Kipling’s shadow: Orwell, Rushdie and the critics

This piece follows on from my other post about Kipling here. Both first appeared as part of Norman Geras’ Writer’s Choice feature on his blog.

If we are ever to understand and appreciate Kipling’s art, we have to discard all our preconceptions about him and his world view. It is surprising how hard many critics find this; indeed, the dualities that are present in Kipling seem to draw similar contradictions – albeit unconsciously so – out of those who write about him.

The most egregious example, because perhaps the best known, is George Orwell, whose 1942 essay on Kipling begins as a review of TS Eliot’s collection of Kipling’s poetry. At its best, it reads as a conversation Orwell is having with himself, as if the different Kiplings represented different aspects of Orwell’s own personality. At its worst, which is most of it, Orwell’s essay is little more than a tirade:

It is no use pretending that Kipling’s view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilized person… [T]here is a definite strain of sadism in him… [H]e is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting… [His] is a crude, vulgar picture… Kipling himself was only half civilized… crude and vulgar… strange and even disgusting

And so on.

Clearly, these quotes are selective. But it would be a rare reader who came away from Orwell’s essay without the firm idea that, whatever caveats he threw in by way of praise, Orwell found Kipling to be a crude, vulgar and morally disgusting writer. Orwell’s justifications for such abusive epithets are thin, where they are not self-contradictory or entirely absent, and it is hard to see – on the basis of the essay – quite what drives Orwell’s obsessive loathing of its subject.
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The Jungle Book, Kipling and me


I mentioned a few weeks ago that Norman Geras had been kind enough to invite my to contribute a post to his Normblog series, Writer’s Choice. In the end, I contributed a lengthy piece about Kipling that we agreed should be split into two. I am now reposting them on my blog. The first of them follows; the other is here.

It took me a long time to decide who – or what – to write about for this piece. I felt instinctively it should be a book that reached back to my childhood, but which one, and why?

I was a bookish sort as a child – a tendency encouraged by the fact that we didn’t have a TV, which was rare among my peers even in the 1970s – and books formed such a large part of my emotional life and feel such a rooted part of my identity that it would be a kind of dishonesty to choose something less worn or well-beloved from the shelf.

Looking back I think the loss or suspension of self I experienced in books was perhaps a way of exerting or applying a measure of control over my world, keeping down whatever devils one had discovered reason to fear, a steadying hand, a harbour, as if each book were a kind of walled garden or city I could wander through invisible and safe. This was escapism, yes; but I suspect it was also an escape into a vision of what adulthood might be like, a version of a possible future guarded from shadow and dread alike by the notional securities of age and maturity.

In search of such comforts, and in search of company, too, and a host of other satisfactions I cannot or do not care to name, I dived readily into countless worlds – not undiscerningly, since there were certainly books and writers I heartily disliked – but always eager to worm into almost any title I could find.
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North, a film by Temujin Doran

Film-maker Temujin Doran contacted me in the summer of 2010 with the intention of making a film based on The Balloonist’s Tale in my book Impossible Journeys, which recounted the failed 1897 attempt by Salomon August Andrée to reach the North Pole by hot air balloon.

In the end, Doran decided to make a different film after his stay on Svalbard, and wonderful it is too: a fascinating and beautiful short documentary about the history and landscape of Svalbard and its role in the 20th century. Beyond the location, it has nothing to do with Andrée or Impossible Journeys, but for my part, I find it quietly moving.

The Dutch Church: the dissolution and its tragic aftermath

It is convenient for historians to conceive of history in neat discrete categories, but all too often that approach both obscures continuities and suggests that events are less brutally random than they are. There are, for instance, many ways of writing about the influence of the English Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries on Elizabethan drama, from the survival of catholic ritual culture to the routes and routines of the traveling players. Indeed, two of the principal London playhouses – the Theatre in Shoreditch and the Blackfriars – were built in the former precincts of religious houses.

But some connections are more direct yet.

For all that Tudor London was dominated by the solidity, tradition and history that churches represented, it was also a city in transition. Henry VIII’s Reformation had ruined the great religious houses of England, and London suffered no less than the rest of the country. In 1536, there had been 12 monasteries in and around London, including the Benedictine order at St Helens in Bishopsgate and the Augustinians outside the walls to the north, at Holywell Priory in Shoreditch. There were twelve principal houses of friars in London, too, among them the Carmelites at Whitefriars and Dominicans at Blackfriars – and many smaller houses, together with 25 major hospitals under the auspices of the old religious orders and again innumerable minor ones.

