‘Kipling in the News’

I spent last Thursday and Friday at the Kipling in the News conference in London. It was rather a strange one, because it was what they call hybrid. Current restrictions and problems keep many from travelling, so only a few of us met at the City University near Islington. The rest joined in from afar – India, Italy, America, New Zealand…. It worked much better than I’d thought it would. (At least, it did for those of us in the room. It would be interesting to hear the experience of remote attendees.)

The general topic meant that several papers were on Kipling’s early journalism in India, a subject about which I knew little. But how well he could write, even as a teenager. And how well the journalistic discipline of clear factual writing helped him later when he tackled more ambitious tasks.

A particularly interesting paper (from Vinita Dhondiyal Bhatnagar) discussed his report on an opium factory (later reprinted in From Sea to Sea). I’m fascinated by the deadpan tone of this. Kipling’s early fiction (such as The Gate of The Hundred Sorrows ) makes it very clear that he was he was very aware of the human cost of the opium trade, and he must have known something at least of the discreditable Opium Wars with China, yet this report is straight-faced, non-judgmental. Kipling gives us no nudge that we should read irony into its last sentence: ‘And this is the way the drug, which yields such a splendid income to the Indian Government, is prepared.’ The factory is still there today, yielding an income to the Indian government and producing opium for medicinal purposes.

Harry Ricketts, Kipling’s biographer, spoke to us from New Zealand about following Kipling’s footsteps through Rajasthan (as described in Letters of Marque). He was especially good on the gap between what the biographer can see today and what the subject experienced a century before – but also on the rare moments of illumination – sometimes eerie illumination – when the literary pilgrim makes an electrifying contact with the past.

My own paper was on two stories ‘The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat’ and ‘Dayspring Mishandled’. I wasn’t totally happy with it. This conference had been postponed and postponed, for epidemic reasons, and the abstract submitted nearly two years ago. Now I’d have preferred to write something different about ‘Dayspring Mishandled’. This paper didn’t go far enough beyond my 2017 letter to the Kipling Journal, exploring the idea that the story makes most sense if we connect it with the unspeakable (unprintable in a family magazine) disease of syphilis. I need to write more on this story, in a longer format thatn a twenty-minute paper.

A very interesting contribution came from Gary Enstone, who is in charge of Bateman’s, and lives there. Since I had just been reading ‘My Son’s Wife’ I was especially interested by his accounts of the house’s periodic floodings. Gary Enstone told us that the flow of visitors at Bateman’s is very satisfactory (and getting back to pre-epidemic levels). He also said that fewer and fewer visitors arrive with much idea of who Kipling was. The National Trust enthusiasts are plentiful, coming to see a nice old house and to enjoy tea and scones – but they need an explanation of who Kipling was, and why he was important enough to have his house saved for the nation. The keenest literary pilgrims, apparently, are from Eastern Europe, where Kipling was one of the relatively few British authors in print during the communist years. (I think there could be an interesting study on Kipling and the Communists. He disliked Bolshevism in all its forms, yet his work had appeal to many Marxists. (There was a good paper at the conference on Kipling’s influence on the Italian Marxist Gramsci, and Bertolt Brecht adored Kipling’s Indian stories and poems – and stole from the copiously.)

It was encouraging to see young academics interested in Kipling (and not on the ‘He was a rotten old Imperialist’ level.) Schools fight shy of him these days, and long gone are the days when you could expect any educated reader to be familiar with his work. As we were reminded at the conference, when Boris Johnson, faced with a temple bell at Mandalay, began to recite the poem, a suave man in a grey suit swiftly told him that ‘We don’t do that.’ My sympathies are entirely with Boris; I couldn’t be anywhere near a temple bell without instinctively reciting that glorious piece of verse. Some will object that it is not a good poem. In some ways not – but it shares a crucial quality with the greatest poetry – it sings in the memory, and will not be forgotten.

These days Kipling is not respectable in many quarters; students in Manchester paint over his poems. To appreciate him you need to be able to cope with accepting two truths – that some of his political attitudes were fairly awful, and that he was a brilliant writer. Some of the slow-minded can’t manage this intellectual feat.

But of course, he’s so good that he’s not going to go away easily. As we found out last month when the ignominious retreat from Afghanistan had commentators reaching for the one poet who had something to say about that part of the world.

Two days immersion in Kipling did me good. So did meeting with other enthusiasts for literature and history. More, please.


  1. Posted September 14, 2021 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this George. Thoughtful and intriguing as ever. I agree about how much he was read by previous generations; my father and grandparents were so familiar with the range of his work, and that must be less common now. Good to see he’s still studied.

  2. Posted September 14, 2021 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Excellent stuff. I’ve always been hugely fond of Kipling and try to visit Bateman’s at least once a year. For a book collector like myself there’s no greater challenge – extremely prolific & with at least 4 major bibliographies to help you along.

  3. Joe Allegretti
    Posted September 14, 2021 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    This sounds fascinating! Any chance some of these papers were taped and will be available online? Thanks.

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