Sunday, 24 April 2016

Morning Star at 50

In his excellent 1991 article on News from Nowhere, Patrick Parrinder reminded us that ‘Morris (among his multifarious activities) was a newspaperman’, and he was, more specifically, a socialist newspaperman; so I think that he would have been as impressed as we should be that tomorrow is the fiftieth anniversary of the Morning Star newspaper.  To keep a daily paper ‘For Peace and Socialism’ (as its front page announces) going for half a century, particularly in the last couple of decades of neoliberalism, in which Raymond Williams’s ‘long revolution’ has been so thoroughly rolled back, is a major feat indeed.

The Morning Star began as The Daily Worker in January 1930, when it was the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain.  Just how Stalinist it was in those days is indicated by the fact that when in August 1940 it reported Trotsky’s assassination it did so under the headline: ‘A Counter Revolutionary Gangster Passes’.  My paternal grandfather Henry Pinkney, as a CPGB member, must have been reading the paper in those years, and I know that he used to sell it outside the gates of Betteshanger Colliery after he retired as a miner in 1959.  What he made of its metamorphosis into the Morning Star in April 1966, I do not know.

There are always questions to be asked about the political orientations of Left newspapers – including Morris’s own Commonweal.  Often, I find, today’s Morning Star doesn’t seem to be able to think much further Left than Jeremy Corbyn.  But it is always packed with crucial industrial, trade union, campaigning and international news than you won’t find in the mainstream press and media, and for a relatively thin newspaper (16 pages on weekdays) its cultural coverage is good too.  So we must be grateful for what we’ve got.  Let’s admire the political dedication that has kept the title in being for fifty years, and wish it another half century on behalf of Peace and Socialism too.  Whenever and wherever you see the Morning Star, do buy it – it needs and deserves our support.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Ellen's Basket

In his 1976 essay on ‘The Revision of News from Nowhere’ across its different textual manifestations, J. Alex Macdonald offers us a tiny but intriguing revisionary detail.  In the 1890 Commonweal version of the early morning meadow at Runnymede, Ellen does not have a basket; in the 1891 Reeves and Turner book version, she suddenly does: ‘that was Ellen, holding a basket in her hand’ (ch.XXIII).  Why, then, does Morris add a basket to this character and, more intriguingly, what might be in it? 

Baskets and the mystery of what they may contain are indeed something of a minor motif in the revisions of News from Nowhere; for in the road-mending episode (also not in the Commonweal version), William Guest spots ‘a good big basket that had hints about it of cold pie and wine’ (ch.VII).  Macdonald’s own explanation of Ellen’s new basket is modest enough: ‘the addition of it is a small touch which brings Ellen more clearly into view.  Among utopian novels News from Nowhere is almost unique in its loving attention to detail, especially of landscape and architecture’ (12). 

Fair enough; but then, almost any other daily object might have served the same purpose.  The interesting thing about baskets, surely, is that they contain things, and not only cold pies.  To my mind, the most striking fact we learn about Ellen in the course of the book is that she has been a pupil of old Hammond’s; so I am going to wager that her new basket is full of the sage of Bloomsbury’s writings about the history – and even perhaps the future - of Nowhere which she has taken out into the fields for a spot of plein air study before the rest of the Runnymede household wakes up.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Subtleties of Punctuation

In his lively book on How to Read a Poem, Terry Eagleton has an early approving mention of ‘the critic who said of some lines of T.S. Eliot: “There is something very sad about the punctuation”’ (p.3).  When I asked Terry which critic he meant by this, since there is no footnote in the book itself, he referred me to Gabriel Pearson’s essay in Graham Martin’s excellent albeit dated collection, Eliot in Perspective.

We don’t have very much in the way of studies of William Morris’s punctuation, which is why I welcome Stephen Arata’s comment, in his 2003 Broadview edition of Morris’s utopia, on ‘the dash – one of Morris’s favoured punctuation marks in News from Nowhere, and one he often uses to great effect.  To replace the dash, the Kelmscott edition [of the book] uses a combination of ellipses, commas, semi-colons, and colons, which somehow fails to achieve the rhythmical effects Morris achieved with the dash’ (p.49).

