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’.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Varieties of Gothic

I’m not sure why it took me so many years to realise that I shared a birthday with Emily Brontë – July 30th.  Even in years when I have taught Wuthering Heights on our Victorian Literature course I never made the connection, presumably because I was trained in modes of literary interpretation – at first New Critical and Leavisite, subsequently literary-theoretical – which never had much time for authorial biography in the first place.  In later life, biography has come to seem a more important and moving genre to me, so I have finally made that Pinkney-Brontë linkage, presumably the only one there is.

 However, the issue of Emily Brontë and her novel – or, more generally, of the Brontës and their novels – does pose some theoretically interesting questions.  For if we take the Brontës’ fiction as being representative of that wider literary trend we now often term ‘female Gothic’, running say from Anne Radcliffe to Angela Carter and beyond, then I have never felt sure that I could convincingly articulate the relationship of this cultural tendency to that architectural and ultimately political Gothic which characterises the thinking of John Ruskin and William Morris.  Paranoid entrapment in a confined masculinist space, coupled with an unleashing of female desire, sits uneasily with admiration for the sensuous creativity of the carvers of the medieval cathedral and the adoption of that model of labour as a utopian alternative to the degraded and oppressive work practices of the capitalist present.

Are these two traditions imbricated in ways which we haven’t yet managed to define or theorise?  Will it always be the case that the powerful invocation of one kind of Gothic will also, at the level of the textual unconscious, emit unsettling traces of the other?  And might that be the reason why Morris’s embodiment of Gothic utopianism in News from Nowhere, which has plenty of ebullient socialist carvers of its own, also unleashes, in the latter third of the text, the energetic and enigmatic figure of Ellen, who has by her own admission ‘often troubled men’s minds disastrously’, and whom in the end the book hardly seems to know what to do with?

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

RSPB: Climate Hypocrites

‘This upper Thames valley, well-wooded and abundantly watered, is a land of birds,’ J.W. Mackail writes in his Morris biography; and in a similar mood of ornithological enthusiasm a few years back I dutifully filled out my direct debit form and joined the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

The RSPB certainly says all the right ecological things in its quarterly magazine.  Here, for instance, is Chief Executive Mike Clarke in the current issue: ‘If you know how to read them, the signs of worldwide environmental breakdown are all around us; from insect declines and the effects of air pollution on our soils, to more and more weather extremes’.  After sounding this dire warning note, he offers some modest hope; for ‘there are solutions that work with nature not against it … We can choose to have more personal impact now, and you can read ideas on p.28 about lifestyle actions we can take.  Individually these are small steps, but collectively we can make a difference at scale’.

No problems with p.28 and its green suggestions, but what about all the other pages in this issue which are devoted to organised bird-watching holidays in far-flung corners of the globe?  £6,995 for 12 days in Namibia anyone?  Or £16,595 for a little jaunt to the Antarctic?  The middle-class exclusivity of these absurd prices is despicable enough in the England of foodbanks, child poverty and benefit sanctions, and the environmental consequences of all this travelling completely contradict the Chief Executive’s pious statements.  Just four pages after his own remarks, we come across a full-page advert for ‘Road Trips round the Natural World’, which offers ‘a tremendous variety of fly-drive holidays in some of the world’s most beautiful places’.

Flying and driving – in the year of Extinction Rebellion, David Attenborough’s documentary about global over-heating, and various political declarations of ‘climate emergency’!  These aren’t the self-contradictions of a complex organisation whose left hand doesn’t know what its right hand is doing; they are just good old-fashioned hypocrisy on a quite remarkable scale.  Chief Executive Clarke is stepping down, apparently, and with the fat salary he will have been earning from all that advertising revenue I expect he’ll be able to go on a few fly-drive holidays of his own in his retirement.  Let’s hope that incoming CEO Beccy Speight will restore some environmental honesty and intellectual self-respect to the RSPB.