Tuesday, 30 August 2011

From Riots to Utopia

I’ve been expecting the Saturday ‘Review’ section of the Guardian newspaper to devote its ‘Ten of the Best’ column to the subject of Riots in Literature; but it hasn’t done so yet. As a Victorianist, I’d start with the attack on Thornton’s mill in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, follow it up by the riot in George Eliot’s Felix Holt, and eventually pass on to twentieth-century examples. Such a column would be salutary in reminding us what a recurrent social phenomenon riots are, but in the present climate of moralistic indignation the Guardian probably feels it would be accused of trivialising the issue by converting it to literary history in this way.

How deep has the shock of those riots actually been, what impulses to personal change have they given to those of us who weren’t ourselves out on the streets earlier this month? To me, they demonstrated how much anger there is out there against capitalism and what it’s doing to people’s lives, but also how shapeless, unstructured and therefore self-defeating and ugly such anger currently is. They’ve made me ask again what an effective anti-capitalist politics might look like. When New Labour made the Labour Party hopeless, I joined the Greens expectantly and even became a Green Party city councillor for a while (1999-2003); yet now I feel that we have to reinvent the wheel and get the term ‘socialism’ back into circulation all over again instead. But how?

When William Morris lectured here in Lancaster on 2 November 1886 his topic was ‘Socialism: The End and the Means’. So even if we had the means, i.e. an effective socialist party (which we don’t), we would still require the ‘end’, i.e., an inspiring vision of the good society which that party was working towards. Which is precisely where utopianism comes in. Analysis of the causes of the riots, fine; new efforts at Left political organisation in the present, yes indeed; but happy visions of the future too, absolutely. Marxism has always been chary of utopia, and in a postmodern ‘image-culture’ that traditional suspicion was reinforced by a feeling that all positive utopian images were already somehow incorporated by the system.

But the great importance of Morris is in showing us that, however vulnerable the activity of utopian mapping and speculation may be, it is entirely indispensable to the Left too. We still need our own News from Nowhere, from a good future whose outlines we can as yet barely see, if we are to have any chance of remaining sane and resolute in the present.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Stories in Landscapes

I feel that, under pressure of recent social events, I have been neglecting the ‘creative writing’ dimension of this blog, its aspiration to generate more Morrisian text, to finish his uncompleted works or to speculate on the shape and sources of new ones; and this is an emphasis that can apply to Morris’s circle as much as the man himself.

Georgiana Burne-Jones, for example, informs us that her husband ‘enjoyed making up stories about his backgrounds, as he painted them’, which might license us to make up our own stories on the basis of such haunting paintings as ‘Golden Stairs’ and ‘Mirror of Venus’. Such new tales may prove a good deal more disturbing or even science-fictional than you might at first think. ‘Now and then I want to see Hell in a landscape’, Burne-Jones himself remarked, criticising the too placid scenery of Surrey; and he once, according to his wife, offered ‘a description, I remember, of an era when “giant white cockroaches” reigned supreme’. Not Rise of the Planet of the Apes, then, but Rise of the Cockroaches instead.

So get down to your local museum or art gallery, locate its Burne-Jones holdings, and wait in front of them, pen and notebook in hand, until narrative inspiration descends.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Architecture and Social Unrest

At one point in his three-part Channel 4 TV series on ‘The Secret Life of Buildings’, Tom Dyckhoff showed us images of pitched Parisian street battles from 1968, to which French architecture attempted to respond through the young Richard Rogers’s Pompidou Centre, conceived (as Dyckhoff remarked) as a ‘building for the people’. Might we then expect to see architecture, Morris’s great art of arts, respond to our recent riots?

Dyckhoff is a cheery, chirpy presenter and his series was entertaining and illuminating in equal measure. He examined the effects on human well-being of domestic, work and leisure buildings by wearing mobile eye trackers through a shopping mall, having an EEG cap strapped to his head in an open-plan office, and even by being doused in an ice-cold bath for as long as he could endure in different architectural settings.

The programme on working spaces was in the grip of a spatial ‘reformism’ which was all about introducing architectural wit and variety within existing power-relations. Dyckhoff showed us how you can ‘de-institutionalise’ prison-like old schools with colour and anti-geometry in ways that will calm troublesome kids down (perhaps this will work with rioters too); just as, over in Europe, you can brighten up – or even combine - office and industrial spaces in ways that improve staff morale (BMW’s factory in Leipzig). But there is all the difference in the world between redesigning a building to maximise your workers’ comfort, efficiency and productivity under capitalism; and designing a space, in post-capitalist society, in which workers may democratically govern their own production processes (see Morris’s own utopian writings on factories as they ‘might be’).

However, the first programme on domestic buildings had made more telling political points, noting that since 1980 there has been no legal minimum size for UK houses and that we are accordingly building some of the smallest and worst-lit dwellings in Europe. And the final programme on leisure buildings was more radical still, as Dyckhoff denounced 1980s ‘free market fundamentalism’ and tackled leading architects such as Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas about buildings (like the Bilbao Guggenheim, illustrated above) which are zany high-tech spectacles rather than genuine social spaces, which latter he found exemplified by the demotic idiom of the 1951 Royal Festival Hall in London and, as I have noted, the Paris Pompidou Centre.

Architecture alone will not solve our present violent social discontents, as Morris in his socialist phase knew well enough; but since he always was so concerned for its ‘prospects ... in civilisation’ (to borrow that lecture title), we might well now wonder whether it will find creative ways to respond to the riots we have just witnessed. Can video-gaming technology truly ‘democratise the process of architecture’, as Michael Kohn claimed at the end of Tom Dyckhoff’s fine series? In the days ahead we shall find out.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Tweeting William Morris

Have just started tweeting on my usual issues of Morris and utopia. If you go into the Twitter website and search for ‘TonyPinkney1’, you should be able to find me (and could then choose to ‘follow’ the sequence, if you feel so inclined). After all, if The Earthly Paradise celebrates ‘The twitter of the autumn birds’ in ‘The Man born to be King’, why should we not try out the twitter of the literary critics? Perhaps it too might prove to be tuneful and consoling.

Apart from a few famous maxims (‘Have nothing in your house ...’, etc), Morris is the very opposite of an aphoristic writer. Think of those great sheets of poetry-as-tapestry in The Earthly Paradise itself, for example, or the family description of The Well at the World's End as 'the Interminable'. So will it indeed prove possible to evoke and discuss him fruitfully in the tiny genre of the 140-character tweet? I’m not sure. ‘Scorn not the Sonnet’, counselled Wordsworth; but that was fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, not 140 characters! Whereas if you were tweeting on Oscar Wilde, say, rather than Morris, you might feel that this mode of miniature commentary was in harmony with the lapidary, epigrammatic energies of your subject himself.

Yet I do believe that new modes of writing, however challenging, can themselves sometimes generate new thoughts, even new kinds of thinking. For in his Adorno book, Fredric Jameson writes of ‘the possibility of forms of writing and Darstellung [presentation] that unexpectedly free you from the taboos and constraints of forms learnt by rote and assumed to be inscribed in the nature of things’. And perhaps Twitter too, as Walter Benjamin did for Adorno, will offer ‘the possibility of another kind of writing – which is eventually to say: another kind of thinking’ (p.52).

So, as far as William Morris tweeting goes, I think the answer is: suck it and see! I intend to.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Crafts in a Time of Crisis

My blog is relatively weak on the crafts side of Morris, I have to acknowledge that, though I hope it compensates on the literary and political dimensions of his work. Fortunately we do have other blogs out there which give stronger coverage of the arts and crafts aspects; see, for example, ‘William Morris Fan Club’ and ‘William Morris and Quilting’. But after a week in which so many English cities have seen such violent social unrest, perhaps it isn’t amiss to try and restate (as I understand it) the importance of craft activities in the wider Morrisian scheme of things.

When I read last week’s announcements about restoration of the Morris embroidery known as the Lanercost Dossal (kept just up the road from me at Lanercost Priory in Cumbria), my first thought was: hum, is this not a rather remote and antiquarian bypath when our cities are burning and our fellow-citizens are being killed (both by police bullets and by rioters’ violence)? And I think, yes, one does initially have to keep that extraordinary disjunction of different social realms – delicate embroidery versus flames in the streets – firmly in mind.

And yet it is, after all, surely the crucial importance of Morris that he brings these two things – craft activities and social upheaval – inextricably together. So my second and better thought is: it is precisely because capitalism cannot give its citizens work which has the kind of dignity or creativity which the Lanercost Dossal or any other craft artefact embodies (and oftentimes cannot offer them any work or hope at all), that people in their frustration at what Morris famously terms ‘useless toil’ (or no toil at all) will rise up in sporadic violent revolt against it. Only very serious political leadership could ever hope to get beyond such fruitless local riots into a principled challenge to the entire underlying economic system.

So all Morrisian craft works, then, as I have written elsewhere of the Kelmscott Press books, ‘are not evidences of medievalist nostalgia and political withdrawal, but are rather time-travellers from some far future we can as yet barely imagine, showing how lovingly artefacts might be crafted in the socialist world that is to come’. Such, at any rate, would be my own take on the Lanercost Dossal and its fellow works. If your own differs, as it well may, I look forward to learning of it.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Disaffected Youth - Some Utopian Remedies

Instead of importing police specialists on gang culture from the United States, perhaps the government might consider adopting some local practices from the utopian literary tradition. Of course, you don’t, by definition, get disaffected youth in utopia, but even in these perfect societies there is sometimes an awareness that the high spirits and coursing hormones of young people are going to need some form of creative physical outlet (apart from just sex, that is).

So short of a socialist revolution, which I don’t think we are going to get any time soon, how about such lesser measures as:

Working for two years on the land, as everybody at some point in their careers has to do in Thomas More’s Utopia. They thus get to understand agriculture, perhaps develop a more empathic relationship with Nature as they do so, and, from our own perspective, might helpfully burn off a good deal of excess physical energy in the process.

Strenuous rock-climbing as in Aldous Huxley’s Island, where this is consciously practised as an initiation rite for young people (even though it leads to occasional fatalities). The utopians thrive on the sense of physical challenge and develop an acute sense of responsibility both for themselves and for the rest of the team with which they are climbing.

‘War games’ as – very controversially – in Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (where he only lets men participate, but we’ll include women too). Teams of young people get semi-drunk, do some ceremonial chanting, put on their totemically decorated costumes, and then fight it out with spears till someone is seriously wounded (in this case, the narrator William Weston).

Sensuously creative physical labour with one’s hands is the central utopian practice in Morris’s News from Nowhere, but we might also note such tougher manual exercises as ‘trying how much pick-work you can get into an hour’ when you are road-mending (ch.VII). Thus the muscle-bound Dick Hammond, the Arnold Schwarzenegger of Morris’s utopia, works off those physical energies of which Huxley, in particular, is very wary.

Plenty of other ideas elsewhere, including Charles Fourier’s masterstroke of letting children collect the rubbish because they so enjoy getting mucky. But since I can’t see Cameron and co. paying any attention to what utopia has to say on all this, I think I’ll stop here.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The London Riots

We know how Matthew Arnold wanted to deal with London rioters, in the wake of the Hyde Park disturbances of 1866; for as he tells us in Culture and Anarchy, ‘the old Roman way ... is always the right one; flog the rank and file, and fling the ringleaders from the Tarpeian rock’. And that is pretty much what we have been hearing for the last few days in the great tide of kneejerk rightwing commentary on our present urban discontents: ‘mindless thuggery’, ‘pure criminality’, ‘full force of the law’, 'water cannon and rubber bullets'.

The major riot of Morris’s socialist period was ‘Black Monday’, 8 February 1886, when, as E.P. Thompson puts it, ‘The Socialists led the crowds up Pall Mall for a further meeting at Hyde Park. There was some jeering from the clubs. The unemployed retaliated with stones and window-smashing, and then a good deal of indiscriminate damage and looting took place, in which Morris’s own shop was lucky to escape’. Morris himself had not in fact been present at these events on the day, but, as Thompson notes, ‘the Trafalgar Square riots were a sudden test of Morris’s ability as a Socialist leader, and also of the sincerity of his revolutionary opinions’.

Our own riots of 2011 differ in significant ways from the 1886 troubles: there is no Socialist leadership of any kind, and there is a racial dimension here (in the police killing of Mark Duggan and the long-term background of racist policing in Tottenham and elsewhere) which Morris could never have imagined. But of our riots we could still say what he did of his own, in the pages of Commonweal in March 1886: ‘What was the meaning of it? At bottom misery’. A generation of young people thrown on the economic scrapheap under both New Labour and the Con-Dems; obscene financial bonuses made by bankers and City traders; hopelessness and rage, with the gloomy world economic situation making our own grotesque inequalities and savage cuts to welfare provision all the more devastating. No major English political party speaks out against all this, and thus, as Martin Luther King insisted, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard’.

The violence, looting and fires on our streets over the last few days are the ugly dark truth of Cameron's and Clegg’s England, not whatever glossy Olympic facade we might be able to muster for global media consumption in twelve months time.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Socialist Poetry

Andy Croft gave an invigorating talk with this title at the Wordsworth Study Centre in Grasmere the other day. Brandishing a copy of Red Sky at Night, the anthology of British radical verse which he edited with Adrian Mitchell in 2003, he spoke about general issues of poetry and politics, and read a selection of fine poems from the collection, of which the highlight was surely Adrian Mitchell’s own ‘Victor Hara of Chile’, about an Argentinian radical musician tortured and murdered by Fascists in the Pinochet coup.

The spectrum of radical poetry is wide and complex, and it would have required more time than Croft had in his talk to fully unravel socialist verse, Marxist verse, anti-Fascist verse, working-class verse, anarchist verse, and so on. Yet it left me uneasy that he was so dismissive of modernism in his quest for a lucidly communicative political poetry. Agreed, some modernisms can be wilfully difficult, not to mention politically suspect; but left-wing writers will surely need all those modernistic techniques of disorientation, alienation, defamiliarisation – which indeed go to an admirable political home in the work of Bertolt Brecht.

In the wake of the talk I turned up a copy of the 1970 Penguin Book of Socialist Verse, edited by Alan Bold, which takes the entire world’s left-wing poetry as its field, so that Brecht, Aragon, Mayakovsky, Hikmet, Ritsos, Neruda and even Mao Tse-Tung all feature prominently. Yet for all that, Bold’s collection, like Croft’s, features some of William Morris’s verse in its early pages (and even has a Walter Crane design for its front cover too); and I certainly feel that Morris’s ‘All for the Cause’ is still a rousing socialist poem.

In the space available here all one can do is record a few other personal favourites. I’ve always found W.H. Auden’s elegy for the left-wing Expressionist dramatist Ernst Toller deeply moving; Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘Second Hymn to Lenin’ is an intense work too; and Tony Harrison’s ‘V’ is perhaps the poem of English working-class experience in our own time. Brecht’s masterpiece ‘To those who come after’ is also a long-time favourite, and not just because I’m the proud owner of a German audiobook which features Brecht himself reading it. ‘Wirklich, ich lebe in finsteren Zeiten’, the poem begins, times politically darker than Morris himself ever knew, certainly. But the modest consolation that ‘without me, the rulers would have sat more securely’ is perhaps one which any adequate socialist poem might in the end tentatively offer itself.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Morris Blog Book Available

If William Morris were alive today, he would certainly be busily blogging on all the literary, cultural and political issues that so passionately absorbed him; and in fact his ‘Notes on News’ items in his socialist newspaper Commonweal in the late 1880s do constitute a kind of political blog in their own right. But since we don’t actually have Morris’s own blog, we shall have to make do with blogs about him and his work.

There are by now several of these, but the blog you are currently reading, ‘William Morris Unbound’, was the world’s first blog on Morris-and-utopia. Now, with the publication of William Morris: The Blog from the Kelmsgarth Press, I have brought the 139 posts between its launch in October 2007 and the end of March 2011 from the blogosphere into print. These brief entries, which I hope illuminate and entertain by turns, explore the full range of Morris’s concerns: poetry and printing, Icelandic sagas and romance writing, art and architecture, utopia and socialism. But they also range into such unlikely topics as drawing pins, insults, Star Trek, Southend Pier and penis size, as well as offering a Morrisian commentary on national and international events of recent years.

At the very heart of my ‘blog book’ is Morris’s great utopia, News from Nowhere, and William Morris: The Blog offers many new approaches to that work, as well as the prospect of a twenty-first-century sequel to it. To purchase the book at £12.95 paperback (includes postage), please go to the Kelmsgarth Press website at http://kelmsgarthpress.com/ and use the Paypal facility there.