Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Jason and the Argonauts

As a child I used to enjoy watching the 1963 stop motion animation film of Jason and the Argonauts on the television with my father; for the time - in those far-back pre-CGI days - it was very striking in its visual effects. 

So today I can enjoy reading Morris’s Life and Death of Jason (1867) for the sake of comparison and contrast with that twentieth-century version, though I can well understand that for many contemporary readers its rhythms are so flat and mellifluous that they may send you to sleep after just a few pages.  It’s something of a truism in the modern criticism of Victorian narrative poems based on myth, legend or history that they only truly come to life if underlying psychic impulses of the author’s own get caught up in the act of composition.  Thus Matthew Arnold’s mini-epic Sohrab and Rustum has what impact it still has, it is argued, because the son of the formidable Dr Arnold of Rugby had his own powerful fears about fathers destroying their sons’ identities, as happens literally in the poem when the great warrior Sohrab unknowingly kills his son Rustum.

So when Morris’s Jason suddenly acquires a lot more narrative vigour in its last two books (for those who have managed to get that far) one suspects that something personal may be going on here too.  Perhaps in this case we have a reverse Sohrab and Rustum situation.  The episode in which Medea persuades King Pelius’s three daughters to chop him up into small pieces is certainly striking enough; did Morris, as a father of two daughters, fear that they might somehow one day overwhelm his identity?  And in the very last book, as a mid-life Jason contemplates abandoning Medea for the much younger woman Glauce, there is again real intensity in Morris’s story-telling.  The usual biographical account of his marriage is all about his depression at Jane gradually abandoning him; but the last book of Jason might suggest that he knew extra-marital temptation on his own side at first hand too.

Next year, 2017, is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Morris’s Jason, so it might be well worth the William Morris Society organising some systematic, celebratory attention to the poem.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

A Grandchild in the House

‘Since we have had a grandchild in the house ... ’: I first quoted these words of Raymond Williams, from his volume of writings on television, back in 1989 when I edited a memorial issue of our Oxford journal News from Nowhere on him and his work.  Now that I have my own first grandchild – a beautiful granddaughter, in fact – I shall be turning with interest to earlier attempts to make William Morris’s writings accessible to children.  I already have a copy of the 1913 Tales from the Earthly Paradise by W.J. Glover, in which, as he remarks in the Preface, ‘From [Morris’s] twenty-four stories twelve have been selected and here rendered for children, largely in Morris’s own words, and it is hoped, in such a way that later they will turn with interest to The Earthly Paradise, the work of a distinguished poet’.  The book also contains twelve full-page colour illustrations by Isabel Bonus to sweeten the reading experience.

Will W.J. Glover’s 1913 prose style still work for children a century later?  I intend to come to a decision about this well before my new granddaughter reaches an age where she wants stories from her grandfather, and, if Glover's versions don’t seem to do the job any longer, may have a go at making my own in the hope that they might serve the early twenty-first century better.  And why only these twelve stories out of the full twenty-four, I wonder?  What was Glover’s principle of selection here and is it still justified, or could there perhaps be a second volume of the other dozen tales too?  And then the thought arises of whether Morris’s other writings mightn’t be adapted for children too.  His late romances would seem a rich potential field here, and perhaps some of the political writings might be amenable to conversion as well.  Since my granddaughter Clodagh Sumiko is currently only three days old, I have a good long while to explore what suddenly seems a whole new field of Morris scholarship which this blog has hitherto neglected.

Friday, 24 June 2016

In Praise of Brexit

‘We discourage centralisation all we can’, announces old Hammond in chapter X of News from Nowhere; and I therefore voted for leaving the European Union yesterday, and am celebrating the Brexit victory in the referendum today, on what I regard as impeccably Morrisian because decentralising grounds.  We all saw what the EU did to a genuine possibility for socialism in Greece last year – i.e., totally destroyed it – and that, if nothing else, should have been sufficient evidence to the Left of the degree to which the EU is nothing more than a neo-liberal project of aggressive capitalist globalisation.  Add to that working-class anger at the economic consequences of uncontrolled mass immigration into this country – driving down wages and taking away jobs, phenomena which even the metropolitan Left seems incapable of comprehending -  and you have a strong socialist case for Brexit.

Of course there will now be various kinds of cultural, political and economic turmoil for some while to come.  The Labour Party, so many of whose leading figures including Sadiq Khan and Harriet Harman lined cheerfully up with David Cameron to sing the praises of the EU, will pay a high price in terms of working-class votes lost to UKIP; and even Jeremy Corbyn with his approval during the campaign of current levels of immigration does not come out with much credit either.  The political incoherence of the Green Party, in its capitulation to the neo-liberalist and globalising agenda as it championed Remain, will not be forgiven for a very long time to come.  But the great and heartening thing from all this, from a Morrisian-socialist viewpoint, is that after months in which the British, European and global elite threw absolutely everything in the way of threat and propaganda at the British people, working-class communities up and down the country have very loudly said to them and their Labour and Green Party allies ‘No more’. 

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

A.J. Wyatt - the Story Continued

I didn’t particularly expect any William Morris-related payoff when I started reading E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Muse Unchained (1958), an insider’s account of the rise of English studies at Cambridge University in the early twentieth century; but there was one, none the less.  For a bit-player in that story was the Cambridge Anglo-Saxonist A.J. Wyatt, with whom Morris had collaborated on his translation of Beowulf in 1893 – Wyatt providing a prose paraphrase of the original which Morris then ‘rhymed up’ (to use his alarmingly casual phrase).  There was also some exchange of views between the two men over the contents of a Kelmscott Press selection of medieval lyric poems just before Morris’s death in 1896.

 So it is curious, reading Tillyard’s rather personal and gossipy book, to come across other aspects of Wyatt’s Cambridge career.  This began admirably enough, with a First in English with distinction in 1891 (p.29).  However, disaster struck when the university’s lecturer in English, Israel Gollancz, left Cambridge for London in 1906: ‘The obvious local candidate to succeed him was A.J. Wyatt; but the electors went outside and brought in G.C. Macaulay from Aberystwyth, and Wyatt became a man with a grievance for the rest of his life’ (34). 

Moreover, he was clearly not thought highly of by the real powerhouse in Cambridge Anglo-Saxon studies, Professor H.M. Chadwick, and as the project for an extraordinarily untraditional, excitingly modern English Tripos emerged at Cambridge in 1916, with Chadwick’s full support, Wyatt set himself implacably against it, becoming something of a ringleader in the process.  The three women dons in English ‘all supported Wyatt in his opposition to Chadwick and in his resolution to keep English studies linguistic and philological’ (46).  In the run-up to the crucial Special Board meeting on 19 May 1917, ‘there was circulated a short fly-sheet signed by Wyatt alone.  It protested against the abolition of compulsory Anglo-Saxon, early medieval literature, and language’ (62).

The English studies reforms went through none the less, fortunately, producing within a decade the most dynamic English faculty in the country, with such luminaries as I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis among its numbers.  Chadwick apparently never forgave Wyatt for his resistance to the English proposals, and subsequently ‘bore a huge load of teaching, elementary Anglo-Saxon included, in order that nothing should be left over for Wyatt’ (70).  The latter died in 1935, described by Tillyard as to the end an ‘unreconciled survivor of the pre-Chadwickian order’ (132).  It all seems a rather sad ending for a man who had once tasted artistic glory in his collaboration with Morris in the 1890s.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Radio 4 updates Utopia

BBC Radio 4 is offering us a very clever reworking of News from Nowhere by Sarah Woods in its current ‘Dangerous Visions’ series. It starts today rather than in the 1890s, and the activist Will Guest time-travels 100 years forward into a transformed future. Once there he is taken to Old Hammond in the British Museum to learn about the transformation, and what feels initially like an attempt to resolve utopia’s perennial problem of boring sociological exposition – throwing a few industrial sound-effects into the conversation – suddenly reveals its deeper political purpose, as the great crash of 2008 becomes the turning point in capitalism’s fortunes, and a whole series of despicable austerity apologists like Gordon Brown, Ed Balls, George Osborne and David Cameron make themselves heard too.  A huge demonstration in Trafalgar Square after a second economic collapse leads to a military massacre which, as in Morris, kickstarts revolution.

What is missing then, however, is precisely the bloody and extended civil war as News from Nowhere so vividly gives it to us.  Instead, we get some rather vague talk of impersonal social and cultural forces – information-technology, collaborative working, ‘kindness’ – which seem to have enabled general change.  In this respect, the Radio 4 version ultimately resembles Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward rather than Morris’s grimmer and surely more realistic vision of diehard ruling-class resistance to popular uprising.  And it’s worth noting, too, as a sign of our political times, that the terms ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’, used so often in Morris, have been altogether erased from Sarah Woods' utopia.

Curious things have been done with the women in the text too.  Morris’s Annie and Ellen have been condensed into a single figure who jumps naked with Guest into the Thames early on in the production.  So this Ellen turns out to be 42 (Annie’s age) rather than 20 as in Morris, and Guest here announces himself to be 46 rather than 56 as in the original.  So the huge age difference which meant that the Guest-Ellen relationship could never go anywhere in the first place is ironed out into something rather more conventional, as is the Radio 4 Ellen herself compared to the more enigmatic and troubling figure she is in Morris.  But at least the dramatisation ends with Guest’s painful return to his own political moment and struggle, rather than with the anodyne marrying into the future which Edward Bellamy gives us.

I guess that no fan of Morris’s great work is ever going to be fully satisfied with any later reworking of it.  But I must say, despite my cavils above, that this Sarah Wood version is vigorous and ingenious and, in terms of our own political struggles, inspiring too.  Do listen to it while you still can at: