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.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

In Our Time

On the 70th birthday of the National Health Service, we had a lively four-way discussion of Morris and his work on Melvyn Bragg’s weekly Radio 4 programme this morning.  Much basic exposition had to be done for the radio audience, but there were also some interesting and sharper angles coming through which alas could not get fully developed.  Bragg himself clearly didn’t think much of Morris’s medievalism as expressed in A Dream of John Ball.  Presumably his views here are shaped by his own researches on the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt for his 2015 novel Now is the Time, but, dutifully remembering that he is the programme’s host rather than an actual discussant, he didn’t really develop his own critique.

Ingrid Hanson boldly spoke up for Morris’s fascination with violence, a topic to which she has devoted a fine book.  This is a crucial emphasis, which breaks us away from a stereotypical image of gentle Morrisian rural Englishness, all willow trees and reed warblers chirruping on the upper Thames.  She also valuably stressed Morris’s Marxism, though I personally would have preferred the term Communism here.  Marcus Waithe shrewdly noted how central, yet how radically undefined, the term ‘beauty’ is in Morris’s aesthetic thought, and gave us an important insight that we should follow up further in his poetry: ‘the strengths of Morris’s poetry are very intimate with its weaknesses’.  At a time when the Morris Society does so very little in relation to its hero’s poetry, we should explore this paradox further.

Jane Thomas had a powerful leitmotif to her own contributions on Morris: ‘He’s so compromised all the way through’, ‘a deeply compromised man’, News from Nowhere is ‘as compromised as his poetry’.  This stress on self-contradiction in all facets of Morris – his personal life, his business practices, his politics – again welcomely gets us away from too easy praise of his endeavours.  I should want to give it a more literary inflection, I think, picking up Marcus Waithe’s stress on the poetry.  For it seems to me that the anxieties and self-doubts which afflict Morris constantly come through in the ghosts and monsters who so numerously populate his literary works, where they attain dream-like intensity and concretion.  Hauntology and teratology – these should be the next major directions in Morris studies, surely. 

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.