Thursday 30 December 2010

Thomas More in the Coach House

In his study of William Morris: His Life, Work and Friends (1967) Philip Henderson evokes the Kelmscott coach house in its glory days: ‘a meeting place for the progressive intellectuals of the time – austerely and simply furnished, with its rush-bottomed chairs and wooden forms, its white-washed walls covered with rush matting and hung with engraved portraits of Sir Thomas More and other “socialist” pioneers, and its speakers’ platform at one end over which hung [Walter] Crane’s banner’ (p.320).

I don’t recall seeing that reference to an engraved portrait of Thomas More in contemporary accounts of the coach house, and I am not sure what source Henderson is drawing on in citing it here; but it seems to me eminently appropriate to have the author of Utopia (1516) represented on the walls. If you enter the coach house today, you will see portraits of many of the speakers who took part in political debates there in the late nineteenth-century: Bernard Shaw, Peter Kropotkin, Annie Besant, Keir Hardie, and so on; but there is no Thomas More among them.

But what is special about Kelmscott House is that it is a portal to the future as well as the past, that it is the gateway forward to the twenty-second-century Thames-side of Morris’s utopian imaginings in News from Nowhere as well as back to the socialist debates of the late 1880s and early 1890s. That being so, that we are here in the very place where the greatest of English utopias opens, it seems entirely apt that the founder of that essential literary genre, Thomas More himself, should also be honoured on its walls. So if we can locate the old engraved portrait of the author of Utopia, we should restore it to its place; and if we can’t, we should commission a new one and get it nailed up as soon as possible, certainly before the 500th anniversary of Utopia in 2016.

Friday 24 December 2010

Socialism and Fun

Green Party conference sessions often begin with a few minutes of silent ‘attunement’, but how many socialist political meetings these days start with a rousing bout of singing? Not many, I would think; but Socialist League branch meetings in the late 1880s sometimes did. For socialism in those heady early days aimed to be fun – not just heavyduty industrial organising or intensive study of the works of Marx and Engels (though there was plenty of that too).

Hence it was that, in addition to those socialist choirs that opened some branch meetings, the wider movement also organised literary readings, excursions to Epping Forest, a Socialist Supper Club in Soho, the embroidering of banners, Clarion cycling or camping or rambling trips, the playing of a harmonium on the official Socialist cart, private theatre productions (whether one-act revolutionary dramas or an Ibsen play or a three-act social comedy), the study of natural history, occasional dancing, and so on. It was as if they had invented avant la lettre May 1968’s great utopian slogan of ‘sous les pavés, la plage’; beneath the standardised and oppressive world of capitalism, this whole extraordinary, vibrant subculture.

Clearly we will need to reinvent some of this shared sense of fun, adventure and Morrisian fellowship – in new forms, naturally – for any emergent postmodern socialism of the early twenty-first century; and we will need to learn both from the socialist pioneers of the 1880s and from the Green movement of our own day as we do so.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Reading in Utopia

In his great study, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (2005), Fredric Jameson poses a telling issue: ‘Readers have a right to wonder what they will find to read in Utopia, the unspoken thought being that a society without conflict is unlikely to produce exciting stories’(p.182). All utopias, I would suggest, have to address this issue in one way or another, either by delivering to us a satisfying form of utopian art or by arguing that, for whatever reason, art in the older senses has withered away in the new world.

For example, Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward, as Jameson himself notes, delivers into Julian West’s hands the novel Penthesilia by Berrian: ‘It is considered his masterpiece, and will at least give you an idea of what the stories nowadays are like’ (ch.xv). The visitors to utopia in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, on the other hand, witness extraordinary new kinds of drama, ‘a most impressive array of pageantry, of processions, a sort of grand ritual, with their arts and their religion broadly blended’ (ch.9).

News from Nowhere contains Ellen’s fierce attack on the nineteenth-century novel, so even if the Nowherians are still reading them (they love their Dickens), they won’t be writing books like that any more. There is a theatre in Morris’s transfigured London, but we alas learn nothing about what is showing there; and on the whole News from Nowhere is on the other side of the utopian argument here, not so much trying to deliver to us a new literature or art, but rather implying that art in the old sense has now been dissolved away into that ‘work-pleasure’ or Ruskinian creativity-in-labour which characterises the new society.

The most interesting suggestions about what there might be to read in Nowhere have accordingly come from Morris scholars rather than the novel itself. For various critics have argued that the ideal reading in Morris’s utopia would be nothing other than ... Morris’s own late romances themselves! These, it is claimed, in their one-dimensional, desubjectified story-telling would avoid Ellen’s critique of the psychologistic Victorian novel, and would be open to collective modes of reception in ways that the private experience of novel reading obviously is not. So could it indeed be the case that when Annie in the Hammersmith Guest House says she wants to press on with the ‘pretty old book’ she began yesterday she is referring after all to The Wood beyond the World or The Water of the Wondrous Isles?

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Lecture Audiences: Research Project

In the posthumous essay collection What I Came to Say (1989), Raymond Williams remarks in the course of an essay on nineteenth-century cultural developments: ‘The lecture is worth a special note, because it is so often overlooked or treated as an extreme minority form. It is significant how much of the important social thought of the century was in lecture form: from Coleridge through Carlyle and Ruskin to Morris. We know far too little about the audiences at these lectures, but in cases where research has been done – as on Ruskin’s lectures at Bradford – it is clear that quite large and general lecture audiences were a significant feature of nineteenth-century urban culture’ (p.125).

I’m quite sure that far too little research has been done on the audiences of Morris’s artistic and political lectures. We have a few well-known and colourful anecdotes, as when hostile students let off a stinkbomb at the back of the Holywell Music Room during one of Morris’s talks in Oxford; but sustained research into the social composition of his audiences, and the effects of his thought and rhetoric upon them, remains to be done. So here, one would think, is a worthy PhD project for a student in search of a topic.

Friday 10 December 2010

Mathematising 'News from Nowhere'

We should surely be grateful that in News from Nowhere Bob the weaver has ‘taken to mathematics’ – to the point indeed where it has ‘muddled his brain’, according to Dick Hammond. For the inclusion of a mathematician in Morris’s utopia may allow us, in turn, to ‘mathematise’ that text. Morris’s close friend, Charles Faulkner, was a mathematics tutor at Oxford, and it is possible, even likely, that he would have come across Edwin Abbott’s wonderful geometrical fantasy Flatland when it was published in 1884. He may even have drawn it to Morris’s attention, so can we then ‘flatlandise’ Morris’s utopia too?

Well, it certainly is a very flat utopia! Set in the Thames valley, it has none of the dramatic verticality of its author’s late romances; there are no formidable peaks to scale or precipices to cross. Moreover, if there is a southward gravitational pull in Flatland, so too have we ended up thoroughly in the south in News from Nowhere, despite the occasional mention of Hadrian’s wall or snakes in Iceland. And if the geometrical entities of Abbott’s fantasy have to make out each other’s shapes and status by ‘feeling’, I wonder if this doesn’t bear upon the remarkably tactile nature of relationships in Morris’s utopia, where everybody is very rapidly holding hands or kissing or patting each other on the head.

Mathematically speaking, is not William Guest’s bafflement in Nowhere due to the fact that he is a two-dimensional product of capitalism adrift in an unsettlingly three-dimensional socialist world? And may not Ellen’s radical difference from all the other characters in the book in its later chapters be because she hails from Abbott’s mysterious Fourth Dimension, and is thus far beyond both two- and three-dimensional understanding?

I like to think that if Bob the mathematician attempted to interpret the book in which he himself features, this is how his geometricising reading of News from Nowhere might proceed!

Sunday 5 December 2010

In Praise of Student Protest

It’s great to see students in England fighting back so vigorously against both the massive increase in university tuition fees that the coalition government is about to impose upon them and the swingeing general cuts to public services that are now under way. And young people more generally are getting radicalised too, as with the very lively UK Uncut campaign against alleged tax avoidance by many major companies and banks (Vodafone initially, but now Boots, Barclays, Lloyds and HSBC).

At the same time, under a Conservative government (albeit with their Lib-Dem poodle in tow) we see the police becoming predictably more aggressive towards protestors. There was the nasty ‘kettling’ of students in London the other day, and now we learn that undercover plain-clothes police officers are being used against UK Uncut. We recall too how Margaret Thatcher unleashed the police and MI5 as her private army against the mining communities in 1984-5.

