Thursday, 19 September 2013

Return to Nowhere

If Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward has had over 150 sequels or other fictional responses, then it is high time News from Nowhere had a few sequels as well; and George Duncan has made a spirited effort in this direction in his Return to Nowhere, serialised in recent issues of the USA Morris Society Newsletter. A Canadian carpenter attends a lively book group meeting at which Morris’s utopia is discussed, and he wakes up the next morning in Nowhere itself, but twenty years after William Guest’s own visit there. So Ellen is now forty rather than twenty as in Morris’s text, old Hammond is dead, Dick and Clara have broken up again, and so on.

For my taste, there is rather too much focus on the previous William Guest visit, which takes time and energy away from exploring the new social and personal realities of this updated Nowhere. Certain significant cultural and political developments have indeed taken place: a group of ‘refusers’ lives off the new society without contributing anything to it in terms of work (the exact opposite of Morris’s Obstinate Refusers, who can’t stop working), and they arouse considerable resentment from other Nowherians; tokens are being used as a kind of currency as a result of certain undefined local problems; and a religious revival of sorts seems to be underway, initiated by old Hammond himself. These would all be interesting avenues to explore, though they remain undeveloped both politically and narratively: is a new exploitative leisure class really beginning to emerge, does Nowherian economics not work after all, is the return of religion a good or a bad thing, how do these three cultural developments relate to each other, and might they ultimately add up to a dangerous challenge to Nowhere’s communism? Such questions are raised, but not gone into.

In the case of the new personal developments, too, Duncan’s sequel seems to go half-way and no further. Ellen has taken over from old Hammond as custodian at the British Museum, which in my view makes her too much of a clone of the old man himself and ignores the wider political role which such a charismatic figure might play in her society She has had a child by Dick Hammond, but we see very little of this daughter Claire and thus do not really get a sense of what a new generation of Nowherians is making of socialism’s current problems and ultimate future. The narrator and Ellen head upriver together and get as far as her cottage at Runnymede, where the sequel ends; and this really does leave us frustratedly betwixt and between. The sacred spaces for Morris, the crucial locales where Nowhere’s future will surely be decided, are London and Kelmscott; and Runnymede is neither one nor t’other.

So while I admire the wit and energy with which George Duncan has composed his brief follow-up to Morris’s text, I feel that the political pressure behind this sequel is in the end too low, that having brilliantly fast-forwarded Nowhere by twenty years, it doesn’t then quite know what cultural and political questions to ask of this new reality. Still, Duncan has very welcomely broken the ice for us, and we can now hope that this pioneering News from Nowhere sequel will lead to many more.

Monday, 9 September 2013

William Morris's Servants

My former Creative Writing colleague Jo Baker has just published a novel entitled Longbourn, which is described on its front cover as ‘Pride and Prejudice: The Servants’ Story’. Here are a few early sentences from it: ‘The air was sharp at four thirty in the morning, when she started work. The iron pump-handle was cold, and even with her mitts on, her chilblains flared as she heaved the water up from the underground dark and into her waiting pail. A long day had to be got through, and this was just the start of it’. If the Victorian novel famously gave us the experience of the governess, marooned uncomfortably between the upper-class family she serves and the servants below stairs doing the actual manual labour that keeps the house going, Jo Baker’s novel plunges us instead directly and brutally into that world of lower-class work.

Similar projects of recovery of lost social experience have been undertaken in the world of scholarship too, as with Alison Light’s weighty 2007 tome Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service. So it is high time someone undertook such a study – creative or scholarly – in relation to the Morris family. We have had occasional remarks pointing in that direction, as when Michael Wilding remarked of Morris in 1980 that ‘his was a vision that depended on having had servants’; but the detailed spadework of recovery and recreation has not yet been done. Some of the Morris servants across the decades achieve a limited picturesque individuality in the best biographies – Mary Nicholson of Red Lion Square pre-eminently, but also old Philip Comely, the gardener-handyman at Kelmscott House who tugs his forelock deferentially at every available opportunity. But we don’t, I think, yet know very much about the cook, housemaid and coachman-groom at Red House, or cook Annie, housemaid Elsa and parlour maid Elizabeth at Kelmscott House. For the tenacious feminist Victorian researcher, there may well be rich pickings to be had here.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Bombing Syria, Finding a Voice

In his lively but flawed biography of Raymond Williams, Fred Inglis writes of the Thatcherite 1980s: ‘it mattered like mad that there were still a few people capable of a calm courage when a country’s best values were down and out, and defeat so familiar an experience. As long as Raymond Williams and Edward Thompson were still there, still speaking and writing in the splendid rhythms and time-honoured litany of the Labour movement, of common hopes and purposes, of the visible and monstrous injustice and indifference, the cruelty and wrong so apparent in all that mere power and ruling class did, then we could keep up a good heart’. Personally, I would want to add cultural theorist Stuart Hall to that list of two, since he was certainly one of the Left’s best orators in those dark years.

We have some very effective radical voices speaking out today against the continuing neo-liberal assault on working people – David Harvey, Owen Jones, Caroline Lucas and Slavoj Žižek among them, though I think that none of these has quite the gravitas of Raymond Williams himself. But I have a dream (if I may borrow a currently topical phrase) that the William Morris Society might join this roster, that at moments of national cultural and political crisis – from the London riots of August 2011 through Thursday’s Parliamentary debate on bombing Syria without United Nations authorisation to whatever comes our way next – it might find both the political will and the appropriate internal mechanisms of consultation to make public statements from a Morrisian viewpoint, with the weight and authority of Morris’s unique brand of communism behind it – ‘Socialism seen through the eyes of an artist’, as he once memorably phrased it. And if the current Morris Society were to prove incapable of doing this, then we would need an alternative Morris network that can.