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Latest news and features from theguardian.com, the world's leading liberal voice

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    Violence, cruelty and sexual confusion are as much a part of boarding school literature as japes and cricket. Alex Renton surveys a troubled genre from Kipling to Rowling

    “Michael was ordered to take down his trousers and kneel on the headmaster’s sofa with the top half of his body hanging over one end of the sofa. The great man then gave him one terrific crack. After that there was a pause. The cane was put down and the headmaster began filling his pipe from a tin of tobacco. He also started to lecture the kneeling boy about sin and wrongdoing. Soon, the cane was picked up again and a second tremendous crack was administered upon the trembling buttocks. Then the pipe-filling business and the lecture went on for maybe 30 seconds. Then came the third crack of the cane ... At the end of it all, a basin, a sponge and a small clean towel were produced by the headmaster, and the victim was told to wash away the blood before pulling up his trousers.”

    The writer is Roald Dahl, on his school, Repton, in the early 1930s. Apart from one fact, it isn’t remarkable: it echoes accounts of boarding school stories in the 19th and 20th century that tell quite blithely of extraordinary violence and psychological cruelty. These appear to have been as traditional an element of the curriculum for the privileged child as were fagging, rugby, chapel and Latin. The notable detail Dahl provides is that the “great man” was a clergyman named Geoffrey Fisher, later to become the archbishop of Canterbury.

    Thousands of men and women who had suffered awfully, by their own admission, sent their children off for just the same

    The cast of sportsmen, swots, cowards and cads in Tom Brown’s School Days marched through hundreds of children's novels

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    Since the genre’s inception, its heroes have usually been privileged types. Less well-connected heroes would make better novels and wouldn’t go amiss in real life

    From the moment Erskine Childers created the British spy novel, in 1903’s The Riddle of the Sands, spying in fiction has been almost the sole preserve of the upper and middle classes. That novel’s hero, Carruthers, is a Foreign Office man who goes off to investigate German naval operations, in his spare time, for a bit of a jolly. And the pattern continues.

    Richard Hannay in John Buchan’s 1915 The Thirty-Nine Steps is sitting on a comfy mining fortune before getting caught up in the dastardly plans of the Germans. Eric Ambler’s protagonist in 1939’s The Mask of Dimitrios, Charles Latimer, is a novelist – hardly working-class hero material. W Somerset Maugham’s suave Ashenden (1928) is a playwright who swans about hotels in Switzerland, picking up gossip while millions die on the western front. None of these gentleman heroes needed to be spies.

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    Chris Riddell on the Conservative leader’s plea to the electorate

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    It was crass of the foreign secretary to declaim Mandalay while in Myanmar. But it was no less than we’ve come to expect from him

    Coincidences don’t get queasier. The Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas, centre of the horrific shooting, was named in 1998 in honour of Rudyard Kipling’s poem Mandalay– which the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, was recently shown on television reciting on a visit to Myanmar. The reason for this is that the hotel owners liked the classy, cod-colonial associations.

    Perhaps they also liked the idea of Las Vegas as a connoisseur sensualist’s playground, to be dreamed about when stuck back in the workaday world of home. (“Tho’ I walks with fifty ’ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,/An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?”) A new film by Myanmar director Midi Z, The Road to Mandalay, is also intended to reference Kipling, although in terms of bleakest irony. Well, I don’t think there’s anything evil about liking Kipling – it’s impossible to read, say, his Plain Tales From the Hills without seeing his brilliance.

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    1890 massacre in South Dakota | Alcohol as a social drug | Lib Dem leafleting | A better Kipling quote for Boris Johnson | Tom Petty and the Traveling Wilburys | Bathwater for baby and everyone else

    I was shocked to see you assert that the Las Vegas attack is the “deadliest mass shooting in modern US history” (‘We’ll be talking about gun laws’ – Trump, 4 October). That was in 1890, when up to 300 people, many of them women and children, were massacred at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota. Do the deaths of indigenous Americans not count?
    Kate Evans
    Street, Somerset

    • Something always seems to be missing in your analyses of the effects of alcohol (Dr Dillner’s dilemma, G2, 2 October). Alcohol is a social drug. When I go to the pub, I mix with friends. We chat and converse. We joke and laugh. Surely, as a single man, this is better for me than sitting alone, goggling at the TV every night.
    David Rainbird
    Wallasey, Wirral

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    The foreign secretary was caught on camera in Myanmar being a klutz again. But despite the furore, the poem Mandalay wasn’t an argument for colonialism

    During the foreign secretary’s visit to Myanmar last January his hosts in the capital, Yangon, took him across town to see the Shwedagon Pagoda, which as the repository of eight hairs from the head of Gautama Buddha is Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist site as well as a piece of spectacular architecture, gilded and bejewelled, that has been a prominent feature of the city’s skyline for at least 10 centuries. Rudyard Kipling wrote of his visit to Yangon (then Rangoon) in 1889 that “a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire … Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?”

    Related: The next PM: possible contenders to replace Theresa May

    Related: Used and abused by Boris Johnson – what did Kipling do to deserve that? | Peter Bradshaw

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    Rudyard Kipling | Contributor Namy | Taking it easy | Bathroom matters | Lambs’ lives

    I was delighted that Ian Jack made a visit to Rudyard Kipling’s home, Bateman’s, in light of Boris Johnson’s recent “gaffe” reciting a Kipling poem in Myanmar (Opinion, 7 October). I have worked at this beautiful house nestled in Sussex; the many Indian visitors to it have huge respect for the writer, and children in India still read his poems and stories at school. We learn and enjoy words from writers of the past whether we agree with their politics or not.
    Philipa Coughlan
    Beeston, Nottinghamshire

    • So Rafael Behr is now writing as Contributor Namy (Opinion [printed version], 11 October).
    Letter Writery
    (Toby Wood), Peterborough

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    British intelligence enlisted Jungle Book author to counter German propaganda by rewriting soldiers’ letters home

    He was one of Britain’s most celebrated writers of the 20th century, the Nobel prizewinning author of The Jungle Book. But Rudyard Kipling’s work for British intelligence during the first world war has been lost in the mists of time.

    Now new research has highlighted the extraordinary role the author of Kim and the poem If played in pushing out pro-empire propaganda designed to temper the threat of an insurrection among Indian soldiers fighting in France.

    Related: Rudyard Kipling’s writing enjoyed by Indians | Brief letters

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    From Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat to Franz Kafka’s ‘Ungeziefer’, linguistically gifted beasts have made for some of the most luminous characters in fiction

    Animal characters in works of fiction have generally been used in a rather anthropomorphic way. This can be seen as a problem, though, and many say that reading animals as symbols of us reduces them, makes them smaller, steals their right to be seen as subjects who have their unique, distinctive way of existing. Others say that it’s not a problem at all because it’s not as if animals – even though they’re each different in shape and thought – will ever get to know what we write about them, how we place, use and interpret them and give them meaning through human filters.

    Related: My Cat Yugoslavia review – the refugee experience as surreal comic fable

    Related: Top 10 Hollywood novels

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    Neil Gaiman introduces Rudyard Kipling’s The Gardener, a melancholy tale from 1925, as part of our seasonal series of short stories selected by leading novelists. Then, the story is read for you by an actor who is familiar from the films and theatre of Mike Leigh - Marion Bailey.

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    This week, our expert suggests a selection of books to rekindle the joy of reading in even the most battle-hardened litterateur

    Q: Having completed my MA in creative writing, I can’t read with pleasure any more because I am too busy analysing how the book I am reading is put together. Can you recommend books I can get lost in – page-turning literary fiction (or is that an oxymoron)?
    Colette Hill, Bath

    A: from Nicci Gerrard, whose most recent novel is The Twilight Hour; with her husband Sean French she writes psychological thrillers under the name of Nicci French.

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    Students replace poem If by ‘well-known racist’ with Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise

    Students at the University of Manchester have painted over a mural of a poem by Rudyard Kipling, arguing that the writer “dehumanised people of colour”.

    The poem If, which was written around 1895, had been painted on the wall of the university’s newly refurbished students’ union. But students painted over the verses, replacing them with the 1978 poem Still I Rise by theUS poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou.

    Related: Ode to whiteness: British poetry scene fails diversity test

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    Manchester university students defacing a Kipling poem draws mixed responses from readers

    I read the article about how at the University of Manchester the students painted over the Kipling mural and replaced it with a Maya Angelou poem (Report, 20 July). How disappointing. It seems England is following the same path as the US where our 19th- and early 20th-century racist past is concerned. We cannot go back and undo what was done but we can learn from them. Whitewashing the past, pretending it did not happen is not how we learn.

