Swift visit to Oxford today to see how our son Justin is bearing up after his shoulder operation yesterday. To cheer him up as the anaesthetic wears off, we took him out for a drink to an Oxford pub called ... the William Morris! But lest this conjure up a scene of genial medieval fellowship akin to that in the Rose tavern in chapter two of A Dream of John Ball, I have sadly to inform you that this public house is named not after our socialist William Morris, but rather after the Oxonian capitalist William Morris (1877-1963), who from modest beginnings in his small garage in Longwall Street eventually ran a giant car-manufacturing empire, became Viscount Nuffield and founded a postgraduate Oxford college which he had named after him.
Sigmund Freud has an important essay on ‘the antithetical meaning of primal words’ (1910); and with these two radically opposite William Morrises before us, I think we will have to extend his model to personal names too. The capitalist William Morris has won out over our man, not least in the naming of this pub, but even he can’t in the end escape from antithetical meanings, because the William Morris pub is situated in Between Towns Road in Cowley, which is exactly where Raymond Williams’s fine Oxford novel, Second Generation (1964), begins.
Williams, as a great socialist theorist in the Morris tradition, is interested in the social liminality evoked by that most peculiar street name, the way it indicates an indeterminate no man’s land or ‘border country’ (to use his favourite metaphor) between the dreaming spires of Oxonian middle-class intellect and the hard-pressed working-class lives of the Cowley car factories. So, even if the pub is named after the wrong William Morris, we can down our pints in it in Between Towns Road and warmly remember Williams’s socialist novel as we wipe the froth from our lips.