Wednesday, 13 June 2018

William Morris in Preston

Listening to the audience responding to Terry Eagleton’s talk at the Hay Festival the other day reminded me how often, in local press coverage of Morris’s own socialist lecturing tours, we get excellently detailed reports of the queries and challenges his audiences put to him.  One memorable example of this is the article ‘Conference with a Socialist’ in the Preston Guardian for 25 October 1884, reporting on Morris’s talk in that city on ‘A Socialist’s View of Art and Labour’, which was chaired by the Unitarian minister William Sharman.  The lecture, according to the reporter, was ‘mostly read from a voluminous roll of manuscript’, and ‘There was a good attendance’, though disappointingly he doesn’t give an actual figure.

Morris’s lecture is effectively summarised, and then the fun begins.  The first question came from a Mr Greenhalgh: ‘a query with regard to the Socialists on the Continent: Were they not a political body trying to subvert society in its present form?’  Various speakers challenged what Mr Geo. Bancroft describes as ‘the Lecturer’s laudatory descriptions of the artisans of the Middle Ages’; and ‘Another person wanted to know what plans were to be taken to make “all folk of one web”’, i.e. economically equal despite their varying capacities.  Mr Newsham asked about the means of social transformation proposed by the Democratic Federation: ‘What modus operandi must they adopt to bring about change without serious trouble and anxiety?’  One local gentleman seemed to have a bee in his bonnet about working-class intemperance: ‘Did he [Morris] not think there would be less destitution in England if the 136 millions spent in drink annually was spent on what he called art’.  And ‘the concluding question was as to whether the working classes had derived benefits from the improvements of machinery’.

It seems that all the questions were asked in one block, and Morris must have been making notes furiously, since he then answered them all in what amounts to a second speech.  It might be interesting to pursue my Eagleton/Morris comparison a little further, and to compare the typical questions addressed to Morris across the whole range of his political lectures, not just the 1884 Preston talk, with those ten standard criticisms of Marx and Marxism which Eagleton ventriloquises, and then powerfully answers, in his 2011 volume Why Marx Was Right.   

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Terry Eagleton at the Hay Festival

Consummate showman that he is at the lectern, Terry Eagleton played his large audience beautifully in the Tata Tent at Hay on Friday morning.  A sequence of fine Eagletonian quips and gags softened the crowd up for his eloquent defence of Marx and Marxism against popular misconceptions and for an introduction to the concepts of tragedy and sacrifice as they feature in Terry’s own recent work. Marx was aligned with Oscar Wilde as a spokesperson for a socialism of leisure, as opposed to William Morris’s vision of a socialism of creative labour – a contrast which, to my mind, is more to Morris’s credit than that of the other two.

Dai Smith was to have chaired the talk, but was prevented from doing so by illness, so Terry ran his own question-and-answer session.  The first questioner leapt to his feet and delivered a kneejerk condemnation of Communist regimes as ‘bloody dictatorships’, but subsequent questions were more on Eagleton’s side, sympathetic to the powerful critique of capitalism he had outlined, though with reservations here and there, naturally.  I had a real sense that the Hay festival, for all its slick professionalism, lavish corporate funding and media domination, might have shifted significantly to the left, or at least to a more left-liberal position.

A question about immediate political tactics in the UK of 2018 came up, as did such topics as Brexit; and my wife Makiko Minow and I found ourselves disagreeing afterwards as to what degree a predominantly theoretical discourse such as Terry’s in the Tata Tent should or should not be ‘cashable’ in practical-political terms – she feeling that it needn’t be, and I more anxious that it should, though I’m not sure I see exactly how.  I do feel, though, that for William Morris, whom Terry had praised for his detailed account of the transition to communism in News from Nowhere, the question of the party is a crucial one.  This might not run quite as far as Trotsky’s slogan ‘my party right or wrong’, but none the less Morris’s gargantuan efforts on behalf of the Socialist League show how committed he was to forging a genuinely transformative political agency.  The pressing question for us – whether Corbyn’s Labour Party can be such a force – remains an open one.  I shall just have to get myself to local meetings and September’s Annual Conference in Liverpool and make my own decision about that.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Hyndman's Utopia

Towards the end of Chushichi Tsuzuki’s H.M. Hyndman and British Socialism (1961) you come across this exciting sentence: ‘Two notable pieces of writing by Hyndman were published posthumously … One of these was a pamphlet called Introduction to ‘The Life to Come’.  Hyndman had planned to write a utopia in the vein of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward or Morris’s News from Nowhere, and this was to be called The Life to Come: only a prefatory section, however, was completed before his death’. 

So you then dutifully chase up that pamphlet, which was published by the Hyndman Literary Committee in 1926, only to feel some disappointment.  Of its thirty-odd pages, the first half surveys the history of utopian thought from Plato to Marx and Engels, while the second half enunciates the general principles of a socialist utopia as Hyndman sees it without, however, getting down to the task of giving them fictional embodiment – which is precisely, of course, when worthy political platitudes start to get interesting.

And yet Hyndman did have a very genuine interest in literary utopia, it appears.  In the pamphlet he mentions a lecture called ‘The First Monday Morning under Socialism’ which he used to deliver ‘frequently’ in the early 1880s: ‘I endeavoured to show how a visitor to a Socialist community established long years after he had joined the majority would be received, and what he would see going on around him’.  It would be interesting to know if William Morris ever sat through that lecture in the early days of the Democratic Federation.

Hyndman’s wife Rosalind suggests that a much fuller version of his utopia did actually exist: ‘As I read it at Lelant it was a series of visions of a glorious London, and a happy and blooming England, under the future Co-operative Comonwealth of Social-Democracy.  It left upon the reader’s mind an impression of unbroken sunshine’.  Perhaps this utopia was too sunny indeed, for she also mentions a joint writing scheme whereby she would ‘put in all the shadows’ she thought necessary.  But death intervened and this never happened.

Does that fuller version of Hyndman’s utopia The Life to Come still exist anywhere – fictionally embodied rather than just generally sketched out, as in the pamphlet?  What a startling literary-political find that would be, if the dusty manuscript should ever turn up in some attic or basement somewhere.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

On Translating Homer

In the correspondence that ensued from his recent review in the London Review of Books of three new translations of the Odyssey, Oxford academic Colin Burrow remarks that “one doesn’t have to read beyond the first two lines of William Morris’s verse translation to realise it’s not going to offer much poetical joy (‘Tell me, O Muse, of the Shifty, the man who wandered afar,/After the Holy Burg, Troy-town, he had wasted with war’)” .  I’m not sure how well any of us are equipped to challenge that critical judgment.  Even devoted Morrisisans may well not have read Morris’s 1887 version of Homer, and even if we have, we probably do not possess the mastery of ancient Greek which would let us do a comparison with the original itself.

So we perhaps have to turn to older and better equipped commentators for some help here.  One looks first to J.W. Mackail, as always, but he doesn’t give us much comfort, since in his view Morris’s Odyssey chiefly demonstrates a “disparity between the original and the method of rendering”, which in this case is the anapaestic meter of Sigurd the Volsung.  Half a century later, Geoffrey B. Riddenhough, who wrote learnedly about several Morris translations, notes that in the Homer version Morris ‘once more … reveals his curious hatred of the Latin element in the English language, a feeling which he allows to falsify his translation”.

So far, so bad, then; and Colin Burrow’s judgement would appear to be in the ascendant.  So we must turn instead to Oscar Wilde who reviewed the two volumes of Morris’s Homer as they came out with gusto: “of all our English translations this is the most perfect and the most satisfying”.  Or, twenty-seven years later, there is A. Clutton Brock’s little book on Morris where, though conceding that the translation is “rough and odd at times”, he insists that Morris “has kept the momentum and excitement of the story better than any other translator … it is as near to Homer as we are likely to get until another master of narrative poetry as great as Morris chooses to spend some years of his life upon a translation”.  These assessments should be enough stimulus to us, surely, after the BBC’s recent gripping mini-series on Troy: the Fall of a City, to turn to Morris’s Odyssey to follow up the character – admirably played by actor Joseph Mawle - who was far and away the most intriguing figure in the BBC version.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Marx at 200

As for everyone else on the Left, the bicentenary of Karl Marx’s birthday means a lot to me.  But ‘Marx at 200’ has been emotionally overshadowed by what I might term ‘Nigel North at 60’, the death on April 16 of my close childhood friend as his multiple health problems took him away from us three months short of his sixty-first birthday.  I mentioned in a previous post that the white working-class neighbourhood in which I grew up from the late 1950s now barely exists in its old form, and Nigel’s death gives that observation traumatic concrete force; he still lived just around the corner from my parents’ home in Southend-on-sea, so had remained quite literally part of that neighbourhood all his life.  His death therefore feels to me not just a great personal loss but an historical end-point, as if not just a deep part of my own being, but a certain precious idea of England, has gone with him.  “I love my country as it used to be,” he once said to me, and I can feel that immense pull of a shared working-class past too.  I shall have to be careful that my mourning does not turn into melancholia.

How move forward, then, emotionally and politically?   Perhaps by going one generation further back, paradoxically – to my paternal grandfather Henry Smith Pinkney, who was a lifelong Communist.  That was a political identity which itself took rise from a particular experience of class and locality – the mining villages of the North-East and then Kent, in Grandad’s case; but which also generated a universal idea of emancipation which, a generation further back still, could pull even a wealthy middle-class Victorian like William Morris across to its new utopian dreams and practice.   So the ‘idea of Communism’ still persists – and Marx at 200 is part of that – even if a particular historical embodiment of it, i.e. the Leninist party, is now definitively past.  So I here rededicate myself to that project of liberation, true in that to the working-class neighbourhood and upbringing that Nigel North and I shared – even if, his own father having been a Conservative Party activist, his political identity was more conflicted than mine.  I don’t ever want to stop remembering and mourning my dear friend, lost to us as he has been far too early, but the idea of Communism is a project open and utopian enough to point also to Miltonic fresh fields and pastures new.