Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Surgery for Utopia

The Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis once had a plan to boldly reorganise George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda.  Not thinking much of the Derondian and Jewish dimensions of the book, he proposed to junk them all and instead rebuild it around its central female character Gwendolen Harleth (to whom Deronda becomes a kind of spiritual mentor during her disastrous marriage to Grandcourt).  Leavis even, apparently, took this drastic proposal to a publisher and planned to bring out a new, slimmed-down novel called, precisely, Gwendolen Harleth.

That dramatic editorial project comes to mind when a colleague writes to me, in disconsolate mode, to announce that when he’s recommended News from Nowhere to his friends they ‘simply failed to see the revolutionary wood for the utopian trees: they never got as far as ‘How the Change Came’ or the upriver journey, because they were turned off by the opening horse-and-cart journey’.  At which point, some Leavisian surgery on Morris’s utopia might surely be in order to give it renewed currency in our own time.

Suppose we produced an edition of News from Nowhere which started with ‘How the Change Came’, which is certainly far and away the most politically complex and narratively gripping portion of the book in its account of a revolutionary civil war – and only then went back to William Guest’s dream-like arrival in the Hammersmith Guest House.  The more socially expository discussions between Guest and old Hammond could still take place later in the British Museum, but the history and politics of Nowhere’s violent coming into being would have been shunted back to the very beginning of the text.  I think that this could be plausibly done, and, since I am retiring from Lancaster University on this very day, I might now have ‘world enough and time’ to have a stab at the necessary editorial work.

This would also be an occasion, as I suggested some years ago (see my post for 16 November 2014), to remove all those self-belittling adjectives – quaint, dainty, pretty, little, and so on – which Morris so unfortunately wove into the verbal texture of his utopia.  With revolution and civil war breaking out on the text’s very first page, and those ubiquitous self-diminishing epithets gone, a leaner, meaner, more muscular News from Nowhere would surely emerge.



Saturday, 19 September 2020

J.W. Mackail: Imagist

One of the minor thematic strands of this blog has been to develop a case that Morris’s official biographer J. W Mackail is a figure who demands some – perhaps not a great deal, but at least some – literary attention in his own right.  So I am glad to come across this mention of him in George Sampson’s Concise Cambridge History of English Literature (1943), one of those admirable old-fashioned histories of the subject that nobody writes any more: ‘John William Mackail has to his credit excellent biographies of William Morris (1899) and George Wyndham (1925) as well as some equally excellent critical essays, including the delightful and illuminating Latin Literature (1895), The Springs of Helicon (1909), Lectures on Poetry (1911), and Studies of English Poets (1926); but his fame is perhaps most firmly established by his translations, especially Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (1890).  Mackail’s classical scholarship is of the exquisite kind’. 

Used in critical parlance today, the adjective ‘exquisite’ would no doubt damn with faint praise; we want our classical scholarship to be robust rather than lapidary, Dionysian rather than Apollonian, in Nietzsche’s terms.  But for Sampson himself, it is presumably wholeheartedly positive.  And that he is right to thus use the word of Mackail is shown by the curious literary-historical fact that the Select Epigrams was a significant book for the Imagist poets of the early twentieth century.  Turning as they did to far-flung literary sources which would help them renew what they saw as the abstract verbiage of the late-Victorian poetic tradition, they found Mackail’s versions of the Greek epigram as relevant to them as that other exotic miniature form, the Japanese haiku.  So Morris’s culturally conservative biographer paradoxically plays at least some small role in enabling one of the avantgarde literary movements of the twentieth century.


Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Leaving Labour

Well, I have now cancelled my monthly subscription and left the Labour Party, something that I’ve had it in mind to do since Keir Starmer made his move against the Corbynite leadership contender Rebecca Long-Bailey back in June.  His stance on both the tearing down of Bristol’s Edward Colston statue and on recent Channel migrants has been unimpressive too.  That real push towards socialism which was Corbynism has been defeated, as much by sustained internal disruption by the Labour right-wing – the Owen Smith leadership challenge and so on – as by external electoral rejection.  I feel faintly like Morris when he abandoned the Socialist League in 1890, though for him it was the anarchist left rather than the traditional Labourite right which had taken over the party.

Where next, then, politically speaking?  I’m certainly not as confident as I was in the late 1990s, when I served as a Green Party city councillor, that the Greens are the right destination for someone of my views.  Back then, they definitely felt like a radical, if still rather inchoate alternative to Tony Blair and New Labour, though I even then knew that they didn’t sufficiently grasp the working-class issues that most concerned me (they seemed constitutionally incapable of using the term ‘capitalism’ as part of their political and economic analysis, for example).  These days I’m not sure what the complexion of the Green Party is – I shall have to do some investigating, locally and nationally.

There are other agencies out there doing absolutely crucial work, of course – Extinction Rebellion, the Black Lives Matter movement, and so on.  But I’m enough of a left-wing traditionalist to feel that the notion of a political party, challenging capitalism in some sort of totalising way across all fronts, remains crucial.  So the notion of leftwing intellectual work, in a non-attached mode, though attractive, won’t ultimately do either, and neither will the smallscale Leninist or Trotskyist parties that still exist (though they do good work in particular campaigns).  Morris’s great slogan ‘make socialists’ remains paramount, but what is the organisational form for doing that at the present time?  With retirement from my university coming up fast, I will at least soon have time to look around and think this issue through.  I'd rather not have to fall back on something like the Hammersmith Socialist Society of Morris’s last years.

