Monday, 24 December 2012
In Morris’s early poem ‘The Blue Closet’ Lady Alice informs us that ‘They give us leave,/Once every year on Christmas-eve,/To sing in the Closet Blue one song’, so those four enigmatic women - two queens and two damozels - are presumably at their eerie song even as I write.
The motif of female imprisonment in a tower comes to Morris from Tennyson, from ‘The Lady of Shalott’ above all, though that motif is part of a broader cluster of poems concerned with imprisonment and breakout in Tennyson (‘Mariana’, ‘Kraken’, ‘Palace of Art’, ‘Ulysses’). A quick structural analysis reveals the deep ambivalences at work here: imprisonment is stifling (obviously) but also protective (external dangers cannot get at you), while break-out is the jubilant emergence of an authentic self (obviously) but also, more unexpectedly, lethal, as for the Lady of Shalott, the Kraken and Ulysses.
I’ve sometimes felt that for every poet you could knock up a little analytic machine comprising a founding binary opposition with profound ambivalences on either side of it which would, at the level of deep structure, generate poem after poem on the surface. I try to show how this works around issues of higher versus lower reality in my undergraduate lecture on W.B. Yeats, for example. So could Morris’s early poetry, so close anyway to Tennyson’s in thematic content, be subject to a similar analysis? To some extent, yes: his ‘Golden Wings’ works exactly like ‘The Lady of Shalott’ or ‘The Kraken’ (you break out but die in the process).
Yet what is novel about Morris’s treatment of these issues is that there is typically not one but two imprisoned consciousnesses (one male, one female, as in ‘Spell-Bound’ or even ‘The Blue Closet’ itself), which strain longingly towards each other across an impossible distance: ‘Yet now I wait, and you wait too,/For what perchance may never come’.
Thursday, 20 December 2012
2012 has been the centenary of the great miners’ strike of 1912, the biggest strike the world had seen at that point in history, with around a million workers taking part. My paternal grandfather, Henry Smith Pinkney, was born into a mining family in the north-east of England in 1894, so in 1912 he was 18 years old and a miner himself. It seems highly likely (particularly in view of his later membership of the Communist Party) that he was an eager participant in that strike, though I have no documentary proof of this.
So I’m glad to find Jane Morris writing on 4 March 1912: ‘miners ought to be paid at least twice as much as they seem to get, and all the owners & Jews & financiers & idle rich people generally ought to work in the mines at least one day a week, perhaps by this means a little sympathy might be produced between the different classes’ (p.451). Her comment is certainly not as radical as Morris himself on the 1893 miners’ strike, and rather more in the spirit of that class-collaborationist handshake between foreman and boss at the end of Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis. But even so, I’m delighted that Jane Morris broadly sympathised with my Grandad’s political activities in the early years of the twentieth century.
Sunday, 16 December 2012
During Hunt’s talk I occasionally found my mind drifting off to E.P. Thompson’s provocative 1976 description of Morris as ‘the friend of Engels’ (p.818). As a way of emphasising Morris’s intellectual and political importance, that is certainly an effective slogan; but how accurate is it? After all, I can’t quite imagine William and Friedrich having a quiet, matey afternoon together fishing for pike and perch at Kelmscott. They certainly had close consultations as Morris and his allies planned their break from the SDF in late 1884, and during these the two men discovered their shared love for old Norse literature, which might have become the basis of a genuine friendship. But Engels’s later dismissive phrases about Morris – ‘settled sentimental socialist’ – quickly come to mind at this point.
This is not just a scholarly issue, but also, I think, a problem of form, of mode of writing – and perhaps more an opportunity than a problem. Academic expository prose has probably reached its limits here, and we might now be able to learn more about the Engels-Morris relationship by dramatising it, by writing a play based on and heuristically exploring those tense months as the project for the Socialist League took shape. After all, at a socialist entertainment on 21 November 1884 Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx, themselves key participants in the SDF break-up, acted in a play based on their own colourful lives, so we do have some warrant for this approach from the period itself. Any creative writing volunteers out there?
Thursday, 6 December 2012
2012 is not just the bi-centenary of Robert Browning (whose poetic relationship to Morris Peter Faulkner and I will be exploring in the Coach House on Saturday), but of Edward Lear too, whose great contribution to English literature is, of course, the limerick. Dante Gabriel Rossetti had quite a flair for limericks too, usually a good deal more malicious in nature than Lear’s genially nonsensical ones, and even Morris tried his hand at one or two as well.
Will the limerick survive in utopia? Who knows: utopia will be such a profound transvaluation of values (and genres) that we cannot legislate on this in advance. But I found that, on a recent re-reading of Morris’s utopia, some scenes were shaping themselves into the form of limericks in my mind, so I offer them here as my own small contribution to the Edward Lear bi-centenary.
There was an old man in utopia
Who said to the Guest, ‘I hope you are
Not disappointed, though
Society goes so slow’,
That grumbling old man in utopia.
The Obstinate Refusers
Thought all other utopians were losers;
They worked with obsession
And refused all digression,
Did Phillippa and her Refusers.
Is it just accident that it is two of the more dissonant moments in Morris’s Nowhere that seem to lend themselves to this curious literary form? I don’t know. Try inventing some of your own and we might find out.
Thursday, 29 November 2012
‘The grey rain driveth all astray -/Which way through the floods, good carle, I pray?’, asks the narrator in Morris’s ‘The Little Tower’; and if you explore Lechlade and Kelmscott in November, you are likely to encounter weather conditions every bit as challenging as those in this poem or the more famous ‘Haystack in the Floods’.
The path from St Lawrence’s Church in Lechlade across to the Trout Inn has become a causeway with flooded fields on both sides; water rats swim beside it and a great gathering of migrant geese honk furiously from a raised bank a stone’s throw away. Vast quantities of muddy water force their way through St John’s Lock and the Trout Weir, and under such inclement conditions the normally idyllic upper Thames takes on some aspects of the Icelandic sublime (faint shades of the great waterfall at Dettifoss, perhaps). At Kelmscott itself the field you normally walk over to get to the Thames now is the Thames (see image above). The brook behind the Manor has burst its banks and reached the outbuildings, so the staff are moving items up to the first floor for fear of worse to come. ‘God send us three more days such rain’, cries the ‘Little Tower’ narrator, which is the very last thing people here want.
November tourism has much to be said for it; you certainly avoid the madding crowd. ‘I am a man of the North’, William Morris once stoutly declared, and I therefore can’t help feeling that the gentle, willowy, summer Thames-scapes of Kelmscott frustrated as well as delighted him. So we can and should share his own November exhilarations, as with that ‘insane attempt to fish’ here on 9 November 1875: ‘out on the river ... the wind right in one’s teeth and the eddies going like a Japanese tea-tray: I must say it was delightful: almost as good as Iceland on a small scale’.
Friday, 23 November 2012
The publication of Alastair Fowler’s Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature affords an opportunity to think about William Morris’s naming practices. Basically, there are two options in the field of literary nomenclature. Realist fiction wants its characters’ names to signify as little as possible, and ideally not at all, so Fielding’s Tom Jones, which Colin Burrow calls ‘the least interpretable name you could imagine’, is representative here. Other modes of fiction, such as allegory or Gothic, aspire towards the ‘Cratylic name’: in this case name and nature bond, as the former very strongly signifies what the character is or does. Charlotte Brontë gives us Jane Eyre (air) and Helen Burns (fire) as the four elements make themselves felt in her Gothic characterisation in that novel.
Morris doesn’t write realist fiction and in his late romances names are often unashamedly Cratylic. The central figures in The Story of the Glittering Plain are Hallblithe and Hostage, so we at once know exactly how and where the former likes to spend his time and what’s soon going to happen, in plot terms, to the latter. News from Nowhere, however, doesn’t fall into either camp and its names are therefore unsettling, we can’t quite tell if they are meaningful or not. George Brightling sounds like a Sigurdian sun-god appropriate to this happy utopia (compare Marissa Brightcloud in Callenbach’s Ecotopia), but though we hear of him he never actually features in the narrative. And consider Hammond/Hammersmith: is Morris working a pun there, phonetically asserting the unity of man and nature in his utopia? I’m not sure: maybe, maybe not. Or what about Biffen/Boffin? Why should those two names (Victorian boatyard/utopian dustman) be so curiously akin to each other? Is that phonetic resemblance semantically meaningful for Morris? Perhaps, then, we shall need a third category, beyond the realist/Cratylic binarism, for Morrisian naming in News from Nowhere.
