Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Gothic Remixed

I haven’t actually read Megen de Bruin-MolĂ©’s recently published Gothic Remixed: Monster Mashups and Frankenfiction in 21st Century Culture.  But I like the blurb for it on the Amazon website, which starts as follows: ‘The bestselling genre of Frankenfiction sees classic literature turned into commercial narratives invaded by zombies, vampires, werewolves, and other fantastical monsters’.  And in a local charity shop this afternoon I came across a secondhand copy of Pride and Prejudice and Sea-Monsters, which contained a nice introductory quote from an American critic: ‘What work of literature wouldn’t be improved by the inclusion of a few zombies?’

So I’ve been playing with the idea of turning News from Nowhere into Frankenfiction, in the spirit of Barbara Gribble’s 1985 observation that ‘One wonders how Dick [Hammond] or Walter [Allen] would react to a sudden epidemic of smallpox or an invasion of malicious aliens’.  Only, with Morris’s utopia, we wouldn’t have to import the aliens, monsters and zombies from outside, from a literary elsewhere, since there are plenty of them in Morris’s own works, who could be colourfully unleashed against his utopian socialists in some great Thames valley Ragnarok.

Those two vicious werewolves in the first book of Sigurd the Volsung will try to sink their teeth into Dick Hammond’s throat.  Fafnir the dragon from that work will incinerate Kelmscott manor with his fiery breath.  He will be backed up by assorted monsters from The Earthly Paradise: the hideous serpent from ‘The Love of Alcestis’ and the uncanny Chimaera from ‘Bellerophon in Lycia’, among others.  The repulsive dwarf from The Wood beyond the World will be ‘scuttling along on all-fours like an evil beast and anon giving forth that harsh and evil cry’, and the Harpies from The Life and Death of Jason will launch aerial attacks when required to.  Their leader is the shape-shifting witch-wife of The Water of the Wondrous Isles, who ferries them all down the Thames on her blood-powered Sending Boat to attack communist London.  And they have recruited Grettir from Morris’s translation of the Grettis-Saga, who, though not strictly a monster, has near-superhuman strength which allows him to hurl great boulders and reduce the Hammersmith Guest House to rubble.

Ellen, Dick, Clara, Boffin, Bob the weaver and old Hammond will need all their wits about them (and perhaps William Guest’s time-travelling advice too) to prevail over this terrifying Morrisian crew.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Fracking in England

In chapter XXIV of News from Nowhere Walter Allen mentions ‘the earthquake of the year before last’, so we might be inclined to assume, in the light of the seismic activity we’ve experienced just down the road from me at Preston New Road, Lancashire, that someone has been trying out fracking as an energy source in Morris’s utopia.  But then we realise that cannot be so, since, as old Hammond has already told us in the British Museum, ‘whatever coal or mineral we need is brought to grass and sent whither it is needed with as little as possible of dirt, confusion, and the distressing of quiet people’s lives’.  So it seems impossible that the activities of Cuadrilla, against which many of my local Green Party friends have been protesting for years, would be tolerated in Nowhere.

And now we’re not going to tolerate them here any longer either, it would seem.  For the government has imposed a moratorium upon fracking in England with immediate effect, with Andrea Leadsom telling us that it has been won over by the science which declares that fracking’s seismic impacts cannot be adequately predicted or managed.  All well and good for the moment, but it does not take much political nous to see this announcement as yet another of the shamelessly cynical ‘promises’ that the Tory Party is rolling out in the run-up to the December 12th General Election.  Boris Johnson has been fulsome in his praise of fracking in the past, the government has pumped millions of pounds into support for the industry, and, as Jeremy Corbyn has rightly remarked, the likelihood is that, in the event of a Tory election victory, fracking would be instantly reallowed on the 13th December.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

River Journeys

Yesterday I taught News from Nowhere in my Utopias seminar, and I felt once more that the Thames journey, which makes the second half of the book so vivid and memorable, possibly takes the wrong direction, that Guest, Dick and Clara should have headed down the Thames towards and beyond my hometown Southend-on-sea, rather than upriver through Oxford to Kelmscott.  This wasn’t particularly a thought I could share with my seminar group, since I need them to understand the text as it is, not as it might be, but it is one that has been pressing on me recently.  The Morris Society trip upriver this summer, immensely genial though that seemed to be for the participants, put it into my mind once more.

It’s not that I’m biased against upriver Thames trips just because I grew up in Southend, where the river debouches past the famous pier into the North Sea.  After all, I was a postgraduate student at Oxford and got married in Abingdon, so I love all that dimension of News from Nowhere.  Morris’s utopia is in fact one of the few Victorian literary texts to mention Abingdon, or at least a transfigured version of it – ‘We stopped again at Abingdon … lifted out of its nineteenth-century degradation’ (ch.XXVII) – so I’m very glad of that, personally speaking.

