Tuesday, 23 June 2009

William Morris Society Activities: 1

Having just been to my first-ever William Morris Society Committee meeting, I found myself speculating, on the train back to Lancaster, as to what possible new directions the Society’s Programme Sub-Committee might venture into. I think we would want to be faithful to the stress in News from Nowhere on the holistic nature of creative human activity, i.e., that it should involve the body as much as (or more than) the mind, and that it should ideally take place outdoors – in that perpetual Nowherian June sunshine! – rather than indoors.

So among my preliminary thoughts on this topic would be:

Fafnir hedge-clipping competition – reach for your shears and, re-enacting Morris’s own annual ritual at Kelmscott, we see who can carve the most persuasive hedge decoration in the shape of Sigurd the Volsung’s dragon, Fafnir.

Singlestick demonstration and training – this was, after all, Morris’s great passion in MacLaren’s gym in Oxford and singlestick is, one gathers, making something of a contemporary comeback as a native British martial art.

Outdoor bathing and swimming – as happens in News from Nowhere, over and over in Morris’s late romances, and on Morris’s own expeditions up the Thames on the Ark.

Society camping expeditions – as in News from Nowhere itself, where ‘tenting’ is a very popular pastime, and as organised by the William Morris Labour Church after WM’s death.

Searching for snakeshead fritillaries in the Oxfordshire countryside – as May Morris was wont to do during her years at Kelmscott after her parents’ deaths.

Pike-fishing on the Thames – but I have written about this in this blog already (see entry for 9.10.07).

Outdoor political preaching – as among the 1880s socialists themselves. Perhaps, as a charity, the Society could not be too directly political, but it could preach a Morrisian message of craftsmanship under a suitable banner at various London pitches.

Cycling from Oxford to Kelmscott – which admittedly wasn’t something that Morris himself did, but cycling was popular among young socialists in the 1890s and several of them did arrive at Kelmscott Manor by this means.

Please add your own suggestions to this list via the ‘comments’ facility. Several of the ideas above could be combined together, of course, and what a healthy and wholesome vista then opens. If I could but see a day of it, if I could but see it!

Monday, 1 June 2009

Disappointment in Utopia

The title of the fifth chapter of H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905) asks us to think the unthinkable: ‘Failure in a Modern Utopia’. This surely does not, cannot, compute: how after all can there be failure in utopia? Isn’t failure there, of all places, definitionally out of the question, generically ruled out of bounds from the start by the assumption of human perfectibility built into this literary mode? Wells’s oxymoronic formulation, ‘failure in utopia’, is thus, like any literary oxymoron (cf W.B. Yeats’s ‘terrible beauty’ in ‘Easter 1916’), an Eisensteinian montage which clashes discordant ideas or images together to prompt us into new thought or, in this particular case, into a new, less absolutist concept of utopia.

All well and good; but didn’t William Morris, I find myself pondering, get here first? I am thinking of that extraordinary moment in News from Nowhere when Old Hammond announces to his visitor, William Guest, that ‘I am old and perhaps disappointed’ (ch. IX). I have read a good deal of the criticism on News from Nowhere, though by no means all of it; and I haven’t anywhere yet found this remark of Hammond’s commented upon. But surely it is no less startling than H.G. Wells’s chapter title: how can there be disappointment in (or with) utopia any more than there can be failure there?

So we need to ask ourselves two questions, one analytic, the other more speculative. First, what is Old Hammond disappointed about? Is this some personal sexual issue (the remark is made in a chapter ‘Concerning Love’), or does it bear upon the world of Nowhere more generally? I believe it does, and would wish to relate it to his later observations on the loss of historical consciousness among the younger Nowherians and to Ellen’s own anxieties on this score much later in the book. But one thing we can be sure about: if the expositor of utopia, the very torch-bearer of its history and conscience, is ‘disappointed’ with it, then goodness me, the world of Nowhere must indeed be in trouble!

Secondly, however, since Old Hammond is a hale, hearty and active 105-year-old, what does he intend to do about this ‘disappointment’? How might it be remedied, not in the text we have, but in a text we might imagine beyond the borders of Morris’s own utopia? To be ‘disappointed’ in something is simultaneously to wish to repair it, to restore it to what it ought to be; and thus Old Hammond’s enigmatic declaration prompts us to write more Morrisian text, to follow the issues through beyond what Morris himself has given us.