Depressing little stories about depressing little people are nothing new in the social media age, but one hovered into view last week that caused a minor stir. In Manchester University – which the league tables tell us is the 18th best seat of learning in which to spend your £27,000 or so tuition fee in Britain – the Students’ Union recently decided to graffiti over a brand new campus display of Kipling’s famous poem If. This wasn’t because they objected to this particular poem, but rather to the author, who had written some other things they probably didn’t like (or probably wouldn’t like, if they read them, which they won’t, because they object to him). As explained by the SU’s liberation and access officer (nope, me neither) this was done in order to “reclaim [the] history” – surely a phrase to chill the blood – and to show that the university is against imperialism and racism; student union members angry at not being consulted on a decision which wasn’t theirs to make therefore elected to daub paint all over the work of the jobbing artist who had just finished the piece.
They decided to cover If with a poem by American poet Maya Angelou – Still I Rise, an odd choice given that Angelou was an American civil rights activist whose work has no bearing whatsoever on Kipling or Britain’s role in India, but I guess if you want a very broad sweep indeed then it’ll do the job. Angelou was female and black, but perhaps most vitally of all, her poems have been on the GCSE syllabus, and might well be familiar to our new literati from their recent years in school. The picture taken at the end of this clumsy process says it all (and I’ve never seen ‘you’ spelled with so many ‘u’s, come to think of it). The little ‘ta-da!’ grin at the end has smugness worthy of a Guardianista – pleased as punch to have made a wall look woke, and all achieved with the simple step of vandalism, right down to the embarrassing error worthy of a nasty, smeared pub wall.
This smug glee at improving the world by assuming that everything would be better were things a bit more to the tastes of a select few is nothing new these days. It’s all part of a bigger picture. University education has billowed into unrecognisable shapes in recent decades: at first, the push to get more people through higher education still came with a modest grant system, which allowed arts degree courses in particular to play fast and loose, offering ever more niche modules and courses, new and wonderful concoctions that seemingly didn’t need to relate to the real world when simply having a degree still held currency. This slipped away very fast, as did the grants, until the point we are at now: degrees are incredibly expensive, guarantee you nothing at the end of the process, and learning in a higher education environment simply for the love of learning seems to be receding as students want bang for their buck. Universities plead poverty, but compare them to state or further education and they’re rolling in gold; these institutions have now doubled down, hermetic environments with their own vocabularies and belief systems, staying relevant in the only ways they can.
People take these vocabularies and belief systems out with them into the world, where they want desperately to feel that they’re doing something, but they lack the skills: instead, they lash out, they daub, they harass, they deconstruct. There have been several examples of this during the past year alone. Under the guise of “provoking debate”, paintings such as Hylas and the Nymphs are taken down because the presentation of beautiful women is now unpalatable, generating excellent press for the photographic artist involved in the decision; cafes get stormed for offering a breakfast called ‘the Winston’ as this “promotes colonialism”. It’s all rather worthy of a comedy sketch, but this is where we are now, and who knows where identity politics will take us next. Once the left stood for workers’ rights; now the mantra of “none for all and all for none” targets them at work. The actions are different, but they have similarities: bite-sized outrage, online currency, adherence to a fantastically feeble set of narratives and a desire to prevent, not to contribute.
To return to Rudyard Kipling, one can only assume that no one dismissing him as a racist has any understanding of him whatsoever. Blinded by the new acceptable face of mob mentality whereby any white man is fair game, and unable to appreciate that different times have different cultures, Kipling has become a dependable punchbag. Kipling lived in the days of Empire. Kipling was white, and male. Kipling wrote The White Man’s Burden, which is a simple and straight-faced advertisement for the evil British Empire. Isn’t it?
I first encountered Kipling during my own English degree. I’m afraid I know whereof I speak, see, and could rustle up a Marxist-feminist critique of a 14th-century poem if I really, really had to, although I like to think I also know full well this is bollocks and worthless. Anyway, during my course, one of the core modules was ‘Post-Colonial English’. On this course, and on others like it, Kipling seems to be offered up first as a kind of ghastly hors d’oeuvre, an example of how not to do it and how evil we white folks are, before you get to the rightful, incisive voices of those who lived under colonial rule. (I am, of course, sure that life for my ancestors, poor Irish immigrants employed in the Dowlais Ironworks in South Wales during the high days of Empire, was an absolute doddle because of their skin tone.)
Anyway, the book I was directed to read was Kim. This I did. The first tutorial discussion topic was to “identify Kipling’s subtle inclusion of evidence of British military power”. Of all the things to hone in on, the fact that Kim (the main protagonist) is seen sitting astride a cannon was held up as evidence that this is, at heart, a book about British military might. This is discussed, granted, but Kim is far more than that, and deserves far more. What I found in Kipling was a complex writer. Kim is a sophisticated novel whose protagonist spends years trying to fully understand his role as a young man neither fully British (actually Irish), nor quite Indian (Kipling himself was born in India). The characterisation of the Indians Kim meets on the streets, the descriptions of everything from foods to landscapes, are sensitive and affectionate in this unique coming of age novel. I didn’t read a book by a recalcitrant bigot; I read a book by someone with a unique perspective, of a young man who ultimately chooses to travel with a Tibetan lama, becoming his pupil. As Kim himself says to the holy man he loves and trusts, “I am not a Sahib. I am thy chela.” (“I am not a master. I am your servant.”) This is not a jingoistic book, in short, and had it been written by someone else, someone less pale and male, today’s students might well be hailing it a masterpiece. And Kim only makes up a fraction of Kipling’s literary output, from poems which resemble music hall songs to children’s stories and scathing indictments of his own country’s behaviour. By all means dislike Rudyard Kipling, but have the grace and intelligence to actually read him. Engage with the ideas. Don’t plaster his best-loved lines with paint, you cowards. You aren’t fit to lick his boots.
Arts heritage and history is under steady attack: it’s a death of a thousand cuts as the world is sliced, a little at a time, into an approved version: a poem goes here, then a painting goes there. Whilst it’s always the case that each generation seeks to establish themselves, and each generation seems miles apart from those who are older, it seems to me that we’re not seeing the old order replaced by something shocking or gratuitously different this time. We are not being challenged; we are instead allowing the hapless few who lurk on the fringes of academia (and are conversant in the empowering language of victimhood) to shut things down, to literally scrawl over the top of them, and to replace them with nothing better, except a silence and a void that comforts the very few. Nothing nobler, nothing greater is forthcoming, and whilst these hapless few might insinuate and censor, they’re nonetheless utterly dependent on the very things they seek to attack. They need a host, and they’re not done yet. For the rest of us, many of whom have spent years laughing at this kind of fretful search for the problematic, perhaps we have laughed just too long. I’m starting to find it all rather less amusing now.