Wednesday 19 March 2008

Board Games in Utopia

Board games have been a significant element of the utopian imagination since the very inception of the genre with Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). After their six-hour working day More’s utopians settle down to some postprandial recreation, which may involve playing: 1. a game of numbers, in which one number eventually captures another (we might expect Bob the weaver in Morris’s Nowhere, with his passion for mathematics, to be a grandmaster at this); or: 2. a game in which the vices fight a battle against the virtues, which sounds a good deal more complex, and edifying, than its simpler numeric counterpart.

In an intriguing article on ‘How to Play Utopia’ (1971), Michael Holquist has developed a whole series of analogies between chess and literary utopias – to the point, indeed, where utopia becomes, generically speaking, a kind of fictional chess. It is as if for Holquist board games, in their stylisation of a messily contingent world, are the secret inner generative principle of utopia itself. [It is then a minor disappointment in Ursula LeGuin’s otherwise magnificent The Dispossessed (1974) that its imagination of board games, in what is in all other respects such a richly created fictional world, should be so thin. The boy Shevek notices ‘two old men at the other end of the room cackl[ing] over their game of “Top ‘em”’ - and that is all! (ch2).]

What kind of games, then, can we imagine the Nowherians playing in Morris’s utopia? Well, we can certainly extrapolate forwards from his own personal favourites. J.W. Mackail tells us that ‘his chief indoor games were backgammon, draughts, and cribbage’; and Sidney Cockerell gives a fine sketch of Morris and Janey together in their later years: ‘When I went up into the drawing room to say goodnight Morris and his wife were playing at draughts, with large ivory pieces, red and white. Mrs. M. was dressed in a glorious blue gown, and as she sat on the sofa, she looked like an animated Rossetti picture or page from an old MS of a king and a queen’. Morris gives us some fine depictions of board games in his Icelandic translations (‘Now Gunnlaug and Helga would be always at the chess-playing together’), and we can assume that all these old favourites persist even in his post-revolutionary 22nd century England.

However, News from Nowhere is in some respects higher-tech than one is inclined to remember. There are force-vehicles or force-barges ploughing their mysterious way up and down the Thames, and therefore I delight to imagine (to borrow a Yeatsian phrase) that there may be ‘force-games’ in Nowhere too, complexly powered by the new energy source of the novel, whatever that is. So we might envisage Ellen and Guest in the Tapestry Room of Kelmscott Manor playing something like the complex game vlet in Samuel Delany’s astonishing ‘heterotopia’ Triton (1976):
‘He gazed over the board: within the teak rim, in three dimensions, the landscape spread, mountains to the left, oceans to the right …micro-waves lapped, micro-breezes blew, micro-trees bent, and micro-torrents plashed and whispered down micro-rocks …Lawrence assembled the astral cube: the six-by-six plastic squares, stacked on brass stilts, made a three-dimensional, transparent playing space to the right of the main board, on which all demonic, mythical, magical, and astral battles were enacted … Lawrence turned a switch: the grid flickered over the board...’.
Gripped by the epic struggles of such a high-tech game, William Guest might, one can’t help hoping, have sufficiently overcome his obsession with the Victorian past to have remained contentedly in utopia thereafter.

Monday 17 March 2008

William Morris on Youtube

Morris is not yet well represented on Youtube, which is surprising given the visual as well as literary dimensions of his imagination. Among my trawl of sites - and avoiding such misdirections as the William Morris advertising agency in Los Angeles or William Morris the contemporary American glass-blower - I can only usefully come up with:

1. 'William Morris', posted by Mariangels, 7mins 59 secs. Attractive series of Morris-related images, covering Red House, his design work (furniture, textiles, stained glass wallpapers, Kelmscott Press books), his collaborators, and with a feeble glance at his socialism. Makes me wish I'd extended my school languages beyond French and German so I could read the Spanish (?) captions - though one can usually deduce the meaning from the visual context.

2. 'William Morris in Oxford', posted by buntworthy, 2mins 24 secs. Tony Pinkney introduces his new book on William Morris in Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-1895 (Illuminati Books, 2007, £12-95, ISBN 978-0-9555918-0-8), which shifts the emphasis from Morris the Oxford undergraduate (a story we've had told many times) to Morris the middle-aged Oxonian activist, architectural and political. See further

3. 'The Romantic Spirit: The Pre-Raphaelites', posted by MrPogle, 6mins 52secs. Six minutes on the 'Romantic journey', narrated by Anthony Andrews, from a 1982 Anglo-French series, with some emphasis in this episode on Morris. Contrasts his attempt to bring the Romantic vision into confrontation with industrial realities rather than cultivating it as an escape. Oddly ends up with Alice in Wonderland ...

If you know of other rewarding Morris Youtube sites, please do post an announcement here to share them with us. Otherwise, make one yourself and post it for us to enjoy!

Friday 7 March 2008

Morris returns to Manchester, March 6th 2008

On Thursday March 6th 2008 William Morris stood at a lecture podium in Manchester for the first time in well over a hundred years. In frock coat and with bristling beard, he glared around at us intensely in the Friends Meeting House and then launched into an impassioned discourse on ‘Art, Wealth and Riches’. In a mood of fierce indignation Morris denounced the ‘competitive commerce’ that had destroyed popular art from the Renaissance onwards. With raised index finger he stabbed accusingly at the middle class who had brought such a dire state of affairs about; with gruff humour he mocked its hypocritical pretensions; and with great sweeping gestures of his arms he opened to us alternative horizons, better possibilities of social living. This was indeed the archetypal Victorian Sage or Prophet, alive, alert, exasperated and denunciatory in every last fibre (and beard hair) of his outraged being.

Naturally, however, it wasn’t that William Morris himself had acquired an early prototype of H.G. Wells’s Time Machine and whizzed vertiginously forwards in it to our own postmodern Mancunian present to harangue us in 2008 as forcefully as he tackled his original nineteenth-century audiences on his one great theme, the relation of Art to Labour. What we were witnessing in the Friends Meeting House was the lecturer and actor Paul O’Keefe, togged up in Victorian costume and Morrisian false beard brilliantly performing ‘Art, Wealth and Riches’ on the very day (March 6th) and in the very city in which it had originally been delivered. The sweat glistened on O’Keefe’s forehead afterwards, as he painfully peeled off his beard, so astonishingly energetic and stentorian had been his rendition of the Morris text – and the audience was almost as emotionally exhausted as he was. None of us, certainly, will ever read the printed words of that lecture in the same way again; they will stir into uneasy, agitated, accusing life before our eyes, and resonate with O’Keefe’s memorably emphatic delivery.

How accurate was such a mode of delivery to what we know of Morris’s own lecture style? There are a vast number of contemporary responses to Morris as a public speaker, and he may himself have had different styles for different subjects (architecture, crafts, socialism), different audiences (middle-class, proletarian) and different locations (indoors, outdoors). I have not been back to check out all the potential references here, but my sense would be that the broad consensus is that, while everybody who heard him was deeply affected by Morris’s evident sincerity of belief and depth of content, they also tended to contrast him with the more flamboyantly and grandly rhetorical speakers of the socialist movement (John Burns, say). He seems not to have held forth in that charismatic, Barack Obama fashion, grandstanding his audience, but rather, I suspect, won them over more gradually, by the cumulative persuasive force of what he was saying and by the doggedly workmanlike manner of delivery; and there are even some contemporary voices who regard him as an ineffectual presence on a public platform. That, at any rate, is my offhand recall of my desultory reading in this field, and I certainly stand open to correction.

So it may be the case that Paul O’Keefe (who also performs Ruskin lectures) played his role with more impassioned fluency and flamboyancy than Morris himself could muster on similar occasions; and perhaps it is indeed that, at this distance in time, we have acquired a powerful generic sense of the post-Carlylean Victorian Sage, savagely indignant about the human abuses of his own period, a Platonic essence or Form which then overrides the particularity of the individual figure being dramatically re-enacted. But whether this is so or not, O’Keefe certainly mesmerised all of us in the Friends Meeting House, and when he turned on us, as Morris eventually in that text does to his audience – ‘You in Lancashire’ – we were jolted momentarily back in our seats with an alarmed sense of self-recognition and class-guilt!

[Left click on image to enlarge it].