Why the long-held view of Kipling is just so wrong

George Orwell called Rudyard Kipling a “jingo imperialist”, attacking him for racism, snobbery and his Empire obsession.

So Kipling's not quite the kind of man you’d expect the BBC to defend. But that’s exactly what Kipling’s Indian Adventure, which aired last night on BBC Two, did. This grown-up programme explained how Kipling’s literary career was forged in India, where he was a reporter from the age of 16 to 23.

As a journalist for the Civil and Military Gazette, Kipling was a clear-eyed observer, often affectionate towards his Indian subjects, and caustically funny about his British ones.

The programme's presenter, Patrick Hennessey, may seem Establishment (public school, Oxford and a bestseller about his service in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Grenadier Guards) but this was no tub-thumping, red-faced defence of Kipling. Instead, in a diffident, measured way, Hennessey put forward a convincing argument in Kipling’s favour, largely rooted in a close reading of his journalism and books.

When Kipling started working for the Gazette in 1882, he had the classic journalist’s qualification: he was a well-connected outsider.

He was born in India, but had gone back to Britain for a miserable education. His father, Lockwood Kipling, was head of the art school and museum in Lahore, where Rudyard Kipling began his career.

For all these contacts, Kipling never quite fitted in. He was un-coordinated, with terrible eyesight – the reason he failed to get into Sandhurst. And he hadn’t been thought clever enough for an Oxbridge scholarship.

So he landed on the shores of journalism, where so many misfits wash up. He was a natural. He called his time on the Gazette “seven years' hard” but it was an ideal literary apprenticeship, as he accumulated deep layers of detail about Indian life.

As a cub reporter, he covered colonial gymkhanas, tea parties and polo games. He graduated to the big news stories: riots and Viceroys’ visits. In Simla – the Viceroy’s summer residence in the Himalayan foothills – he noted romances between holidaying officers and “grass widows”, whose husbands were toiling on the boiling plains below.

Kipling wasn’t seduced by the high life, though. Even as a teenager, he had the confidence and intelligence to see how dull and dim the chat was at the Punjab Club, the upmarket colonial club in Lahore.

He shifted between the colonial classes, swigging beer with the army privates guarding Lahore Fort. It was here that Kipling sharpened his picture of the British soldier, as in ‘Tommy’:

“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’

But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.”

Kipling also applied his other journalistic gifts – observation and memory – to Indians of all classes. Unlike other British colonials, he dared to wander inside the walls of old Lahore at night, when he couldn’t sleep thanks to the intense heat.

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