Monday, 11 May 2015

Elections and Utopia

A little piece in The Guardian Review on 9 May about the reading habits of the leaders of the political parties can form a pendant to my previous post on the general election itself. You might expect the Green's former leader, Caroline Lucas, to be the most interesting figure here, since she studied English Literature at Exeter University and has a PhD for a feminist account of Elizabethan romance. I once asked Caroline, in the Kelmscott Coach House, whether she felt there were connections between her early Eng Lit studies and her later Green convictions, and rather to my surprise she didn’t have a very ready or clear answer on this. I know what the answer is in my own case – romantic anti-capitalism is the common term – but whether that would work for her I'm not sure.

So the clear winner, from this blog’s perspective, is Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, who ‘says she was inspired by Marge Piercy’s feminist sci-fi novel Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), in which the heroine – a woman detained and drugged in a New York psychiatric hospital – is visited by a time-traveller from a utopian future world, but fears what could unfold instead is a dystopia where systematic use of mind-control secures the elite’s power’ (p.5). That latter formulation is quite a good account of what we have just witnessed, with those relentless Tory invocations of the Labour-SNP ‘nightmare’ securing our elite's power, so it is good to know that at least one party leader also harbours Piercyian aspirations towards utopia in these dark moments. Perhaps we can persuade her to read News from Nowhere next.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Democracy at Work

‘There is something in all this very like democracy’, William Guest eagerly declares to old Hammond as the latter explains the principles of communal decision-making in News from Nowhere (ch.XIV). And we too, at the end of this six-week campaign period, may feel that we are exercising our own democratic rights in putting crosses on ballot papers at some point in the course of the day.

However, today’s general election is a farce, from various viewpoints. First, because its only outcome will be further neo-liberalism – the hard, nasty version under Cameron’s Tories, or the with-a-human-face-and-ever-so-regretfully-but neo-liberalism-all-the-same variant from Miliband and Labour. Second, because it is operating under a corrupt first-past-the-post system which, by design, reduces all non-establishment challengers to near-impotence. Third, and most importantly, because putting a cross on a piece of paper every five years has almost nothing to do with democracy where and how it would really count – in the work-place, where most of us actually spend most of our waking hours.

If my academic colleagues and I had daily votes on the variety of issues which face an early twenty-first-century university, or if the workers at the Magnet kitchen showroom just down the road from me all decided collectively in committee how their business would be conducted, and so on, then I might believe that the term democracy had some meaning again in this society. We used to talk about this issue, about extending formal bourgeois democracy to substantive ‘industrial democracy’ – that would indeed have been part of what Raymond Williams used to mean by his ‘long revolution’. But that discourse seems to have faded away almost entirely in the neo-liberal epoch.

Until we get it back on the agenda, I am going to take comedian Russell Brand’s original advice – which was also, by the way, that of William Morris’s Socialist League in its own day – and NOT vote. By that ‘policy of abstention’ (to borrow Morris’s term) I shall, in my tiny way, avoid giving a corrupt and pointless rigamarole the show of legitimacy it craves from its victims.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Scott’s 'Waverley' and the Joys of Insurrection

‘They besieged and took Carlisle, and soon afterwards prosecuted their daring march to the southward’. I don’t suppose that Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party, however well they do in the imminent General Election, are planning a daring expedition into England of the kind narrated in Walter Scott’s 1814 novel Waverley, from which my quotation comes (vol. 3 chapter 10). But none the less, with so much reactionary drivel being spouted by the Tories about the supposed ‘threat’ that a post-election SNP-Labour Party deal might pose, this is certainly a topical and exciting moment to be re-reading Scott’s first novel.

I can see more clearly too, now, why Scott’s Waverley novels appealed so intensely to William Morris – not just because of the rugged Highland scenery, picturesque social customs and racy linguistic dialect they depict, but rather because of the sheer energy and intelligence of their engagement with politics and history. Waverley vividly dramatises a country in civil war as the 1745 Jacobite rebellion breaks out, as does Morris’s own News from Nowhere at the other end of the nineteenth century, with its gripping chapters on ‘How the Change Came’. The invocation by Scott’s Flora and Fergus MacIvor of ‘the cause’ must have deeply stirred Morris, even though his own chosen cause was socialist rather than royalist; as must the book’s searching explorations of how political loyalties are formed in the first place (Waverley himself famously ‘wavers’ from side to side), how far ethical considerations should or should not be subordinated to one’s chosen political commitment, and where fanaticism might be considered as beginning. I suspect too that, in the narrower sphere of literary characterisation, some of Flora MacIvor’s highminded militancy feeds through into Ellen in News from Nowhere.

Scott’s novels do not currently feature on our Romanticism course in the Lancaster University English Department, and that seems a real loss. At a time when Russian-backed separatists are fighting for independence in eastern Ukraine, and the jihadis of Islamic State are violently imposing their caliphate in Syria and Iraq, we can surely see more clearly that the historical novel as invented by Scott was an epoch-making generic innovation that rises to the level of such brutal transformative processes. It still has much to tell us about them, and about the process of building more humane revolutionary transformations too.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Images for Utopia

We are all fond of the woodcut of Kelmscott Manor from C.M. Gere’s design which served as the frontispiece of the Kelmscott Press edition of News from Nowhere in 1893 and which now often graces modern paperback editions too. But is it really the best image to introduce Morris’s utopia? Does not the Manor, as a completed architectural artefact, imply that the effort of actually making utopia is over, that once we’ve rowed up the Thames to get there we can just lie back and enjoy it? Indeed, as a building that hugely predates the book’s own narrative present, does it not effectively take us outside the realm of utopia altogether?

