Rudyard Kipling was an imperialist and a patriot – he certainly loved his country, indeed he loved it to death, shamelessly using his connections to arrange a commission in the Irish Guards for his hopelessly short-sighted son John, only for the boy to be killed on his first day in action at the battle of Loos in 1915, but Kipling’s patriotism was complex, as is evidenced by one of his strangest short stories ‘The Flag of Their Country’, which appeared in ‘Stalky and Co’, published in 1892.
When my late father, the novelist Anthony Price, read ‘Stalky and Co’ to us as children he left this story out, because he just couldn’t get his head around it; but reading it recently helped me face up to the Britain of 2022.
Stalky and Co, a collection of school stories, is Kipling’s answer to ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’, which is an unrealistic depiction of school life dripping with self-righteous Victorian sentimentality and religiosity. Stalky is set in Kipling’s own alma mater, a minor private boarding school in Westwood Ho!, an offshoot of Haileybury, which was founded to provide less expensive education largely for the sons of impecunious army officers. I would argue that this is the real thing, warts and all.
The book is a semi-autobiography, a sort of fiction – a collection of stories set in a reality to which much has been added. It is also a book that divides opinions, indeed many of his contemporaries were repulsed by it, seeing it as a celebration of teenage depravity, which it is not, even if it at times it makes for uncomfortable reading.
Snobbery with violence
The principal dramatis personae are three boys aged about fifteen: the goggle-eyed Beetle (Kipling), Stalky (based on a real classmate who later became a general) and an Anglo-Irish chum called M’Turk. These likely lads are no angels; small boys and small animals are subjected to all manner of abuse and they display considerable disdain for the locals – this is very much snobbery with violence. They break rules, smoke and conspire to make fools out of those whom they disrespect, but though they question notions of team and house spirit – a cardinal sin even in many Public Schools of today – the boys are not without a sense of duty and honour. They know they are being prepared to serve the Empire.
‘The Flag of their Country’ starts with the foundation of a school cadet corps, an institution that was coming into vogue at the time. But the boys, who know full well what real soldiering is about, are cynical about the notion of dressing up in uniforms and playing at soldiers with cut down Snider rifles. So they refuse to cooperate, which must have made many contemporary readers uncomfortable. The school sergeant, a retired NCO who helps with sport and discipline, is baffled. Don’t the boys love their country? I remember once being asked the same question by a Brexiteer who also confused nationalism with patriotism.
A dull Tory speaks of ‘patriotism’
Another strand enters into the story. A dull Tory MP, one Raymond Martin, invites himself to the school to speak on the subject of ‘patriotism’, and on a Saturday evening of all times. The egregious Martin misjudges his audience – he starts with a condescending “Well, boys …” and it is downhill thereafter. He reminds them that they will not be boys forever. They would grow up into men, because the boys of to-day make the men of to-morrow, and upon the men of to-morrow the fair fame of their glorious native land depends.
Life is not sport, he tells them, and names a few games, and then, as if to emphasise his point asserts that life is not ‘all marbles’. His teenage audience is horrified at the very idea that marbles might constitute an appropriate leisure activity for young gentlemen.
And it gets much, much worse. Martin continues:
“Some of you, doubtless, expect in a few years to have the honour of a commission from the Queen, and to wear a sword. Now, I myself had had some experience of these duties, as a Major in a volunteer regiment, and am glad to learn that a volunteer corps has been established in the school”.
According to Martin such an organisation “makes for a proper and healthy spirit, and would be of great benefit to the land they love and are so proud to belong to”. Some of those now present, looked forward to “leading their men against the bullets of England’s foes; to confronting the stricken field in all the pride of their youthful manhood”.
“In a raucous voice, he cried aloud little matters, like the hope of Honour and the dream of Glory, that boys do not discuss even with their most intimate equals, cheerfully assuming that, till he spoke, they had never considered these possibilities.”
He bombards the sons of serving army officers with insensitive references to relatives who have perished in the service of their country and urges them to emulate them. With such crude talk Martin ‘profaned the most secret places of their souls’. For the boys the lecture is a moral outrage that reaches its ‘peroration’ when the appalling Tory politician pulls from his waistcoat ‘the concrete symbol of their land worthy of all honour and reverence’ – a Union Flag – and waves it in front of them. He waits for a thunder of applause; it is not forthcoming and the headmaster wisely puts an end to the speech with a vote of thanks.
The flag waving, we are told ‘he used later with overwhelming success at a meeting of constituents, but the boys ‘sat, flushed and uneasy, in sour disgust’. Needless to say, the school sergeant, a diehard Conservative supporter, is also greatly impressed by Martin’s display of ‘patriotism’.
A jelly-bellied flag-flapper
Kipling explains their reaction to the flag:
“They had certainly seen the thing before—down at the coastguard station, or through a telescope, half-mast high when a brig went ashore on Braunton Sands; above the roof of the Golf-club, and in Keyte’s [sweetshop] window , where a certain kind of striped sweetmeat bore it in paper on each box. But the College never displayed it; it was no part of the scheme of their lives; the Head had never alluded to it; their fathers had not declared it unto them. It was a matter shut up, sacred and apart. What, in the name of everything caddish, was he driving at, who waved that horror before their eyes?”.
How can Kipling, a true patriot, be referring to the Union Flag as the thing and that horror? This must have confused many readers back then. Today this is precisely my reaction when I see the Prime Minister flanked by four union flags, or some wretched government minister sitting in front of a union flag, boasting about vaccines or a wonderful new Free Trade Agreement or even the family in the house opposite who fly a Union Flag on a flimsy pole come rain or shine, and never takes it down. That’s not to mention that government airliner painted red, white and blue. These charlatans, like Raymond Martin MP, offend my patriotic soul and I am 100% with Stalky when he dismisses Martin as ‘a jelly bellied flag flapper’. I am outraged at the way today’s Tory politicians hijack the quiet understated patriotism which most of us Britons feel and use it to whip up support for the hate-filled, xenophobic narrative that is tearing apart the country we love.
Kipling’s school, a bastion of honest patriotism, never displayed the flag, whilst this wretched populist government wants to see it fluttering everywhere, and those who don’t like it can be written off as treasonous ‘woke’ citizens of the world who hate the flag of their country.