Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Masters of the Microphone

In a wartime radio broadcast on the tercentenary of John Milton’s famous defence of freedom of speech, Areopagitica, E.M. Forster provocatively asked of Milton, ‘And would he have approved of the wireless?’ Can we ask the same question of William Morris, I wonder?

The question is, of course, slightly less anachronistic in Morris’s case than it is in Milton’s. Radio was invented as a technical possibility in 1895, one year before Morris’s death; but more importantly he was well aware of a developed literary representation of something rather like a wireless broadcasting system in the form of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1889). Edith Leete takes the visitor to utopia, Julian West, into her music room in chapter ten and, after twiddling a few knobs, floods the space with organ music being relayed by telephone from a live orchestra elsewhere in the city; Bellamy’s editors usually refer us to Marconi at this point.

Historically, there have been two major opposing positions among Left intellectuals in regard to new communications technologies. There are those, such as Walter Benjamin, who are inclined to see a democratising and liberatory potential in new technologies; and on the other hand, those, like Theodor Adorno, who incline to view the mass media as producing passive, one-dimensional audiences. Given Morris’s preference for hand-craftsmanship over industrial production, we might see him as belonging to the latter, Adornian camp; but recent studies have shown that in the case of photography, at least, his attitude was more positive and exploratory than one might expect.

I like to toy, then, with the notion of Morris being open to developments in wireless technology, if he had lived into his late eighties and heard the BBC’s first radio broadcast in 1922 or somehow broken through into Bellamy’s new Boston and enjoyed a broadcast concert with Julian West. Perhaps he might have rewritten The Tables Turned or even News from Nowhere itself as radio plays – and the Radio 4 reading of the latter a few years back certainly showed just how effective it can be in that medium. His younger socialist colleagues Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells certainly became left-wing ‘Masters of the Microphone’, to borrow a phrase from a 1939 issue of The Listener.

And how, after all, could the tall, handsome, grey-eyed woman in chapter XXX of News from Nowhere have possibly been expecting Dick’s arrival by boat at Kelmscott Manor unless there had been some form of wireless communication between them beforehand?

1 comment:

Bodie said...

Worth noting that May Morris made use of the radio! The BBC broadcast her 'Talk on William Morris' on Friday 9 February 1934.