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.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Jeremy Corbyn for Leader!

Much of William Morris’s life in the 1880s was an experience of and meditation on political leadership.  With the formation of the Socialist League in December 1884, he was thrust into a much more prominent role in the British socialist movement than he had ever initially envisaged.  Looking back on his most vigorous activist years in November 1890, he wrote: ‘When I first joined the movement, I hoped that some working-man leader, or rather leaders, would turn up, who would push aside all middle-class help, and become great historical figures’.  And News from Nowhere, in its account of ‘How the Change Came’, vividly imagines how such leaders might emerge in a revolutionary situation: ‘now that the times called for immediate action, came forward the men capable of setting it on foot … though, as aforesaid, the abler men were not then the recognised leaders’.

Whether Jeremy Corbyn will turn out to be  a ‘great historical figure’, I do not know; but he certainly achieved something remarkable in his Labour leadership campaign of last summer, re-energising anti-austerity politics in this country among the young, reawakening old social-democratic traditions within the Party itself that we thought had been buried forever by the Blairite capitulation to neo-liberalism.  Ever since, the right-wing elements of the Parliamentary Labour Party have waged a determined and unscrupulous campaign against his leadership, culminating in the attempted coup which has triggered the latest contest.  So it now behoves all on the Left to defend Corbyn and the idea of a new politics that he represents to the best of their ability.  I’ve been slow off the mark in this, I realise, fettered I suppose by residual local Green Party loyalties, but, having been impressed by a Lancaster Momentum meeting the other night, I shall now apply to join the Labour Party and, if accepted, will get stuck in.  Labourite social-democracy may not be socialism in the full Morris sense, but it is certainly the best challenge to the neo-liberal consensus that we have going at the moment.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Sixtieth Birthday Reflections

Celebrating my 60th birthday today up here in the northern Lake District might well seem more Wordsworthian than Morrisian; but two Morris-related thoughts do none the less pop up.  First, that I am now only two years away from the age at which Morris himself died.  Not that I intend, across the next twenty-four months, to accompany him on that sad final journey, but I certainly do feel more acutely than ever how premature his death was, even by Victorian middle-class standards, let alone ours.  Did the Morris family make special efforts for his sixtieth birthday, I wonder (no mention of it in Nick Salmon’s Chronology, though)?  How aware could they have been at that point that there would not be a seventieth?

Second, it was only a few years ago, surprisingly – I don’t know why I’d never happened upon the fact before – that I realised that I shared a birthday with the author of Wuthering Heights.  What Morris himself shares with Emily Brontë is a profound investment in the Gothic, but this is a term which has very different meanings, or rather belongs to very different traditions, across their two oeuvres.  I never have really understood the relation between the architectural and political Gothic of Ruskin and Morris, centred on the medieval cathedral, and the female or feminist tradition of Gothic fiction from Anne Radcliffe through the Brontë sisters to Angela Carter and beyond, whose archetypal narrative situation is: inexperienced, middle-class virgin sexually threatened by powerful older male in a rambling country mansion.

Perhaps there is some strong literary-critical study out there that would make sense of all this.  Are they just two parallel cultural traditions that don’t after all have very much to do with each other?  Or might they inter-breed in curious ways?  Does a Ruskinian-Morrisian Gothic text always also release, whether it intends to or not, aspects of the female or feminist Gothic within itself?  That, at least, would explain why Morris’s News from Nowhere, architecturally dominated by a new socialist Gothic as it is, also generates the enigmatic, energetic and decidedly disturbing figure of Ellen in the closing chapters.  Could the opposite also be true?  Might feminist Gothic novels also emit lateral Ruskinian-Morrisian messages that they may or may not be conscious of?

Ah well, I’m not spending my entire 60th birthday on such abstruse literary and political matters. Time to go and enjoy the Lake District instead!

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.