Sunday, 17 January 2010

Earthquakes in Utopia

The devastating consequences of the earthquake in Haiti have been in all our hearts and minds these last few days, though the international relief operation is now beginning to get into gear, thank goodness.

I found those harrowing television images reminding me of that curious moment in News from Nowhere, where Walter Allen, explaining to Dick and Guest the love tragedy in his neighbourhood that has so depressed him, suddenly announces: ‘And all this we could no more help than the earthquake of the year before last’ (chapter XXIV). Nothing, surely, could be more incongruous in the genial, sunlit, placid Thames Valley world of Morris’s utopia than this reference to an earthquake!

England does have occasional earth tremors, of course (I’ve experienced one or two myself over the years); and even more rarely it has the odd minor earthquake, which sometimes does some limited structural damage to buildings. There were a few of these in Victorian times and Morris may have known of them, though I can’t actually recall any such references in the Collected Letters.

But what, anyway, is an earthquake doing (albeit at second hand) in his utopia? I’m not sure that there has been any scholarly commentary on that remark of Walter Allen’s, so we are left free to speculate here. Is it, as with the earlier road-building episode in London, to show that socialist utopians can rise to tough physical challenges when they need to, that they are not always in upper-Thames holiday mode?

Possibly: the one thing we can say for sure is that utopia, which surely won’t be exempt from natural disasters, will be ready for them in a way that the desperately impoverished, dictator-blighted, crime- and violence-ridden society of contemporary Haiti so tragically isn’t.


mo said...

Hi Tony, Maybe there was a big earthquake somewhere in europe/world just before Morris was writing book. What year would that most likely be? We could look in the earthquake catalog.

Owlfarmer said...

I was curious about this as well, but there are probably two good reasons why mention of an earthquake might have turned up in NFN. One is Morris's experiences in Iceland (where his travels took him not far from the very volcano causing all the present disruption); he almost certainly experienced at least a few tremors whilst making his way around the island. I haven't read the journals in some years, but that might be a good reason to go back to them.

The other possibility is the relatively fresh memory of the Great Colchester Earthquake in 1884. Although not large by some standards (4.6 on the Richter Scale), it caused a sensation, a few deaths, and may have influenced Morris's ideas about the "history" of Nowhere.

The British Geological Society has a good page on earthquake hazards in the UK: