Alone upon the housetops, to the North
I turn and watch the lightning in the sky,
The glamour of thy footsteps in the North,
Come back to me, Beloved, or I die…
Who wrote those opening lines of a poem? Perhaps a poet from north-western India, perhaps in Urdu? Well, the poet was born in India and his father was a Curator at the Lahore Museum. But we tend to overlook his work because he was a British apologist for Empire who sometimes said silly things about Indians.
In happier moments, Rudyard Kipling, who penned the above lines, was inspired by a love of Indian culture to write some of his best work. In one story, the vahans of the Hindu gods decide whether or not to allow a bridge built over the Ganga Mai to stand or be washed away; in another, the prime minister of an Indian state abandons that life up to go into the hills as a holy man among villagers and animals.
Kipling's novel, Kim, though often as trivial as a Boy's Own story, offers a moving study of the relationship between a bazaar urchin as mischievous and clever as Krishna and an old Tibetan lama whose chela he becomes. His Jungle Books handsomely reflect the unique place held by animals in a culture that has given us the Jataka and the Panchatantra, stories from Arabic versions of which were among the first printed books in Europe.
Leicester? A city not normally counted among places to visit in England. But that is changing. Leicester, as its name indicates, is the city of Leir, the king better known to us in his variant spelling of Lear, the occasion for Shakespeare to write many of the most stunning (and sublimely simple) lines in English: lines such as “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life/ And thou no breath at all?”
Recently, Leicester has come into prominence on account of another king made memorable by Shakespeare, Richard III: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse”. Five years ago, the bones of the king, who lost his horse and kingdom on the nearby battlefield of Bosworth, were discovered in astonishing circumstances under a car park in the city.
This city associated with the ancient English kings is distinctive in another way: it is projected to become the first in the land to have a British Asian majority.
The Football Team
Leicester came into further prominence in 2015-6 on account of the performance of its football team. The team, that usually struggles to stay in the Premier League, made a promising start to the season under its new manager, Claudio Ranieri, an engaging figure who, at 63, was something of a has-been, a never-quite-was, his appointment questioned by players and fans alike.
In November, one-third of the way into the season, Leicester went top of the league and was already approaching the magic figure of 40 points, perennially thought to be enough to avoid any possibility of relegation. The Guardian newspaper interviewed Ranieriat this time and he said in slightly broken English: “Nobody can expect us at this level after 13 matches”. His ambition was still focused on obtaining 40 points.
Signor Ranieri was not very fluent in English: when manager at his previous English club, Chelsea, a dozen years previously, his ideas often had to be translated by those players in the dressing room who knew both Italian and English. Although his English was said to have “come on a lot” since he joined Leicester, when wishing to make himself clear to an interviewer, he found it easier to refer to the words of an English poem.
This poem Ranieri learnt by heart as a boy and it exerted a strong effect on him. It was a poem that people in England of his generation also had to learn in school and long remained a popular favorite. It is Kipling's “If”.
“This fantastic poem”, as Ranieri calls it, opens:
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
And make allowance for their doubting too…
The advice given to a young son in “If”, like that given by Polonius in Hamletto his son Laertes, is actually rather worthwhile and what spoils it perhaps is only the sententious tone in which it may be delivered.
The particular lines that remained in Ranieri's mind were:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same…
Match by match, he said, he kept thinking of these lines. Victory or defeat, they told him, have the same face.
This shows a remarkable degree of detachment in the manager of a competitive football team. Ranierisaid he was simply “curious” to see how the next stretch of the season would go. The commentators were much less detached: Leicester had secured their early victories against teams as unfashionable as themselves: they were about to be cut down to size by the top teams they played next.
The lines in “If” concerning triumph and disaster provide the rhyme with earlier lines that advise:
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master,
If you can think - and not make thought your aim…
Did Ranieri dream the dream? No, he replied, others might dream but those who work in football must work. As for thinking, it was not long before Ranieri's nickname of Tinkerman would be modified to Thinkerman.
Ranieri's central commitment to work and will-power is also central to “If”:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after it has gone
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to you: Hold on...
Ranieri continued: “My idea about football is to play well but even if you can't always play well one thing I want is your character, your spirit. That is all I can ask of you”. The word “character” has now gone out of fashion in English culture but once upon a time it was central to the idea of an education.
Ranieri had first talked to The Guardian about the inspiration he drew from “If” when he was manager of Chelsea. He understood Kipling to mean that triumph and disaster were both impostors because they can change a man. He wished to remain “in the middle”, that is, unchanged by victory or defeat.
As we know, Leicester did go on to be the unlikeliest of Champions in 2016, finishing on not 40 but 81 points, ten clear of their nearest rivals. Of course it was a miracle. Leicester was back in their old place the next season and Ranieri was once again sacked.
Before that familiar disaster, Ranieri had finally had his moment of extraordinary triumph. When asked to what he attributed his success and that of his team, he met it with a dispassion that would have pleased both his mentor Kipling and Leicester's Hindu citizens. “It's karma,” he said.
John Drew was formerly captain of the UNB Redshirts soccer team in Canada.