Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Flowers and Sex

In his still impressive biography of Morris, Jack Lindsay early on mentions ‘a combination that never ceased to excite him: a lovely girl merged with his childhood-imagery of flowers’ (p.4). One of the more inventive literary renderings of that particular fantasy must surely be this passage from D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover: ‘With quiet fingers he [Mellors] threaded a few forget-me-not flowers in the fine brown fleece of the mound of Venus. “There!” he said. “There’s forget-me-nots in the right place!” She [Constance Chatterley] looked down at the milky odd little flowers among the brown maiden hair at the lower tip of her body. “Doesn’t it look pretty!” she said’ (ch.15).

Whether Morris’s famously restless fingers ever occupied themselves threading flowers through Jane Burden’s pubic hair, we do not know (though we do know that pansies were later to be a sexual signal between Jane and W.S. Blunt). Not many Morris biographers have been bold enough to speculate about the details of Morris and Jane’s sex life, though Fiona MacCarthy characteristically pulls no punches in asking: ‘How did the honeymoon work out?’, and concludes rather unsettlingly that ‘Morris’s brusqueness and shyness may well have been a problem, combined with his peculiar jerkiness of movement’ (p.152). Hum, yes, physical jerkiness is certainly not what one wants in bed, so let’s hope that at some point Morris’s woman-plus-flowers fantasy did take the form of Mellor’s gentle floral practices.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Keywords and 1980s Art

William Morris gets a mention in Raymond Williams’s indispensable 1976 volume Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (over his choice of Communist as a political self-designation in the 1890s), and I went along to the Liverpool Tate exhibition ‘Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain’ with high expectations. The curators have picked thirteen of Williams’s keywords: these feature on the walls in a flamboyant script, while a rich selection of 1980s art – for the most part of a politically committed variety – is lined up opposite to them.

Well, that’s the theory, though there is in fact some slippage in the practice. David Hockney’s fine portrait of his parents, for instance, which according to the exhibition brochure should be aligned - rather boringly, one can’t help thinking - with ‘private’ actually hangs opposite the term ‘structural’, which certainly has you racking your brains to make connections between the two (the Oedipal triangle was the only linkage I could come up with). Similarly, Stephen McKenna’s painting of ‘An English Oak tree’ which according to the brochure belongs with ‘folk’, actually hangs opposite ‘violence’, a rather more challenging montage-effect. And Stuart Bisley’s untitled oakbeam and soft wood installation, which alludes to the heavy labour of the mining and shipbuilding industries in Sunderland, certainly touches on important Williams preoccupations (work and working-class experience), but is oddly placed opposite the term ‘myth'.

I think that in the end this is more a show about 1980s political art than about Raymond Williams’s historical semantics. But given the slant of its choice of keywords – criticism, formalist, materialism and theory all feature, for instance – there is something of a bias towards conceptual art by politically motivated artists who probably did have some general awareness of Williams’s work. Some of the artefacts on display themselves focus on issues of language – Rose English’s ‘Plato’s Chair’ performances interrogate such terms as death, the sublime, soul, representation and so on – so there is a nice fit there with the Williamsite framework . Overall, this exhibition is a salutary reminder of how varied and resourceful the radical art of the decade was (black, feminist, gay, lesbian, Irish and ecological as well as socialist voices are represented here), and how shrunken progressive political prospects were in the epoch of Thatcher, Regan and Kohl. Only Gorbachev’s coming to power in the Soviet Union in 1985 gives a flicker of hope, but then, look how that turned out.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

In Search of Yellowhammers

I love those vivid yellowhammers who feature so prominently in Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Self-Unconscious’: ‘Bright yellowhammers/Made mirthful clamours,/And billed long straws with a bustling air’, and so on across two stanzas. And D.H. Lawrence (who wrote a booklength study of Thomas Hardy) follows up this motif through Ursula Brangwen in Women in Love: ‘Some yellowhammers suddenly shot along the road in front of her. And they looked to her so uncanny and inhuman, like flaring yellow barbs shooting through the air on some weird, living errand, that she said to herself: “ … They are of another world. How stupid anthropomorphism is”’ (ch.XIX).

