A form of censorship
The news that Manchester students have defaced a mural of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ and replaced it comes as no surprise. Anything seen as even remotely linked to an ‘ism’ is a target – no matter how long ago it was or what the circumstances were. The Manchester students felt that a more representative poem for their university was one by the American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. “Black and brown voices are being written out of history,” claimed a student leader. Kipling, were he alive, might argue that it’s the other way around.
Let’s look at what students like the Manchester ones mentioned are actually doing. And of course, they are not alone. There’s the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oriel College, Oxford. There are demands that Princeton rename its Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs. The list goes on. What they are doing is, in effect, censoring Rudyard Kipling. They have painted over his words and replaced them with someone else’s. This is no different to a censor deleting a word or putting a black line over a body part they don’t want you to see. What these students are saying is ‘we don’t want you to see this, this man’s voice needs to be silenced and we have the right to do that.’ George Bernard Shaw once said that “assassination is an extreme form of censorship” and what these students have done is kill off Kipling’s words.
What gives them this right? They would argue that they are acting in the interests of diversification and of liberalism. Really? So, does diversification only include the voices you think should be heard? And isn’t censorship the very opposite of the liberal ideal? And where does it end? Will there come a day in this PC world when we can no longer watch Shakespeare because there aren’t any transgender leads?
‘If’ was written in 1985. Kipling is one of only eleven Brits to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, along with most of the kings and queens of England, eight British prime ministers and literary giants such as W.H. Auden, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth and John Keats. But the Manchester students argue that a poem by a Black American woman is more fitting than one by a “racist” white man.
To dismiss Kipling as nothing but a racist and colonialist is as predictable as it is wrong. This is a man who wrote superbly about the time he was living in. You may not agree with the politics of that time but that’s how the world was. Colonialism may have been appalling but it happened (and actually Kipling wrote extremely eloquently about the mistreatment of people under colonial rule). You have to look at anyone, be it a writer, fashion icon or a politician, in the context of their era. We might, for example, be astounded to see someone wearing Bay City Rollers tartan trousers today, but in 1976 it was perfectly acceptable.
I find this kind of erasing of history in the name of liberalism as terrifying as totalitarianism. They are certainly not acting for me when they paint over one of my favourite poems. Here as an act of defiance, it is for you to enjoy:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019