We know perfectly well where William Morris would stand in all this. Between 1883 and 1885 he was regularly preaching Marxism and revolution to undergraduates at Oxford; he was a keen admirer of the very vigorous Edinburgh University Socialist Society; in 1887 he wrote enthusiastically that ‘in Russia the universities are closed in order to damp down the revolutionary fire spreading so quickly among the students’. And he knew equally well how aggressively the police would be let loose on protestors by an Establishment that felt threatened in a period of capitalist economic crisis.

So, in the admirably Morrisian words of the Edinburgh students’ 1884 manifesto, which are as true in 2010 as they were then, ‘Utopia now: we can bring it about. The power is ours if we have the will’!

Saturday 4 December 2010

Morning Chat with Mr Morris

Oh dear, one always finishes writing a book too early! No sooner has one got the first copies back from the printer, gleaming, glossy and reeking so delightfully of printers’ ink, than one discovers – if one has continued reading around the same subject or field – some crucial fact which should have gone into the volume, and which would perhaps have involved wholesale reinterpretation of one’s conclusions had it done so.

So it has proved, to some extent, with my book of Morris interviews, We Met Morris: Interviews with William Morris, 1885-96 (Spire Books, 2005). Because some time after it was published I happened upon a reference to another Morris interview which should ideally have gone into the collection in the first place. Darn, drat, grinding of teeth! On investigation it turned out that the additional interview didn’t involve any radical reinterpretation of earlier findings, thank goodness, but it would certainly have been nice to have it in the collection for the sake of historical completeness.

It is an interview or ‘chat’ with Morris conducted by R. Ponsonby Staples and published in The New Budget under the title ‘Morning Chats with William Morris’ (2 October 1895, p.24). Staples arrives at Kelmscott House to sketch Morris and his surroundings, and chats with him in a rather desultory way as he does so about such topics as the Catholic Church, Russian politics and literature, racial identity among Jews and native Americans, contemporary painting and the railway system. On the latter, Morris ends with a splendid suggestion: ‘Well, with the railways, I would go further than that Zone system you would like tried in Ireland; they ought to be quite free!’

I can’t now put this interview in my We Met Morris collection, alas, but I have made it available on my Lancaster University website entry. So if you want to read it, please go to this (decidedly unwieldy) address:

Wednesday 1 December 2010

December 1910 One Hundred Years On

‘On or around December, 1910, human character changed’, as Virginia Woolf boldly announced in her 1924 essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’. As we today enter December 2010, a hundred years on from her supposed turning point, we can see just how busy this mischievous remark is keeping the Woolf and modernism scholars. A conference around the December 1910 claim is being held in Glasgow, and will inaugurate the British Association of Modernist Studies; and my wife, Makiko Minow-Pinkney, is gathering a volume of some twenty international essays together on the topic for Illuminati Books.

Woolf uses her December 1910 claim to defend the practice of modernist writing against the restrictive conventions of the realist novel, as they come through from the nineteenth century to her immediate precursors like Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy. William Morris also didn’t have much time for the realist novel (Ellen speaks passionately against it in News from Nowhere, for example), but would he have been open to Woolfian – or other kinds of – modernism?

The jury is still complexly out on this question. For Nikolas Pevsner, there is a strong continuity between Ruskin and Morris and twentieth-century modernist architecture; we know that Morris’s early poetry had a significant impact on Ezra Pound and, through Pound, on Imagism; and it has been argued that Morris’s late romances partake in that turn to the ‘mythic method’ (T.S. Eliot’s phrase) that characterises the work of W.B. Yeats, James Joyce and Eliot himself in the modernist period. On the other hand, Red House doesn’t look remotely like a functionalist Bauhaus building or a purist white Le Corbusian ‘machine for living in’; T.S. Eliot rejects Morris’s poetry vigorously in his great essay on Andrew Marvell; and Morris himself would presumably have regarded Woolfian and Joycean ‘stream of consciousness’ as even more isolationistic than that ‘dreary introspective nonsense about ... feelings and aspirations’ which for Ellen in Nowhere characterises realism itself.

I therefore find myself agreeing with Norman Kelvin, who emphasises ‘how truly problematic is the relation of Morris to early modernism’; yet it is, for that very reason, a topic we shall have to go on pondering about, all the way through, I would imagine, to the bi-centenary of Woolf’s impish remark in December 2110.

Thursday 25 November 2010

'Earthly Paradise': the Greatest Hits

Is it possible to hazard an informed guess as to which is the most anthologised of the twenty-four tales in Morris’s Earthly Paradise? To do a full accounting one would need to look first at volumes which offer truncated versions of The Earthly Paradise itself, such as Atalanta’s Race and Two Other Tales from ‘The Earthly Paradise’ (1922) in the ‘King’s Treasuries of Literature’ series general-edited by Sir Arthur Quiller Couch. There are also several prose-version anthologies from Morris’s magnum opus designed specifically for children, such as Tales from ‘The Earthly Paradise’, selected by W.J. Glover in 1913. And one would then need to turn, more generally, to anthologies of narrative poetry and tot up the most popular Earthly Paradise offerings from such collections.

It would be a huge scholarly task to do such an audit in detail, so I can only offer an impressionistic answer to my opening question. But my hunch would be that, as the little King’s Treasuries volume of 1922 already suggests, it may well be Atalanta’s Race which is the most anthologised of all the twenty-four poetic tales. It is not the most critically acclaimed, certainly - that would more likely be The Lovers of Gudrun – but it may, just possibly, be the most anthologised.

As some relevant straws in the wind, we might note that Atalanta’s Race appears in George G. Loane’s Longer Narrative Poems (Nineteenth Century) in 1916, in the ‘English Literature for Secondary Schools’ series; in the World’s Classics Book of Narrative Verse, edited by V.H. Collins in 1930; and in T.W Moles and A.R. Moon’s Longman Anthology of Longer Poems as late as 1963.

If Atalanta’s Race has indeed been the most popular of the Earthly Paradise stories, why should this be? It is a fairly lightweight genial tale, offering no particularly impressive formal or thematic features, so why so much emphasis on it among anthologisers? One troubling answer instantly suggests itself. It is the very first of the Earthly Paradise stories, so does its regular appearance imply that anthologisers have certainly felt the need to have something from so weighty a narrative monument as Morris’s great collection, but have in practice, as readers and would-be editors, not actually been able to get beyond the first story in it?

Sunday 21 November 2010

The Socialist Reading Room

In Morris’s Socialist years a reading room and newsroom were provided at Kelmscott House; they were under May Morris’s supervision and opened from 10.30am to 1.00pm on Sundays. Fiona MacCarthy informs us that ‘Walter Crane had suggested a reading list for young Socialists and Morris presented a number of volumes, including a copy of Shelley’s Poems’ (p.520).

Does Crane’s reading list survive anywhere, I wonder, or can we reconstruct what it might have contained by educated guesswork? Was Shelley on it or not, or was that an additional graceful thought of Morris’s own? If we can speculatively put a list of titles together, what was it about these books that made them pedagogically suitable for young socialists specifically?

And Walter Crane’s 1880s reading list might inspire us to draw up one of our own. What would a suggested course of reading for young socialists look like today, in the 2010s? I’d certainly be inclined to have G.A. Cohen’s delightfully produced little book, Why Not Socialism? (2009), with its audacious ‘camping-trip’ metaphor, high on the list. We, in the postmodern, have lost sight of the question of socialist pedagogy for the young; and if the more buoyant and innocent movement of the 1880s and 90s can reactivate that question for us, it will have done us a great service.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

With How Sad Steps, O Moon

When my son was small we were both great fans of the eccentric British astronomer Patrick Moore. We once went to see him speak at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre, we bought his Yearbook of Astronomy, and we equipped ourselves with a modest astronomical telescope which, at its best, let us see four of the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn.

However, not all the astronomical knowledge that the two of us mustered between us helps me to fully understand Morris’s biographer J.W. Mackail when he remarks, in his Studies of English Poets (1926), that ‘It is curious how constantly descriptive writers, both in prose and verse, go wrong about the moon’s movements and phases. Even Morris does so, in the lovely opening scene of “The Message of the March Wind”’ (p.100).