Wednesday, 14 November 2012
To have Caroline Lucas, Britain’s first Green Party MP, delivering this year’s Kelmscott Lecture in the Coach House was indeed to feel that that venue had been restored to its 1880s/90s purpose as a debating hall for pressing contemporary political concerns. The debate took place not so much in the lecture itself, which was a lively overview of Morris’s manysided aesthetic and political commitments, as in the questions and answers that followed, many of which focused on prospects for Green politics in our own time.
For me, Lucas’s talk was a chance to reflect on my own relation, as a Morrisian, to the Green Party. Having been a member since about 1993, I put in two very intense years of local campaigning for Lancaster Green Party in 1997 and 1998, and accordingly got elected as one of Lancaster’s first-ever Green city councillors in May 1999, standing down at the end of my four-year stint in April 2003 (though the local Party successfully defended what had been my seat). I felt then that in the Green Party one could both be a full-blooded socialist and engage people’s pressing everyday concerns – housing, transport, recycling, anti-social behaviour; but my confidence that I could reconcile those two frameworks there has dwindled since.
In her Kelmscott Lecture Caroline Lucas mentioned the word ‘capitalism’ only once, and that to me is the problem. In the light of global economic crisis since 2008 (and with general strikes taking place in Spain and Portugal as I write), I’ve come to feel that Green politics and socialism are quite different things. The former is an essentially ethical appeal for lifestyle changes in the name of a universal interest - the survival of human life on this planet - while the latter addresses a class interest against a class enemy in the name of the overthrow of the existing economic system. Yes, certainly, there is some overlap here: capitalism is committed to endless growth and thus threatens the environment too. But though Caroline Lucas herself probably is a person of the Left, I have ceased to believe that the UK Green Party as a whole is or can ever be a party of the Left; and that is why, regretfully, I am a member of it no longer.
Tuesday, 13 November 2012
Since undergraduate days I’ve always loved the works of the medieval Gawain-poet (in fact, I owe my marriage to them, but that’s another story), so I am intrigued by one of David Leopold’s footnotes to his edition of News from Nowhere. Noting that old Hammond appears to be William Guest’s grandson, Leopold remarks: ‘In making his authoritative guide a descendant there is perhaps an echo of Pearl (Morris was certainly familiar with medieval dream-poetry)’ (p.195). Well, yes, he clearly knew Piers Plowman with its opening dream-vision in the Malvern hills, though I can’t actually recall any reference to the Gawain-poet's Pearl in Morris's voluminous writings.
However, the beautifully elegiac Pearl does turn up in Jane Morris’s correspondence, for on 15 June 1908 we find her writing to Sydney Cockerell: ‘Thank you so much for the “Pearl”. I like it exceedingly and wonder that I never came across it before’, which the editors learnedly inform us is a reference to Israel Gollancz’s 1891 edition Pearl, an English Poem of the 14th Century with a Modern Rendering (p.412). Whether this remark helps or hinders Leopold’s interesting speculation about the influence of Pearl on News from Nowhere, I can’t say; perhaps it’s just neutral in that respect.
Thursday, 8 November 2012
We know that Morris valued being educated at Marlborough College mostly for the rich variety of prehistoric monuments in that part of the country, and his utopians early on in News from Nowhere conversationally engage the visitor from the past, William Guest, on his ‘archaeological natural-history side’. So I conclude that Morris (and Guest) might share my sadness in learning that Channel Four is to axe its flagship archaeology programme Time Team, which has been running on our screens since 1994. With Tony Robinson as its hyperactive frontman, and the shaggy-haired Professor Mick Aston in his trademark multicoloured jumper leading a trusty band of eccentric archaeologists, Time Team achieved the unlikely feat of making archaeology into popular television. My eight-year-old son and I watched it enthusiastically from the beginning and it kept us gripped for years, though perhaps becoming a little formulaic eventually.
There was even a certain politics to Time Team. I wouldn’t call it Marxist, but Mick Aston’s historical sympathies were certainly always with the lowly and humble rather than with the aristocrats, and Tony Robinson was at one point a member of the Labour Party’s National Executive. Moreover, there was a latent socialism to the form as well as the content of the programme in the utopian image of cooperative labour it afforded, as this gaggle of learned eccentrics meshed in the course of each episode and the series overall into a dynamic collective entity (such as Ruskin and Morris imagined labour on a medieval cathedral to be). So: Robinson, Aston, Phil Harding and trowel, field archaeologist Carenza Lewis, Victor Ambrus of the beautiful pencil sketches, historian Robin Bush, John Gater the geo-physics man, Stewart Ainsworth the batty theorist, Mick the Dig – all memorable figures of my son’s childhood cultural world – we bid you a sad farewell.
Thursday, 1 November 2012
The Collected Letters of Jane Morris, edited by Frank Sharp and Jan Marsh, is such a beautifully produced and meticulously edited volume, and gives so vivid a sense of Jane Morris herself across its 570 letters, that it seems churlish to ask for more. And yet it is the book itself that prompts one to do so. For example, I’m glad to learn from the editors that Jane’s handwriting is ‘steady, clear, cursive ... simple and direct, lacking both “copperplate” loops and calligraphic flourishes’, but I also want to see this for myself, to make my own judgements about what qualities of character might be deciphered from such writing, so surely a book as comprehensive as this might have found room for a photographic reproduction of at least one of Jane’s letters.
Jane at moments holds forth to correspondents about her own craft activities – ‘I achieved the design for your book cover’, ‘I am sending you a bit of embroidery I finished for you long ago’ – and I would therefore gladly sacrifice the book’s colour image of Rossetti’s picture of Rosalind Howard or even one of its many Rossetti versions of Jane herself, for an image or two of her craftwork, so that we should see her as a subject rather than object of aesthetics (since transforming her from object to subject, from silence to voice, is the very point of this volume in the first place). I’m intrigued too to learn of ‘two surviving letters’ by Jane’s sister, Elizabeth Burden, and would have liked to have them in a brief Appendix to this collection.
Still, this is indeed a wonderful tome, which leaves us enduringly in its editors’ debt. Its learned footnotes also intrigue by virtue of the number of references they contain to unpublished letters by William Morris himself, which makes one suspect that Norman Kelvin’s great four-volume Collected Letters may not be so definitive after all. Who, I wonder, is going to be bold and assiduous enough to gather all the Morris strays together to complete the project?
Sunday, 28 October 2012
In Morris’s The Water of the Wondrous Isles the heroine Birdalone is kidnapped as a baby and brought up abusively by a witch in the aptly named forest of Evilshaw. The figure of the harshly abused child – often an orphan, as Birdalone is not – is one of the recurrent icons of Victorian fiction: Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, David Copperfield, or Pip in Great Expectations. I’ve been teaching these books to students for years with the comfortable feeling – never explicitly formulated between us, but I think definitely in mind on both sides – that such child abuse was specific to the Victorian period and that it certainly was not, could not be, happening pervasively around us in our own enlightened epoch.
But now the Jimmy Savile case has blown that complacency right out of the water. It is not just that the eccentric BBC disc jockey has been exposed as a sexual predator on children on an industrial scale, but rather that we are seeing how widespread such abuse is, with the Rochdale child sex ring recently and many victims of other abusers now coming forward in the wake of the Savile scandal. And child sex abuse then links up with other kinds of abuse of vulnerable groups that we have learnt of lately – the Patients Association 2009 report into nurses’ neglect of and cruelty towards the elderly in the NHS, or the brutality of private care nurses at Winterbourne to patients with learning disabilities – to the point where you can begin to feel, as indeed is the case in the Victorian novel, that almost the whole of society is riddled with cruelty and exploitation.
