Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Rebel, Rebel: on David Bowie

Like so many people of my age group, I have been emotionally hard hit by the death of David Bowie at the age of sixty-nine, since his music and personae were so much part of my adolescent years – ‘Life on Mars’ and Ziggy Stardust in particular.  But I have also been somewhat sickened by the excessive media coverage of his death and influence; it’s not quite up to the level of the vomit-making national hysteria we all indulged in at Princess Diana’s death in 1997, but it’s getting on that way.  And when an article in The Independent today calls for a Bowie memorial ‘fit for a true rebel’, then the philologist in me is roused into action and wants to probe that term ‘rebel’ (as in the famous Bowie song), since it’s also a word that means a lot to William Morris.

Bowie’s rebellion went well beyond music, of course, and was a matter of making alternative lifestyles not only acceptable, but cool, stylish and sexy too; and that indeed was highly liberating, in terms of both culture and sexuality, for many people who had faced serious prejudice and oppression.  But standing back, and looking at the multiplication of lifestyle choices within the framework of postmodernism theory, one might well see rebellion of that kind as part of capitalism’s own process of dynamic change, as a spin-off of its epochal shift from centralised Fordist systems of production to multiple, decentred post-Fordist styles of production and marketing (all of which Marxism Today analysed so excellently at the time).  When even Tory Prime Minister David Cameron can tweet his tribute to Bowie, one has to wonder just how much of a ‘rebel’ the latter really was after all.

‘”… the rebels,” as they now began to be called’: this is from chapter XVI of News from Nowhere, devoted to ‘How the Change Came’, just after the calling of a general strike in response to the government’s massacre of civilians in Trafalgar Square: and the term ‘rebels’ is used many times thereafter in that chapter, mostly in inverted commas.  ‘Rebel’ is thus, for Morris, what capitalism calls you when you challenge its economic ascendancy rather than seek to expand lifestyle possibilities within it; and it is a prelude to that system unleashing against you all the violence - first verbal, then military - that it can muster.  Think, as a modest taster of that, of the amount of venom the right-wing and even to some degree the liberal press and media have unleashed against Jeremy Corbyn; and we have even had a serving British general warning of possible mutiny against a Corbyn government (and not being disciplined or sacked afterwards).

So I must conclude that, wonderful artist and force for cultural good that he was, David Bowie was a ‘rebel’ in a limited sense that capitalism could encompass; and that there are much more difficult kinds of rebellion, more challenging kinds of self-reinvention, for which we need to find the energy and courage today.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Fat Cat Tuesday

Today is Fat Cat Tuesday, that moment when the bosses of Britain’s top 100 FTSE companies will already have earnt – just five days into the New Year – as much as the average British worker will earn across the whole of 2016, i.e. £27,645; and the reason they achieve that so fast is because they are being paid at the eye-watering rate of £1200 an hour. Such grotesque inequality, and all the associated social ills that it brings with it, is the reason why William Morris’s communism, with its demand for actual, practical equality (not merely formal equality before the law), retains such a powerful claim upon us.  Whatever has dated in Morris’s work (quite a lot, I sometimes think), the sharp cutting edge of his fundamental communist demand – economic equality as the lever towards social neighbourliness -  will continue to trouble and inspire us.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Melvyn Bragg's New Novel

Now is the Time, Melvyn Bragg’s new novel and his 21st by my count, was recently published; and since the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 is such an important Morrisian topic – in A Dream of John Ball above all but also in his political writings more generally - I felt that I should give it a plug here.