In that poem, you will remember, the narrator announces that ‘The moon’s rim is rising, a star glitters o’er us’, and then two stanzas later reflects that ‘When the young moon has set, if the March sky should darken,/We might see from the hill-top the great city’s glare’. So is Mackail right here? Has Morris really got his lunar observations in a twist?

Thursday 11 November 2010

The View from Kelmscott

John Lendis’s ‘View from Kelmscott’ paintings, currently on display at John Ruskin’s Brantwood, are not at all, thank goodness, the sort of genial, mild, greenly ‘English’ landscape images one might have expected from the title of the series. They are, instead, eerie and unsettling (as one sees from comments in the Visitors’ Book), avantgarde in both their pictorial techniques and some of their semantic content (London Underground and SONY signs built into the image, for example). They express paralysis and defeat, projects of aborted break-out, articulated through those powerful Victorian icons of graceful female death, the Lady of Shalott and Millais’s Ophelia; and the most extraordinary picture here, in my view, is accordingly the ‘Winter Boat’, with the Lady of Shalott trapped in a bleakly snowy treescape.

Why should this be, and what is the ‘View from Kelmscott’? Surely not just bucolic fields and the stripling Thames, nor even just Morris himself and his family and friends; but rather Dick Hammond, Ellen and the utopians of News from Nowhere: ‘gaily-coloured tents arranged in orderly lanes, about which were sitting and lying on the grass some fifty or sixty men, women and children, all of them in the height of enjoyment and good temper’ (chXXXII).

But then this, alas, was a utopia that never in fact happened, a future that failed to materialise, that went down in the bloodbath of Stalinism, the counter-revolution of Fascism, World War and, for us today, that dismantling of the post-war Welfare State we’ve been witnessing since Thatcher and Reagan and now under the banner of globalisation.

‘I wish I had a river I could sail away on’ is the title of one bleakly longing painting here, but she doesn’t. Thwarted hopes, broken utopias, political paralysis, the vibrant energy of Morris’s Ellen shattered into the deathward-tending horizontal stasis of Millais’s Ophelia, or the ‘Kelmscott Ophelia’ as she becomes here. Thomas Hardy once wrote that ‘If a way to the better there be,/It exacts a full look at the worst’; and in these haunting Kelmscott paintings John Lendis has given us a disturbing image of that Hardyesque ‘worst’ blighting our most beautiful utopian English landscapes.

Saturday 6 November 2010

William Morris Martial Artist

I belong to the generation for whom the films of Bruce Lee, from The Big Boss to Enter the Dragon in 1973, were a revelation of what the human body could do and of what screen violence could be. Instead of two ham-fisted cowboys slugging it out John Wayne-style, you suddenly had the extraordinary balletic intensity of Lee’s high-kicking jeet kune do; we were entranced, and within weeks we were signing up at local kung fu or karate clubs which mushroomed across the country.

It takes a considerable effort of mental reframing to see William Morris as a martial artist, and yet he clearly was, as J.W. Mackail makes clear early in his biography: ‘in playing singlestick, of which he was very fond, his opponent had to be guarded against Morris’s impetuous rushes by a table placed between the two combatants’; and later, in Maclaren’s gym at Oxford, Morris offered to teach his new friends ‘the cuts and guards’ in singlestick. Little known though it may be in the epoch of kung fu, singlestick is a longstanding indigenous British martial art, one which has indeed been making something of a comeback in recent years (it was revived by the Royal Navy in the 1980s, for example).

Perhaps the most famous literary adherent of singlestick is Sherlock Holmes, who uses it fight off various enemies in the course of his exploits. ‘I am something of a single-stick expert, as you know’, he boasts to Watson in the ‘Adventure of the Illustrious Client’, though it is another martial art, ‘baritsu’, which Holmes employs to defeat Moriarty in their final one-to-one tussle. For anyone who wants to do further research on Victorian martial arts, I would recommend the finely named online Journal of Manly Arts, which no doubt also has articles on Bruce Lee’s contributions too.

Friday 5 November 2010

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

The Spring 1966 issue of the Journal of the William Morris Society (vol II, no1) contains James Alfred Wilkes’s genial memoir of political meetings in the Kelmscott House coach house in the late 1880s and early 1890s. In the course of this he fondly remembers, among many other vivid occasions, a lively talk by Annie Besant on socialist tactics in relation to the unemployed. After Besant’s stirring address, Wilkes notes, ‘one of the speakers in the debate created a small sensation by the statement that he carried in his pocket an explosive which was sufficient to send us all to kingdom come’.

A ‘small’ sensation?! I’d have been sprinting out of the coach house and leaping off the bastion into the Thames before this speaker (who sounds as though he might have been the Professor from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent) had even finished his sentence. Which just shows that, though we sometimes bemoan the fact that our scholarly papers in the coach house today don’t have the fire and passion of the socialist lectures in the same venue in the late nineteenth century, there are benefits to this more sedate approach too!

Tuesday 2 November 2010

News from Nowhere Day

The William Morris Society always has a commemorative event around Morris’s birthday on March 24th, involving a birthday cake and a collective toast over glasses of wine, and I imagine many of us in private have more sombre commemorative thoughts on the anniversary of his death on October 3rd. Both such dates, however, make for rather general reflections, marking a life in its entirety rather than any particular aspects of it, so I feel that we need more specific Morrisian anniversaries in addition to these two life-markers.

So, in the spirit of the ‘Revolutionary Calendar’ that Commonweal used to publish, I’d like to suggest that we have an annual ‘News from Nowhere Day’ to celebrate the greatest of Morris’s literary works and, more generally, the genre of Utopia to which it belongs. What would be the appropriate date for such an event? Well, the book itself answers that question; for ‘it was winter when I went to bed the last night, and now, by witness of the river-side trees, it was summer, a beautiful bright morning seemingly of early June’ (ch II).

So let us declare, say, the first Saturday in June to be News from Nowhere Day, on which we commit ourselves to organising some celebration of that work in particular and/or the genre of Utopia in general. Such events needn’t be elaborate and might simply take the form of a reading of one chapter of Morris’s utopia followed by discussion of the issues it raises (a model he used in his own lifetime, as it happens); but if we could make this happen up and down the country on 4 June 2011, then we might begin to make his finest work – and the politically crucial genre to which it belongs – socially current again.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

William Morris Society Activities: 3

In his volume of essays and autobiographical writings Untold Stories (2005), the playwright Alan Bennett writes of his dislike of William Morris and Pre-Raphaelitism during his undergraduate years at Morris’s own Oxford college, Exeter; and then he adds: ‘I would have liked Kelmscott had I seen it, but there was no hope of that. Too far to cycle, it was lost in the depths of the car-free countryside’ (p.526).

Too far to cycle – nonsense! Keen young socialists such as Arthur and Georgie Gaskin were doing the cycle ride from Oxford to Kelmscott Manor even in Morris’s own time (on 3 June 1895, to be precise); and on the much superior machines we have available to us 115 years later we would hardly need to be as hyper-athletic as Dick Hammond in News from Nowhere to get there successfully.

So here is a project for the William Morris Society: to organise a collective bicycle ride from Oxford to Kelmscott, which would celebrate fresh air, exercise and sunshine, and commemorate the socialist cycling culture of the 1890s into the bargain. For in the memorable words of José Antonio Viera-Gallo, Assistant Secretary of Justice in the government of President Allende of Chile – words which apply equally to the Clarion Clubs of the 1890s and to the Green-Left cyclist of today - ‘socialism can only come riding on a bicycle’.

Saturday 23 October 2010

William Morris's Rudest Insults

I remember seeing somewhere a volume entitled – and gathering – Shakespeare’s Rudest Insults, a handy compendium if you ever wanted to overwhelm an opponent with colourful Elizabethan invective – ‘The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon’, from Macbeth, being a relatively modest example. Try using that as a greeting next time someone knocks on your office door at work!

Could such a volume be compiled from Morris’s works, and if so, what might it include? One obvious candidate would be Jack Straw’s contemptuous call to the spokesperson of the lords, knights, bailiffs and lawyers in the opening battle of A Dream of John Ball: ‘hearken, thou bastard of an inky sheep-skin!’ (ch.VI) – which would certainly have been a satisfying formulation to throw at Chancellor George Osborne after his Comprehensive Spending Review speech in the House of Commons (or Dung-Market) the other day.

