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.

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

'I Can't Breathe': In Solidarity

In the June 1885 issue of Commonweal Morris wrote: ‘we have not far to seek to find violence without justice in the present.  Do men choose a miserable life, or are they forced into it?  No one wants violence if a decent life for everyone can be obtained without it.  But it is to be feared that the natural sequence of enforced misery will be violent revolution … will that be the fault of the wretched or of the system which has made them wretched’.

His words bear forcefully upon the mass uprising that has shaken the United States over the last week, after the police murder of George Floyd on 25 May.  These protests may not actually be aiming at revolution in Morris’s sense, but they are certainly an uprising against brutal misery and oppression inflicted on the black population of the country by its deeply racialised capitalism and a white-supremacist President who is just itching to unleash the military upon his own people.  Not that you need the actual army when you have paramilitary thugs like the National Guard at your disposal.

What the world feared China might do to protestors in Hong Kong, it has, ironically, seen come to pass in the so-called Land of the Free.  Such moments of uprising, messy, confused and violent though they always will be, are also moments of political self-definition and choice: either you take a stand with the oppressed, however modest that gesture may be, or, through silence, you allow State repression to run its ugly course.  Morrisians, both individually and through such collective channels as they have access to, must surely do the former.  Otherwise, what could possibly be the point of seeing yourself as a ‘Morrisian’ in the first place!

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Cholera, Corona, New Beginnings

In his account of Morris and Burne-Jones at Oxford University, J.W. Mackail notes that in October 1854 ‘Term had been postponed for a week because of the cholera epidemic’.  I had already pointed this fact out to my own students when they were unable to return to campus at the beginning of this term; ‘The British academic system has been here before’, I noted in an online message to them.

What I hadn’t then recalled is just how much Mackail makes of that cholera epidemic a few pages earlier, how much symbolic, even proto-political force he imbues it with.  For he writes that, to young men of the time, ‘The terrible cholera autumn of 1854 seemed the climax of a period of physical and moral stagnation from which the world was awakening to something like a new birth’.  To back up this claim he quotes a sizeable stretch from Morris’s early short story ‘A Dream’, which I give here in truncated form: ‘Till late that night I ministered to the sick in that hospital; but when I went away, I walked down to the sea … I walked there pondering till a noise from over the sea made me turn and look that way; what was that coming over the sea?  Laus Deo!  The WEST WIND:  Hurrah! … I saw the great green waves rising, nodding and breaking, all coming on together; and over them from wave to wave leaped the joyous WEST WIND; and the mist and the plague clouds were sweeping back eastward in wild swirls’. 

Shelleyan promises of personal and perhaps cultural renewal, then, from the ‘pest-laden city’ the story evokes; and Mackail claims that such significances are a 'hardly concealed second meaning’ on its author’s part.  May the terrible Covid-19 Spring of 2020 prove such a symbolic turning point too, so that we ourselves awaken to a political new birth from the physical and moral stagnation of the Tory austerity of the last decade.