    In the US we are also selective in what monuments etc we tear down. Statues of Robert E Lee and other southerners must be torn down immediately, but the golden statue of a northern general in New York’s Central Park must not be touched, even though William T Sherman turned to the same scorched-earth policies against the Native Americans after the civil war in one of our most shameful periods of racism. Then I ask the question why Maya Angelou? Was there not an English poet who would better represent England, or maybe an Indian poet from the same generation as Kipling?
    Sonia Romaih
    San Diego, California, USA

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    Thoughts from John Anzani, Richard Maidment and Mike Wright following the decision to erase Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, from a display at the University of Manchester

    I feel that some correspondents are missing a key point regarding the replacement of a poem by Kipling with one by Maya Angelou in the students’ union building at the University of Manchester (Letters, 21 July). This took place as part of the extensive and continuing refurbishment programme of the building being undertaken this summer. It is not the removal of some long-standing artwork on a university building. 

    It is entirely appropriate that the executive of the students’ union should decide whether or not the proposed text is suitable for display in the union building, and to take note of protests by the membership. I note that the executive accept that they were not as familiar with all the details of the proposed decorative aspects of the project as they should have been. In due course they will be held accountable both for that and the decision itself by the membership through the democratic structures, as they will be for all other aspects of the refurbishment. As a life member of the union I support their decision to install the text by Maya Angelou.
    John Anzani
    Musselburgh, East Lothian

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    Middle-class cocaine use | Black photographers in Vogue | Maya Angelou and Rudyard Kipling | The Silk Roads | Whale-dolphin hybrid

    All cocaine use, regardless of class – in fact all illicit drug use, regardless of class – causes misery through the supply chain (Middle-class cocaine use fuels misery, says Met chief, 1 August). Worse, it lines the pockets of some of the nastiest people on the planet. The answer, of course, is to treat adults as adults and legalise, regulate and control the supply. That way everyone, the middle classes included, can enjoy their recreational drug of choice, and might even be able to choose fair trade cocaine if they so wish.
    Edward Collier
    Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

    • Regarding your feature “Why it takes Beyoncé to get a black photographer on the cover of US Vogue” (Shortcuts, G2, 1 August), I don’t want to suggest that photography as a profession is in any way liberal or enlightened, but for the record it should be noted that Gordon Parks worked for Vogue back in the 1960s.
    Neil Burgess
    Director, NB Pictures

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    Katherine Rundell was thrilled by the idea of plunging back into the world of Mowgli, Bagheera and Mother Wolf ... but could she create a prequel to The Jungle Book without killing the magic?

    There are a few books for children that operate as a type of personality test. One is The Wind in the Willows: every person is a Ratty, a Mole, a Toad or a Badger. Another is Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book: in each of us is a constellation of Baloo, Bagheera, Mother Wolf, Kaa and Shere Khan: the book is a kind of Myers Briggs personality test for the childhood soul.

    Many, perhaps most, people first come to The Jungle Book through the 1967 Disney animation. There’s a great deal to admire about the film, but it’s a very different beast; Walt Disney famously gave one of his screenwriters a copy of the book, saying: “The first thing I want you to do is not to read it.” The film is sunlit; the book is darker, sly and knowing where the Disney is optimistic, written with human venality full in mind. As a child I was drawn to the bookprecisely because it did not attempt to convince me that we are better than we are and thereby wrangle me indirectly into good behaviour. Mowgli was what I knew, at the age of eight, the best children were: stubborn, boastful, loving, egotistical, loyal, brave and wild. You wouldn’t necessarily like Mowgli were you to meet him on a bad day, but you would not be able to ignore how intensely alive he was.

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    The Jungle Book author’s vivid early stories from India are being published, many for the first time

    His stories have delighted generations of children and adults, while also being criticised for extolling the virtues of empire. Now, previously unknown tales by Rudyard Kipling are to be revealed in a major collection of his short fiction.

    Eighty-six stories and fragments dating primarily from the 1880s, when Kipling was a young journalist in India, feature in The Cause of Humanity and Other Stories, to be published next month.

    On the left-hand side is a set of commentaries. It’s Kipling talking to himself as he works through the story

    Related: Neil Gaiman on Rudyard Kipling's The Gardener – short story podcast

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