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20 July 2018updated 09 Jan 2020 10:25am

Almost everything about the Rudyard Kipling row is stupid

The choice of poem is crass, the protest is counterproductive, the media circus around it inane. 

By Stephen Bush

One consequence of growing up in a church is that, just as the children of butchers tend to become vegetarians, you often develop a distaste for many of the ceremonies, because you have seen one too many of them, and you have an overdeveloped eye for the clichés that go with them.

And the greatest of these is the use of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. If you have been to more than, say, five church weddings, you have likely heard it. “Love is patient, love is kind,” Paul tells the Corinthians, “It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” It’s beautiful, but there’s a problem: Paul isn’t talking about romantic love – he is talking about the love of God.

The use of that verse irks me because it often – not always, but often – betrays a lack of seriousness about the religious underpinnings of a church wedding. I don’t have any objection to secular marriage ceremonies – I had one myself – but I feel that if you are going to make everyone else say, or at least mumble, some religious words, you ought to at least take the words you are saying seriously yourself.

But, of course, when people ask me what I thought of their wedding ceremonies, I don’t tell them I found their Biblical choices clichéd, and I certainly don’t storm the pulpit in a bid to force the happy couple to listen to something more appropriate like the Song of Solomon.

I don’t do this for two reasons: the first, of course, is that then I would miss the best part of any wedding, aka the reception, and the second is that storming the pulpit or criticising the betrothed isn’t a very good teachable moment. (I imagine that this is also why vicars, when asked to read the letter to Corinthians, don’t deliver a dressing down to would-be newlyweds.)

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The row over the destruction of a mural of Rudyard Kiplings’ “If” at the Manchester Students Union’s Steve Biko building makes me feel similarly. I have a great deal of appreciation for Kipling’s work, particularly the Just So Stories, a set of short stories about how the world and the animals were made, but also his fiction and poetry for adults.

But I find it hard to believe that the university officials who opted to put it up in the students’ union share my appreciation. Kipling’s “If” was written as advice to his son John, and was inspired by the actions of Leander Starr Jameson against the South African Republic. Jameson’s disastrous raid helped trigger the Second Boer War that helped set South Africa on the path to apartheid. It was the apartheid government that murdered Steve Biko, a political activist, who was beaten to death while incarcerated. Manchester students voted to change the name as part of their campaign against the regime – an irrelevant part of the history of the struggle in South Africa, but a proud part of Manchester student history.

Despite its origins, I like “If”. But it seems incongruous and in poor taste to choose it as a mural in a building named after a man who died because of the politics the poem championed, suggesting an ignorance both of Biko and of Kipling’s work on the part of the university administration.

Because, of course, despite the attempt to crowbar the row into a wider discussion about free speech on campus and to turn students being students into some wider insight into what the United Kingdom is like in 2018, the poem wasn’t chosen because of Kipling’s contribution to English literature, let alone to Manchester University specifically. (He had no connection with either the university or the city.)

It was chosen because someone at the University thought it was faintly inspiring and, knowing nothing about either Kipling or Biko, didn’t think about how jarring the association was. It’s public poetry as a close cousin to those inane posters with a cat hanging off a branch and the words “Hang in there!” written on them. We can only be grateful the university officials didn’t paint “there’s no problem you can’t beat” on the walls.

But the protest against it is ill-judged, too, not least because it was a case of painting over one good poem chosen because it sounds vaguely inspirational with another good poem that sounds vaguely inspirational – Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise – but still has no immediate connection to Biko or the University of Manchester. Rather like the initial decision to name the building after Biko, it shows an admirable desire to change the world but the theory of change as to how to do it is somewhat lacking. As a result, commentators, who seem desperate to spy a culture war everywhere, have somehow widened the conversation into whether or not Kipling’s work should be taught at all. “If” is just a somewhat crass poster choice, that’s all. 

Just as when you storm the pulpit at a wedding, no one wants to talk about theology afterwards, the conversation starts from “is defacing a mural good, Y/N?” rather than “is the mural in question witless?”

And that’s a shame, because the fact that the university officials – the actual adults in this confrontation, remember – appear to know so little about the history of their own university, the meaning of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry, or the apartheid struggle in South Africa is far more troubling to me than students engaging in their own long history of poorly-constructed protests.

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