I’m inclined to feel that it is capitalism itself which is ultimately behind all such specific instances of abuse, that its predatory ethos which involves treating others as mere opportunities for personal gain (what Morris himself might have termed ‘devil take the hindmost’), ripples out from the economy into all aspects of human life, in both the Victorian period and our own. But that confidence has been shaken too; perhaps this is too glibly political a point to make, though I don’t want to tip over into a theory of original sin either. For I still feel that even if there were the occasional case of child or elder abuse in a socialist society like that of News from Nowhere, at least the prevailing cooperative ethos of that culture would prevent it from ever becoming systemic, as it now seems to be with us.
Thursday, 25 October 2012
Monday, 22 October 2012
My colleague John Schad has for some years been making it his personal mission to erode the generic boundary between literary criticism and theory, on the one hand, and creative writing on the other. I recently sat through a dramatised reading of his 2007 book Someone Called Derrida: An Oxford Mystery, a philosophical detective story which interweaves the Oxonian experiences of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida with those of John’s father there and elsewhere, a very unsettling mix indeed. Having published my own Oxford book in 2007 - William Morris in Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-1895 - I now wonder if I wasn’t too generically timid in that project. Certainly I tried to find a lively mode of narration, but the book is basically a standard scholarly study of its topic. Yet Schadian boundary-breaking suggests that it could have been done quite differently.
We know that on his sea journey back from Norway in August 1896 Morris was afflicted by sinister hallucinations. Could William Morris in Oxford not have been written in that mode, then, as a disjointed stream-of-consciousness in which episodes, themes and figures from his Oxford campaigning years recur to Morris in eerily heightened fashion, with the Ashmolean metamorphosing suddenly into St Marks in Venice, the gaunt medieval statues and gargoyles on St Marys Church coming alive and preaching communism on Port Meadow, and the socialist chimney sweep William Hines assaulting the Master of Balliol with his brush in Broad Street? My text might thus have been as fragmentary as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and any unity or meaning it has would have to be actively constructed by the reader rather than being guaranteed in advance by the conventions of scholarly narrative. Surely our task as Morrisians in the years to come will indeed be to forge what Roland Barthes would term writerly or scriptible rather than readerly or lisible modes of writing about our hero.
Thursday, 18 October 2012
Yesterday I had the privilege of attending Professor Roger Bromley’s Inaugural Lecture on ‘Keeping the Narrative Alive: Reading and Writing the Arab Spring’, which also launched Lancaster University’s new ‘Writing for Liberty’ lecture series. Roger marvellously evoked the energy and courage of writers in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria as they lend their literary talents to the revolutionary cause. And his trenchant accounts of works like Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo: My City, Our Revolution and Samar Yazbek’s Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution gave a vivid sense of the complex formal strategies such authors have adopted to narrate social upheaval – realism being only one relevant means among many others.
Roger also broached issues of the concept of literature operative here. What is, or should be, the relation of the writer to the people’s cause? Full-blooded commitment, in Sartrean fashion, or should literature in some sense be above the immediate struggle, taking more complex and longer-term views? William Morris made his own very forthright choice in this respect in the English political battles of the 1880s, abandoning the languorous role of ‘idle singer of an empty day’ for that of militant author of Chants for Socialists, Pilgrims of Hope, etc. If the aim of the Arab demonstrators was, as Roger asserted, ‘to reclaim squares’ in their cities, then that was no less true for Morris and Trafalgar Square than it has been for the Egyptians and Tahrir.
Roger Bromley has long been an important figure in the development of British cultural studies, and it is good to see that mode of analysis, fashioned by Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall from the late 1950s on, still capable of resourcefully engaging the most stirring political events of our own epoch. But what Roger’s superb account of Arab Spring literature, music and blogging most convinced me of is that deeply Morrisian discussions of the relation of culture and politics may fruitfully take place without once mentioning Morris’s name or the 1880s. Indeed, we may be most true to Morris when we leave his specific history quite behind us and fully engage our own.
Sunday, 14 October 2012
In a letter of 25 April 1912 to John Quinn, May Morris wrote: ‘Sweetheart, I drank your health on the 23rd – in wine made at Kelmscott and very good wine too ... We are quite proud of our vintage’. I don’t recall any references to wine-making at Kelmscott in Morris’s own letters (though he does mention jam-making), so perhaps this practice post-dated him. Nor does May give any more detail about her Kelmscott vintage, so what are the possibilities here?
The manor’s gardens yielded cherries, strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, apples and plums, any one of which might have been used to produce a traditional country wine. We hear less about vegetables from the kitchen garden, but there are possibilities here too (they grew peas at Kelmscott, so May might have made pea-pod wine, for example). From the elder trees in the garden both blossom and berries could be used in wine-making, as could mulberries from the mulberry tree (my own best home-brewing effort was elderberry wine, as it happens, though our rowanberry brew was interesting too). Flowers are also an option, from the garden - roses or primroses - or the riverside (could there be such a thing as fritillary wine, I wonder?); and the nearby hawthorn hedges would afford blossom and berries. Local farmers grew barley, wheat, beans, mangolds, sugar beets, peas and vetches, all of which have their viticultural uses.
Moreover, May Morris once described her Hammersmith Terrace home as ‘set in a bower of grape-vines at the back’, and vines grew against the house-wall at Kelmscott manor too. So in the end, it seems, we have a positive embarras du choix for the origins of her Kelmscott vintage.
Monday, 1 October 2012
I am a great admirer of David Leopold’s edition of News from Nowhere for the Oxford World's Classics series. It’s a handy and reasonably priced volume, the Introduction is a superb account of Morris’s thought as whole as well as of News from Nowhere in particular, and the notes at the end are full and helpful. None the less, reading David’s Introduction through again, I have a significant reservation about it this time round: for it does not once use the words ‘communism’ or ‘communist’ to describe Morris’s politics, either in his utopia or more generally.
Why should this matter? First, and philologically, because News from Nowhere does use these terms a fair number of times, so an Introduction as good as this should offer at least some account of them. William Guest finds himself amidst ‘the present rest and happiness of complete Communism’ (ch.XXVII). Enlightened men in the late-Victorian period, old Hammond tells us, concluded that ‘the only reasonable condition of Society was that of pure Communism (such as you now see around you)’ (ch.XVII). Narrating the revolution, he then speaks of ‘the spread of communistic theories ... a simple condition of Communism ... the Communism which now loomed ... a system of life founded on equality and Communism’ (ch.XVII). Chapter XV is headed ‘On the Lack of Incentive to Labour in a Communist Society’, and as Hammond describes the operation of local democracy in Nowhere he asks Guest ironically, ‘a terrible tyranny our Communism, is it not?’ (ch.XIV).
Second, and politically, because after the long twentieth-century experience of what did indeed prove to be ‘terrible tyrannies’ in the name of Communism, some key figures on the Left such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek are now asking whether it might not be time to use the term ‘communism’ again, as the basis of a new emancipatory politics for the twenty-first century. On these two grounds, then, of Morris’s own usage and our contemporary politics, I hope that any future edition of David Leopold’s News from Nowhere might tackle this term and topic.
Sunday, 23 September 2012
For the eight years of his undergraduate and postgraduate studies at Oxford, my son Justin and I have been planning to visit J.R.R. Tolkien’s grave in Wolvercote cemetery; and this weekend, accompanied by my wife, we have at last done so. And very evidently we were by no means the only Tolkien fans to have visited it this year. A birthday card with some messages in Elvish had survived the English weather since early January; a beautiful drawing of a romantic Elvish couple – Tolkien and his wife as Beren and Luthien? – was wrapped in polythene to protect it from the elements; various foreign coins had been left as tokens of devotion around the stonework; and on the rosebush growing in the centre all sorts of bracelets and trinkets were dangling. It all added up to an extraordinary celebration of Tolkien’s mythological vision; and as we quietly left, the next small group of literary pilgrims was making its way across the Catholic section of the churchyard to pay respects to Tolkien too.
Wolvercote cemetery in North Oxford is much more accessible than Morris’s grave in Kelmscott, but could we imagine the Philip Webb tombstone for the Morris family as festooned as the Tolkien grave was? With red flags and bunting attached by socialist and communist admirers, perhaps, and a collective March 24th birthday card with tributes written in the curiously archaic English of the late romances - not to mention many small arts-and-crafts artefacts strewn around as tokens of devotion, and even a Pre-Raphaelite sketch of Morris and Jane as Arthur and Guenevere in a plastic jacket to ensure its survival. Tolkienian celebrations at Wolvercote may at times verge on the eccentric (one hears rumours of fullblooded recitations in Elvish there during the annual TolkienMoot), but still, the assorted decorations at the grave made of it, not Andrew Marvell’s ‘fine and private place’, but rather a locus of collective Morrisian ‘fellowship’ that it would be good to see paralleled at Kelmscott too.
Tuesday, 11 September 2012
Browsing through Morris’s Collected Letters again, I picked out a few genial month-by-month highlights across the range of his pleasures and activities at Kelmscott manor. If they don’t coincide with your own favourites, do feel free to add yours as Comments below. There are plenty more where these came from, certainly.
January: ‘violets out, and acconites, and the snowdrops are showering all about’ (1876).
February: ‘Edgar got 3 smallish pikes ... Ellis captured a monster under the Berkshire side of the Old-Weir pool; he weighed 17 lbs’ (1878).
March: ‘the rooks and lambs both singing around me’ (1889).
April: ‘The Fritillaries are coming up fairly well’ (1890); ‘The beautiful hepatica, which I used to love so when I was quite a little boy, in full bloom’ (1895).
May: ‘lots of tulips out looking beautiful: the white blue-bells & some blue ones ... that cherry-tree near the arbour opposite my window is a mass of blooms’ (1892).
June: ‘Raspberries any amount’ (1889).
July: ‘fruit-picking-jam-making, great fun’ (1892).
August: ‘the kingfishers very busy. One ducked down into the water before me and came out again with a little fish’ (1888).
September: ‘that delightful quickening of perception by which everything gets emphasized and brightened, and the commonest landscape looks lovely; anxieties and worrits, though remembered, yet no weight on one’s spirits’ (1887).
October: ‘robins hopping and singing all about the garden. The fieldfares, which are a winter bird and come from Norway are chattering all about the berry trees now, and the starlings ... collect in great flocks about sunset’ (1872).
November: ‘out on the flooded river ... the wind right in one’s teeth and the eddies going like a Japanese tea-tray: I must say it was delightful, almost as good as Iceland on a small scale’ (1875).
December: ‘2 fine but very cold days: this morning brilliant but white-frosty ... & I caught two good pike’ (1877).
Sunday, 2 September 2012
My wife Makiko and I had a wonderfully sunny afternoon at John Ruskin’s Brantwood, where we had gone to see George Rowlett’s fine series of paintings entitled ‘Time and Tide: The Thames at Work’. Rowlett’s river isn’t the dark, turbid, drowned-body-ridden Thames of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, nor the redeemed, salmon-rich, holiday river of News from Nowhere, nor again the Thames of vacuous Jubilee and Olympic pageantry, of which we have seen so much this year. It is, rather, as it claims to be, a river of everyday work, of gravel barges being unloaded and so on, and the paint is applied so thickly with a palette knife that the artist’s own very palpable labour in his medium is a kind of mimesis of the work that is actually taking place on the river itself.
If you stand well off from the canvas, you can make out the representational detail well enough: London Eye, Greenwich Naval Hospital, Thames Barrier. But if you go up close, it is the drama of the paint itself that mesmerises you, as it actively writhes off the surface towards the viewer, so that the painting becomes a three-dimensional sculpture rather than a flat surface. There is then a tension between form and content here. In terms of representational content, the Thames goes about its drab, profit-orientated, capitalist business; but at the level of form, the extraordinary Expressionist dynamism of the paint at times conveys marvellous effects of sunlight breaking through, a utopian or Wordsworthian light that never was on land or sea. So where Morris in News from Nowhere could simply depict a utopian Thames, George Rowlett gives us the world of work on the river (content) and utopia (form), and he in these vivid paintings – like our own contemporary politics – cannot bring the two realms together.
Sunday, 26 August 2012
With a major Pre-Raphaelite exhibition looming at the Tate Gallery, the British obsession with Rossetti, Millais, Hunt and so on clearly continues in full spate. I'm fond of many of those paintings too, but when the Tate exhibition describes the PRB as an ‘avantgarde’, then something in me bridles. No, I’m moved to protest, the real avantgarde – a violent remaking of the fundamental conventions of painting, analogous to and sometimes in actual relationship with revolutionary politics – was in the early twentieth century, not in 1848.
Yet perhaps there are some tenuous links through from the Pre-Raphaelites to the great innovators of the 1900s. James Beechey has suggested as much in an essay on ‘Picasso in Britain’: ‘Picasso later affirmed ... the esteem in which he held Burne-Jones in particular: the wistful melancholy with which Burne-Jones imbued his female models in his work of the 1890s, his use of a reduced, almost monochrome palette, and his preference for such physical characteristics as a long neck, pallid complexion and drooping head, all left an indelible mark on Picasso’s early portraiture’ (p.11).
That Burne-Jones/Picasso link might suggest an aesthetic project for us too. The artist David Mabb has finely clashed Morris design elements with Soviet Constructivist motifs in his visual work, so how about now striking Burne-Jones themes against Cubist multiperspectivism to see what emerges? Or has Marcel Duchamp already done this for us, if we regard his Nude Descending a Staircase (pictured above) as a Cubist-Futurist reworking of Burne-Jones’s The Golden Stairs?
Tuesday, 21 August 2012
Today is the day on which, in Grant Allen’s 1897 short story ‘The Thames Valley Catastrophe’, a fissure eruption takes place along the river bed between Shiplake Ferry and Marlow, releasing vast quantities of basaltic lava which roll down the valley destroying everything in their path, including London. One can imagine that, if broadcast over the radio, this grim little tale might cause a mass-panic as frantic as that which famously took hold when H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds was broadcast in the USA by Orson Welles in 1938.
The narrator of the story, a clerk on a cycling holiday, manages to escape a horrid fate by pedalling energetically up into the hills, though there is one splendidly ludicrous scene where he has to desperately mend a puncture as the all-consuming lava rolls relentlessly towards him. His family escapes too, but the national tragedy is ‘summed up in five emphatic words: There was no more London’. In which case William Morris, who we know enjoyed Richard Jeffries’s novel After London, might well have relished Allen’s story too, had he lived long enough to read it; and it certainly chimes in well with our own contemporary penchant for disaster movies. In fact, it is surprising that no one has yet turned Allen’s tale into a film; perhaps this blog post will prompt some keen-eyed director to do so. Tony Scott of Top Gun fame, who died yesterday, might have been a good candidate.
The story’s value for us, as Morrisians, is in its effort to reimagine the Thames valley in sublime mode, as a place of awesome natural forces which sweep away a puny human civilisation; and geologically ludicrous though the tale’s premise is, it does have some fine moments of awe and terror. All of which makes us more aware, by contrast, of how Morris has modelled his Thames valley in News from Nowhere on that traditional aesthetic opposite of the sublime: the beautiful. Now I love Morris’s utopian Thames valley as much as anybody; but I am also grateful to Grant Allen’s curious tale for reminding me that that is by no means the only way, aesthetically speaking, that one can represent what Morris calls ‘our one English river’.
Sunday, 19 August 2012
In one way it was just accident that I was reading Florence Boos and Patrick O'Sullivan’s superb article on Devon Great Consols, the copper mine from which the Morris family made its great wealth (Society Journal, summer 2012), at the very moment that South African police opened fire with automatic weapons on striking platinum miners at Marikana and killed 34 of them. An accident of timing, perhaps; but the common factors here are the brutal hardship and dangers of the work of mining, and the brutal repression with which efforts to remedy them are typically met by capitalist mine owners. As we in the UK saw clearly enough not so long ago when Margaret Thatcher used the police as a private army against striking coal-miners in 1984.