But there must be many others (from both life and works), so could we between us come up with a full list of Morris’s Rudest Insults to match Shakespeare’s?

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Otters in and out of Literature

It’s excellent news that otters are now returning to the British countryside, after being on the brink of extinction thirty years ago. The ban on organo-chlorine pesticides in the 1970s has had its desired effect, and the Environment Agency reports that today more than 1,500 rivers show signs of otter presence, with populations having reached maximum level on the river Wye and elsewhere. Only Kent, for some reason, has bucked this admirable trend.

We might expect William Morris, as a lover of rivers in general and the Thames in particular, to wholeheartedly welcome the return of otters to his native rivers. But Morris was a passionate angler as well as a lover of riparian flora and fauna; and to the angler otters are an absolute bane, since they feed on fish. Izaak Walton in The Compleat Angler writes that ‘all men that keep Otter-dogs ought to have pensions of the King, to encourage them to destroy the very breed of those base Otters’; and some Thames angling clubs in the nineteenth century were offering a one pound reward for each otter killed in their waters.

So Morris might in fact have highly conflicted feelings about the return of the British otter; and it is then perhaps no surprise that the one character named Otter in his literary works should turn out to be such a curiously ambivalent figure. This Otter, the fearsome military captain of the dark Lord of Utterbol in The Well at the World’s End, cheerfully carries out the ruthless commands of his vicious master, and yet somehow despite this remains an honourable man of war and fits readily enough into the new and more benign regime at Utterbol once Bull Shockhead has taken over. So in a classic Freudian displacement, Morris’s mixed feelings about the natural creature are projected on to the literary figure who bears its name.

Thursday 14 October 2010

History in 100 Objects

The BBC series on ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’ has been deservedly popular over the last few months, and Radio 4 this morning celebrated the 100th object, which completed the series: a solar-powered lamp. Could we, I wonder, envisage a History of William Morris in 100 Objects, and which would be the one object that might most evoke his presence and activities for us?

Some of the earlier biographers of Morris, including J.W. Mackail himself, have argued that Morris’s real relationships were indeed with objects rather than with people, that he was somehow strangely detached from the human and only fully himself when engaged with the tools, materials and products of his various craft enthusiasms across the years. As Mackail himself bluntly puts it, ‘He was interested in things much more than in people’ (vol II, p.93). So the notion of doing a Biography of Morris in 100 Objects should certainly, on this showing, be plausible enough.

As for a single object that might most represent our hero, well, we will all have our personal favourites and preferences here. My own special Morrisian object would be the battered brown satchel in the collection at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. In this Morris carried his socialist newspapers and leaflets (and his pipes) when he went campaigning and lecturing around the country, so – humble artefact though it is in itself – it vividly evokes for me the extraordinary political commitment and personal energy that Morris put into the British socialist movement in its formative early years. But I’m sure that you, dear reader, will have your own view here!

Wednesday 13 October 2010

The 'Miracle' in Chile

It is a great joy to see the 33 trapped Chilean miners being brought to the surface today – a shared joy across the world, indeed! With the international mine-workers’ union estimating (conservatively) that 12,000 miners die in accidents across the globe each year, we can see just how lucky those Chileans have been. But miners die slowly as well as quickly because of their profession, just as my grandfather Henry Smith Pinkney died in his early 70s because of the coal dust that had accumulated in his lungs after 50 years working down the pit, first in High Spen in County Durham and then, from 1932 onwards, in the Kent coalfield at Betteshanger Colliery.

So it was a great shock to me, reading my way through William Morris’s political journalism in Commonweal a few years back, when I first came across his article on ‘Coal in Kent’ (8 March 1890, p.77). ‘The news that coal had been discovered in Kent, and that it would probably prove to be workable, has no doubt sent a shock of hope and expectation to some hearts and of terror to others’, Morris announces; and thus he seems to predict my family’s future history in the 1930s and 40s, as my grandfather and his two eldest sons, my Uncles Harry and Jack, were working down the mine. Grandad, I’m glad to say, was a Communist Party member and was still, even after his retirement, selling The Daily Worker outside the colliery gates in the 1960s.

Nothing survives of the Kent coalfield today except a ‘Miners Way’ country walk linking some of the old pit villages (I did part of it with my Auntie Dorothy some years ago). Whether anything survives of the political militancy that the miners once embodied is an even more moot question. Let us at least hope that the rescue of the Chilean miners today fans the flames of anger against the capitalism that put them in such desperately unsafe working conditions in the first place.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Jane Morris, Novelist?

I’m glad to learn that a complete collection of Jane Morris’s surviving letters, edited by Jan Marsh and Frank Sharpe, is going to appear in 2011, in a sumptuously illustrated edition.

In the Jane Morris letters that are already out in the public domain there are certainly some intriguing statements. For example: ‘I am always inventing plots for novels, and if I ever find myself anywhere in peace I believe I should develop them’ (26 October 1895); ‘I have been thinking of writing a little book of reminiscences (not for publication) but just to beguile the weary hours’ (23 December 1908).

If only she had written the books she promises us here! We must hope, therefore, that in the fuller edition of her correspondence that is on its way she may give us more clues as to what the contents of these unwritten novels and volume of reminiscences might have been.

Thursday 7 October 2010

Cowslips in and out of Literature

In Morris’s early short story, ‘Frank’s Sealed Letter’, the hero Hugh one morning remembers how, in the fields all about, "it was the cowslip time of the year”. This is a delightful phrase, and certainly cowslips do seem to be pervasive in Victorian literature. There are cowslips bound around the Maypole in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native; the children in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss drink cowslip wine; and Matthew Arnold has surely given us the most memorable cowslips in all nineteenth-century literature in his poem ‘Thyrsis’. He evokes the Oxford hills “With thorns once studded, old white-blossomed trees,/Where thick the cowslips grew”, and he notes of the goddess Proserpine that “of our poor Thames she never heard!/ Her foot the Cumner cowslips never stirred”.

The good news for us, in the early twenty-first century, is that cowslips are returning to the English countryside, after almost disappearing from British pastures because of intensive farming methods. Farmers who plant them are now paid a one hundred per cent subsidy, and companies like Emorsgate Seeds near Bath are making cowslip seeds available to British farmers in bulk. Whether the subsidy will survive current public spending cuts, I do not know; but there is at least a chance that, at some point in the not too distant future, we too will be able to celebrate Morris’s “cowslip time of year” again.

Friday 1 October 2010

Raymond Williams on Utopia

I have just returned from a conference in Tokyo on Raymond Williams’s novels, organised at Japan Women’s University by the indefatigable Professor Yasuo Kawabata. Not having re-read Williams’s novels carefully since I wrote my study of them for Seren Books in 1991, I had forgotten that Morris gets an interesting mention in Loyalties (1985).

At an anti-Suez demonstration in Trafalgar Square in 1956 the Cambridge historian Mark Ryder has a brief discussion with the militant upper-class Communist Emma Braose. Mark informs Emma that:

‘Since Bloody Sunday it [Trafalgar Square] has been a sacred place.’
‘That’s a historian’s point of view.’
‘Or in fiction. Four years ago, wasn’t it, 1952, Morris had the English revolution start here.’
‘Morris,’ Emma said, ‘was a Utopian.’ (p.181).

And that dismissive adjective, as far as the orthodox Emma is concerned, thoroughly puts paid to Morris and News from Nowhere!

Raymond Williams himself, however, was a good deal more sympathetic to Morris’s utopianism, but looking again at his writings on News from Nowhere I find myself dissatisfied with them. Williams criticises Morris’s yoking of the idea of social simplicity to socialism, which is fair enough; but then makes no mention at all of that decidedly non-simple figure Ellen in discussing Morris’s utopia (despite Ellen, oddly enough, being a recurrent name in Williams’s own fiction).

