18 July 2012


On Monday the Buxton Festival hosted a reprise of the “Orwell versus Kipling” debate put on by the Orwell Prize at last year’s Oxford Literary Festival – and I did my bit for Orwell, along with the novelist Stuart Evers, with the distinguished Kipling biographers Charles Allen and Jan Montefiore supporting the other side and the former Labour MP Tony Wright in the chair. It was a daft exercise in many respects but great fun, and the audience was great. This is what I said:

Like many people here today, I’m sure, I first came across Kipling as a child – and I’ll never forget the immortal lines:
Now I'm the king of the swingers
Oh, the jungle VIP
I've reached the top and had to stop
And that's what botherin' me …
Yes, it was the 1967 Disney cartoon movie The Jungle Book, a global smash hit, which I went to see at the Purley Odeon with my dad and my sisters soon after it came out.

I wish I could report that it was the beginning of a lifelong enthusiasm for Kipling, but it wasn’t. I read The Jungle Book soon after I saw the film, but didn’t really like it: as Kipling enthusiasts said at the time, the film was not at all true to his stories, and, well, at the age of seven I wanted the lyrics of “Wanna Be Like You” and “Bare Necessities”, which weren’t there in the book. Kipling didn’t speak to me on my first encounter, and no one encouraged me to explore further. I read Kim after The Jungle Book, but didn’t quite understand it; and I came across “Gunga Din”, “Recessional”, “If” and “The White Man’s Burden” – Kipling’s greatest hits, if you like – in anthologies of poetry as a teenager.

But that was it. Kipling wasn’t on the secondary school English literature syllabus in the 1970s – thanks to F R Leavis and his followers in Cambridge, the only late 19th and early 20th century poets we were supposed to take seriously were Gerald Manley Hopkins, the first world war poets and of course the modernists, most importantly T S Eliot and Ezra Pound – and no one I knew recommended Kipling or explained why he mattered.

For years, I dismissed Kipling – largely unread – as old-fashioned and reactionary – both in his jingoistic politics and in his style of writing. It’s only in middle age that I’ve really got to know and appreciate Kipling’s work – and that has been as a by-product of my interest in the politics and popular culture of British imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

By contrast, I took to Orwell as soon as I discovered Animal Farm at the age of 12, on the recommendation of my grandfather, who had been a Tribune reader in the 1940s when Orwell was the paper’s literary editor. By the time I was 14, I’d worked my way through all his novels and books of reportage. I stopped exploring Orwell for a while when I went to university – Orwell was as absent from the reading list for Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford as Kipling had been from the syllabus for O- and A-level English – but I discovered his essays and journalism in my early 20s and have been a devotee ever since.

Now, I’m not claiming that my haphazard reading history teaches a general lesson. Everyone has missed key authors, and Kipling was by no means my only one. I’d never read Jonathan Swift or Daniel Defoe or Charles Dickens or George Eliot or George Gissing until my 20s. And everyone has their misplaced enthusiasms. Mine as a teenager were Aldous Huxley and George Bernard Shaw, both of whom I devoured – and neither of whom I can stand today.

But … you knew there was a “but” coming there … my own experience isn’t entirely irrelevant. It reflects the times in which I’ve lived. I was born in 1959, at the height of the cold war; and Orwell, though he died in 1950, was then, and remained through my early adult life, an author who addressed directly the most important political phenomenon of the time: the impact of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the degeneration of that revolution into a totalitarian police state. Kipling, by contrast, dealt with a world that had passed long ago: the era of aggressive imperialism when Britannia ruled the waves and – old joke – waived the rules.

Today, the context has changed. We’re more than 20 years on from the collapse of communism in east-central Europe, and the past 10 or 15 years have seen what on first sight appears to have been an extraordinary revitalisation of the imperialist spirit among the governments of the rich industrialised world. I don’t need to remind you about Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya, and as I speak the big powers are arguing about what to do about Syria and Iran. The White Man’s Burden is back big-time, in other words.

So – is it all over for Orwell and time for a Kipling revival? I don’t think so. I’ll accept that Kipling was a great populist and popular poet and short story writer who deserves a wide audience. And I’ll accept that the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath no longer matter in the way that they did for 40 years after Orwell’s death. But I think that Orwell remains more relevant to our age.

The reason is that Orwell was – is – much more than a novelist of his time and a chronicler of social conditions and political events that are now largely of historical interest. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that his novels should be dismissed as anachronisms or that his great books of reportage – Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalonia – are quaint records of a lost world. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are much more than historically specific satires, and even the novels of the 1930s – although flawed and very dated in many respects – have worn rather better than most of the work of Orwell’s peers. The books of reportage remain models of how to do it.

But if all that Orwell had done was the novels and books of reportage – I say “all”, even though it’s a massively impressive body of work – I don’t think he’d have quite the current relevance. For me, it’s Orwell as essayist and columnist – Orwell the intellectual journalist – that matters most in the early 21st century.

Six years ago, I put together a collection of his “As I Please” columns for Tribune for a book to mark the paper’s 70th anniversary – something I’d been meaning to do since I worked as its reviews editor – Orwell’s old job – in the 1980s. I was familiar with the material and knew it would make a good book, but I was slightly worried that there would be too much that was obscure to today’s reader. My concerns evaporated as I worked on the editing: yes, Orwell’s columns needed footnotes, but for the most part they were as accessible and as fresh as the day they were written. His range of subject matter as a journalist – not just in his Tribune columns, but across the board, in his work for Horizon, Partisan Review, Polemic and a host of other little magazines as well as in the Observer and the Manchester Evening News – is extraordinary, his prose style precise and demotic. “Politics and the English Language”, “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad”, “Why I Write” … all will be read for as long as there are readers – in the way that Swift and Defoe and Milton will be read.

And Kipling? Well, he’s certainly fascinating, and he’s certainly important – and I’d agree with Orwell that he is a more complex and more honest writer than many of his left and liberal critics claim. But I’m also with Orwell when he says:
It is no use pretending that Kipling's view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilized person. It is no use claiming, for instance, that when Kipling describes a British soldier beating a 'nigger' with a cleaning rod in order to get money out of him, he is acting merely as a reporter and does not necessarily approve what he describes. There is not the slightest sign anywhere in Kipling's work that he disapproves of that kind of conduct – on the contrary, there is a definite strain of sadism in him, over and above the brutality which a writer of that type has to have. Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly…
I’m afraid that you can’t read Kipling except in the context of his time. Orwell again:
Kipling belongs very definitely to the period 1885-1902. The Great War and its aftermath embittered him, but he shows little sign of having learned anything from any event later than the Boer War.
It’s a brutal summation, but one I think is accurate.

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