Monday, 3 April 2017

Thames Water

‘Thames Water’ – could there be a more stirring phrase to any William Morris enthusiast?  Kelmscott House in London looks out upon the Thames, Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire sits close to it too; the wonderful upriver trip between those two places constitutes the utopian narrative core of News from Nowhere, just as it had been the basis of Morris’s own family holidays in 1880 and 1881.  The Thames tributaries mattered greatly to him too: those memorable designs based on them at once come to mind, some of the most beautiful and enigmatic that Morris ever came up with, and he set up his Merton Abbey works on one of them, the Wandle.  To Morris and his male cronies, the Thames was a river to fish as well as to row upon.  Mackail notes that he and F.S. Ellis ‘had fished over most of the river between Windsor and Richmond’, and in later years he would often escape from political and business pressures in London to pull gudgeon, pike and perch out of the Thames at Kelmscott.

In our own time, however, Thames Water is the name of an international capitalist conglomerate which has just been fined £20,000,000 for polluting the river and its tributaries on a near-unimaginable scale.  In 2013 and 2014 it released some 1.4 billion litres of raw sewage into the river, causing vast destruction of fish stocks and environmental degradation.  Were these just accidental discharges, or rather systematic policy on the company’s part?  Well, the huge scale of them suggests to me the latter rather than the former, as does as the massive fine which Judge Francis Sheridan imposed on the company, in a prosecution brought by the Enviroment Agency.  One of the great joys for William Guest as he arrives in Morris’s utopia is that salmon have returned to the Thames, but it wouldn’t have surprised the author, who was a hard-headed realist as well as utopian thinker, that with international capital still running the show his beloved river should be – in the most literal and disgusting manner– full of shit.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Hyndman and Morris in Cambridge

I have sometimes toyed with the idea – especially now that my granddaughter is growing up there – of writing a book on William Morris in Cambridge as a counterpart to my William Morris in Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-1895 (Illuminati Books, 2007).  What has stopped me so far, I suppose, is a sense of disproportion in the materials across the two universities: Cambridge did not have the deep emotional resonance for Morris that Oxford so abundantly did, and in his later, campaigning years he only spoke there twice as opposed to seven times amidst the Arnoldian dreaming spires.

None the less, there would be interesting research questions to pursue in relation to those Cambridge visits, and some of them are actually posed to us by the participants themselves.  Here, for instance, is H.M. Hyndman, fellow-leader in the Democratic Federation, reflecting on the Cambridge political debate of 5 February 1884 in his The Record of an Adventurous Life (1911): ‘It is a little strange to recall now that in 1883 or 1884, I forget which year at the moment, I proposed an out-and-out Socialist Resolution at the Cambridge Union, of which I am a member, and Morris and J. L. Joynes came down to support me.  It was not a bad debate, and we actually took thirty-seven men into our Lobby.  What has become of those revolutionary undergraduates of more than a quarter of a century ago?’

Yes indeed: where are the snows – or in this case, revolutionary undergraduates – of yesteryear?  Would it be possible for the assiduous researcher to track down the names of Morris and Hyndman’s 37 youthful supporters that day, and then to follow through their subsequent careers to see to what extent the rest of their lives embodied (or not) the progressive politics they had displayed on that memorable occasion?  So whether there is or isn’t a full book’s worth to be written on ‘Morris in Cambridge’, there are still plenty of local tasks left to carry through under that suggestive rubric.

Friday, 3 March 2017

William Morris in Japan

Morris is fortunate indeed in having as energetic an advocate as Professor Yasuo Kawabata of Japan Women’s University in Tokyo.  In 2013 Kawabata brought out a translation of News from Nowhere into Japanese, an elegant, pocket-sized paperback in the ‘Bunko’ series from the prestigious publisher Iwanami Shoten.  With its maps of the book’s journeys across London and up the Thames, its copious notes and substantial Translator’s Afterword, the volume helpfully orientates Japanese readers towards Morris’s peculiarly English utopia. 

With his appetite for translation apparently undiminished by this achievement, Kawabata then collaborated with Economics Professor Hideaki Ouchi to produce in 2014 a Japanese version of Morris and Bax’s Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome (1893), a book which even over here is less well-known than it ought to be.  The volume is a sturdily produced hardback from Shobunsha, and in the accompanying essays, Kawabata situates this work within Morris’s personal and political biography, while Ouchi ranges across the politics and economics of communism. 

