The Kipling Conference at Canterbury

This was subtly different from most academic conferences, mostly because it was under the aegis of the Kipling Society. Slightly noticeable among the scholars was a leavening of distinguished looking chaps in blazers, most of whom,one could tell, had knowledge of a wider world than the academic one. Who did they remind me of? I finally decided that they were very like Keede, Burges and company, the Lodge members of Kipling’s late stories who take an interest in everything life has to offer, and cast an avuncular eye on people’s problems.

What did they make of the academics? If they nursed a suspicion that we were the sort

Who talk about the Aims of Art
And “theories” and “goals”

and so on, they didn’t show it, but were unfailingly positive and enthusiastic .

And so they should have been, because this was a gathering of fellow-devotees, and what came through paper after paper was the speaker’s enthralled appreciation of Kipling’s writing. There were many fascinated explorations of the stories (sometimes the same story generated totally different meanings in different sessions). There was less intense interest in the poetry maybe, but I heard a good defence of Gunga Din, and Daniel Karlin dissected the subtleties of that eight-line wonder Tin Fish.

Two talks that will stay on my mind were on Stalky and Co. Kaori Nagai spoke about Kipling’s use of quotation in that book in ways that got my mind working, and I think I may find myself writing something that takes a similar idea in a slightly different direction. Carloyn Oulton, talking about male frienship in Stalky and Co said things that illuminated Tell England, that rather awful book that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’ll be making a few modifications to my thesis later today. I’m sure others had wildly different favourites.

The keynote speakers were Christopher Hitchens and Benita Parry.

Hitchens is a performer. After his recent missionary work taking the gospel of godlessness to the darkest depths of Baptist America, we must have been a pretty easy audience. The start of his session was delayed slightly while we waited for late arrivals, so he entertained us with limericks. The best was Robert Conquest’s version of Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages”:

Seven ages: first puking and mewling,
Then very pissed off with one’s schooling,
Then fucks, and then fights,
Then judging chaps’ rights,
Then sitting in slippers, then drooling.

He talked about Kipling and America, especially about what RK meant in urging the Americans to “take up the White Man’s burden”. Whiteness and manliness were themes that recurred in many conference papers, and over the two days one picked up a rich sense of the complexity of Kipling’s thinking about these subjects. A point that Hitchens made that had never struck me before was that Gettysburg was the conquest of an essentially Anglo South by the predominantly Germanic North. This was the context in which Kipling and Theodore Roosevelt were considering the future role and character of America. Anyway, his was a terrifically enjoyable hour.

Professor Benita Parry’s keynote speech, at the end of the conference, was very different. She comes from the uncompromising Edward Said tradition of Post-Colonial criticism. Chillingly aware of the sins of Empire, she sees all Kipling’s writings as encouragements to perpetuate those sins.

Well, it’s not difficult to find some rather awful things in Kipling. Jan Montefiore gave a very good paper that drew attention to a rather unpleasant story (His Private Honour) but then contrasted it with some marvellous Kipling (The Jungle Book) to show the range and contradictions of the man. Professor Parry, though, concentrated almost entirely on the weaker side of Kipling. She easily proved that the thinnish early story William the Conqueror did not tell the full truth about Empire, and glamourised it. Fair enough, and I don’t know any critic who considers the story anything but minor Kipling. She didn’t tackle – for example – Lispeth (the very first story in Plain Tales and the subject of a good earlier paper) which shows Kipling’s keen awareness of some of the problems and contradictions of the Imperial project. That awareness is limited, and its limitations are worth exploring, but it ought to be acknowledged.
Then, claiming that Kipling did not grasp English life, she tried to prove her case with analysis of My Son’s Wife another rather minor story, about a couple of Hampstead socialists who inherit a country cottage and get thoroughly converted into country people, partly through reading Surtees and recognising the country folk around them as Surtees characters. The people of the countryside were seen only as stereotypes, Prof. Parry claimed dismissively.

Her case was rather undermined by the fact that one of the most enjoyable earlier talks had been precisely on this minor story, and on Kipling’s use of Surtees. Muireann O’Cinneade positively bubbled with enjoyment as she communicated the sheer fun of both authors. Professor Parry has maybe missed the joke. Or perhaps she has never had the experience the story describes, the (I’d have thought universal among educated people) experience of going to a strange place and enjoying the fact that the people there are fascinatingly types out of literature. Has she never been to New York and spotted people who have stepped out of a Woody Allen movie? (I even glimpsed what must be one of the last surviving Damon Runyon characters there once .) Has she never been to Dorset and seen in the distant twilight a solitary figure trudging through a landscape – clearly put there by Hardy? Is there really nobody in her department at Warwick who is straight out of a David Lodge novel? (On a related theme, by the way, Harry Ricketts spoke fascinatingly about Rupert Brooke heading to the South Seas and feeling himself turning into a Kipling character.)
Professor Parry attacked claims that Kipling was a modernist. There might be complexity of form, but he is looking backwards, not engaging with modernity or facing up to the contradictions of capitalism. Well, you could have fooled me. Kipling was fascinated by the symptoms of modernity. As soon as a new invention came along – aircraft, wireless, motor-cars, cinema, spectrography – Kipling was chatting eagerly to experts, and including it in his fiction. Yet at least two speakers talked about how technology in Kipling is often linked with the uincanny, and with anxiety in an odd but characteristic way. He is enthusiastic for the invention, but has a keen sense of the uncharted waters it might take us to.
As for capitalism, Kipling wasn’t against it (Nor am I – any alternative is likely to be nastier.). He was thrilled by its potential but also knew what it couldn’t do. Captains Courageous is interesting here. Harvey, the spoilt child of capital, goes through a process of education on the We’re Here. It’s not just toughening up. He learns that what seem like unimportant proletarian types are individuals with personalities, skills and weaknesses; he learns the value of community, and the joy of achievement. The end of the book is a fantasy of what capitalism could do if it has learnt these lessons. Not to Prof. Parry’s taste, maybe, but he’s tackling the subject.
“Where are the proletariat in Kipling?” she asked. Let’s look at some stories from Debits and Credits.
The central character of The Janeites is Humberstall, a hairdresser. (It’s just struck me that this job fits well with the theme of caring and nurturing in that story – I wish I’d mentioned it in my paper.) Anthony, his future brother-in-law, owns a taxi.  In A Madonna of the Trenches, Uncle Armine is “a cabinet-maker, an’ second-‘and furniture” – which I take to mean that he gets his living mending old furniture – while John Godsoe is a pensioned Army Sergeant. In The Wish House Mrs Ashcroft is an ex-cook, and her friend Mrs Kettley is the wife of a builder. In the last two of these stories especially, it is people from humble backgrounds who have the most intense and astonishing spiritual experiences.
So how do we classify these? Upper working-class? Lower middle? Certainly they are not the ruling class, but they are none of them faceless proletarian victims of the capitalist system, either.
Well no, Kipling doesn’t really do facelessness. He’s the man who revealed to the Victorians that the despised underclass of the army was made up of people as complicated as you or me.
A story that fascinates me is that non-story In the Interests of the Brethren. It begins with the banal and ordinary, a tobacconist’s shop of the sort that everyone took for granted. Gradually we discover more and more. Burges, the proprietor, is an exceptional figure, and in his quiet way a heroic one. he has suffered and overcome suffering. He takes the narrator (through “the humiliating dark”) to as banal a place as you could expect to find in the back streets of a suburb – it used to be a garage. When the doors are opened, we enter the lodge, a place of richness, of jewels, of mysteries and kindness. If places are metaphors in Kipling (and they often are) this is locale is a metaphor for the supposedly drab and ordinary person. Open the doors, and it’s full of wonders.

Well, if the aim of Prof Parry’s lecture was to make her hearers think and answer back, I guess it worked. I saw the Kipling Society chaps in a huddled cluster after the talk, though. I wonder what they made of it.

So I had a great time, and the Canterbury campus has rabbits hopping around in the evening. What more could you ask?

And these facts I learnt:

  • Cecil Rhodes devised a project for importing English songbirds to the Cape, to make the place more English.. When they got there they didn’t sing.

  • Bernard Shaw is the only person ever to have won both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar (the latter for the script of Pygmalion).

  • Some British soldiers in Afghanistan wear T-shirts printed with a quotation from Kipling:

When you’re wounded and left on Afganistan’s plains
And the women come out to cut up the remains
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

P.S. References and images for my own talk (on Kipling and Shell-Shock) can be found here.


  1. Alastair Wilson
    Posted September 10, 2007 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I wish I’d been able to attend.
    I don’t know if you’re actually quoting Professor Parry in your remarks on ‘My Son’s Wife’, but you might wish to note that it was not “a couple of Hampstead socialist”, but a single one, nor was it “a country cottage”. If those were Professor Parry’s remarks then it suggests that she cannot have read the tale with the care necessary if it is to be used for criticism.
    As regards the proletariat in Kipling’s tales, then you could have added many others (I know you were just taking one book as an example)- in particular, the two hedgers in ‘Friendly Brook’.
    But thank you for your comments – I look forward to reading as many of the papers as are published.

  2. Posted September 10, 2007 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    The mistakes were mine, I’m sure – it’s a while since I read the story, and I was describing it from memory without the text in front of me. Apologies.

  3. Kate Macdonald
    Posted September 11, 2007 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    I wish I’d been there! I did think about going, but, again, I’d’ve had to pay for it myself, and I can’t afford to do that very often each year.
    I do agree with your remarks about the post-colonialists gone mad re Kipling.

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