Friday, 7 August 2020

Microplastics in the Thames

Some twenty-odd years ago, in my most intense Green-activist phase, I published a piece in the William Morris Society Newsletter (which back then was a much less glossy effort than it is today) about levels of radioactivity in the river Thames.  In that article I drew on research from a well-known Green Party scientist of the time, Christopher Busby, which made a chilling case about radioactive pollution in the river from atomic research facilities along its banks: Aldermarston, Harwell, Amersham. 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose; for today it is the issue of microplastic pollution in the Thames which imposes itself upon us.  94,000 microplastics per second flow down the river in some of its stretches, a figure which is a good deal higher than for such European equivalents as the Danube or the Rhine.  These include glitter, microbeads from cosmetics, and plastic fragments broken down from larger items, often food packaging.  Bits of plastic are found in the stomachs of crabs living in the Thames, including fibres or microplastics from sanitary pads, balloons, elastic bands and carrier bags.  Careless disposal of Covid-related plastic, such as masks and gloves, may now make matters still worse. 

We know how much the river Thames mattered to Morris himself: salmon have returned to it at the beginning of News from Nowhere, and it contributes both a narrative thread and some of the most idyllic scenes to that utopia.  So if the William Morris Society wants to do some active campaigning, which given its status as a charity cannot be narrowly party-political, the environmental condition of the river which flows right outside the front door of its headquarters at Kelmscott House will always be a good starting point.


Thursday, 16 July 2020

Signatures from the Past

On 28 September 1877 Thomas Hardy jotted down the following note: ‘An object or mark raised or made by man on a scene is worth ten times any such formed by unconscious Nature.  Hence clouds, mists, and mountains are unimportant beside the wear on a threshold, or the print of a hand’.  The same principle surely applies mutatis mutandis to old books, or at least it does for me to the old Morris volumes I’ve collected from secondhand booksellers across the decades.

I’m fond of my one-volume Earthly Paradise from 1890, with its robust dark-green binding and gilt vegetative decorations.  That was a bargain at £7-50 from the Carnforth Bookshop just a few miles up the road from Lancaster, where I’ve found so many good things over the years.  Although I must admit that my middle-aged eyes struggle to cope with the tiny print required to pack Morris’s  twenty-four poetic tales into a single tome.

But it is my copy of Prose and Poetry by William Morris from Oxford University Press in 1913 that is the more haunting volume.  It too is handsomely bound, with a small gilt design on its front cover, and offers a generous spread of Morris’s literary work in its 650 pages.  But it is the Hardyesque human touch which gives this volume its resonance down the century or so that it has survived.  For a couple of pages in is written: ‘fondest regards to you all, Russell, Oxford 1914’. 

No way now of knowing who this 'Russell' was or how the great cataclysm of the 1914-18 war would affect either him in Oxford or the ‘all’ to whom the book is gifted.  But as European calamity broke or was just about to break all around him, Morris’s work seemed, for whatever reason, worth offering as a small but telling gesture to those whom he loved.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Teaching English Literature

Because Morris wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette in November 1886 about the teaching of English literature at Oxford, he often features in a minor way in recent books about the origins of university English studies.  And because he took such a negative view of the subject – ‘philology can be taught, but “English literature” cannot’ – he usually receives severe criticism in such volumes.  Thus Alexandra Lawrie, in The Beginnings of University English (2014), suggests that when Morris criticises the notion of teaching English literature he is ‘disregarding the fact that it was already being taught elsewhere, and had been for some time’.  His ‘claims are rendered invalid’, in her view, by the detailed and scholarly course plans that contemporaries like John Churton Collins were already putting into effect.

We might note in Morris’s defence, however, that there has been a sceptical counter-discourse on university English across the twentieth century.  Here, for instance, is Alan Coren, who got a First in English at Oxford in 1960 and went on to become deputy editor of Punch in later years: ‘Fortunately for me, I was reading English, a discipline hardly worthy the title, involving as it did nothing more arduous than sitting under a tree and reading books that one would otherwise have read for pleasure, and, at the end of three years, showing off about them to grown-ups’.

Or, for a more authoritative voice on this topic, we might turn to a former Warton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford.  John Bayley mulled over a lifetime in the subject in his anthology Good Companions (2001): ‘I have come to feel that “English” should not have become an academic subject in the first place.  It is one that is better as an enriching amusement … for the middle-aged and the elderly.  The young who really want education (and not many of them do) should face more intellectual and more demanding pursuits’.  So the Morris position versus academic English studies is not quite dead yet!

Monday, 8 June 2020

Edward Colston Toppled

As a former student of the University of Bristol, I am delighted that the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston in that city was torn down and dumped in the harbour in the recent Black Lives Matters demonstration there. ‘Criminal damage’ the Tory politicians are predictably calling such direct action.  No, far from it:  the criminal damage was having the wretched thing up in the first place, thereby honouring a man who made untold profits out of untold human misery – a racist heritage of brutality and oppression which continues into our own times.

As a current student of William Morris, I recall the tearing down of the Vendôme Column on 16 May 1871 by the Paris Commune and the clearing of Nelson’s Column from Trafalgar Square in News from Nowhere.  These were great gestures of collective liberation, real and fictional, which set an admirable context for Colston’s demise today.  The other traces of the slave trader’s disgusting presence in my old university city – the names of streets and schools which commemorate him – now need to be cleared away too; and then – in a project rather nearer to Morris’s own heart – since it concerns his beloved Oxford University - we need to get shot of that statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes which currently graces (or rather disgraces) the front of Oriel College.