in “Mandalay” is no longer a question of austere morality, hard finance, or high geopolitics; it is a matter of emotions:

Ship me somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be –
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea:
On the Road to Mandalay.

In many ways, Kipling’s “Mandalay” imperial romanticism was to sustain the last surge of Anglo-Saxon imperialism, including through its death throes. While his poem “The White Man’s Burden”, written to urge on the United States’ arrival as an imperial power – so much more martial and Methodist in tone – has become arguably more famous, it is the sentiments of “Mandalay” that surely dominated Britain’s late empire behaviour.

For all of Britain’s brutality in the face of anti-imperial challenges – one does not forget the Boer War concentration camps, Amritsar, or the Mau Mau internment camps easily – you can see so much more of “Mandalay” than the “White Man’s Burden” in the decline of its empire. Certainly compared with the other imperial powers of the day, the British recessional was much more restrained, accepting – almost wistful.

U Bein bridge, Mandalay. Photo: jradclif/Pixabay

But Selth’s book offers so much more than a meditation on imperial politics and sentiments. It is a remarkable work of musicology, exploring the post-“Mandalay” surge in popular music in terms of clusters of themes, musical styles and fusions, images and rhymes, attitudes to race religion and empire, as well as attitudes to Burma and the Burmese, and attitudes to women.

It is a work of staggering breadth and depth of research; one need only skim the pages and pages of end notes at the back of each chapter to appreciate the prodigious, loving research that has gone into this book. The book is also a remarkable portrait of late empire Burma and British society. It lists and records hundreds of campaign songs sung by British soldiers across the empire, popular tunes sung in isolated hill stations and crowded dance halls in London.

It brings to mind that surely the British alone had such a facility for popular song as an act of community and resilience and defiance; of the sort one can still hear belted out by ten thousand throats at Old Trafford or Twickenham; and carried on the road by the Barmy Army.

To read this book is to be carried back to that time of late empire; to enter its zeitgeist; to recoil at its prejudices; to chuckle at its bawdy humour. And as if all of this isn’t enough, the book is also a loving portrait of Myanmar.

Only someone deeply smitten by that country could have worked so long and so hard investigating the legacies of poem that spoke to so many millions so emotionally about Burma. There is a whole chapter on music and its changing forms in Myanmar, bringing it right to the present day.

Fascinatingly, Selth writes that “Mandalay” still influences Myanmar’s politics. For instance, the former military junta’s law banning anyone from holding the Presidency who is married to a non-citizen, arises from strong post-colonial sentiment in Myanmar, still reacting to the trope of demure Burmese women giving themselves to foreign men.

This book is all this, and more. A work of rich political and cultural sensibility, of loving, obsessive research, of deep erudition. I am privileged to have read The Riff from Mandalay and take great pleasure in pronouncing it launched.

Professor Michael Wesley is Dean of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

This article is based on speaking notes made at the launch of Burma, Kipling and Western Music, at the 2017 Myanmar Update. The Riff From Mandalay is available from Routledge.