Yet Ellen, I would suggest, brings real complexity into News from Nowhere; she is a token that Morris himself has deep reservations about the genial neighbourly world of Nowhere, that he feels it needs gingering up by someone like Ellen, who has ‘often troubled men’s minds disastrously’, as she cheerfully informs us. She may trouble Nowhere itself disastrously too, I suspect, though we would need a sequel to Morris’s great work to see how that might pan out in practice.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Nature vs Culture

The excellent ‘Calligraphic Masterpieces’ exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow contained some intriguing surprises as well as many of the familiar treasures of Morris’s calligraphic phase in the 1870s. A Winsor&Newton ‘Illuminating Kit’ - an elaborate folding wooden box with compartments full of colours, brushes and gold leaf - reminded us what a popular middle-class pastime calligraphy was in the mid-Victorian period; it certainly wasn’t a stray discovery of Morris’s own. And a delightful embroidered book bag made by Jenny and May for their father was nice testimony to the closeness of the Morris family circle in the 1890s.

As for the Morris decorated books in the exhibition, one could not help but be astonished at the intricate craftsmanship they displayed; but it was the tension between the elegantly formed letters and the rich floral decoration, between Culture and Nature as it were, which intrigued me most. May Morris describes her father’s Rubaiyat as ‘a flower garden turned into a book ... wonderfully harmonious’, but I’m not so sure about that harmony; often the vigorous vegetation breaks into the frame of the writing and even at times threatens to engulf it. Splendid floriated initials in the Odes of Horace and the Story of Howard the Halt are so intertwined with stems and vine decoration that they are nearly overwhelmed; and one remembers those unsettling late Kelmscott Press initials in which the flamboyant capital letters are actually stabbed through by alarmingly active tendrils of vegetation.

Nature thus subjugates Culture in the end, and perhaps the play of floral decoration against writing in these painted books gives us in miniature a version of that post-apocalyptic image that Morris so relished in Richard Jeffries’s After London (1885): the great city, i.e. Culture, reduced back to a miasmic swamp by the resurgent forces of Nature itself.

Thursday 2 September 2010

The Theological Turn

There has been talk recently of a ‘theological turn’ in literary and cultural studies, just as there has been a resurgence of the ‘God debate’ in our culture more generally. Questions of religion seem back on the agenda in ways they have not been for a long time; and no wonder, given the extraordinary roles of the US Christian Right and of Islamic insurgencies and terrorism in shaping world history over the last decade or so.

How might such a theological turn affect readings of Morris’s News from Nowhere, which has surely seemed to so many of its readers one of the most resolutely secular utopias in the entire tradition (it refers dismissively to the Bible as ‘the old Jewish proverb-book’, after all) ? We can predict, I suspect, that more weight will begin to be given to the fact that Morris’s masterpiece ends, not at Kelmscott manor as we lazily assume, but at Kelmscott church, where William Guest fades into invisibility on the threshold of the utopian feast and plunges back into the class-ridden nightmare of his own nineteenth century.

Why should utopia end thus at a sacred site? Can it be that such buildings, and the religious values that have attached to them for centuries, cannot be so briskly secularised as Morris, the Nowherians themselves and we as readers would all like to think? Is it possible to elaborate a reading of News from Nowhere beginning, not with the Socialist League meeting or the new Hammersmith Guest House, but with Kelmscott church itself, which might then radiate back retrospectively into the text in surprising ways and alert us to religious significances we had not previously fully picked up (bathing in the Thames as baptism, for example)?

I am not going to offer such a reading myself, but I feel sure that, under the weight of today’s ‘theological turn’, we will be seeing them come through in future years.

Thursday 12 August 2010

Working Miracles in 1896

‘And so, incredible as it may seem, in the study of the little house behind the Congregational Chapel, on the evening of Sunday, Nov. 10, 1896, Mr. Fotheringay, egged on and inspired by Mr. Maydig, began to work miracles. The reader’s attention is specially and definitely called to the date’. Thus H.G. Wells, in his short story ‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’.

What a pity, then, that on that particular evening, a mere one month after the death of William Morris, and in a story that is much concerned with the satisfaction of utopian wishes, George McWhirter Fotheringay did not think, among his other miracles, to bring Morris back to life again. After all, he had sent the village policeman to Hades, so it wouldn’t have been beyond his powers to restore Morris to us from wherever he might then have been!

Alternatively, matters might have worked the other way round: not a fictional character calling a real human being back into substance, but an actual human summoning fictional figures to his beck and call. At Morris’s funeral in Kelmscott on October 6th, R.B. Cunningham Graham found that ‘dust to dust fell idly on my ears, and in its stead a vision of the England which he dreamed of filled my mind’. If only Cunningham Graham had been possessed of the enviable power of Will, the ability to reconfigure the laws of causation and work spectacular miracles, of Wells’s Mr Fotheringay. Morris’s socialist realm of Nowhere might have then come into being around him all at once, with Dick Hammond, Clara and Ellen materialising bemusedly out of the far future into the Oxfordshire fields of 1896.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Volcanoes and the Sublime

Iceland speaks and modernity falls silent. Eyjafjallajökull throws up vast amounts of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, Europe’s air space is closed for weeks on end, and Londoners and other city dwellers can blessedly hear bird song again.

Iceland therefore features prominently in the Compton Verney art gallery’s exhibition devoted to ‘Volcano: Turner to Warhol’, though Mount Vesuvius is probably the single most depicted volcano in this spectacular show. The twentieth-century Icelandic painters on display here are particularly impressive. Finnur Jonsson’s bleak Lakagigar Craters (1940) is like an eerie landscape from Tolkien’s Mordor; Asgrimur Jonsson’s Flight from a Volcanic Eruption (1945) makes powerful use of the techniques of German Expressionism; and Gudmundr Einarsson’s Eruption of Grimsvoth (1934) has something of the horror of a nuclear mushroom cloud to it.

The sublime is, as one would expect, the dominant aesthetic category of this exhibition; its old counterpart, the beautiful, doesn’t get much of a look in. And this breathtaking exhibition can thus serve as a necessary rebalancing of our aesthetic responses to that great Icelandicist William Morris himself.

I feel that the Morris of ‘the beautiful’, of gentle Willow fabrics and genial upper Thames landscapes, is too easily, too cosily, available to us; and thus we need to remember that he is also a bold practitioner of the sublime, of the jagged, the disruptive, of that which terrifyingly jolts us out of our everyday certitudes. Dizzying precipices, razor-sharp lava-fields, raging rivers that might sweep all one’s pack-horses instantly away – all these, as in the Icelandic Journals or the late romances, are as much part of Morris as the chirruping reed-warblers of the Thames at Kelmscott.

Our own ecological predilections have produced too gently ‘English’ a Morris for us, so let us be sure, in the light of these tumultuous volcanic images at Compton Verney, that we also celebrate him as a dangerous and unsettling devotee of the sublime.

Saturday 31 July 2010

Fafnir and Friends

I’m glad to see that Morris’s Story of Sigurd the Volsung features in the ‘Ten of the Best’ column in today’s Review supplement of the Guardian newspaper, which is devoted to ‘Dragons in Literature' (p.11). Morris’s Fafnir features alongside such familiar literary rivals as J.R. R. Tolkien’s Smaug in The Hobbit or the fearsome beast defeated after three days’ battle by the Red Cross Knight in Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, but also, more surprisingly, alongside the dragon tattooes in such recent novels as Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

This blog has already mounted its own ‘defence of Fafnir’, on the model of Morris’s ‘defence of Guinevere’; for the great dragon, in my view, gets a very raw deal indeed in Sigurd the Volsung (see ‘Enter the Dragon’, 23rd April 2010). More recently, I find myself dreaming of some new Morrisian masterwork in which all of his assorted monsters and villains, from Fafnir himself through the vicious dwarf in The Wood Beyond the World or Glam in Grettir the Strong to the evil shape-shifting witch who kidnaps Birdalone in Water of the Wondrous Isles, would combine forces and launch a fearsome collective assault on the forces of good.

We should not only, as I have suggested in earlier blog entries, aim to complete works which Morris himself left unfinished, but should also turn our minds to releasing further narrative possibilities in and from those which he himself did complete; and compiling an A-Team of Morrisian monsters and their further joint adventures may well be one productive way of attempting to do just this.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

The Kelmscott Book of Ghosts

We now have Helen Elletson’s excellent guide book A History of Kelmscott House, beautifully illustrated and very reasonably priced at £5-00. She gives a lively account of the three major inhabitants of the House: Sir Francis Ronalds, who constructed the first electric telegraph there; George MacDonald, who wrote some of his best-known fantasy novels in it; and of course William Morris himself.