The publisher’s blurb reads as follows: Melvyn Bragg brings an extraordinary episode in English history to fresh, urgent life.  At the end of May 1381, the fourteen-year-old King of England had reason to be fearful: the plague had returned, the royal coffers were empty and a draconian poll tax was being widely evaded. Yet Richard, bolstered by his powerful, admired mother, felt secure in his God-given right to reign.  Within two weeks, the unthinkable happened: a vast force of common people invaded London, led by a former soldier, Walter Tyler, and the radical preacher John Ball, demanding freedom, equality and the complete uprooting of the Church and state. They believed they were rescuing the King from his corrupt ministers, and that England had to be saved. And for three intense, violent days, it looked as if they would sweep all before them.  Now is the Time depicts the events of the Peasants' Revolt on both a grand and intimate scale, vividly portraying its central figures and telling an archetypal tale of an epic struggle between the powerful and the apparently powerless.

The novel sounds full of promise, and I suspect will soon be the basis for a new TV mini-series.  On the strength of the publisher’s description alone the Morris Society might do well to invite Bragg to offer a talk about his new book or even, given his very high media profile, to do the 2016 Kelmscott Lecture on and around it.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Cameron Leaves the North to Drown

As I’ve noticed before in this blog, it rains an awful lot in some early Morris poems – ‘The grey rain driveth all astray’ in ‘The Little Tower’, for example – and Morris was also mightily moved by Richard Jeffries’s post-apocalyptic novel After London, in which the blocked river Thames backs up and creates a great midland lake or sea in the heart of England.  Well, we have ourselves had unprecedented levels of rain this winter (which has not really been a winter at all, in any recognisable seasonal sense), and sizeable stretches of the north of the country have turned into lakes before our very eyes.  Here in Lancaster we recently had three feet of water in the city centre, power cuts for several days and nights, and the university had to abandon term a week early.

There is an immediate political point to be made here, but also a longer-term apocalyptic speculation worthy of the Jeffries novel itself.  We know that this Tory government, and its coalition predecessor, has shamefully neglected flood defences in the north, in contrast to the south-west and the midlands. Commentators like Owen Jones and George Monbiot have powerfully enforced this case in their recent columns.   No wonder David Cameron has been heckled on his patronising ‘green-wellie’ trips up this way to inspect the damage, and the Chancellor’s ‘northern power-house’ rhetoric has been exposed as the sham it is. 

The longer-term point here resides in the fact that climate change is on us much quicker and more radically than we ever thought it would be; it’s not going to get any better, and may well accelerate further.  In which case, we may just possibly be seeing the beginnings of a process whereby certain areas of the north of England may ultimately have to be abandoned as uninhabitable.  That’s a thought we are already used to in terms of British coastal erosion – we may now have to get used to it for certain inland territories too.  Morris himself depicted a truly watery world in his late romance The Waters of the Wondrous Isles, but even its heroine Birdalone doesn’t want to live amidst water all the time.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Kellingley Colliery closes

Some years ago my Auntie Dorothy and I did part of the Miners’ Walk in Kent.  The full circuit, which now links all the old Kent mining villages, wasn’t open then, but on that initial stretch of it we walked through fields where my aunt had been employed as a child by local farmers to pick flints out of the soil, and we passed my grandfather’s colliery (or rather what little is left of it) at Betteshanger.  Grandad worked as a miner for fifty years, first at High Spen in County Durham, then, from 1934, in Kent; and in the immediate post-war years my Uncles Harry, Jack, Bill and Stan all did stints down the Betteshanger pit.

So the closing this week of Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire, the last deep coal mine in Britain, has a personal edge for me as well as its wider sociological meanings.  With the end of that industrial tradition goes a political one too: the miners as the shock troops of the left, taking on not just the Coal Board but the governments of the day.  It’s a tradition that William Morris played his own admirable part in instigating, as when in April 1887 he spoke as a Socialist leader to some 6000 striking miners at Horton in Northumberland. 

We might thus feel elegiac about our own deep mining tradition, but of course, globally, mining continues unabated; after all, it is millions of tons of cheap coal imports from Russia and Poland that have led to the closure of Kellingley.  And in such countries, to which we might add China, South Africa and many others, mining continues to be as back-breaking, life-threatening and ruthlessly exploitative as it has so often been over here.  So in a wider frame the Morrisian struggle to radicalise the world’s miners remains as urgent as ever.