That was, of course, not in Shakespeare’s lifetime and barely in that of his father, John, who was probably born in 1530. Fifty-odd years on from the dissolution, the institutions and social structures that they supported – including care for the poor and the sick – were indeed long gone: they had disappeared with such speed that the Lord Mayor in 1537-8, Sir Richard Gresham, who lived in Milk Street, had pleaded for some hospital buildings and churches to be spared, because without them Londoners simply didn’t have enough of either.

The shock waves through the social order that the dissolution unleashed were certainly still being felt at the end of the century: more explicit social controls, such as the 1572 Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds, were required to deal with the fallout, using the judicial system to deal with problems such as poverty, incapacity and mental illness that had hitherto been accommodated, if not necessarily addressed, by the old religious orders.

The buildings themselves proved less tractable. Certainly some were destroyed; but it is far from clear how clean or complete the destruction was. The reality was most likely somewhat messier, with the impact of the Reformation painfully and plentifully visible across the city in broken walls and ruined cloisters, newly open spaces, building sites and smart new houses abutting the boundaries of the old and unhoused orders.
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Ralegh’s reputation in the 20th century

This article first appeared in the July issue of History Today. It was part of the magazine’s regular ‘From the Archives’ feature, and is a response to an excellent 1998 essay by Robert Lawson-Peebles titled ‘The Many Faces of Sir Walter Ralegh’, which traced Ralegh’s reputation through history. Lawson-Peebles essay can be viewed in History Today’s archives here.

Sir Walter Ralegh did not have a good 20th century. As Robert Lawson-Peebles’ excellent 1998 article illustrates, but does not quite say, the man – whose heroic persona was so well fashioned it could shine through every era since that in which he made his name – has struggled to find an identity fit for the modern age.

This may in part be due to a kind of exhaustion: the narratives with which he has been most associated shared an expansive views of England’s destiny – whether in terms of its imperial ambition or, as among the Parliamentarians and radicals of the 17th century, of its providential role in history. These ideas of England are not mutually exclusive; but they are not synonymous either. But if such visions were Ralegh’s only gift to us, then it is no surprise that his iconography should seem stale and jaded: they belong firmly in our past.

Yet Ralegh is still famous. Clive Owen played him with a moodily old-fashioned swagger opposite Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). He featured extensively – albeit unflatteringly – in a Blackadder episode. And anecdotes about Ralegh’s life still resonate, most notably the story of his laying a cloak on the ground to keep Elizabeth’s shoes clean. Indeed, Tom Stoppard and Marc Jacob were confident enough of its ubiquity to build a sequence on it in Shakespeare in Love (1998).

Such things are trivial, of course, but they indicate the tenacity of his purchase on our imaginations. More importantly, they also point to two facets of Ralegh that make him profoundly relevant to modern culture.

The first of these is that Ralegh was something very much like a celebrity during his lifetime. Certainly he achieved much and aspired to more, but the protean nature of his interests and ambitions were consistently overshadowed by his charisma, by the projection of an idea of himself as a star in the Elizabethan firmament, to be gazed at in envy and wonder.

The second is that Ralegh’s image was something he – and later his wife, Bess – laboured hard to establish and maintain. As Anna Beer established in her superb 2004 biography of the latter, Bess: The Life of Lady Ralegh, Wife to Sir Walter, after her husband’s death Bess proved herself to be a shrewd manipulator of the media, carefully releasing his often provocative unpublished political writings to obtain maximum impact and exposure.

But she was carrying on work Ralegh had begun himself. “In all that ever I observed in the course of worldly things,” he had written, “I ever found that men’s fortunes are oftener made by their tongues than by their virtues.” Whatever Ralegh’s other talents, he had a genius for self-imaging. If proof were needed for that statement it can be found in the fact that we have accepted Ralegh’s crafted versions of himself – the prophet of empire, the standard-bearer for political liberty, and so on – so readily for some four hundred years.

It follows from this that if we want to find a Ralegh for the 21st century we need an approach that questions what we think we know of him. The most fruitful recent insights into his life have come from those working on subjects tangential to him, through which we can glimpse a more complex, flawed and human character that belies the many myths. Anna Beer’s work is certainly one such, but I would also mention Alan Nelson’s Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Although some of groundwork had been laid by John Bossy and Dwight Peck, Nelson’s exploration of Oxford’s association with Ralegh in the late 1570s throws a brilliant light on the character and attitudes of the man before he found fame and favour.