Birds are important for William Morris too; and Cormell Price once recorded in his diary that Morris could ‘go on for hours about their habits: but especially about their form’. But among the robins, thrushes, blackbirds, lapwings, wood-ouzels, herons, nightingales, moorhens, woodpeckers, kestrels, ernes, willow-warblers and others who enliven his pages and designs, I don’t recall any yellowhammers. Have I missed something in his voluminous works - some stray text or manuscript that hasn't yet been digitised, perhaps? Can anyone help with an apt reference? In The Well at the World’s End the Lady of Abundance shamefacedly tells Ralph that, as a girl, she had set snares for birds (‘though when I had caught them, it irked me sore to kill them’), so I here, more benignly, set a literary snare which may one day capture us a memorable yellowhammer reference in Morris’s vast oeuvre.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Passwords and Tokens: A Quiz

Morris’s tales and romances are fascinated by the idea of secret passwords and tokens, so here, for the keen Morrisian reader, is a quiz based upon them. I should warn you that in at least one of the stories you will be slain outright if you cannot answer. The answers follow the image below, so take care how you scroll down.

A: When Arnald and Florian gather their men in the Abbey in ‘The Hollow Land’, their guards ask new arrivals, ‘Who went over the moon last night?’ What is the correct reply?

B: Just before Cissela is sent to king Valdemar as Peace-Queen in ‘Svend and his Bretheren’, what token does Siur give her?

C: In A Dream of John Ball Will Green whispers in the narrator’s ear, ‘John the Miller hath y-ground, small, small, small’. What is the correct reply?

D: What token is borne by the runner who arrives at the House of the Wolfings in that romance?

E: ‘When I have set a mark on thee and given thee a token’, says the old man to Hallblithe on the isle of Ransom; what password does he teach the young man to ensure his safety?

F: How do the questers after the Well at the World’s End recognise each other?

G: What token of recognition do Osberne and Elfhild potentially have in The Sundering Flood (which May Morris tells us her father would have made more of if he had lived to complete the tale)?

In a period in which, as Edward Snowden has so heroically shown us, the NSA in the United States and GCHQ over here are remorsely spying on all our electronic communications, perhaps there is more to be said for Morris's low-tech means of mutual identification than we might first have thought.


A: ‘Mary and John’
B: He breaks a thin golden ring in two and gives one half to her.
C: ‘The king’s son of heaven shall pay for all’
D: A war-arrow ragged and burnt and bloody.
E: ‘The House of the Undying’.
F: They wear ‘a little necklace of blue and green stones with gold knobs betwixt, like a pair of beads ... and tied to the necklace was a little box of gold with something hidden therein’ (I, 3)
G: Osberne breaks a gold coin decorated with warriors and the rood in half and shoots one half across the river to Elfhild.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Farewell Stuart Hall (1932-2014)

In the wake of the death of cultural theorist Stuart Hall on the 10th of this month, a tweet from the William Morris Gallery pointed us to his remarks on Morris in his account of the ‘Life and Times of the First New Left’. Hall wrote: ‘The notion of a “socialist propaganda of ideas” was, of course, borrowed directly and explicitly from William Morris and the relationships forged in the Socialist League between intellectuals, struggling to make themselves what Gramsci called ‘organic’, and the working class. We had all read and been inspired by the ‘Making Socialists’ chapter of Thompson’s William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. Indeed, the first editorial of New Left Review was framed at either end by a quote from Morris’s Commonweal article of July 1885: “The Labour movement is not in its insurrectionary phase.” I added: “we are in our missionary phase”.’

It has been moving to see how much grief the loss of Stuart Hall has unleashed on the Left and beyond, comparable only to that occasioned by Raymond Williams’s death twenty-five years earlier. I didn’t know Hall personally, though I listened to his spell-binding oratory at various events in the 1980s and was an avid reader of Marxism Today, with its analyses of Thatcherism and ‘New Times’. But reading the statement of Hall’s debt to Morris under the immediate impact of his passing, I wonder if it isn’t now time to run the traffic the other way, as it were.