Elletson acknowledges some of the practical problems of the house as a dwelling place (though one she doesn’t record is Morris’s complaint to Georgiana Burne-Jones that ‘the soil of this garden was composed chiefly of old shoes and soot’); but overall, as one would expect, her account of the Morris family in the house is very positive, encompassing such social events as Boat Race parties and boisterous post-lecture socialist dinners, as well as such creative activities as tapestry-weaving and the Kelmscott Press.

But we do have a radically different perspective on Kelmscott House from one who was, after all, very close indeed to Morris during these years. For as Edward Burne-Jones noted in a letter to his friend May Gaskell: ‘I come away from his [Morris’s] house sadder always ... when I am there which is once in two years at most I come away gloomy and depressed – the house feels full of ghosts to me – a Wuthering Heights feeling about it all’.

What are we to make of such a chilling observation? Certainly Burne-Jones had a sensitivity throughout his career to the eerie and the occult which his more robust friend Morris gives little evidence of. His series of ‘bogey’ drawings is testimony to that, and when Morris and Burne-Jones went to a séance together one imagines that the latter rather than former was the main instigator of the experiment.

So are we not perhaps now, in the light of Burne-Jones's remark, under some obligation to re-imagine Kelmscott House in Gothic mode, as a place of hauntings and sinister secrets, of doppelgängers and troubling coincidences? Could not a whole alternative guidebook to both the House and the area, in fact, be concocted along these dark lines - a Kelmscott Book of Ghosts indeed?

Sunday 4 July 2010

Morris One-Liners

What are the best one-sentence observations ever made about News from Nowhere? We will all have our own favourites, I imagine, so I here offer three of my own preferred candidates to open a debate.

The best of them all, surely, would be A.L. Morton’s remark in his 1952 study of The English Utopia that News from Nowhere is ‘the first Utopia which is not utopian’. This is a finely riddling observation, more like a Zen koan for meditation rather than a standard critical comment; and if I were going to teach Morris’s utopia on an MA course, this is the essay question I would set for my students. It forces us into a searching examination of our conventional concepts of utopia and the way Morris’s own great work challenges them.

Secondly, I am very fond of Barbara Gribble’s mischievous thought, as part of her 1986 critique of the stasis of Morris’s utopian world, that ‘One wonders how Dick or Walter would react to a sudden epidemic of smallpox or an invasion of malicious aliens’. Someone should certainly rise to this challenge and rewrite News from Nowhere as H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, with Dick and Walter reaching for their Star Trek-style phaser-rifles to fight off the Borg and the Klingons. That would ginger utopia up nicely!

Finally, Frederick Kirchoff opines in his 1979 book on Morris that ‘Morris’s treatment of Ellen is not merely a new element in the book; it is a repudiation of the earlier chapters of his utopia’. This is a brilliant remark indeed, which confirms my own sense that News from Nowhere offers us not one but two utopias in a single set of covers, and that they may well be radically antagonistic to each other. And it provokes us into necessary thought about Ellen’s fate and future beyond the last page of Morris’s work, which we shall one day have to explore in a sequel to News from Nowhere itself.

Wednesday 9 June 2010

H.G. Wells on the Coach House

Those of us who attend Morris Society meetings in the Coach House at Kelmscott House, and who feel that this is a special, well-nigh sacred space for both socialism and utopia due to its historical associations from the 1880s and 90s, might be both amused and bemused by the Coach House’s strange transmogrifications in H.G. Wells’s memories of those days in his Experiment in Autobiography (1934).

He begins by announcing that ‘William Morris held meetings in a sort of conservatory beside his house’ (p.238), moves on to reflect, in the warm glow of memory, on sitting ‘in that little out-house at Hammersmith, a raw student again’ (p.244), and finally ends up, 350 pages later, with a last reference to ‘the old days in William Morris’s greenhouse meetings’ (p.597)!

Is Wells being deliberately belittling here? It’s hard to tell – I find the tone of such passages difficult to gauge. However, I’m rather more impressed by his pronouncement that, en route to such meetings, he and his socialist friends were ‘wearing red ties to give zest’ to the occasion (p.265). Perhaps this is a habit we today might revive, keeping not the red flag but at least the red tie provocatively flying in the Morrisian ‘greenhouse’ in these postmodernly cynical times.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

William Morris From the Other Side

In an essay in the current issue of the Journal of William Morris Studies I propose that we try reading News from Nowhere as a piece of ‘séance fiction’. In this generic thought-experiment, we can envisage the Nowherians holding a kind of seance to summon back the spirit of the long-departed William Guest, who may then assist them in dealing with some of the problems of their utopian society.

Other writers have, however, been rather less metaphorical with the notion of séance as applied to Morris and his works than I have. Thus it is that in 1936 there appeared an extraordinary book by the medium May Hughes, entitled From Heavenly Spheres: A Book Written By Inspiration from William Morris Poet Socialist and Idealist, Who Passed on – October 3rd 1896. It begins with Morris announcing: ‘In this book, written by me from the other side of the veil called Death, I will endeavour to describe … the different phases of life as lived on these planes’ (p.7).

Before dismissing the whole volume as so much hocus-pocus, we ought to pause, I think, taking a lesson here from FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder of The X-Files who, unlike his rationalist colleague Dana Scully, famously ‘wants to believe’. How might such a book persuade us that it in fact was by Morris? What criteria would it have to satisfy to make this at all plausible? After all, if William Guest turns up in the mid-22nd century, why shouldn’t William Morris turn up at a séance in 1936? Heaven knows we could have done with him - with Fascism so powerfully on the move across Europe - returning to us like King Arthur in difficult times.

On his death bed in 1896, according to Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, Morris announced to Mary de Morgan that ‘I cannot believe that I shall be annihilated’; and perhaps, on the evidence of May Hughes’s From Heavenly Spheres, he wasn’t.

Friday 7 May 2010

Genius of Design

The BBC2 programme on the ‘Genius of Design’ tonight was an excellent survey of issues around design, craftsmanship and industry from the eighteenth century on to our own post-Fordist economic moment. We saw so many memorable objects, heard from so many thoughtful craftspeople and designers; and William Morris took his appropriately eminent place in that complex aesthetic history.

But I found myself most stirred, not by Morris fabrics or Sussex chairs, but by the extraordinary tea-pots of Christopher Dresser (1834-1904), of which the programme showed us so many. Designed for industrial manufacture rather than Morrisian hand production, Dresser’s tea-pots have a zany, angular, almost science-fictional energy to them; many of them, indeed, look more like miniature robots or space-ships than anything you might decorously pour a cup of tea from!

Why should a Morrisian like myself be so taken by these deeply non-Morrisian artefacts? I think that fact might partly indicate how thoroughly a steampunk aesthetic has now penetrated our sense of, and response to, the nineteenth century; for Dresser’s weird teapots are certainly steampunk contraptions avant la lettre. They would not be in the least out of place in the new Dr Who’s revamped steampunk Tardis, for example.

But partly too because I certainly want more science-fictionality to come through in Morris himself. When Fiona MacCarthy writes of Morris’s late romances that ‘these are fantasy stories, early science fiction’ or that they resemble ‘some more recent American writers of science fiction’, I think: hang on; no, they are not; no, they don’t! If only they were science-fictional, and had as much of H.G. Wells as of Tolkien about them; and that perhaps is our task now, a task for both creative writing and criticism: the science-fictionalising of William Morris, so that the inhabitants of his utopia will be using high-tech Dresser tea-pots as well as elaborately hand-crafted Japanese-style pipes.

Sunday 2 May 2010

The Uses of Red House

In the 150th year of its existence Morris’s Red House is certainly thriving under the National Trust’s careful ministrations. It was busy enough with visitors when I called by in mid-April, so one wonders how it will cope with the increased number that more clement summer months will bring. The gardens look good, the volunteers are enthusiastic and well-informed, the building itself is, in Rossetti’s fine phrase, ‘more a poem than a house’; so, as far as the future of Red House is concerned, we might borrow T.S. Eliot’s formulation at the end of Four Quartets: ‘all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

What is to be the function of Red House in future years? We gain a clue, perhaps, from the programme of events the National Trust has organised there for 2010: an Easter celebration ‘for the whole family’ with Mr Scarecrow and egg and spoon races, an Arts and Crafts fair in July, Apple Day in October (with Mr Scarecrow again), and Christmas Carols in December.

