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.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

John Masefield: Morrisian

Having grown up at the seaside, I’ve always loved those stirring lines from John Masefield’s poem ‘Sea Fever’: “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,/And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by”.  And I knew, from later reading, that he had spoken at the Morris centenary celebrations in 1934.  Recently I came across Muriel Spark’s assertion, in her book on Masefield, that “Morris has been the formative influence ... on Masefield’s view of life”, and it’s been interesting to track that influence through in the Poet Laureate’s lively letters to his American friend Florence Lamont.

In July 1918 he is recommending Morris’s Icelandic translations to her: “How are the sagas shaping?  Do you still think of the Volsunge?  There is a quite lovely tale in the 3 N Love tales.  I think it’s called Frithiof the Bold”.  In January 1924 he narrates a visit to the White Horse Hill, to which May Morris herself was in those years making annual pilgrimages.  The place was in flames as the locals burnt off the grass, and Masefield reflects that “the burning of the grass is part of some old religion, which that strange hill created & cannot let die.  There is something holy and uncanny about all that strip of Down”. 

On 6 November 1930 he drives via Morris’s beloved Great Coxwell Barn to Kelmscott itself: ‘I have been over to the grave of Morris … & tonight I shall read some of his poetry again.  It makes one wonder: what would my life have been without him?  Supposing I had never had that influence, nor had those particular thrills, & special luring into special ways?”  Then four years later, he offers Florence Lamont his thoughts on the centenary itself: “We drove over to Exeter College, & ate & drank in his memory, & then I gave the speech in the College Hall … Miss M was there, but not Miss Lobb … I had the feeling that he was conscious of our thought of him & perhaps saw the bright side of our intentions”.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Peterloo Bicentenary and Jeremy Deller

We’ve all been inspired by Jeremy Deller’s fine image of William Morris throwing Roman Abramovich’s super-yacht to the bottom of the sea (see my post for 11 July 2013), so naturally I also wanted to see his new monument to the dead of Peterloo, and what better occasion to do so than today’s march to and rally in Albert Square, Manchester, marking the bicentenary of the massacre of those 18 men, women and one child?

I assembled with about 200 others in Whitworth Park and we then marched up Oxford Road to Albert Square, being filmed by local Fascists at one point, apparently.  Nine other marches made their way into the centre, re-enacting the original routes of August 1819.  Many fine trade union banners were on display, and Bolton Socialist Club, Jewish Voices for Labour, Extinction Rebellion and other placards and symbols were there too.  In Albert Square one highlight was Chris Williamson M.P.’s powerful brief speech on oppression and struggle, ending with his recital of the last stanza of Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’: ‘Ye are many, they are few’.  Another was provided by organiser Steve Hall, who read out the names of those killed by the yeomanry on that dark day in 1819, together with the nature of their injuries; this was followed by a minute’s silence in their honour.

The Deller monument is a couple of minutes’ walk away, between the old Central Station and the Midland Hotel – the very site of the original massacre.  It is a beautiful, understated, politically resonant artefact.  Not just because each of its 11 concentric stone circles, made of different varieties of local stone, carries the names of the dead and their places of origin, but because the top circle has arrows pointing to more recent attacks by armed troops on unarmed protestors.  Bogside Derry, 1972 and Tianamen Square, 1989 are there, among others, and the most recent reads ‘Taksim Gezi Park, Istanbul, Turkey, 2013’.  Hong Kong tomorrow, perhaps?  This will be a place of active political assembly for Manchester from now on, not just a monument to be aesthetically contemplated; and an important debate about the issue of disabled access to it rumbles on.

‘Our job is to keep hope alive,’ declared Chris Williamson, invoking a key Morrisian term.  The genial fellowship and quiet determination of this march and rally, as of Deller’s Peterloo monument itself, evoked the martyrs of the past to steady us in politically dark times, of which that small group of local Fascists was a significant reminder.  

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Inside the Factory

I’ve always enjoyed Gregg Wallace as a presenter of Professional Masterchef, since I like his rhetorical stance as the ‘ordinary bloke’ (former Covent Garden grocer, as it happens) in this world of high-end dining, Michelin stars, genuine culinary expertise and fabulous social snobbery.  So it’s been interesting to watch him on the BBC2 series Inside the Factory, which has been running since 2015 and in which he goes into giant food factories of various kinds and investigates their physical processes.  We saw him enthusing over cherry bakewell production the other week, and tonight it was croissants in a French factory.  What issues will the ‘ordinary bloke’ raise here?

This TV genre might well be described as ‘factory-porn’, since it’s the erotics of mechanical process that so excites Gregg Wallace.  The speed of the machines, the huge quantities of ingredients, the complexity of manoeuvres entailed, the staggering number of final units produced – all have our man in raptures as, donning a white overall and with his bald head oddly wrapped up in a hair net, he gets stuck in with the workers and is allowed to pull levers, check gauges and taste samples.  These vast edifices seem to operate with extraordinarily few human beings, from what we are allowed to see.

What dear old Gregg never poses are any of the questions William Morris floats in his ‘A Factory as It Is and as It Might Be’.  How long is your working day?  (It shouldn’t be more than four hours, in Morris’s view).  What is the balance between sensuously-creative and necessary-mechanical elements in the work you do?  What are the environmental consequences of this production process?  Whose economic interests does it serve?  In what ways does the immediate environment of the factory itself enhance human well-being and dignity through – in Morris’s examples – gardens, libraries, social spaces, and so on?  Gregg Wallace’s food factories might offer their skilled technicians rather more than an Amazon warehouse does its zero-hours contract workers, but all the big Morris questions about large-scale social production are sedulously avoided.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Iceland's Letter to the Future

In his Icelandic Diary for 20 August 1871, Morris expressed his enthusiasm at arriving in Burgfirth, in the west of the country: ‘Burgfirth, I may mention in case you forget it, or are hazy about your saga geography, is one of the great centres of story in Iceland’; and he then lists some of the important saga-steads around.  But the immediate environment impinged intensely on him too.  After climbing the ‘Burg’, ‘I sat there in excited mood for some time … southward lay the firth, quite calm and bright, those great mountains reflected in it with all detail, and over their shoulder the bright white jokuls are to be seen from here’.  Those jokuls, or glaciers, had impressed him a day or two earlier as well: ‘Taking his position high up on the west bank of Langá, the author has swept the country with his eye, east-ward to Long Jokul and Ball Jokul’.

In our epoch of climate emergency, Iceland’s glaciers are fast vanishing; and the first of them, Okjökull, close to Borgafjördur (Morris’s Burgfirth), has now officially ‘died’.  So much of this glacier has melted that it no longer fits the definition of what constitutes a glacier, thereby losing its ‘jökull’ suffix and being demoted to just plain ‘Ok’. This symbolic moment will be marked with a plaque in the form of a ‘Letter to the Future’, acknowledging that we understand the current climate crisis in which we live but that only you, the future reader, will know whether we ever adequately addressed it in practice.

This is a sombre monument, certainly; but do we fully understand that crisis?  If we stick to the ubiquitous new term which is being used to characterise our epoch – the Anthropocene – then we surely do not.  We shall need something much politically sharper than that to focus our minds and wills; and I’m sure that Morris, as both jökull-enthusiast and socialist activist, would be fully behind us in a necessary semantic switch from the Anthropocene to the ‘Capitalocene’.