Literature, Music

Do You Believe in “If” Anymore?

One of the reasons I like reading posts about music is that I’ve spent most of my life quite disconnected from whatever was going on in the contemporary entertainment world, and the posts give me a window into what I might have missed (and whether or not I’m glad I did). Although we moved to the United States only a couple of months before The Beatles took the “Ed Sullivan Show” by storm, I never owned a Beatles album. And while The Rolling Stones were hot during my years at British boarding school, we weren’t allowed to listen to them; Mick Jagger’s hips and lips being (in the opinion of the good ladies running The Abbey School) a bridge too far, even for the radio.

Prior to that, my experience ran to the blue wind-up gramophone in Nigeria and the 78, 45, and 33RPM records we’d either brought with us from England or borrowed from the Officers’ Club, and programs such as Desert Island Discs on the BBC World Service. After that, with a few notable exceptions when I would, in a transgressive mood, listen to Jeff Christie on KQV, the most youth-oriented local AM station (he later resumed his birth name and achieved some measure of fame as Rush Limbaugh), I left the music scene to others, and largely ignored it myself.

Thus, in the ’60s and ’70s, what did manage to seep into my musical gestalt was mostly the stuff my mother listened to or played on the gramophone–a world largely comprised of male crooners and peppy young women singing cheerful and upbeat songs. Almost all of them were British, and you’ve probably heard of them rarely, if at all. Men like Val Doonican. Matt Munro (best known for the title song of the movie Born Free), Des O’Connor, Frankie Vaughan. Women like Alma Cogan, Cilla Black Clodagh Rodgers, and Sandie Shaw. (Sometimes, when Mum was in a jazz sort of mood, Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine.)

And Roger Whittaker.

Roger Whittaker (b. 1936) was very popular in the UK for a decade or so starting in the mid-1960s. He had only one song which cracked the top 20 in the United States, “The Last Farewell,” in 1975. In addition to his pleasant baritone voice, he is a superb whistler, as you can hear in this live performance.

But, no doubt about it, his songs, together with their lush orchestrations and generous side-order of British colonial ex-pat sentimentalism, are pure old-lady bait, and he was much beloved by both my mother and grandmother. I’m quite familiar with his oeuvre, including this one that was a hit in the UK and Europe in 1970. It’s not my favorite, and I find the contrast between the staccato delivery of the verses and the lyrical refrain a bit jarring. (I expect he had his own reasons for not believing in “If,” as he’d spent a couple of years in the Kenya Regiment chasing the Mau Mau up and down the country’s Abedare mountains.) But favorite or not, it’s a perfect lead-in to the matter of this month’s Group Writing topic–which is “advice,” in case you’ve forgotten by now). Roger Whittaker, and I Don’t Believe in ‘If’ Anymore:

When it comes to poetry, I can’t think of a set of verses containing more advice per line than Rudyard Kipling’s If. It’s a simple poem, really nothing more than a series of hypothetical syllogisms (if A is true, then B is true), which depend, for their usefulness, on the validity of the premises and the logic of the conclusion given in response. And as that conclusion, which is proffered in the last two of the poem’s 32 lines makes clear, Kipling intended it as a rather exhaustive instruction manual on the art, or perhaps the science, of becoming a man:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss;
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

“My goodness!” I hear you saying. “You quoted the whole thing!”

Indeed, I did and there’s a reason for that. Because I’m interested to know what you think of Kipling’s advice, either in part, or as a whole. Is it a fairly complete prescription for manhood? (And/or womanhood — perhaps we could be inclusive here?) Or is it like The Curate’s Egg–only good in parts? Are there recommendations that you find particularly noteworthy? Ones you disagree with? Ones you’d like to add? Ones you’d leave out? Ones you’ve actually found yourself living, as you’ve gone through your life? Assuming you’re a fan, which do you find the easiest “If” to live up to? The hardest?

Is the advice Kipling offers us in “If” relevant in the 21st century, or is it hopelessly Victorian and outdated? (The poem was written in 1895, but not published until 1910.)

Do you believe in “If” anymore? Does the country? Does the world?

Leave a Reply