Today, then, Ralegh’s status is less certain than it has ever been. He is that rare beast: a historical figure about whom everyone knows something, but whose greatness largely eludes us. Yet that could prove a blessing: finally free from the afterglow of his celebrity we may at last be able to examine his extraordinary allure without once again falling prey to it.

The Hollow Crown: Q&A

After the screening of both parts of Henry IV at the BFI on July 2 – reviewed here – Sam Mendes led a Q&A with the director Sir Richard Eyre and Simon Russell Beale, who played Falstaff.

Richard Eyre explained that Henry IV parts I and II were his second favourite Shakespeare plays after King Lear, and that he agreed to make the films on the condition that he could cast Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff.

Sam Mendes said that as producer his goal was to make a genuinely filmic adaptation of the tetralogy, rather than simply to film productions of the plays.

Eyre said that in adapting the text the brief he had been given was deliberately vague, being simply to make two two-hour films. He started with a mild reverence for the text, and having made a two-hour film of Lear before, he had a good idea of the kind of word-length that he would need to aim for, and so began work almost on an arithmetical basis. He felt that it helped to physically type out the script himself.

His experience of film-making before – with projects such as Iris – meant that he worked with the kinds of notes one gets from studio executives in mind. In particular questions such as. ‘Hasn’t this scene gone on too long?’. That led him to take Shakespeare’s innovation of cutting between the court and Falstaff’s circle at the tavern – which is already cinematic – a stage further, moving some scenes around to enable him to cut more quickly from one to the other.

The key point was to keep the film moving. Eyre said he turned to his friend Stephen Frears for help on this point, and Frears gave him two useful pieces of advice. First, always be aware of the scene and shot you have cut from to get to this point of the film; and likewise be aware of the scene and shot you are about to cut to. Second, if you can’t move the actor, then move the camera. How do you create a dynamic? Only one scene was shot as a performance, which was the play scene in which Falstaff takes on the role of Hal’s father, the king.

Beale noted the fact that he had done relatively little film work, and said that he found the experience extremely pleasurable, since it gave you the opportunity as an actor to localise emotions and performance precisely scene by scene in a way that is impossible in the theatre.

Eyre said that film making is 90% preparation and 10% inspiration. The two films were shot over just nine weeks. He used a two camera set-up throughout, one of which was a steadicam, so that he always had the options to switch from one to the other immediately with no break in the filming. Whereas on most shoots, the various aspects of production – make-up, lighting, production design and so forth – worked in isolation, he was very keen to ensure that it was fully collaborative from start to finish so everyone was aware of what the others were doing. Much more like the theatre, in fact.

Beale said that he had marvellous make-up and costume for the role, which, as soon as he had put it on, felt like 90% of the work of creating the character. Falstaff’s internal life is oddly elusive, he said. Falstaff soliloquises about other things – honour and drink and so on – but not about himself; we don’t hear what he feels. His feelings for Hal are likewise a mystery.

Beale said he came to the set somewhat scared given the elaborate language which Falstaff speaks, but also comforted by the fact that he has known men like him, who love to pontificate but who lead the unexamined life. Indeed, he said, the theatre used to be full of them.

Eyre said it was important in portraying Falstaff that he did not represent the heart of Merry England, as some literary critics liked to argue. Beale said that you don’t make moral judgements on your characters, but that nevertheless Falstaff was – ironically – a little man, a pub bore, a shit. Eyre added that Hal and Poins are also shits.

Beale noted Shakespeare’s ability to wrongfoot you, so that it is never clear what your reactions should be to any given scene.

He said the only cut he missed from the play was Falstaff’s line “I used to be thin”.

Both Eyre and Beale were full of praise for Tom Hiddleston, both as an actor and a man. Eyre revealed that he had been telling Hiddleston’s mother earlier how well mannered her son was on set, which he said was important and helpful. Both commented on Hiddleston’s memory, Beale noting that taken together, Hal/Henry V is the biggest part in Shakespeare, and Hiddleston was word perfect on both.

Eyre was asked about a wider theatrical distribution for the films; he replied that it broke his heart that there wouldn’t be one.

My reviews of the films in the series are here: Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V.