What might serve as a better image here then? Well, couldn’t we have a building from the utopian present in which William Guest finds himself? Why not a woodcut of the Hammersmith Guest House, say, or of that architecturally exuberant nearby Mote-House which embraces ‘the best qualities of the Gothic of northern Europe with those of the Saracenic and Byzantine’ (ch.IV)? Or better still, why not an image of a building in process rather than already completed, which might semiotically signal to us, as frontispiece of the book, that utopia is itself always in process and never complete, that it is constantly self-transformative or 'kinetic', in H.G. Wells’s term?

And we do indeed have just such a scene available to us in the ‘Obstinate Refusers’ chapter later in the book, where Philippa and her building team are eagerly engaged on a new house on the upper Thames: ‘at work in the shed and on the scaffold about half a dozen men and two women, blouse-clad like the carles’ (ch.XXVI). A woodcut based on this episode would have had the further beneficial effect of reminding feminist critics of Morris’s utopia that women are not confined to the rather subservient roles they do indeed occupy in the earliest chapters. So do we have a woodcut artist out there venturesome enough to have a go at such an illustration?

Thursday, 2 April 2015

William Morris on the Syllabus

As an undergraduate in English Literature at Bristol University between 1975 and 1978, I never encountered any William Morris at all on my degree scheme. We did plenty of Victorian poetry, including Browning, Tennyson, Arnold and Hardy, but Morris’s Defence of Guenevere poems, which certainly had all the qualities of edge, concretion and irony to appeal to the Empsonian predilections of my tutor Moira Megaw, never got a look in. And though the Department as whole did have a culturally militant stance towards ‘technologico-Benthamite civilisation’ (Leavisite codeword for capitalism), since it was staffed by second-generation Scrutineers like Roy Littlewood, that certainly did not extend to having a socialist utopia like News from Nowhere on the syllabus.

Do undergraduates today, in either English or Politics departments, get any better exposure to Morris? There is certainly more interest in Gothic than in literary realism these days, which might make a space for him; but on the other hand, a whole series of new areas has come into focus – literary theory, science fiction, African literature, women’s writing, and so on – which now take up a good deal of the undergraduate’s time in English studies. I think the honest answer is that we simply do not know how much attention Morris’s work gets on the university syllabus in the early twenty-first century. So we need a national and international survey of Victorianist colleagues in literature departments and Left-leaning colleagues in Politics or Sociology to see which Morris texts are getting taught, and, in the longer-term, to encourage more of them on to the syllabus.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

The Philip Webb Centenary

How does - or should - one honour the dead? The centenary of the death of architect Philip Webb is giving rise to a cluster of activities that all look appropriate enough at first glance. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings is organising a tour of Red House in May and other related events; Tessa Wild will be speaking to the William Morris Gallery, again in May, about Webb’s work and ‘his deep friendship with Morris’; the V&A will have a Philip Webb display in November, which will encompass his furniture designs as well as his buildings. There are many other similar things going on elsewhere and they all look – and no doubt will be – genial, informative and entertaining (I might even go to one or two myself); but oh dear, how relentlessly historical and therefore ultimately low-key they all are into the bargain!

The pull of a personal name always draws us back to anecdote and history in this manner. To truly honour the dead – our dead, i.e. socialists and communists like Webb and Morris – we are well advised to move from names to themes, from the past to the present, from nostalgia to struggle. So to celebrate the Webb centenary let the William Morris Society organise for later this year (it is still not quite too late to do so) a series of high-profile speakers on the general topic of ‘Architecture and Society Today’, which might recapture for the present some of the centrality and excitement that architecture had in cultural and political debate in the postmodern 1980s (of which Fredric Jameson’s analysis of the Bonaventura Hotel in Los Angeles might stand as an exemplary instance). Sign up Owen Hatherley, Will Self, Jonathan Glancey and others, call these talks the ‘Philip Webb Centenary Lectures’, publish them subsequently as a book, and let us look boldly forward rather than back.

Friday, 6 March 2015

The Great Morrisian Bake Off

I can enjoy Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood in the BBC TV show The Great British Bake Off in small doses, but want to point out that, in terms of the celebration of baking, William Morris in his later works got there first – though it is bread rather than fancy cakes that is the object of culinary skill in his writings.

In The Water of the Wondrous Isles no sooner has Birdalone buried the body of her terrifying Witch-mistress than ‘she went about the house, and saw to the baking of bread’, as if this were the most natural thing in the world to do at such a fraught moment. And perhaps it is; for when Arthur the Black Squire turns up at the cottage after their five years of anguished separation from each other, Birdalone celebrates with ‘fine bread made for that very occasion’. In The Well at the World’s End after Ralph and Ursula have made their way through the alarming mountain passes they come into a beautiful valley and rejoice because the Sage of Swevenham has told them ‘that there they should winter, because of the bread which they could make them of the chestnuts’. In News from Nowhere we see the delicious products of baking – thin pipe-stems of wheaten crust, big, dark-coloured, sweet-tasting farmhouse loaves – but not, a little disappointingly, the act of baking itself.

Baking bread is thus a decidedly positive value in Morris, just as it has become once more in our own culture, as when Satish Kumar of the magazine Resurgence & Ecologist extols the slow, meditative virtues of home-baking – an altogether more attractive paradigm, to my mind, than the often hectic, unnecessarily competitive format of the Berry/Hollywood TV programme.