Friday, 7 September 2018

David Blunkett and the Daily Telegraph

In his account of the socialist revolution in News from Nowhere, Morris mentions ‘one very violent reactionary newspaper (called The Daily Telegraph)’.  Editor David Leopold helpfully adds in a note that ‘what Morris refers to as “the ravings of the Telegraph” occasionally formed the subject of his journalism’.  Well, that newspaper certainly hasn’t changed its political spots since the 1890s and is as reactionary now as it was then; it will jump on any rumour, any story, any bandwagon to destroy the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government.  So when former Labour Minister David Blunkett writes in The Telegraph about what he calls ‘the recent return to … bullying and thuggery’ in the Labour Party (31 August), we have to ask exactly what he’s up to.

What he actually means, of course, is that the Left is currently running the Party and that he, as a Blairite, is not at all happy about that fact – either the substantive political fact itself, or the tone in which some of the internal debate is allegedly being conducted.  Now if you said this at your local branch meeting or at a regional party conference or even at some national Labour gathering, then that might be an appropriate contribution to this important political debate.  There are many complex issues at stake at the moment – Brexit, anti-semitism, the Mediterranean migration crisis, and so on – on which all voices in the party need to be heard.

But when you publish your argument in that ‘very violent reactionary’ newpaper, and you also join in its ‘ravings’ by using incendiary phrasing like ‘return to … bullying and thuggery’, then you are doing something very different indeed.  You are lending your name, voice and reputation to the Daily Telegraph’s campaign to discredit Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum, and you implicitly announce that you too, like it, will now do or say anything that will destroy the possibility of a Corbyn-led government.  In a time of swiftly approaching change, Morris argues in News from Nowhere, ‘such an element was too dangerous for mere traitors and self-seekers, and one by one they were thrust out and mostly joined the declared reactionaries’.  You’ve taken one small but significant step towards those reactionaries by writing for their newspaper, Mr Blunkett.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Fascism Alert

The recent attack by far-right thugs on London’s socialist bookshop Bookmarks is a measure of how emboldened Fascist groups have become in the wake of Donald Trump’s Presidential victory in the United States and the Brexit vote here.  If their renewed activity requires, politically speaking, some new wave of anti-Fascist mobilisation along the lines of Rock Against Racism in the late 1970s, it also poses, in more historico-scholarly vein, the question: did William Morris predict or foresee Fascism?

Well, there are those alarming ‘Friends of Order’ in chapter XVII of News from Nowhere, counter-revolutionary para-militaries who ‘had some successes at first, and grew bolder … got many officers of the regular army to help them, and by their means laid hold of munitions of war of all kinds’.  Some editors of Morris’s utopia don’t footnote this group at all, while others, like David Leopold, are dutifully historical about it: ‘possibly an allusion to the “party of order”, the counter-revolutionary groups that Admiral Saisset (1810-79) tried to unite in opposition to the Paris Commune’.  Bolder commentators, such as Jack Lindsay, have seen Morris’s Friends of Order as forward- rather than backward-looking: ‘his insight into the middle class which already by the 1870s he had seen as “a most terrible and implacable force”, enabled him to prophesy the rise of Fascism in the epoch of imperialist decay, the counter-revolution of the Friends of Order’.

At a support event for Bookmarks on Saturday, former Morris Society chairperson Ruth Levitas read out a letter from her 103-year-old Uncle Max, who fought against Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts at the famous battle of Cable Street in 1936.  The struggle against Fascism goes on across the generations, and clearly, with an attack on a socialist bookshop, the Friends of Order are on the move again.  For, as we know from the mid-twentieth century, first you burn books, then you burn people.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Teachers of Lore 3: John Burrow, Medievalist

Given the importance of the medieval period as a point of reference in Morris’s cultural and political thinking, I’ve often felt that the Morris Society should be offering public classes in medieval language and literature – particularly since such provision has been declining in universities in recent years.  I was lucky enough to benefit from such instruction as an undergraduate at Bristol University in the mid-1970s, and it certainly gives one a firsthand inwardness with aspects of the period which even the great cathedrals, so important for both Ruskin and Morris, can’t quite do.

One of my most inspiring medieval tutors back then was John Burrow, who had just arrived as Winterstoke Professor in the Department from Oxford. I worked my way breathlessly through his A Reading of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ (1965) – what beautifully lucid, delicate and thoughtful criticism it was, not in the least weighed down by its copious learning. Nor was John Burrow in any way a narrow medievalist.  He also taught a course on ‘The Language of Literature’, and in what was then a militantly Leavisite department, in which D.H. Lawrence represented ‘life’ and James Joyce ‘death’, it was Burrow who first taught us some pages from Ulysses, absorbed as he was in that novel’s avantgarde linguistic experiments.

I came across John Burrow again in later years, when he chaired a Quality Assessment panel inspecting the Lancaster English Department.  He carried out his task professionally enough, but you could also tell, from his occasionally bemused and quizzical demeanour, that to an old-style Oxonian scholar-gentleman of his type all this bureaucratic bean-counting was ultimately completely beside the point.  So I’m saddened to have recently learnt of my former teacher’s death in October 2017 at the age of eighty-five.  A great scholar and critic has left us, and it seems all the more important that we continue to invent new ways of promoting the study of medieval language and literature in his wake.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Rudyard Kipling Erased

Fiona MacCarthy gives us a memorable glimpse of Morris through the eyes of the fourteen-year-old Rudyard Kipling, who was a cousin of the Burne-Jones children: ‘Kipling, as a child, was impressed by “Uncle Topsy”, and especially taken with his story-telling facility, giving an account in his memoirs of a surprise visit by Morris to the nursery when Kipling was staying with the Burne-Joneses.  “We settled ourselves under the table which we used for a toboggan slide and he, gravely as ever, climbed on to our big rocking horse.  There, slowly surging back and forth while the poor beast creaked, he told us a tale full of fascinating horrors, about a man who was condemned to bad dreams.  One of them took the shape of a cow’s tail waving from a heap of dried fish”’.

However, Morris, had he lived long enough, might well have taken a dim view of much of Kipling’s own literary ‘story-telling’, and I imagine would have approved of the recent actions of students just down the road from me at Manchester University.  Finding that their Student Union building had been decorated, without consultation, with a mural of Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’, they have painted over it with Maya Angelou’s stirring anti-slavery poem ‘Still I Rise’, on the grounds that Kipling was a jingoist, an imperialist, and dehumanised people of colour.  This admirable gesture fits into a pattern of sustained student assault on university icons of Empire, as with the continuing Oxford campaign ‘Rhodes Must Fall’.  As one of the foremost anti-imperialist campaigners of late-Victorian England, Morris would wholeheartedly back today’s rebellious students.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Pumping Poo with Panache

William Morris was a Londoner through and through, despite his occasional nostalgic yearnings for a quiet rural life on the upper Thames, so he would probably have been as fascinated and horrified as I was by BBC 2’s stunning programme on ‘The Five Billion Pound Super Sewer’ last night.  As Bazalgette’s Victorian sewer system, designed for two million people, collapses under the weight of the current insane levels of immigration into the capital – population now nine million, and estimated to rise to thirteen million imminently – so London’s rivers are polluted in the most obscene and extensive manner.  Morris’s beloved river Lea, where he used to fish as a lad, was particularly nauseating in this programme, with its regular discharges of shit and sanitary towels making it a festering mess of e-coli bacteria, and the Thames now receives 39 million tons of toxic sewage as overflow every year.  Not much hope for the salmon of the opening chapter of News from Nowhere then!

The new sewage project is indeed awesome – a seven-meter-wide, twenty-mile-long tunnel deep under the Thames which will carry a vast, unimaginable torrent of shit which then needs to be pumped spectacularly upwards, like a reverse waterfall, to the surface in east London to be processed.  The enormous machines and shafts, the extraordinary engineering feats and problems – all created a powerful image of what one might well term a ‘technological sublime’ in this programme, which reminded me of some of the science-fictional terraforming achievements in Kim Stanley Robinson’s great Mars trilogy of the 1990s.  But Morris might have been pleased to note that, however formidable the machines and resourceful the engineers, it is always in the end a single chap using his hands who needs to finish off the job: a man with a 50p sponge sanding down great walls of concrete to the necessary meticulous finish, or a solitary diver under the Thames removing river silt with his shovel. 

One can’t help but thrill to the giant gadgets, but the only real environmental solution, on a planet whose human population now vastly exceeds its biological carrying capacity, is a massive reduction in human numbers, a ‘great clearing’ of the city along the lines of that in News from Nowhere itself.  If we marched five or six million Londoners up the M1 to Scotland, which sees itself as needing additional people, then we might have a chance of building a human-scale, decent capital city again.  Until then, the Great Wen will continue to be an economic, moral, political and scatological force for corruption and calamity in our society.