All these events sound very enjoyable, and that is certainly entirely appropriate to their location. For many of the great images of Red House from the Morris circle biographies are indeed of fun and conviviality: Morris coming up from the cellars with bottles of wine under both arms, apple fights and occasional black eyes, practical jokes all round, or the more sedate pleasures of pipes and the bowling green.

Yet in addition to all this I’d like to see the National Trust try some Red House events with a bit more intellectual backbone to them. What about a ‘Chaucer study-day’, given that some of the decoration of the building is Chaucer-inspired (and that it lies close to the old pilgrims’ route to Canterbury)? Or a ‘Victorian Arthurianism’ symposium, for similar decorative reasons? Or a celebration of Morris’s poetry, since he was working on his unfinished cycle of Troy poems during the Red House years? We don’t necessarily need Mr Scarecrow around to enjoy ourselves among the Towers of Topsy (Rossetti again). For learning, as News from Nowhere with its holistic approach to these matters makes abundantly clear, can be a great pleasure too.

Saturday 1 May 2010

In Praise of Fredric Jameson

I take the title of this entry from the front page of the current issue of the London Review of Books (vol 32, no 8), where it points us to a substantial review by Benjamin Kunkel of Frederic Jameson’s latest tome, Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, 2009), and indeed of Jameson’s entire career as our leading Marxist critic and theorist. We have so much to be grateful to Jameson for: an inspirational survey of Western Marxism in his Marxism and Form, stunning accounts of modernism in his Wyndham Lewis book and The Political Unconscious, that magisterial evocation of postmodernism as the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’ in his 1984 New Left Review essay and later book on the topic, and wonderfully complex celebrations of utopianism and dialectics in his more recent writings.

What we have not yet had from Jameson, alas, is an extended engagement with the work of William Morris, though there are many suggestive asides about Morris in his writings which it would certainly be worth totting up. Morrisians will therefore have to stage this intellectual encounter for themselves: I remember a fine, rigorously argued paper bringing together Jameson and News from Nowhere by Michelle Weinroth at the 2005 London Morris conference (which has not yet, as far as I know, seen the light of print), and I shall have a stab in the same direction in my own contribution to the 2010 Delaware Arts and Crafts conference in September. Jameson has often insisted that what is important about utopias is how they fail, an emphasis that does not sit easily with our own immediate sense of the cheery, sunlit, achieved socialism of Morris’s magnum opus.

Early in Valences Jameson floats another unnerving possibility: that the word ‘socialism’ may now be so tainted by the Soviet experience that it is for us politically counter-productive; and he suggests instead that we ‘deploy a language whose inner logic is precisely the suspension of the name and the holding open of the place for possibility, and that is the language of Utopia, which neither rules out the eventual return of the language of socialism nor offers a positive alternative … which might then be appropriated in an altogether different and manipulative way’ (p.12).

And this surely exactly defines the importance of William Morris to us today; for he can indeed be inflected, through News from Nowhere, to general questions of utopianism when we need him to be, while always remaining a militant socialist when we can once more return, unabashed, to that kind of political language and project.

Friday 23 April 2010

Enter the Dragon

BBC’s Radio 4 programme ‘Here Be Dragons’ yesterday evening reminded us of the complex meanings that attach to this mythological beast, not all of which are by any means as scary as we might think; and the broadcast thus dovetails with the recent 3-D film ‘How to Train Your Dragon’, in which the young would-be Viking dragon-slayer discovers that the creatures can be quite friendly and helpful monsters after all.

Indeed, we have had a whole series of recent literary revaluations in which famous monsters of antiquity or mythology are given a voice and history of their own, and turn out to be relatively amiable (if severely misunderstood) chaps in the process. John Gardner’s fine 1971 novel, Grendel, gives the most famous of Anglo-Saxon monsters a chance to tell his own story; and Stan Nichols’s’s novel series about Orcs attempts the unenviable task of redeeming from contempt the most repulsive of Tolkienian creatures – with some success, one must admit.

It is time, then, surely, that we tried some such revaluation of Morris’s evil dragon Fafnir in Sigurd the Volsung, all the more so in that the poor beast is killed in such a shabby way by Sigurd himself, who simply cowers down in a hole in the ground and then stabs the monster in the belly as it slides by over him – nothing particularly heroic about that, one would think! If Morris himself could write the ‘Defence of Guenevere’, passionately revaluing the guilty wife of Arthurian myth, could we not write for him a ‘Defence of Fafnir’, in which this much-maligned creature might tell its own story and hopefully win our sympathy and respect in the process?

Thursday 15 April 2010

Gestures in Utopia

When Bob the weaver first appears in News from Nowhere he ‘rubbed his hands with glee’ at the prospect of getting some outdoor work in his friend Dick Hammond’s boat on the Thames. I’m suddenly reminded by this of a curious footnote in the Oxford World Classics edition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet. We witness Inspector Lestrade ‘rubbing his hands in a pompous and self-satisfied manner’, on which Owen Dudley Edwards, the editor, comments:

'p.31. rubbing his hands: a gesture one seldom sees nowadays, yet in this story Watson, Lestrade, Gregson all perform it, as do Holmes and various other characters elsewhere’.

Is it really the case that hardly anybody rubs their hands together in this kind of expressive manner any more? If so, when did the practice stop? How on earth would one go about dating the moment of its cessation? If it has indeed died out, what does it mean, culturally speaking, that this has happened? Do we, more generally, have any developed social history of physical gestures? And with News from Nowhere particularly in mind, do we not need a history of gesture in the genre of utopia itself, since the invention of a whole new social system will certainly have ultimately to include the invention of new bodily customs and movements too?

Thursday 1 April 2010

Museums of the Future

The recent presentation by architects Pringle Richards Sharratt for the redevelopment of the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow was certainly an inspiring occasion for the 30 or so people who turned up at this consultation exercise. Councillor Reardon of Waltham Forest Council basked in the glory of the occasion – which was more than a tad ironic, as one member of the audience wryly pointed out, given that only a couple of years ago the Council was trying to close the Gallery and disperse the Morris collection!

Still, let bygones be bygones; for the plans displayed to us at the consultation were indeed impressive. A whole new wing to the Water House building will be built, with a lift and a tea-shop, and a radical redesign of the existing building and display spaces will open out the experience of Morris and the Arts and Crafts in exciting new ways to – hopefully – a much wider range of visitors than currently use the place.

I was particularly taken with the idea of a ‘Ideal Book Gallery, which would let visitors experiment with Morris typefaces and digitally design books; but would also celebrate and explore the stories from The Earthly Paradise (which certainly needs more exposure than it currently gets, with only two of the thirty-odd members of the public present having actually read the thing!).

Much attention will also be given to Morris as entrepreneur and the actual business operations of Morris & Co, a sign of our own times, no doubt; but still, an important part of the Morris record that doesn’t get sufficiently told. But, on the downside, ‘Fighting the Cause’ becomes a single room in the new, expanded complex, which certainly does significantly underplay Morris’s socialist and other activist commitments.

The transformed William Morris Gallery, which is being partly driven by a 2012 Olympics timetable, aspires to become ‘the hub’ of William Morris studies and, on this showing, it surely will. All the other Morris sites and museums will in turn have to raise their game to match what is happening so briskly and encouragingly in Walthamstow.

Friday 26 March 2010

In Praise of Strikes

With the strikes by workers at British Airways and the looming possibility of a national rail strike after Easter, things are hotting up in British industrial relations; and today 95 academics, led by Professor Ralph Darlington, have written to The Guardian newspaper to condemn the ‘macho’ tactics of BA Chief Executive Willy Walsh, which in their view are aimed at breaking the union rather than resolving the dispute. In a Radio 4 interview this evening Professor Darlington notes that the BA management tactics are ‘symptomatic of something happening on a broader front’ and that we are now in a ‘life and death struggle’ for the future of trade unionism in this country.

Strikes can be inconvenient for the wider public, no doubt about it; my son and his girlfriend lost their planned holiday in Amsterdam last weekend because of the Unite union’s industrial action at BA. Where the public’s overall sympathies are in relation to both the BA dispute and the threatened rail strike is hard to say. In my view, one’s basic commitments in these matters are not arrived at intellectually but go very much deeper; whatever the detailed rights and wrongs of particular disputes, one is, finally and in one’s gut as it were, either for the bosses or for the workers.