Instead of Stuart Hall being indebted to Morris, as in the mid-1950s, the William Morris Society of 2013 might open itself to the themes and projects of Stuart Hall. It might then think of itself as an explicitly leftwing outfit with a mission to intervene in the cultural, political and economic debates of the present (rather than retreating to safe historicist work on the nineteenth century). For starters, what about a London lecture course on ‘The Theory and Practice of Contemporary Utopia’, as an early twenty-first-century equivalent of Edward Aveling’s 1885 Socialist League lectures on Marx’s Capital? Such a metamorphosis of the Morris Society would be a small but useful compensation for the loss of a truly great figure on the Left.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Capitalism and Climate Chaos

When this winter’s severe flooding was confined to the Somerset levels, we could feel that it was at a safe distance, in an already vulnerable part of the country, so that it had no further implications for the rest of us. But now that flooding has come to the Thames valley and elsewhere, we are beginning to think again. Indeed, ‘winter’ in my first sentence is palpably the wrong word; there has been no recognisably wintry weather for the last three months or so, just the unending rain and the ever-rising floods. Winter-without-winter: if that’s not climate chaos, it’s hard to know what would be.

But what are those ‘further implications’? Whose narrative is going to win out as we seek to interpret this national disaster? The first step – as all the green groups and spokespeople and even the occasional mainstream politician like Ed Miliband are telling us – is that this is manmade climate change in action, that these are the dire practical consequences (arriving very much earlier than we had ever dreamed) of throwing unthinkable amounts of carbon dioxide up into the atmosphere. Hopefully, that key first insight will get through. We probably need a much sharper terminology in these matters: of corporate ‘climate criminals’ who – like war criminals – will one day face justice for their irresponsible actions.

But what drives all this relentless carbon dioxide emission in the first place? Here comes the second interpretative step, which no mainstream and very few Green politicians will ever take. With its ruthless desire for the maximisation of private profits and its imperative of unending ‘economic growth’ on a finite planet, capitalism as a globalised economic system disrupts our climate and other eco-systems, with the disastrous consequences we are now living through. We must ‘name the system’, as that 1960s political slogan so aptly put it; but we must be able to name the alternative too, and here William Morris, with his own deep attachment to the Thames valley, is a precious resource. For until we are clear that it is for a Morrisian green communism that we are fighting, capitalism will continue to dominate the terms of economic debate and climate chaos can only deepen.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Ellen in and out of Nowhere

‘Just who is Ellen ... ?’ asks Patrick Parrinder impatiently, even angrily, in his fine 1991 essay on News from Nowhere (thus confirming her claim that she troubles men’s minds). Plenty of critics have tried to answer that question. Here are a few of their colourful suggestions.

‘A forecast of the next age’ (Middlebro, 1970); ‘we should not take Ellen to be Morris’ (Goode, 1971); ‘the anti-Janey’ (Lindsay, 1975); ‘Guest’s girl-friend’ (Parrinder, 1976); ‘echoes of course of Helen’ (Sharratt, 1980); ‘a multi-dimensional figure’ (Silver, 1982); ‘just stepped out of a painting by Burne-Jones’ (Holzman, 1983); ‘really Guest’s double’ (Sypher, 1984); ‘in a complex sense his daughter’ (Spear, 1984); ‘The Helen of the new world ... anticipates Santayana ... a Christ-figure’ (Boos, 1990); ‘an isolated Cassandra’ (Talbot, 1990); ‘bewitching Helen, destroyer of cities’ (Buzard, 1990); ‘Ellen’s symbolic significance of a further temporal dimension’ (Mineo, 1992); ‘dream combination of Pre-Raphaelite angel and Socialist New Woman’ (MacCarthy, 1994); Ellen-in-sunlight’ (Buzard, 1997); ‘Ellen-Diotima’ (Abensour, 1999); ‘Nowhere’s reassertion of the Gothic spirit’ (Kinna, 2000); ‘the model for a kind of dynamic immobility’ (Beaumont, 2004); ‘an element of May [Morris] in the character of Ellen’ (Cherry, 2007); ‘Ellen-as-world, or world-as-Ellen’ (Plotz, 2007); ‘Guest’s Beatrice, so to speak’ (Boos, 2010); Ursula Le Guin’s Shevek in Morris’s text (Pinkney, 2011); ‘the sublime’ (Pinkney, 2012). Ellen even has a Morrisian family, it would seem, since ’Birdalone is younger sister to the vibrant Ellen’ (Meier, 1972/78).

Let me add one or two more ideas. Ellen is a Lady of Shalott who breaks out of the enclosure of the Runnymede cottage to follow her Lancelot up the Thames, or a Medea-figure rowing up river to prepare her secret spells of power. Like her fellow-Nowherians, the critics compulsively fall ‘to making stories of [Ellen] to themselves’ (ch.XXVIII), and we can’t expect such story-telling about News from Nowhere’s most vivid character to end any time soon.