So here is a fine literary-critical task for someone to carry out: to analyse, with all the Empsonian or Ricksian subtlety one can command, the precise local rhythmic and semantic effects achieved by the Morris dash.

Friday, 18 March 2016

What's in a Logo?

We’ve had a while now to get used to that cute little red bird with a sprig in its beak which is the William Morris Society’s new logo, and in the Spring 2016 issue of the Society’s Magazine its designer, Angus Hyland of Pentagram, explains the thinking that went into it: ‘we looked at what visually speaking you had in your tool box … Very quickly the bird motif came to the fore … a long tradition of birds as symbols or logos … And people just like birds’.

I don’t doubt that Morris himself liked birds and that he often represented them in both his visual and his literary art; but I would want something stronger than ‘people just liking birds’ as justification for a Society logo.  That chirpy little red fellow certainly fits in – despite his colouring – with what we might call ‘green Morris’, a contemporary construction of our hero which sees him as benign environmentalist pioneer, peaceable and organicist in his tastes and politics. 

But Morris is actually a good deal less cosy than this.  Politically, he is a Communist not a Green; and in Pilgrims of Hope and News from Nowhere he is the poet of State massacres, civil war, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence, not just birds cheeping in the reed-beds of the upper Thames.  And in more purely literary terms, he is also the poet of ghosts, witches and monsters, of eerie metamorphosis and extreme, transformative violence (as Ingrid Hanson has finely shown). 

So can we come up with an apt logo for this more unsettling, indeed positively dangerous Morris?  Well, yes, if we turn to his epic poem Sigurd the Volsung and take those ‘two mighty wood-wolves’ of its first Book.  These brutes devour many of King Volsung’s sons, and later in that Book Sigmund and his own incestuously produced son Sinfiotli actually become wolves themselves: ‘as very wolves they grew/In outward shape and semblance, and they howled out wolvish things’.  So I’d happily replace the cheery red bird-and-sprig as Society logo with a snarling northern wolf (suitably stylised, of course); the latter would semiotically signal an altogether different kind of challenge to us.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

William Morris Exam

I’ve always liked those old volumes of poetry or criticism – often intended as school editions – which have lists of essay or exam questions at the back, so that you can test yourself out when you’ve finished the book.  My volume of Matthew Arnold’s poems in the King’s Treasuries of Literature is of this kind: ‘Do you consider that Arnold was master of the sonnet?’; ‘Show that Arnold is at his best when describing river scenery’; and so on.  So too is my old Macmillan Casebook anthology on The Tempest: ‘How important is music in the play?’; ‘Trace the interplay of feelings of wonder and disillusion in the play’, etc.

In the case of Morris, we could compile a whole series of such exams from Fiona MacCarthy’s 1996 biography.  Has any other biography ever asked itself so many questions, some just rhetorical, others indicating genuine puzzlement on the author’s part?  By extracting a run of these one could set a whole series of test papers on Morris and his circle.  So here, lifted out pretty much at random, is a set of such questions to get your teeth into (I’ve given page references in case you’re moved, after trying these, to look up MacCarthy’s own answers to them):

1.How original was Red House? (161)

2.Without Morris in fact would there have been a Gertrude Jekyll? (165)

3.Why did Jason succeed where Guenevere failed? (204)

4.Were Janey and Rossetti technically lovers? (225)

5. Is poetry socially useful or superfluous? (240 – a rather big topic, I admit)

6.What did Morris like so much about the sagas? (290)

7.A blue movie Morris? (353 – an enigmatic little teaser, that one)

8.What did Morris gain from Leek? (356 – the place, not the vegetable)

9.How successful was the [carpet=making] episode?  How Eastern were these carpets? (405)

10.What has been the reason for such longevity that even the well-educated middle classes of late-twentieth-century Britain can measure out their generations in William Morris rooms? (414)

11.But how idealistic was the Firm now in reality? (452)

12.How far was Mrs Morris conscious of her son’s activities? (483)

There are in fact so many self-posed questions in MacCarthy’s mighty tome that one could repeat this exercise many times over.