Mining has always generated a culture of its own as well as a combative politics, so, as a gesture of solidarity with the dead South African miners, let us recall one notable nineteenth-century English representative of that culture, the so-called ‘collier-poet’, who William Morris refers to in a letter of 21 May 1889 as ‘my friend Mr Joseph Skipsey’ (pictured above). Skipsey’s miner father had been shot dead by a special constable, and he himself subsequently worked in the Northumberland pits for many years (just north of my own family in the County Durham pit-villages). One of his best-known poems is ‘The Collier Lad’, of which I give the first stanza here as a taster:
MY lad he is a Collier Lad,
And ere the lark awakes,
He's up and away to spend the day
Where daylight never breaks;
But when at last the day has pass'd,
Clean washed and cleanly clad,
He courts his Nell who loveth well
Her handsome Collier Lad.
There's not his match in smoky Shields;
Newcastle never had
A lad more tight, more trim, nor bright
Than is my Collier Lad.
I admire the dash and spirit of the poem, but it also looks sadly naive in the face of the violence capitalism is always prepared to unleash against miners and their families.
Monday, 6 August 2012
I didn’t particularly time my re-reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s stunning Mars trilogy – Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993), Blue Mars (1996) - to coincide with the arrival of NASA’s rover Curiosity on the red planet’s surface this morning, but still, I’m glad it’s worked out that way. I like to toy with the notion of William Morris, at around 160 years old (as he easily might have been if he had received the gerontological treatment developed on Mars in the course of the trilogy itself), reading the work when it first came out. What would he have made of it, what pleasures would it have held for him?
His passion for Icelandic lavascapes would surely have sensitised him to the awesome geology of Robinson’s Mars, but it is as the author of chapter XVII of News from Nowhere – ‘How the Change Came’ – that Morris might most strongly have responded to the trilogy in its great effort of political (quite as much as scientific) thought, as will any contemporary reader of Morris who thrills to the narrative energy of the English revolutionary process between 1890 and 1952-54 in that chapter.
The first Mars rebellion against transnational capitalist domination from Earth goes down in blood and violence in 2061. ‘Next time you have a revolution you’d better try some other way’, Kasei angrily tells the First Hundred at the end of that disaster, and the second and third volumes then narrate the slow, complex, decentred process whereby an underground movement gradually rebuilds itself and painfully struggles towards new, more adequate models of revolutionary action, which do indeed succeed second time round from 2127 onwards. So if an older Leninist model of revolution no longer seems apt to our own complex postmodern societies, and yet we do not want to remain trapped between the reformism of social-democracy and spasmodic revolt (last August’s riots, the Occupy movement), then we will need to attend carefully to the thought-experiments which Robinson is conducting on his fictional red planet. For the author of the Mars trilogy is indeed a worthy successor to William Morris as a deep thinker about systemic social change.
Friday, 3 August 2012
It’s good that the Kelmscott House museum is running a series of exhibitions devoted to women in and around the Morris circle: May Morris until recently, her friend Mary Sloane in the near future. Might I suggest that we add to this list Eleanor Marx (1855-98), who with Morris was a founder member of the Socialist League in December 1884?
What might an Eleanor Marx exhibition look like, and what activities would it celebrate? Her childhood love of Shakespeare in the Marx household might be seen as anticipating her adult literary work as first translator into English of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and enthusiast for and translator of the plays of Henrik Ibsen in the late 1880s (she even co-authored a sequel to The Doll’s House). Her political activities would feature prominently too, first as secretary to Karl Marx himself, then in her own right in the 1880s and 90s: supporting strikes, organising international conferences, helping to organise the Gasworkers’ Union. And I suppose her tragic personal involvement with Edward Aveling would need to come in here too.
The point of such an exhibition would be not just to celebrate an extraordinary woman, but to raise a crucial and still pressing issue: the relationship between the political avantgarde (1880s socialism, in this case) and the artistic avantgarde (Flaubertian modernism, the Ibsenite New Drama). This vexed issue would come up still more sharply in later years – Russian Futurism and the Bolshevik Revolution, Bertholt Brecht in Weimar Germany, the Tel Quel group and les évènements of 1968 in France – but for us in England its first appearance was in the heady 1880s, and Eleanor Marx as activist, translator, theatre-goer and writer was at the very shaping heart of it.
Monday, 30 July 2012
Concerning Love: What I know here is something that William Guest, most painfully for himself, forgets in the course of the text. If, when I walk into town, a 20-year-old woman on the other side of the road looks interestedly across in my direction, that will be because I’m walking into Lancaster beside my 26-year-old son, and it will be him, not me, that she is looking at so keenly. 20-year-old women (like Ellen in Morris’s text) do not sleep with 56-year-old men, so it was highly imprudent of Guest to have got himself so infatuated with Ellen as to think that she might (old Hammond having warned him about this very syndrome in the first place, after all).
Concerning Politics: Does William Guest, having seen utopia, return to the nineteenth century a more resolute socialist than he was on the first page of the book? Critics have wrangled a good deal about this over the years, so perhaps we might ask instead: how much energy should one put into radical politics at the age of 56? Is there time and will-power available for one further great burst of activity, or should one ease back at this point, not withdrawing entirely but leaving the main thrust up to the younger generation (who will have their own new ideas about all this anyway)? After all, illness soon compelled Morris himself to find a new distribution of time and energy between politics and cultural pursuits.
Concerning Friendship: Morris once remarked to Burne-Jones that ‘the best way of lengthening out our days, dear chap, is to finish off our old things’, in which remark lies the seed of the Kelmscott Press. One can hope in the early twenty-first century to have a good many more years available after becoming 56 than Morris’s own mere six and a half; but even so, the picking up of precious old friendships and their associated activities, within the shared sense of a finite time span, will surely be part of what one’s later decades are about.
So my Nowherian birthday lessons are threefold: 1. stay well clear of much younger women; 2. make one judicious last political push, perhaps in directions the next generation is not much attending to (watch this space!); and 3. finish off old things with dear friends of many years standing. And if points 2 and 3 can be in some way combined, so much the better.
Sunday, 22 July 2012
Saturday, 14 July 2012
The small seaside town of Deal on the Kent coast still has for me today all the glamour it possessed when I was a child. My grandfather worked at Betteshanger colliery just a few miles inland, so we had many relatives in the area and made many visits to them, sometimes by boat from Southend Pier. I never could get over the contrast between the vast lowtide mudflats of the Thames estuary at Southend-on-sea in Essex (where I grew up) and Deal’s steeply stepped shingle beach where the difference between low and high tide isn’t more than a few yards. And Deal, blessedly, never did succumb to all the crass, conventional seaside amusements to which Southend has long since sold its soul.
So it is good to learn that, in a minor way, Deal is part of the William Morris family story too. In July 1876 Jane Morris was there with the children for an extended stay; Georgiana Burne-Jones took her daughter Margaret down to join them on 13 July; and Morris himself seems to have gone down later in the month to spend three days there. Given May Morris’s tomboyish proclivities (‘roof-riding’ at Kelmscott, for instance), I wonder if she ever thought of pinching a boat and rowing out with Jenny to the dangerous Goodwin Sands, as my father and my Uncle Stan did when they were boys?
Do the materials exist for a literary history of nineteenth-century Deal? Esther Summerson spends some time there in chapter XLV of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-3), pages which well capture the maritime importance of the town for Victorian England (‘Some of these vessels were of grand size – one was a large Indiaman just come home’); and John Ruskin evokes ‘this neat, courageous, benevolent, merry, methodical Deal’ in a few pages of his Harbours of England (1856). These are just preliminary starting points – I shall keep digging!
