Sunday, 25 September 2011
Jeremy Paxman on Morris
I’ve always enjoyed Jeremy Paxman as a famously tough presenter on BBC’s Newsnight programme (though also feeling that, in terms of class formation, he is too close to many of the politicians he deals with). But Paxman has other intellectual strings to his bow too. I possess his excellent anthology, Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life (1995), as a treasured fortieth birthday present from my good friend Robin Gable. His recent BBC series on Victorian painting was consistently interesting, as is the book that emerged from it. And his undergraduate studies in English Literature at St Catherines College, Cambridge, were put to good use in his genial tome on The English: A Portrait of a People (1998).
However, I want to challenge Paxman’s Morris scholarship in this latter volume, because the slip he makes here is not just his own. On p.170 of the book he quotes Morris as saying that, in England, ‘all is measured, mingled, varied, gliding easily one thing into another, little rivers, little plains ... little hills, little mountains ... neither prison nor palace but a decent home’. Morris does indeed say all this in his 1877 lecture on ‘The Lesser Arts’; and many other people cut the quote off at this very same point. But if we follow it through into the next paragraph we find this panegyric to gentle Englishness giving way to quite different feelings. For ‘it would indeed be hard if there were nothing else in the world, no wonders, no terrors, no unspeakable beauties’.
This is the Morris of Iceland rather than England, of the sublime rather than the beautiful, of the late romances at their most disturbing; and it is that Morris, in my view, that we have more need of today. For Morrisian gentle Englishness is too easily captured by nostalgic conservatism on one side of the political divide and by contemporary Green politics on the other. The Morris of the sublime, however, shakes those too easy identities up. He stands for, and enacts in his best work, disruption, upheaval, danger and challenge, breaks rather than continuities, the possibility of total transformation, not modest tinkering here and there.