More recently still, Kawabata has produced a substantial monograph of his own, William Morris and His Legacy, published in Japanese last year by Iwanami Shoten.  The first part of the book explores the full range of Morris’s own aesthetic production, the second addresses Japanese figures strongly influenced by Morris such as the socialist and children’s literature author Kenji Miyazawa and the philosopher Yanagi Soetsu, founder of the Mingei folk art movement, and the third part reviews a selection of writings on the concepts of anarchy and beauty in the Victorian and modern periods (including some searching analyses of Fiona MacCarthy’s work).  John Ruskin is also a significant presence throughout.  We can perhaps now look forward to Professor Kawabata bringing Morris’s cultural and utopian theory into a full encounter with the complex postmodernity of the early twenty-first-century.

As if these endeavours were not enough, however, the indefatigable Kawabata has also written books on George Orwell and on George Best, and has been a central figure in the Japanese reception of Raymond Williams’s work.  We can no doubt expect much further admirable Morrisian work from him in the future, and all one can say as an English admirer is surely: more power to his elbow!

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Waking up from Dreams

One issue that has divided critics of News from Nowhere over the years is whether William Guest returns as a more effective fighter for communism as a result of what he has experienced in Morris’s utopia.  Norman Talbot had no doubt about this, informing us in 1990 that ‘Guest is back among us, more resolute than ever’.  But there are dissenting voices too, for example Barbara Gribble, who in 1985 announced sternly that ‘one expects him to take up once again his former and ineffectual habits’.  Closer inspection of the text won’t necessarily resolve this dispute.  If Guest does indeed appear rejuvenated on the upper Thames (which lends itself to the Talbot reading), he also gets hopelessly infatuated with a girl 36 years younger than himself and still loses his temper – ‘damned flunkies ... damned thieves’ (ch.XXIII) – just as he did at the Socialist League meeting – factors which suggest that Gribble may be right after all.

Is it an appropriate interpretive procedure to turn to related moments in other Morris works for guidance here?  In the 1857 poem ‘Spell-Bound’, for instance, the speaker tells us that ‘when the vision from me slips,/In colourless dawn I lie and moan,/And wander forth with fever’d blood,/That makes me start at little things’.  One can be so traumatised by the loss of dream-vision, whether that be of a romantic or a political nature, that one stumbles round distraught and disconsolate thereafter.  ‘Starting at little things’ isn’t entirely negative, since much of the strength of Morris’s early poetry comes from its attention to intense, fragmented perceptions and details.  But it hardly sounds like a very effective way of organising a political movement, which is presumably what Guest ought to be doing when he gets back home.  I’ve suggested in earlier posts that we might use material from Morris’s late romances to interpret details in News from Nowhere; and it may be that his early poetry can come to our assistance in this respect too.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

What is the Contemporary?

With the Trumpian counter-revolution underway at breakneck speed in the United States and proto-Fascist populist movements highly active across Europe too, this question, which was the title of a symposium held yesterday at Lancaster University, is certainly the right one to be asking.  But how might one approach an answer – if indeed there is such a thing?

Mike Greaney gave an intriguing reading of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 dystopia Never Let Me Go, in which human clones grow up towards a grim future of having their organs reaped.  Chinese postgraduate Muren Zhang did not speak about China, as I had thought she might (no account of the contemporary which ignores it, and Trump’s planned war against it, will be worth the paper it is written on), but instead reflected on neo-Victorian fiction as a tool for approaching the contemporary in its subtle reworkings of the past.  This is a topic I’ve pondered painfully myself, wondering how my treasured notion of writing a political sequel to Morris’s News from Nowhere might avoid just becoming neo-Victorian kitsch.

Lynne Pearce addressed issues of driving, day-dreaming and mobility, through a focus on the vexed topic of driverless cars – strange to hear Ernst Bloch and Gaston Bachelard brought into this framework!  And visiting speaker Professor Mark Currie gave a subtle paper on contingency and narrative theory, reflecting on the fraught relations between the apparent moment-by-moment freedom of narrative and the ‘always-already’ necessity under which it actually operates.  Extreme contingency, as he argued, is indeed now one of our pervasive self-understandings, a Raymond Williams-style ‘structure of feeling’, one might say.

