Sunday, 12 August 2018


Magic moments don’t come often in life, so when the memory of one rises, I indulge myself in the glory of it.

I was reading about how the students of Manchester University chose to remove Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ from their Student Union walls.

The university’s Liberation and Access Officer, Sara Khan, said:

“We believe that Kipling stands for the opposite of liberation, empowerment and human rights…”

My eyes blurred over the print, my mind filling with memories from 2006…

I was in the front passenger seat of a Foroige minibus, looking back at my squad of 10 teenage Traveller boys. We were about to participate in the World Cup Five-A-Side competition.

16 youth squads from projects around the country were heading for Drom’s fantastic facilities, each representing a World Cup nation.

We were Portugal, and weeks before we’d managed to source the Portuguese national strip for the lads. They were thrilled to see the famous burgundy shirts.

“Can we wear them tonight, Charlie? Can we wear them now? Go on Charlie! Can we? I’m putting mine on any feckin’ way!”

“Oi! Leave those shirts alone. You’ll be playing three games on the day, ‘cos it’s a group stage, so those strips have to last and look good ’til at least the third game.”

“Til the feckin' final!”

“Yes, Thomas, we’ll see. First though we need to train. Right! Heads up lads, look forward. After me: We are Portugal. We play for Honour.”

“We are Portugal. We Play For Money!” they chorused in return, as always collapsing into giggles.

I knew that on the big day they’d be excited, nervous and slightly over-heated. If I played my cards right I could harness that excess energy and help them apply it to create a great experience, but what would captivate them?

What might make them feel calm, strong, unified and confident?

There could be some at the competition prejudiced against them and unafraid to voice their feelings. What could I do or say that would make these economically-deprived teenage boys from east-side estates think before they acted?

Words. That’s my way.

Immediately I thought of ‘If’, printed it out and practiced reading it carefully.

On the morning of the competition I was dry-mouth nervous. This was a gamble. There was a distinct possibility my sudden diversion into the world of poetry might be a colossal disaster.

Maybe they’d snort in mystification and think me a pretentious wanker, yet as I looked at Kipling’s words, I felt confident he was talking their language.

The word ‘classic’ can be applied, when a poem written in 1909 can speak to Traveller lads in 2006.

Before we drove out of the Community Centre car park in Ballybane, I turned around in my seat and faced them.

“Right lads. Listen up. I’m going to read you something.”

“Not now Charlie. Let’s get going.”

“Yes, now. There will be no talking until I finish. None. Right? Good. Now listen.”

I started slowly, doing my best to milk the most meaning from the beautiful words.

“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.”


As I read I glanced over my sheet of paper and saw to my astonishment that every single boy was enthralled; emotionally and spiritually sucked in to these timeless ideals.

“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.”


Out of the corner of my eye I saw John and Sean, their chins dropped, mouths agape.

“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!”

I paused for a few seconds, to give us time to take it all in. Nobody twitched, sniffed or blinked.

“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!”

Far from interruptions, the end was met by a collective silence I’d never experienced before, followed by sighs and grunts of teenage approval:

“Fuckin’ hell, Charlie!”

A rare moment of magic, made possible by poetry.

The students of Manchester University can write whatever they want on their walls, but for me there is no controversy. All of us are flawed; artistic types notoriously so.

Be it Kipling, Bowie or Picasso, what’s important is the art, not the creator.

Kipling’s poetry is of its time and place, and on occasion overtly racist, yet just because it is now fashionable to judge the art of yesterday by the standards of today, I will never stop loving ‘If’.

©Charlie Adley

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