Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Where are you, President Sanders?

The US Democratic Party establishment has now paid the highest of all electoral prices for previously sabotaging the candidacy of veteran socialist Bernie Sanders in favour of such a deeply compromised neo-liberal insider as Hillary Clinton.   At moments of deep national crisis and self-division, if you do not offer working-class voters a leftwing populism, you will tend to get a populism of the right –  and sometimes the far right – instead, as we ourselves recently saw with the Brexit vote.  Donald Trump appealed to an American working class which has lost out so deeply to globalisation, with many of its traditional manufacturing jobs exported overseas, and waves of mass immigration undercutting its grasp on the remaining low-wage service jobs at home. 

Can left-liberalism, or even the metropolitan Left itself, simply not see the truth in such arguments, or how deeply they accord with the experience of the US “rustbelt” or of our own working-class neighbourhoods?  Good as he is on many other policies, Jeremy Corbyn clearly doesn’t have a clue on this, as when he announced recently, of EU immigration to London, “I don’t think too many have come”.  Until we have a Left politics that can actually tap into contemporary working-class anxieties, as Sanders in his campaign to be Democratic presidential nominee did indeed seem to be doing, it will be the Right – Trump in the US, the Tory hard-Brexiteers or UKIP over here – that capitalises on the very profound disaffection with the current world economic system that so clearly exists.  

No William Morris link worked in here, I admit; but today's political events are so momentous I feel I can justifiably do without one for once.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

In Defence of Libraries

In her epic biography of Morris, Fiona MacCarthy calls him ‘one of nature’s library users, perhaps because he came to behave as if he owned them’; and she tells H.M. Hyndman’s story of Morris effortlessly dating illuminated missals in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.  In News from Nowhere Henry Morsom travels to Oxford to ‘get a book or two’ out of the Bodleian, so it is good to know that in utopia that prestigious institution will be democratised, and become a lending rather than purely reference library.  I think we can safely assume, then, that Morris would support today’s demonstration in London in defence of public libraries, particularly since it involves a march between those eminently Morrisian locations, the British Library and Trafalgar Square.

As an excellent article in today’s Guardian informs us: 1/ spending by councils on library services fell by 20% between 2010 and 2015; 2/ 25% of all jobs in libraries – some 8000 in total – have been lost since May 2010; and 3/ one in eight council-run libraries has been closed or transferred out of the public sector in the past six years.  We might have thought the Tory austerity project had been thoroughly overtaken by the complications of Brexit, but no, it is alive and viciously kicking, just as much as it ever was in the Cameron-Osborne years.  Our public libraries, which are such crucial cultural resources for disadvantaged families (as I know from my own childhood), are being butchered by the Conservatives, so more power to the elbows of our admirable London protestors!

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Nephews and Nieces

Many years ago I gave a paper on ‘The Politics of The Rainbow’ to a meeting of the D.H. Lawrence Society in Eastwood Public Library.  Since this was a gathering of amateur enthusiasts, my rather academic paper was perhaps not ideally judged for the occasion.  None the less, everyone listened attentively, and after some thoughtful questions, as the meeting broke up, a little elderly lady sitting at the front came up to me, shook my hand cheerfully, and said, ‘Thank you for your paper, Mr Pinkney, I think Uncle Bert would really have liked that’.  Uncle Bert!  I had hardly, before that moment, even wondered what the H. in D.H. Lawrence actually stood for; and here I now was, to my amazement, meeting his last surviving niece, who had always known him by the contracted form of his middle name Herbert.

That was a wonderful moment for me as a Lawrence scholar, and I can still see the fondness in her eyes as she recalled her Uncle in thanking me.  All these years later I know that kind of fondness myself at firsthand, as when my sister Carole and I lovingly recall our Uncle Harry – miner, sailor in the Royal Navy in World War Two, and prison-officer thereafter - who died seven years ago.  So I am struck, having become a Morris critic  in the meantime, by how little we get in the biographies, all the way from Mackail to MacCarthy, of what William Morris’s nephews and nieces made of him.  Uncle William must surely have been as memorable a figure as Uncle Bert or Uncle Harry, yet we don’t seem to have much in the way of memories of or tributes to him from his gaggle of nephews and nieces.  Or am I missing something here?

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Sanitising William Morris

On a recent trip down to the Cotswolds to meet my Canadian friend Craig Dowler, I picked up a leaflet for ‘Kelmscott Manor: The Inspirational Cotswolds Retreat of William Morris’ in the pub where we had arranged to have lunch.  This leaflet has a splendid photo of the porch and gables of the building on its front cover, pretty much the same view in fact as serves for C.M. Gere’s design for the engraved frontispiece to the 1893 Kelmscott edition of News from Nowhere.  But of Morris’s socialism, you will not find a trace in this document; it has all been edited out.

We read that ‘William Morris – writer, designer and craftsman – first saw it [the Manor] in 1871’.  Well, I suppose it’s technically correct to leave ‘socialist’ out of that list of Morris’s activities, since he did not commit himself to the revolutionary cause until 1883.  But when the text continues: ‘It became his country retreat and inspired many of his designs and writings, influencing his thinking on environmental issues and building conservation’, then we clearly see a sanitising of Morris’s politics, a substitution of vaguely Green concerns for what were in his case also militantly Red ones.  Had that last sentence read ‘influencing his thinking on environmental issues and building conservation, and affording a major focus for his communist utopia News from Nowhere’, then we would have had the full actual range of Morris’s thinking and activity.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Questions about William Guest

I’ve been thinking of writing a talk, perhaps for delivery one day in the Kelmscott coach house, which would be entitled ‘Some Reflections on William Guest in News from Nowhere’, and which would attempt to answer a series of questions about Morris’s utopian narrator that have always interested and puzzled me.  But before I do so, I thought I’d share my thirteen questions and canvass the opinions of readers of this blog.  Are there other issues which you think should be addressed about William Guest?  If so, please post them via the Comments facility below and perhaps we’ll arrive at a collective sense of what intrigues us about this strange and memorable Morrisian character.

1.Why does he behave so oddly at the political meeting that opens the book?

2.What do we learn (or what can we infer) of his social background?

3.Is he or isn’t he William Morris?

4.Why, when he arrives in Nowhere, does he choose the surname ‘Guest’?

5.Why doesn’t he just tell the Nowherians that he has come from another time instead of being so evasive about this?

6.Why is he 56 years old?  What is the textual function or necessity of this fact?

7.Is he really old Hammond’s grandfather, and how much does it matter if he is?

8.Is it really his own literary works and visual image that he sees spread around Nowhere?

9.Does he actually grow younger rowing up the Thames?

10.How many times does he go swimming in the book?

11.Did he ever really have a chance of a relationship with Ellen?

12.Would he have done better with any of the other women in the book?

13.Why does he have to go back to the 1890s, and how will he get on when he returns there?

I look forward to your thoughts!

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Olympic Success under the Microscope

What would a Morrisian analysis of the current spectacular UK Olympic success look like?  There would, of course, be a standard Marxist critique here, along the lines of ‘false consciousness’ or ‘bread and circuses’.  In a neo-liberal epoch of extreme and increasing inequality, and of major economic instability since 2008, let's keep the masses happy and diverted with huge colourful shows like London 2012 and Rio 2016.

I think we might feel a more local irony too.  If the BBC and UK newspapers are frantically pumping out news of all the Team GB medals to cheer us (and themselves) up after the decision for Brexit in the recent European Union referendum, we can enjoy the irony that it was precisely the artificially inflated nationalism and patriotism that they invariably indulge in so repulsively on such occasions which played a significant part in producing that anti-EU result in the first place (though there were also other, and better, reasons for wanting it). 

But a more specifically Morrisian critique of the Olympics would concentrate on the nature of work in our society.  What we currently have, you might say (to caricature just a little), is a nation of coach potatoes, suffering from alarming rates of obesity and diabetes, obsessively watching on television the hyper-trained, lavishly funded elite athletes who are delivering the impressive UK successes of the last few days.  The physically under-developed thus obsess over the physically over-developed; both are two sides of the same wretched coin – the ‘torn halves of an integral freedom to which, however, they do not add up’, to borrow Adorno’s fine phrase. In a utopian Morrisian world in which social labour was both physically invigorating and satisfyingly creative, you would no longer have or need either extreme.