Friday, 10 October 2014

Theses for a William Morris Communism Project

1. William Morris was above all a communist – and this crucial fact is too little recognised. As he declared in Commonweal on 18 May 1889, ‘I will begin by saying that I call myself a Communist, and have no wish to qualify that word by joining any other to it’; and his pamphlet ‘Why I am a Communist’ was published by James Tochatti’s Liberty Press in 1894. George Bernard Shaw, who had been very close to Morris in their early activist years, confirmed in 1934 that ‘Morris, when he had to define himself politically, called himself a Communist ... He knew that the essential term, etymologically, historically, and artistically, was Communist; and it was the only word he was comfortable with’.

2. With so much of the discourse on and around Morris in our culture consisting of gossip about Pre-Raphaelitism, admiration for flowery wallpaper or textile designs (which you then have reproduced on your tea-towels and wellies), worthy but in the end merely historical scholarship about his life and writings, or benign approval of his environmental and conservationist commitments, there is room and need for a group or network which locates itself firmly on the terrain of Morris’s communism, at the extreme edge of his and our culture, and which strives to get his role as a major communist activist, artist and theorist widely acknowledged.

3. This is, however, not just a historical project. Alongside the global capitalist crisis from 2008 onwards, we have witnessed a growing affirmation that communism is once again a viable term for radical politics and thinking in our own time. Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Jodie Dean, Bruno Bosteels and others have been key thinkers in this project. For as Badiou puts it, ‘We know that communism is the right hypothesis. All those who abandon this hypothesis immediately resign themselves to the market economy, to parliamentary democracy – the form of state suited to capitalism – and to the inevitable and “natural” character of the most monstrous inequalities’. After its twentieth-century history, communism certainly remains a challenging term, but the wager of these theorists is that now is clearly the moment to reinvent it.

4. Past and present can and should powerfully illuminate each other. The return of communist thinking in our own time once again makes visible this neglected but central dimension of Morris, while his own political activism, artistic work and utopian writing make available new resources to the communist revival of the early twenty-first century. There is thus now the possibility of an invigorating conversation between communisms past and present – a conversation which will be a matter of artistic production as well as intellectual analysis. Given the continuing hegemony of neo-liberalism, and all the human and ecological damage it does, no contemporary use of William Morris could be more necessary or urgent than this.

Monday, 22 September 2014

A Bollocking for Beowulf

For William Morris’s translation of Beowulf, that is, not the Anglo-Saxon epic itself, which I am ancient enough to have had to learn to read in the original Old English on my undergraduate English Literature course at Bristol University in 1975-6. Morris’s translation has always had a very lukewarm press, despite one or two bold attempts at critical redemption (by Robert Boenig, for example). But its most contemptuous dismissal ever may well be that of Kevin Jackson in his Invisible Forms: A Guide to Literary Curiosities (1999). For he there refers witheringly to ‘Morris’s dismal version of Beowulf, written in collaboration with [F.J.] Furnivall’s junior colleague A.J. Wyatt. The glossary for Morris’s Beowulf gives some indication of what a Teutonized form of twentieth-century English might have sounded like: in the hands of Wyatt and Morris, “disregard” became forheed, “mansion” or “dwelling-place” became wickstead, “curiosity” became witlust, “brave” became moody, and “poured out” became skinked‘ (p.105). And as for F.J. Furnivall’s own project of Teutonising the English language, that, Jackson neatly remarks, ‘was largely forheeded’. Are there, I wonder, any still nastier treatments of Morris’s version of Beowulf lurking out there?

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Go for it, Scotland!

‘We discourage centralisation all we can’ declares old Hammond in News from Nowhere (ch.X), a statement which we may take as giving his positive endorsement to the current Scottish independence campaign. As the Westminster, banking and business establishments go into panic mode in the final days before the referendum, what is at stake in all the turmoil?

Of course, Scotland will not get socialism if it votes ‘yes’ next Thursday, but it will think at least some new political thoughts (booting UK nuclear weapons out of the country, for one). And new thought is ultimately what this campaign has been all about. Live without ideas, the neo-liberal establishment tells us all; just get on with your shopping, for docile consumerism is life. Never mind grotesque and growing levels of inequality, the accelerating trashing of nature all around you, or US and NATO military adventurism across the globe – just go to Sainsburys or Topshop and get on with it.

So we must hope that Scotland holds its courage and lives up to the recent YouGov poll that gave a one per cent lead for the independence campaign. If it does so, it will have shown us what life lived in the light of an Idea looks like, even if, as I concede, this is not a socialist Idea as such. And that example will mobilise others, stirring us from consumerist slumbers into becoming militants of utopian Ideas of other kinds. So, invoking the memory of my beloved Auntie Edna from Aberdeen (pictured below, circa 1985) as well as Morris’s old Hammond, I heartily say: go for it, Scotland.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Objects in Utopia

My favourite literary theorist Roland Barthes once remarked that ‘Notre littérature a mis très longtemps à découvrir l'objet; il faut attendre Balzac pour que le roman ne soit plus seulement l'espace de purs rapports humains, mais aussi de matières et d'usages appelés à jouer leur partie dans l'histoire des passions : Grandet eût-il pu être avare (littérairement parlant), sans ses bouts de chandelles, ses morceaux de sucre et son crucifix d'or?’ Morris’s News from Nowhere might equally well be considered the moment when utopia discovered the object, when those rather colourless, merely generic utopian objects from Thomas More to Edward Bellamy give way to the intensely rendered object-world of Morris’s Thames valley: Dick Hammond’s damascened belt buckle, William Guest’s elaborately crafted pipe in the Piccadilly booth, and so on.

There are no doubt major benefits for utopia in this discovery of the object. The more sensuously embodied the abstract schema of your good society is, the more persuasive it and its values will appear to the reader. But there are paradoxical dangers here too. For if objects, landscape and even characters are indeed welcomely concretised and individualised in this fashion, there opens the possibility that they will acquire a thematic momentum and narrative force of their own, which may lead in directions that stray away from, or even directly challenge, the official thematic values that your utopia was trying to propound.

An ‘incarnational’ aesthetics thus proves to be a mixed blessing. It’s now hard to imagine a satisfying (or even readable) utopia without it, but it may also lead us to a view of the genre that veers close to the Marxist literary theory of Pierre Macherey: that the very fleshing out of the author’s ideological intentions – in this case, the abstract schema of a good society - in literary form may itself problematise those intentions, may revealingly expose their gaps, limits and silences. Whether or not Macherey's claim is true of literature as a whole, it certainly seems to capture the constitutive joy and dilemma of utopia as a genre, strung unsettlingly between politics (abstract) and literature (concrete) as it has been from More onwards.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Corncrakes on the Thames

If you head off into the Oxfordshire countryside this summer, are you likely to hear the sound of corncrakes in the fields? Dick Hammond eagerly anticipates doing so in News from Nowhere. In ch.XXII he announces how much he wants to ‘lie under an elm-tree on the borders of a wheat-field, with the bees humming about me and the corncrake crying from furrow to furrow’; and we know his wish will be fulfilled, for as the rowers arrive at Kelmscott in ch.XXX they hear ‘the ceaseless note of the corncrake as he crept through the long grass of the mowing-field’.

Those other late-Victorian rowers, the anti-heroes of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889), imagine what it will be like to camp on the river bank, when ‘only the moorhen’s plaintive cry and the harsh croak of the corncrake stirs the awed hush around the couch of waters’. In an 1884 article on ‘The Birds of Oxford City’ in The Oxford Magazine, W.W.F. announces that the ‘Landrail or Corncrake’ is ‘a summer migrant, visiting the Parks occasionally, but preferring the safe side of the Cherwell. I have heard it in Merton Meadow and elsewhere’. In the early twentieth-century Midlands, D.H .Lawrence’s poem ‘End of Another Home-Holiday’ announces that ‘In the valley, a corncrake calls/ Monotonously,/ With a piteous , unalterable plaint’; and a particularly pesky corncrake pops up in his first novel, The White Peacock, too. The bird features regularly in Samuel Beckett’s fictional Ireland, with Belacqua hearing ‘crex-crex, the first corncrake of the season’ in More Pricks than Kicks, and the ‘awful cries of the corncrakes that run in the corn’ turning up again in Molloy.

Plenty of corncrakes around once upon a time, then. But my Larousse Field Guide declares, sadly enough, that they were ‘once widespread, now decidedly scarce’, and it doesn’t show Oxfordshire in its map of their current UK distribution at all. So Dick Hammond in 2014 could well be disappointed on the upper Thames, but if he ventured a little further afield – ‘still relatively numerous in Ireland and Hebrides’ – he might have better ornithological luck after all.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Strawberry Thief Game

Coming soon to an I-pad near you will be the Morris-inspired Strawberry Thief computer game designed by Sophia George, the Victoria & Albert museum’s first games designer in residence. The game was given a first outing at the recent Abertay University festival of digital art, and it certainly looks pretty enough: a thrush icon flies over Morris’s colourful design and apparently you have to collect flowers as the bird passes. I’m all for Morris and his work being brought into the digital age, and have written about that issue previously on this blog (see ‘The Digital Imagination’, 1 February 2012). But I also recall that May Morris remarks somewhere that, as a girl, she had been scared of the birds in the Strawberry Thief design, so I wonder if there isn’t an emotional edginess in the visual field here which Ms George hasn’t quite got into what I’ve seen of her game. Excessive prettiness can quickly become vapid, after all.

So lest the artist David Mabb add this Strawberry Thief computer game to his already sizeable catalogue of ‘Morris kitsch’, let me suggest a follow-up idea to Ms George. Morris was a Communist as well as a designer, so how about a second V&A game based on this rather more rugged aspect of his life and work? It could be called the ‘Bloody Sunday’ game, and would involve police brutally attacking unarmed protestors in a digital recreation of late-Victorian Trafalgar Square. If the police kill three protestors and injure over one hundred more (as they actually did on 13 November 1887), then they win; but if Morris and his fellow-socialists, who would be operated by the game player, manage to fight them off and protect the crowd, then the good guys win. Morris saw his aesthetic and political activities as part of a continuum, so if we are going to have computer games inspired by him, let’s have them across the full range of his endeavours.

Monday, 4 August 2014

First World War centenary: a Shavian reflection

George Bernard Shaw’s rural Hertfordshire home, Shaw’s Corner (where he lived from 1906 to 1950), is a marvellous setting for outdoor theatre, and my birthday expedition this year was to a performance of his 1919 play Heartbreak House there on Saturday 26 July. On a glorious summer’s evening the actors put in spirited performances, with Captain Shotover being the star as far as I was concerned; and the first hour or so was very lively, even if the content seemed rather silly at times. But thereafter things got tedious, as the antics of these Chekovian upper-middle-class misfits dragged on and on. Fortunately, there was a revival of interest towards the end, as we saw the war and its Zeppelin attacks impinging on this hapless bunch. The audience (or at least, that part of it sitting around me) seemed as vapidly middle-class as the characters themselves, discussing its latest holidays in Hawaii, Los Angeles or Singapore in the intervals, rather than, say, the current savage Israeli campaign in Gaza.

So in terms of Shaw on the Great War, as we today mark the centenary of its outbreak, I’m inclined to turn away from Heartbreak House itself to the provocative formulations in his 1914 ‘Commonsense on the War’ article, which I quoted in my talk on ‘William Morris and the First World War’ at the Morris Gallery on 19 June. There he finely recommends that ‘both armies should shoot their officers and go home to gather in their harvests in the villages and make a revolution in the towns’, which is pretty much Lenin’s line on that imperialist bloodbath: take the weapons the ruling class gives you, and turn them against that ruling class itself.

My paternal grandfather, Henry Smith Pinkney (1894-68 – pictured above), served in the war with the Royal Artillery in France, and in later years joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, so I can assume that he too would have agreed with the Shaw/Lenin position, at least retrospectively. So in the great national wallowing in emotion we are going to get today from church, government and media, and amidst all the repulsive rhetoric of ‘sacrifice for their country’(pro patria mori), those coldly analytic terms ‘capitalism’ and ‘imperialism’ need to be kept firmly in mind. Working-class lives in their millions were brutally wasted as British and German ruling classes fought over territory and profits, and the only decent thing to come from that four-year spree of industrialised mass-killing was the Bolshevik Revolution itself.