Sunday, 1 July 2012
‘But the next morn ... the games began’, as we learn in Book XVI of The Life and Death of Jason, so what would a Morrisian Olympics look like, what sports might it contain? Here are a few suggestions, culled from across his copious oeuvre:
1. throwing quoits like Jason’s Argonauts.
2. seeing how much pickwork you can get done in an hour, as Dick Hammond suggests.
3. heaving boulders as far as one can, as Grettir frequently does.
4. heaving another man as far as one can, as Child Christopher does.
5. sprinting as in ‘Atalanta’s Race’ in The Earthly Paradise (though Milanion would certainly be disqualified for his golden apples trick).
6. scaling crags for the eggs of the gerfalcon, as in Roots of the Mountains
7. shooting arrows either at a prisoner’s buttocks (Well at the World’s End) or to kill a chaffinch on the twig one hundred yards away (Roots again).
8. reforging shattered swords, as Regin does in Sigurd
9. sailing races in the floods off Runnymede on a frosty January morning (Dick Hammond again).
10. projecting images into someone else’s mind, as the evil Lady does in Wood beyond the World.
11. foraging for herbs which open secret caskets, charm dragons to sleep and/or cause clothes to spontaneously combust in sunshine (Medea).
12. seeing how high you can throw up your sword while still catching it by the hilt (Water of the Wondrous Isles).
13. distance swimming (Birdalone and Grettir are the Morrisian competition to beat).
14. spear-casting for both distance and accuracy within the great hall, as with Face-of-god in Roots.
15. wrestling, as between Hercules and Nereus in ‘The Golden Apples’ (though Nereus’s self-metamorphosis will be grounds for disqualification).
That will do for starters, though I have left out some of Morris’s own personal favourites such as singlestick, and he might well have been keen to make freshwater angling an Olympic sport too. Moreover, since his last public speech was to the Society for Checking the Abuses of Public Advertising, I need hardly say that no commercial sponsorship of any kind will be allowed at the 2012 Morrisian Games.
Wednesday, 20 June 2012
English readers of this blog may remember that incident at Cambridge University last December when students and dons drowned out, by reciting a poem at him, the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, who has presided over further rapid marketisation of our universities over the last couple of years. In the wake of that mass protest, the University singled out one student, Owen Holland (pictured), for disciplinary proceedings, and its University Court imposed the extraordinarily vindictive sentence of two and a half years’ rustication upon him. Holland being a postgraduate student, the aim was clearly to destroy his future academic prospects.
What few of us knew then is that Owen Holland’s thesis is on William Morris, and a very fine section from it has already been published as ‘Utopia and the Prohibition of Melancholy: Mulleygrubs and Malcontents in William Morris’s News from Nowhere’ (MHRA Working Papers in the Humanities, vol 6, no 1, 2011, pp.36-45, available online). Clearly Owen’s spirited protest against David Willett’s destruction of university education as a public good comes from his Morrisian values, and Cambridge’s brutal reprisal against him is by the same token an attack on academic work on Morris and utopia. I suggest, then, that Morrisians should offer their full support to this brave young man and that we do our best to sustain his academic endeavours across the rustication period. An appeal against the sentence has been lodged, so Cambridge University has one last opportunity to reconsider its shameful decision.
Tuesday, 12 June 2012
One of Rosie Miles’s students once brilliantly suggested the possibility of a lesbian attraction between Clara and Ellen in News from Nowhere, so, to expand the opportunities for gay readings of Morris’s utopia, I’ve spliced together passages from it and one other of his later works to reveal what I suspect is the implicit logic of a small incident towards the end of the book. I shall let you, dear reader, work out what the other Morris text is:
Dick came with hasty cheerfulness up the garden path: ‘Perhaps you, Guest, would like a swim before we sit down?’ ‘It is well-thought of, lad,’ I answered, ‘and that the more, as I must needs see thee naked if I am to strengthen thee, as I am minded to do’. He led on till we came to the river above the weir and its mill. There we had a delightful swim in the broad piece of water above the lock, for if Dick were a noble-looking man clad, far nobler was he to look on naked, for he was both big and well-shapen, so that better might not be. So I came out of the water presently, and clad myself, while Dick yet played awhile. Then I called the lad to me, all naked as he was, and said: Stand thou before me, youngling, and I will give thee a gift. And I laid my hands on the head of him first, and let them abide there awhile; then I passed my hands over the arms and shoulders of the boy, and his legs and thighs and breast, and all over his body. Then we lay down on the greensward and rested. ‘Now we are in a fit mood for dinner,’ said Dick, when we had dressed and were going through the grass again (ch.XXXII).
Tuesday, 5 June 2012
I’ve adapted Joseph Dunlap’s excellent title, The Book That Never Was (which describes Morris and Burne-Jones’s unsuccessful plans for an illustrated edition of ‘The Story of Cupid and Psyche’), to evoke a Morris interview which I was not able to include in my collection We Met Morris: Interviews with William Morris 1885-96 (Spire Books, 2005). The story comes to us from Samuel Hobson, who informs us that Morris ‘liked to appear bluff and hearty. Sometimes he carried it rather far. A mild American admirer called to interview him. Morris rolled rather than walked down the stairs. “Well, sir, what the devil do you want?” The unhappy man shivered and fled’ (Pilgrims to the Left, 1938, p.72). One wonders just how many more of these aborted interviews there might have been; and if my book ever comes out in a second edition, I shall of course add this detail.
Sunday, 3 June 2012
‘We just love the Royals. I mean, it’s what we do, innit?’ That was a little snippet I caught on Radio 4 this morning, from a woman who had camped out beside the Thames in the cold and rain last night to get a good view of today’s Jubilee river pageant. I hadn’t particularly wanted to write anything about the Jubilee on this blog, but when a Morrisian craftswoman posts pictures of her ‘William Morris Jubilee Union Jack Cushions’ on Twitter, and a left-wing colleague remarks there: ‘Rented a movie this weekend about countless screaming zombies taking over London, now feel a fool as it's been playing on BBC1 all day’, then perhaps one should say something after all.
The key principle here for me is that, as Fredric Jameson has often insisted, the ideological and the utopian are inseparable in popular culture. So the whole recent frenzy about the monarchy is indeed ideological, disguising the reality of a brutally class-divided society (that reality which erupted in the riots of last summer). We need to invoke all of Morris’s angry invective about Victoria’s 1887 Jubilee and more, and the notion of a Morris Jubilee Union Jack Cushion is therefore simply contemptible.
However, within ideology, utopian impulses are active too. There is a real longing for community beyond class division and capitalism’s cyclical economic crises, and for a continuity and decency which that violently disruptive system tears apart every day (‘all that is solid melts into air’). The fact that such hope is projected onto the elderly Mrs Windsor rather than directed into active politics makes it self-defeating, but it does not make today’s Jubilee enthusiasts the mindless zombies of my colleague’s incautious comment. I certainly wouldn’t want to be as contemptuously dismissive of them as Tiresias is of the typist and clerk in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land – in part because my own Mum is one of them too!
So: ideology and utopia – very frustratingly intertwined indeed. And we are not much better than the socialists of the 1880s at prising utopia away from ideology, either in theory or in practice.
Saturday, 2 June 2012
According to which version he tells, it was either reading Lewis Carroll at the age of five or being baffled by Tennyson’s ‘Tears, Idle Tears’ poem in his undergraduate years that set Miller off on the literary-critical route he has pursued since. In narrowly disciplinary terms, he remains a Victorianist, but he has not ever written on William Morris in depth, though he told me he does own a Morris Collected Works. So it is curious that ‘First Sail’ opens with what one might regard as a Morrisian allusion. For no sooner does News from Nowhere get under way than William Guest is being rowed out into the Thames for a swim; and no sooner does the Hillis Miller film open than our hero is being rowed out into the waters off his Maine home, though to board his yacht rather than swim. Yachting, it appears, being Miller’s own personal utopian space.
So intense was Miller’s concern with the new ‘tele-technological’ media that I found myself wondering if he wasn’t veering towards technological determinism. For surely it is the neo-liberalism of the last thirty years which has been the epochal political, economic and ideological project in which such new media have had their effects (though they are certainly not just reducible to that project). And when he speculated that a literary-theoretical training in tropes and semantic self-undoing might carry over into informed suspicion of advertising and contemporary political discourse I felt I could detect the lineaments of that old Leavisite social position: minority culture versus mass civilisation.
But you can’t generate a politics out of literary theory itself any more than Scrutiny could conjure one up out of criticism, so let us hope that J. Hillis Miller, at the ripe old age of 84, might now really start working on Morris, one of the forlornly few Victorian figures who does show how literary culture can cross ‘a river of fire’ to engage a wider transformative politics.
Wednesday, 30 May 2012
I think some Oxford English Limited colleagues, possibly including Justin’s mother, felt at the time that this was rather eccentric behaviour. So I am delighted to find, decades later, that I have good Morrisian authority for this supposedly curious practice. For as the crowds gather round the Burg of the Niblungs to see Sigurd the Volsung pass in and out in Morris’s great epic poem, ‘oft the mother turned,/And spake to the laughing baby: “O little son, and dear ... thou [may] sayest when all is sung,/’And I too once beheld him in the days when I was young’” (Book III). So there you are: all doting parents want their babies to see their heroes, all the way from Sigurd to Raymond Williams. Nothing in the least abnormal about that!
Friday, 25 May 2012
So my full title was: ‘William Morris in Oxford: As It Was and As It Might Be’. In part a rehearsal of my 2007 book on the topic (available through Amazon), with one or two new discoveries thrown in too - Morris’s student ‘bodyguards’, for example; but also a utopian proposal, as with Ellen in News from Nowhere (which itself has to pass through Oxford): ‘I shall make a proposal to you to do something which would please me very much, and I think would not hurt you’. Ellen, living in utopia, knows that the Nowherians need more history, but we, living in history, in my view need more utopia.
So the proposal – William Morris in Oxford As It Might Be – was to launch a Morris Society Utopian Studies group in Oxford, building upon certain relevant traditions of the place itself (the Speculative Fiction Society of Brian Aldiss and C.S. Lewis, for instance) and intervening in both undergraduate and local civic and political culture from this base. Would it work? Could we muster the personnel? I’m not sure. But if we want to tell a story – i.e., make a story – about Morris at his old university rather more activist than Pre-Raphaelite stained glass in Christ Church cathedral, then I think it’s worth a shot.
Wednesday, 16 May 2012
‘What’s in a name?’ asks Dr Robert MacPhail in Aldous Huxley’s utopia Island: ‘Answer, practically everything’ (ch.9). Morris’s own works seem to be in two minds about the issue. On the one hand, Dick Hammond in News from Nowhere blithely asserts, in relation to Trafalgar Square, that ‘the name of a dead folly doesn’t bite’ (ch.VII). But Morris’s early poem ‘King Arthur’s Tomb’ disagrees rather sharply, since Guenevere there claims that ‘The ladies’ names bite verily like steel’.
I think Emery Walker was clairvoyant here, and that though the Morris Society has often attempted to have an 'impact on the present’, there is a momentum about its name which does indeed, slowly but steadily, pull it regularly back towards the Victorian past. Therefore, almost a century after Walker first issued his warning, I wish to make a Swiftian modest proposal: that we re-name the William Morris Society as the News from Nowhere Society. For in that great work all of Morris’s political and aesthetic concerns are intensely active, and yet, as a utopia, it orients us necessarily towards the future rather than the past, towards a collective project rather than an individual personality.
Sunday, 6 May 2012
The fifth of May is the day the investigative journalist William Weston arrives in San Francisco, the capital city of Ecotopia, in Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 utopia of that title. It was also the day on which twenty of us assembled in the Kelmscott Coach House to celebrate Aldous Huxley’s utopia Island (which is itself centred on an investigative journalist, Will Farnaby) on the 50th anniversary of its publication. Chilly though the day was, the sun glittered gaily on the Thames at high tide, and the Coach House garden was beautifully awash with bluebells. This pleasant English scene could hardly be further removed from the tropical setting of Huxley’s island of Pala, with its eerie lizards and great snakes, its jungle creepers and ubiquitous mynah birds. In his essay on ‘Wordsworth and the Tropics’ Huxley famously argued that the Romantic poet’s genial pantheism wouldn’t have lasted two minutes if he’d been parachuted down in the tropics.
Where better to discuss utopia than Kelmscott House, which, in its guise as the Hammersmith Guest House, is our very own English portal to utopia, after all? The more you constellate utopias against each other, the more they give off their own distinctive meanings. Morris’s utopia is good on rivers, Huxley’s on mountains; movement in Morris is doggedly horizontal (horse and cart across London, rowing up the Thames), in Huxley consistently vertical (climbing up a ravine, ascent to the High Altitude Station). In both, we find Old Grumblers and Obstinate Refusers, but in Island they pose a deadly threat to the utopian community, as Morris’s don’t. So should you then, as in Callenbach’s Ecotopia, have a secret police to deal with them – can utopia have a secret police and still be utopian? And so on.
In his 1962 review of Island Wayne Booth remarked that it ‘carried me through to the end, arguing all the way’; and what finer tribute could one pay to any utopia? We shall in the days to come be arguing all the way about many more utopias in the Kelmscott Coach House.
Saturday, 28 April 2012
When schoolchildren visit the Kelmscott House Museum they now have the chance to participate in dramatisations of Morris’s early poem ‘Rapunzel’, which is based on the Grimm fairy-story; and since the available props for doing so include blonde pig-tailed wigs, cardboard crowns and plastic swords, one imagines that they very much enjoy doing so. May Morris alerts us to more adult and formal performances of her father’s poetry, when she notes of ‘Sir Peter Harpdon’s End’ that ‘a private performance some years back brought out in a surprising manner the fitness of this poem for the stage’.
I’m reminded by all this of the description of the Sunday meetings in B.F. Skinner’s strange utopia Walden Two (1948): ‘There’s usually some sort of music, sometimes religious. And a philosophical, poetic or religious work is acted out. We like the effect of this upon the speech of the community. It gives us a stock of common literary allusions’ (ch.23).
I can see how you’d act poems out, yes indeed, and I wouldn’t mind waving a plastic sword around myself (well, I was once the White Rabbit in a school production of Alice in Wonderland, after all). But it’s much more Skinner’s notion of acting out philosophical works that intrigues me now. So could we one day imagine meetings in the Kelmscott Coach House in which stretches from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Marx’s Grundrisse or Derrida’s Of Grammatology were acted out – with what props, for heaven’s sake - before an admiring audience?
Sunday, 22 April 2012
I’ve been reading some some chapters of a PhD-in-progress by my very talented Belgian student Kirby Joris which deals with recent first-person ‘biofictions’ about Oscar Wilde. We don’t yet have any good contemporary biofictions (as opposed to biographies) of Morris, so I am borrowing Kirby’s accounts of her Wilde novels to suggest how Morrisian equivalents might go:
1. On his sea-trip to Norway in July 1896, the physically ailing Morris (who will die in October) keeps a journal in which he ponders – in the first-person, naturally - the great unresolved questions of his life. Did Jane Burden ever really love me? Was daughter Jenny’s epileptic illness from 1876 onwards my fault, genetically speaking? Why did I tolerate the Jane-Rossetti and Jane-Blunt affairs? How did I arrive at socialism in the years up to 1883, and was my ‘Kelmscott turn’ of the 1890s a retreat from all that? Are my last romances the literary result of a mind going soft? (cf. Peter Ackroyd, Last Testament of Oscar Wilde).
2. In 2011 a young American Occupy activist who is working on a PhD on fin-de-siècle British culture at Berkeley starts writing and sending a series of postcards to William Morris. To his astonishment Morris replies, from the after-life, and a detailed correspondence ensues in which the spirit of Morris advises on the global capitalist crisis since 2008 and offers some startling new political strategies for the Left in the new century (cf. C.R. Holloway, The Unauthorized Letters of Oscar Wilde).
3. An arrogant and politically right-wing doctor treating Jenny Morris’s epilepsy through both physical and psychological means tries in the mid-1920s, with Jenny now in her 60s, to delve back through her fragmented memories into the Morris family background in the 1870s when her illness first manifested itself. To what extent, he wants to discover (in order to discredit Morris), did class and sexual tensions in the marriage enact themselves through the elder daughter’s sufferings. (Cf. Clare Elfman, The Case of the Pederast’s Wife).
4. J.W. Mackail, Burne-Jones’s son-in-law and Morris’s future biographer, is drafted in to help Morris as detective to solve the mystery of the murder of a number of prominent socialists: chiefly those of his Oxford mathematician friend Charles Faulkner in 1892 (made to look like natural causes) and Sergius Stepniak (staged to look like a railway accident) in 1895. Sherlock Holmes might even lend a hand here too. (cf. Gyles Brandreth, The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries).
Saturday, 14 April 2012
Well, actually, not in China but Manchester; but there were so many Chinese academics over here for the ‘Marxist Aesthetics’ event at Manchester University this week that I really did feel as if I were in Shanghai for a couple of days. It proved invigorating indeed to be at a symposium where Marxism provided the basic terms of debate: Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts and Herbert Marcuse were particularly prominent, but Raymond Williams, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and others featured too.
I was lucky enough to have two bites at the conference apple, first by introducing Morris’s 1880 ‘The Beauty of Life’ lecture, which seemed to chime in well with the Chinese delegates’ emphasis on the ‘laws of beauty’ from Marx’s Paris Manuscripts; but also by speaking on ‘Morris, Jameson, Utopia’, in which I tried systematically to apply Fredric Jameson’s thinking on utopia to News from Nowhere. I found myself – and perhaps Morris too – to be ambivalent about the term ‘beauty’. On the one hand, it is for him a crucial aesthetic critique of capitalist ugliness and philistinism; but on the other hand, it seems often to frustrate Morris, who aims to break beyond it towards the ‘sublime’ (Iceland, revolution, Ellen in his utopia).
Beyond all our local conceptual debates at the Manchester event was the formidable presence of China itself as a twenty-first-century geopolitical entity. I have written enthusiastically in this blog about Badiou and Žižek on ‘the idea of Communism’ (22 March 2009), but here, suddenly, we were in the presence of many genial academic representatives of the world’s most powerful Communist state, although, given the recent marketisation of its economy, a Marxist understanding of China would now be a very complex thing indeed. So I hope to get out there myself later this year and do my own modest bit to test out Chinese social reality against Morrisian criteria. Watch this space.
Sunday, 1 April 2012
Travelling through London to visit my parents in Southend-on-sea, my son Justin and I often used to leave Tower Hill underground station and walk up to the viewing platform from which you can see the Tower of London (and, latterly, the Shard under construction). Built into the pavement is a metal circle on which are represented events from the history of the city; and we were always intrigued by a little detail tucked away between two early nineteenth-century dates:
1813-14 Thames froze over
Last salmon caught
1829 First London Police Force
Since salmon have so spectacularly returned to the Thames in Morris’s utopia, we can assume that he too would be interested in the question of when they disappeared from it. According to S.J. Hobson, Morris ‘told me that his grandfather had caught salmon’ in the Thames at Hammersmith, but can any amount of piscatorial detective work now really hope to establish the exact date of their disappearance?
If we split the two dates, our Tower Hill London history suggests 1821, though I do not know on what authority this is based. But in fact, already in Faulkner’s 1813 History of Fulham the author remarks of salmon that ‘only one was caught last season. They have abandoned the Thames since the opening of the docks’; and the building of gas works on the river banks after the introduction of gas lighting in 1807 was itself seen as having an adverse effect upon salmon stocks. So would it be the case with salmon in the Thames, as with the rural ‘organic community’ for Raymond Williams in his great study The Country and the City, that they are always just gone, that whatever date you come up with for their disappearance can, with enough research, be capped by one a few years earlier?
Friday, 23 March 2012
Looking backward as I am in 2055 on 100 years of William Morris Society activity, I am very conscious of following in the footsteps of Martin Crick’s excellent history of its first 50 years. However, since Morris was a Marxist and for him the agents of history were collective rather than individual, I have avoided Crick’s focus on characters and discussed groups and movements instead.
With the emergence of the William Morris Gallery in the wake of the 2012 Olympics as the major Morris museum and study centre in the country, the Society had to develop new ideas for its own Hammersmith base. It therefore in 2020 took back the upstairs Coach House flat for its own usage and reconstituted the whole space as a Utopian Studies Centre (appropriately enough, since Morris had written News from Nowhere in Kelmscott House in 1890). The Society’s brief was now to be about the future, not the Victorian past; a few members resigned in protest, but many new ones were recruited, and by 2025 Society numbers were up to the 2000 mark which had last been achieved in the 1996 Morris centenary.
Simultaneously, Morris Society Cultural Theory Groups had been set up in Oxford in 2015 and Manchester in 2022, welcomely broadening activity beyond London itself; their brief was to engage intellectual and theoretical developments across a range of academic fields (architecture, aesthetics, economics, literary theory, Marxism, philosophy) from a distinctively Morrisian perspective. A new electronic Society journal was set up in 2020 to publish such work, at last giving us a strong presence on the contemporary international academic scene. Under capitalist globalisation and in a digitalised communications medium, many key Morrisian values were thought through all over again.
Meantime, in the wider cultural and political sphere, disgust with the militant neo-liberalism of the Thatcher, Blair and Cameron-Clegg years led to a gradual revival of Left activities. Particularly significant for the Society was the early twenty-first-century reinvention of the ‘idea of Communism’ by figures like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek (building on the ecological idea of ‘the commons’), which led not only to a new focus on Morris’s own Communism, but also to a reactivation of that later connection between Communism and Morris which had been responsible for founding the Morris Society in the first place (see Crick, pp.23-4).
By 2030, therefore, many Society members were themselves part of the New Communist Movement, though the Green-ecological strand in the membership remained very active too. The Society’s focus therefore became increasingly campaigning and political in ways that Morris would surely have approved, a development which led it into occasional disputes with the Charity Commissioners (again, some loss of protesting elderly members, but much new recruitment). And when the Green Party-Real Labour coalition government came to power in 2042, many Society figures were called upon to act as government advisers in their spheres of expertise. Thus the Society at last became a force for socialism in public policy. By a happy coincidence this was also the year in which the Occupy Party finally displaced the Democratic Party in the United States as the progressive alternative to the Republicans.
So, although we have not yet had our full-blooded UK revolution (which Morris over-optimistically dated to 1952-54), we can surely say, in retrospect, that the period 2005-2055 was a good second half-century for the Society and Morrisian values. Onward and upward towards 2105.
Sunday, 18 March 2012
I’ve just finished Martin Crick’s History of the William Morris Society 1955-2005, a wonderfully researched volume which makes an always instructive and at times quite gripping read. Since it’s surely the fullest account of Society activities up to 2005 that we’re ever going to get, it might be worth highlighting his conclusions at the end of the book.
1. Despite the Society’s announced intention to explore the contemporary relevance of Morris, “it is in this area that I would suggest the Society has been least successful”. Apart from certain issues of the Journal and one or two Kelmscott lectures, Crick writes, “one searches in vain for attempts to assess Morris’s work or thought in relation to contemporary concerns” (p.220), although he does then concede that there have been events addressing issues such as work or the environment from a Morrisian perspective.
2. “There has been little discussion of his political legacy ... surveys of the membership have suggested that there is considerable interest in his political activities and their relevance to the present day ... one might suggest that if the Society wants to expand its membership it should pay more attention to contemporary debates and Morris’s relevance to them” (p.221).
3. “Links with Further and Higher Education are practically non-existent...” (p.222).
So there you are: Martin Crick’s words, not mine. It may be that the Morris Society has remedied these lacunae - the contemporary, politics, post-18 education - since 2005 or it may be that these are valuable recommendations to which it now needs to give due weight.