Saturday, 22 December 2018

Farming Today, and As It Might Be

If I wake up unusually early in the morning, I sometimes catch BBC Radio 4’s ‘Farming Today’ programme.  With its lively discussions of food production, forestry policy, environmental concerns, etc, it never ceases to fascinate, and indeed makes me wish I were an earlier riser in general, so that I could catch more of it on a regular basis.

Farming practice and policy is alas one of the telling absences of Morris’s News from Nowhere.  It is true that we get glimpses of great herds of cows on the Essex marshlands at the start of the book and then hear a good deal about the hay-making up country towards its end; but there isn’t any detailed account of how food production might be organised in utopia – and there couldn’t be a more fundamental topic than that.  Nor am I aware of much discussion of the topic elsewhere in Morris, in his political lectures, say.

And yet the utopian tradition has had a good deal to say about agricultural practices in an ideal society, following on from Thomas More’s splendid suggestion that everybody in his Utopia has to work on a farm for two years in the course of their working life, so the whole society understands the practical skills and vital social significance of food production.  That sounds as though it would be an admirable policy to introduce in the wake of Brexit next March, when all the East-European fruit-pickers in this country suddenly vanish!

It is curious, then, to find May Morris early in the twentieth century taking up the topic that her father had neglected in his writings.  On New Year’s Eve 1916 she wrote to John Quinn: ‘Our agricultural question is enormously interesting – and enormously serious.  I see no way out of it but a genuine universal cooperation’.  Whether any detailed writings by May on agricultural policy survive I do not know, but in this field, as in several others, it may be that we need the work of Morris’s younger daughter to supplement trends of thought that he broached but did not quite follow through. 

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