But the trip upriver in the book leads us deep into the heart of a mythic Englishness, a pastoral quietude of almost mystic dimensions – narrow reaches, willow trees, reed-warblers, and so on; and that quasi-religious aura then embodies itself in an actual church, at Kelmscott, where the book’s final harvest feast takes place.  Whereas a downriver journey, to and beyond Southend, would have led to widening vistas, faster currents, a turbulent Channel, and the whole of Europe, rather than just Kelmscott village, beyond.

Victorian literature certainly does have such downriver trips, though they are usually written in the mode of Gothic or of detective fiction: Pip and Magwitch being intercepted by the police and Compeyson as they flee down the Thames in Great Expectations; or Holmes, Watson and the police pursuing Jonathan Small and his killer tribesman Tonga downriver in The Sign of Four.  So it would take some very serious utopian reimagining to transfigure these dark and murderous boat journeys.  But a News from Nowhere that had run the river traffic that way might, I can’t help feeling, have been a more energetic and open utopia than one that deposits its travellers on the riverbank at Kelmscott Manor.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Gestures in Utopia: 2

I’ve always liked those new gestures that Francis Bacon invents in his 1627 utopian fragment New Atlantis.  An inhabitant of the island of Bensalem ‘lifted up his right hand towards heaven, and drew it softly to his mouth (which is the gesture they use when they thank God)’.  The passers-by who witness the visitors to utopia making their way to the House of Strangers ‘put their arms abroad a little, which is their gesture when they bid any welcome’.  And the official at that institution gives his instructions to those visitors by ‘lifting up his cane a little, (as they do when they give any charge or command)’.  There’s an implicit recognition in all this, surely, that utopian transformation will not just affect the major economic and political structures of a society, but will have to bed itself deep down into the substance of the human body too.

Does Morris give us enough sense of a transformed body in News from Nowhere?  There are certainly some memorable gestures in the book, as when Ellen stands with ‘one hand laid on her bosom, the other arm stretched downward and clenched in her earnestness’.  But this is an individual rather than social manifestation, and thus is not quite what I’m after here.  And let’s hope that Robert the weaver’s patronising gesture to one of the Hammersmith Guest House women – ‘patted her on the head in a friendly manner’ – is an individual lapse rather than a new social habit.

The characters in Morris’s Thames valley typically ‘saunter’ rather than ’walk’, so bodily movement has clearly slowed down in this utopia.  And there’s a great deal of neighbourly hand-holding, not only between men and women, as when the Hammersmith waitresses ‘took us by the hands and led us to a table’, but also between men, as when Dick Hammond takes William Guest into the British Museum: he ‘took my hand, and saying “Come along, then!” … ‘.  But though Morris is much concerned with the transformed body in utopia, this tends to be in terms of general health and activity rather of the specific invention of new gestures.  So in this respect New Atlantis, mere fragment though it is, might have had some useful lessons for him.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Weaponising Medieval Studies

In his 1893 Preface to Robert Steele’s Medieval Lore, Morris argues that ‘at the present time those who take pleasure in studying the life of the Middle Ages are more commonly to be found in the ranks of those who are pledged to the forward movement of modern life’.  There is thus, in his view, a structural link between medievalist enthusiasms and Socialism.  If this ever were true, it has certainly been reversed in our own period, where white supremacist demonstrators at Charlottesville, USA, march with shields depicting Crusader motifs or banners featuring Anglo-Saxon runes.  The medieval period is being politically weaponised as part of a narrative that pits a unified white European Christendom against the threat of Islam; and the old Crusader war-cry, ‘Deus vult’, apparently features regularly on closed far-right websites.

Medieval scholars are, of course, fighting back with the appropriate professional weapons: argument and evidence.  For they must not only resist contemporary Fascist weaponisation of their field, but also confront the harder, and more internal, question: does medieval studies have an inbuilt white supremacy problem of its own?  Calls are afoot to ‘decolonise medieval studies’, and a group of ‘Medievalists of Color’ has been formed in the USA.  The aim is to show that medieval Europe was more racially diverse than we have conventionally thought, and that it faced significant issues of migration of its own.  This American debate formally arrived in this country with the conference on ‘Medieval Studies and the Far Right’ at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, on 11 May of this year.

It may be too utopian right now to believe that we can restore the link that William Morris saw between medieval enthusiasm and left-wing politics.  We may have to restrict ourselves for the moment – till our US comrades have got rid of Donald Trump, say – to the more modest but still politically urgent task of challenging white-supremacist constructions of the medieval.