Listening to my distinguished colleague Professor John Urry talking to us this morning about Lancaster University’s new interdisciplinary Institute for Social Futures (http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/social-futures/), I felt I had grasped why Jan Marsh introduced me at the recent Birmingham Symposium as a ‘contrarian’ in Morris studies. For I suppose I have always hoped that the William Morris Society might, in effect, become something like such an Institute, that the necessary scholarly and curatorial work it does around the biographical individual William Morris would serve as the springboard for a more ambitious project – which takes News from Nowhere rather than Morris himself as its starting-point – of thinking about the future, both futures as they have, historically, been envisaged and as they are being imagined, planned and built at this very moment. ‘Imaginaries of alternative futures’ was a phrase that John Urry used several times; and it’s one that nicely evokes my own sense of what my ideal Morris Society would explore.
This is not to say that the Morris Society as we currently have it has not already done some of this work. For it has indeed, as any reader of Martin Crick’s splendid history of it will know, made occasional forays in this kind of direction, with events on work, utopias, the environment, and so on. But always in the end, I feel, historicism wins out, and we return to questions about Morris and his circle, Pre-Raphaelite art, the early Arts and Crafts movement, 1880s socialism – all worthy and necessary topics, but which pull us backwards rather than take us forwards. Could we imagine, as at least a strand of what it does, a sustained Morris Society project devoted to the future, to digital futures as well as green futures, to futures for religion as much as futures for radical secular politics, to everything in fact that that most interdisciplinary of all literary genres, utopia, has explored so voraciously across the five hundred years of its existence? I hereby take a solemn vow – with my sword on the hallowed Boar of Sôn, as in Sigurd the Volsung – to do what I can to encourage the Society in that direction.