I greatly enjoyed this event, though I also wanted some sharper politics to enter its mostly literary register.  It is the kind of occasion that the William Morris Society – or perhaps some splinter group within the Morris Society – should surely be running.  Owen Holland has valuably organised a print symposium on Kristin Ross’s recent Paris Commune book in the Society Journal, but even this remains too historicist, despite Ross’s efforts to link the Commune to early twenty-first-century political struggles.  To address the contemporary – or perhaps, more complexly, what Ernst Bloch used to call the non-synchronicity of the present – should be the prime task of a Morris Society worthy of a man who threw himself into his own contemporary crisis with unique energy and utopian hope. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

I call myself a Communist: Alain Badiou at 80

Why should William Morris enthusiasts concern themselves with the work of French philosopher Alain Badiou, who is eighty years old today?  Well, with his more technical philosophical work, such as his magnum opus Being and Event (1988), perhaps they needn’t and shouldn’t; it is the kind of foundational and systematic project that we thought the Derridean moment of French philosophy had done away with for good, and it can be forbiddingly mathematical too into the bargain (yet let us recall that Morris put a lover of mathematics, Bob the weaver, into the early chapters of News from Nowhere).

But with Badiou’s political thinking (which is not, after all, in the end divorced from his philosophy), Morrisians in my view definitely should take a lively interest.  For he is the major advocate in our time of what he terms the ‘communist hypothesis’, and if you regard Morris, at his strongest, as a communist thinker – ‘I call myself a Communist, and have no wish to qualify that word by joining any other to it’, he declared in May 1889 – then there is a nominal continuity here which may be worth exploring.  Moreover, since Badiou calls for a post-Leninist, non-party communism (whatever this might mean), then there may be more specific parallels with Morris’s own, pre-Leninist, utopian communist thinking that should be looked at.   The attempt to revive communist thinking today, in people like Badiou and Slavoj Žižek , may offer an opportunity for making Morris’s work current and suggestive in new ways.

So ‘joyeaux annniversaire’ to Alain Badiou – may he have many more years of pathbreaking thought and active militancy!  And if, in the age of Donald Trump, we seem further than ever from the reinvention of communism as a utopian social goal, then we shall need all the intellectual resources that we can draw on to that end, past and present.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Birds of Winter

I’ve always liked that early sentence in Mackail’s Morris biography which reads: ‘The redwings and fieldfares which they [Morris and his brothers] shot on winter holidays they were allowed to roast for supper’.  Fiona MacCarthy reproduces it almost exactly: ‘the boys with their shotguns would kill redwings, fieldfares, rabbits.  They were then allowed to roast the birds for supper’ (p.8).  It isn’t so much the shooting and eating which excites me here, as the ornithological precision: the overly familiar generic category of ‘thrush’ gets finetuned down into these much more interesting sub-categories.

These birds continued to fascinate Morris in his adult years.  One of the Wanderers in the first volume of The Earthly Paradise muses that ‘Five years had passed since the grey fieldfare sung/To me a dreaming youth laid neath the thorn’.  In the entry for July 29 in his 1871 Iceland Journal Morris writes of ‘a very good birch-wood, among which it is pleasant to see the thrushes (or redwings?) flitting about’.  In a letter from Kelmscott of October 1872 he notes that ‘The fieldfares, which are a winter bird and come from Norway, are chattering all about the berry trees now’.  And it has been suggested that the thrushes which inspired the famous ‘Strawberry Thief’ design of 1883 may themselves have been fieldfares.
It is certain, at any rate, that Morris’s interest in fieldfares has inspired some contemporary artists.  Jane Kendall has done a fieldfare linocut which is loosely based on the Strawberry Thief design; it is 15cm square, and handprinted in white ink on handmade lokta paper.  Jane Tomlinson’s ‘Berry Seeker’ painting is, in its slightly unsettling way, still more evocative of this extraordinary winter bird.  Images of both follow this post.  If only Morris had worked a fieldfare or redwing or two into his fine early poem ‘Winter Weather’ to enhance its already impressive seasonal local colour!

Here is the Jane Kendall image: 

And here the Jane Tomlinson: