A page lead in the arts section of the Daily Telegraph
on 15 September caught my eye, partly because of the headline – We have lost the art of listening to one another
– and partly because there was a mention of Rudyard Kipling in the sub-heading. Kipling is, of course, a trigger name for those who scour contemporary institutions for legacies of the tainted past, as was demonstrated in July 2018 when students at Manchester University painted over a mural of his poem If
with the Maya Angelou poem, Still I Rise
The offending verse had been included in the refurbishment of the university's student union and the union's liberation and access officer, Sara Khan, said that the students had not been consulted about the art that would decorate the building. I cannot say what a liberation and access officer does but Ms Khan's objection to the lack of consultation is a fair point.
She also detailed the union's objection to Kipling, namely, that he is 'well-known as the author of The White Man's Burden
and a plethora of other work that sought to legitimate (sic) the British Empire's presence in India and dehumanise people of colour'.
I wonder if Ms Khan was aware that these indictments long predated her appearance on the scene, unless she is 85, in which case she would have been born in the same year that George Orwell wrote an essay on Kipling which addressed the fact that The Jungle Book
author was routinely condemned by the slur du jour of the left at that time, the allegation that he was a fascist. Orwell demolished the contention and at one point he refers to 'the way in which quotations are parroted to and fro without any attempt to look up their context or discover their meaning'.
If Orwell ridiculed the misapplication of fascist in this instance, he did not miss the mark in another regard. 'Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting,' he wrote, but he was also intrigued by the fact that Kipling's work had endured for half a century despite elitist disdain. Proof that the phenomenon persists to this day was demonstrated by the Telegraph
article cited earlier, which featured the choreographer, Akram Khan, who will premiere his version of The Jungle Book
in London next April.
Akram shares one view with his namesake at the Manchester student union (as did Orwell). 'Rudyard Kipling was a racist and he was imperialist and confident in saying that too. He believed in that system,' Akram said.
'But, you know, The Jungle Book
was inspired – and that I do give Kipling credit for – by huge research on Indian stories. The story that Disney took is only part of it and a lot of the stories are directly taken from Indian myth. What's important to me is: how do we reclaim it?'
I am with Akram, in that, as Orwell noted, context is crucial. I have never read any of Kipling's prose but several years ago I head Jim Croce sing his version of Gunga Din
. It has a memorable melody (you can hear it on YouTube) but what musician would now dare utter these lines:
But for all his dirty hide,
He was white, clear white inside,
When he went to tend the wounded under fire
Yet, the song, taken as a whole, has another message. It is told in the voice of a private in the British Army and the soldier's tone is racist – unashamedly but also authentically so – in his references to Gunga Din
, the Indian hanger-on who follows the troops into battle.
To put Gunga Din
into its all-important context, you should first read Tommy
, Kipling's ode to the private soldier. The poem describes the disdain with which the ordinary serviceman is regarded at home, when a pub refuses to serve him a pint and a music-hall bars him from entry as Kipling dissects the hypocrisy of those who mock 'uniforms that guard you as you sleep'.
Tommy Atkins, then, is at the bottom of one social heap and Gunga Din – obviously an Untouchable, although the poem never specifies as much – is at the foot of another, even more oppressive class system. Gunga Din is killed by a bullet while carrying the soldier to safety during a skirmish. The poem climaxes vividly as the soldier imagines himself in Hell, where Gunga Din will proffer 'drinks to poor damned souls' and finishes with the famous line:
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din
In a Scotland where backdated offence is damned as ferociously as anywhere else – as Janey Godley can testify – Kipling's take on common flawed humanity is still worth acknowledgment.
After all, can you imagine a Nazi SS officer reciting the line:
You're a better man than I am, Levi Cohen
Roddy Forsyth is a sports journalist, broadcaster, and author