But we can at least be quite sure what William Morris’s attitude to these strikes would have been; for he expresses it memorably in his fine letter to the Daily Chronicle on the miners’ strike of 1893: ‘The first step, therefore, towards the new birth of art must be a definite rise in the condition of the workers … this change for the better can only be realized by the efforts of the workers themselves … The struggle against the terrible power of the profit-grinder is now practically proclaimed by them a matter of principle … What these staunch miners have been doing in the face of such tremendous odds, other workmen can and will do’.

So: Morrisian best wishes to our own staunch cabin crews and railway workers!

Wednesday 24 March 2010

William Morris's Birthday

It is Morris’s birthday today, March 24th, way back in 1834. So: happy birthday to you, William Morris! How does it feel being 176 years old – a figure that even Old Hammond in News from Nowhere, who is a respectable 105 years old himself, doesn’t come anywhere near matching?

Yet Morris’s birthday is not the only literary anniversary of note taking place on March 24th each year. We might also want to notice that:

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, of ‘Hiawatha’ fame, died on March 24th 1882

J.M. Synge, the Irish dramatist, died from Hodgkin’s disease on March 24th 1909

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the colourful New York poet, was born on March 24th 1919

Charlotte Mew, Thomas Hardy’s favourite female poet, committed suicide on March 24th 1928

Ian Hamilton, poet and author, was born in King’s Lynn on March 24th 1938

Jo Shapcott, poet and translator, was born on March 24th 1958.

I have gleaned my facts from those indispensable volumes Poem for the Day nos 1 and 2 (2001 and 2003), which contain brief poems to memorise for each day of the year; and I intend to alert Jo Shapcott to the coincidence of dates and to invite her to write a birthday poem to William Morris on the strength of it. But there must be other things that the list above misses out ...

Monday 22 March 2010

Morris, Photography, Utopia

Ashley Givens’s enjoyable talk on ‘William Morris and the Photography of Frederick Hollyer’ at Kelmscott House on Saturday drew resourcefully on the V&A’s archives to show us many images by this photographer we hadn’t seen before. But she also ventured interestingly into the photographic work of Frederick H. Evans, including that fine platinum print ‘From a Window at Kelmscott Manor’ (1896), a detail from which forms the cover illustration to the Oxford World Classics recent edition of News from Nowhere.

I’ve often wondered what made OUP choose this image as the front cover of the book: what is it about the semiotics of this image which fits it for that role, for our first glimpse into utopia? News from Nowhere ends at Kelmscott Manor, of course, so there is a general geographical aptness there; but then, any other of Evans’s Kelmscott images might equally have been chosen, so there must surely be more to it than that.

Does Evans’s open window motif, as used here, allude to that moment in the text when Ellen, berating her grandfather for his regressive fixation on books and the past, suddenly throws ‘open the casement wider’ to show him the rich sensuous world of Nature beyond (ch.XXII)? Or does it, less encouragingly, imply that we, the readers of Morris’s book, are trapped in a room ourselves, only able to look longingly out at utopia from an enclosure (our own dystopian present) which we cannot in the end escape – just like William Guest himself in that respect?

Your own sense of the appropriacy (or otherwise) of Evans’s image to Morris’s book may well differ from mine – if so, do please comment. But that haunting 1896 platinum print certainly seems to me to be an inspired choice by editor David Leopold. There are always new windows to be thrown open in William Morris studies!

Tuesday 9 March 2010

'Ruskin's Venice' Exhibition

I’m lucky to have Lancaster University’s Ruskin Library on my doorstep. Its art exhibitions are always interesting and informative, and the current one on ‘Ruskin’s Venice’ (to 21st March) is up to the usual excellent standard, with many fine drawings, etchings and water-colours of Venetian Gothic architecture by Ruskin and his cronies. There’s nearly always a William Morris spin-off too, which in this case takes the form of a display copy of the Kelmscott Press edition of Ruskin’s Nature of Gothic, which Morris describes in that unforgettable phrase as ‘one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of our century’.

But the Morris connection reminds me that I would like the Ruskin Library to be utopian as well as historical, to open itself up to zany futuristic artistic and architectural impulses as well as to the sensible scholarly ones it usually embodies in its shows. Could it not, for example, chance its arm with an exhibition of the utopian architecture of German Expressionism (which is certainly in the Ruskin-Morris tradition)? With its ‘Glass Chain’ utopian correspondence between architects in 1919 and 1920, its 1925 compendium of Architecture Which Was Never Built which gathered together the architectural utopias of all periods, with its bizarre projects for ‘architecture plays’ and utopian architectural films full of ‘flame-buildings’, naturally ‘grown’ houses and ray-domes, the exhilarating Gothic modernism of Bruno Taut, Hermann Finsterlein, Erich Mendelsohn and the early Bauhaus might fire up our own utopian imaginings today.

All museums, I think, should aspire to be museums of the future, not just of the past. May the Ruskin Library under its energetic Director Stephen Wildman be bold enough to make a start in that direction!

Sunday 7 March 2010

May Morris in New York: A Centenary

The week I spent in New York with my son three Christmases ago was certainly one of the most memorable weeks of my life. It was our first trip out to the Big Apple, and we did many standard tourist things: ice-skating in Central Park and at the Rockefeller Centre, a nighttime ascent of the Empire State Building, a chilly stroll across Brooklyn Bridge, an ice-hockey match in Madison Square, a hike across Harlem to admire Columbia University, the Christmas window displays at Macy’s. My great regret was that the USS Intrepid was not in position as a naval museum that December; I had so wanted to send a postcard of it back to my Uncle Harry, who had served in the Royal Navy in World War Two.

So the memory of that magical winter week comes vividly back as I open Janis Londraville’s collection of the May Morris-John Quinn correspondence: ‘Even though it was January, it was quite unusual for such a great snowstorm to invade New York City. The young lawyer, exhilarated by the company of his lady friend, decided not to attend the reception at Columbia University for the ambassador of England. Instead, he hired a double-seated horse-drawn sleigh, complete with bells, and toured the city with his charming companion. They rode for hours’.

We are still within the centenary of May Morris’s American lecture tour, which lasted from late 1909 to Spring 1910. Personally, the relationship with Quinn caused her much pain: she so clearly wanted it to deepen towards permanence, he very clearly didn’t. Yet intellectually it gave her so much: John Quinn, as a notable patron of modernist writers and painters, must have greatly expanded her own developing sympathies towards modernist art; and as Janis Londraville so truly says, May’s ‘position in early 20th century art and literary circles has been little celebrated’. So when a full account of that hoary but indispensable topic ‘Morris and Modernism’ comes to be written, it will certainly have to include May as well as William himself.

Saturday 6 March 2010

Wanted: Good Ornithological Critic

In his lively study of Morris in the old ‘English Men of Letters’ series (1908), Alfred Noyes throws down the gauntlet to readers of Morris’s poetry. There is, he claims, only a ‘narrow range of natural objects which he [Morris as poet] will allow himself to mention … The lark and nightingale and a few other birds he will allow; but the bullfinch and the yellowhammer, the white-throat and the herring-gull are all, we may say beforehand, avoided by him as if they were turkeys’. Nine times out of ten in the poetry, Noyes argues, Morris ‘would be content with some such phrase as “the brown bird’s tune”’ (p.45).

Can we rescue Morris from this charge? When Sigurd the Volsung kills the dragon Fafnir in Morris’s epic and tastes the blood of its heart, ‘there came a change upon him, for the speech of fowl he knew’, and he then hears the great eagles prophesying to him. Can we effect such a magical transformation on Morris’s verse itself and show it as being a good deal more sensitive to the variety of bird life than Alfred Noyes allows? We certainly know how attentive Morris himself was to birds and their habitats; for as Cormel Price recorded in his diary on February 22 1883: ‘Spent the evening at Top’s – a long talk on birds: T’s knowledge of them very extensive: can go on for hours about their habits: but especially about their form’.

As far as I know, Noyes’s challenge has not been definitively answered, even a hundred years on. Philip Larkin once wrote an essay entitled: ‘Wanted: Good Hardy Critic’. What we now need, in relation to Morris’s poetry, is a good ornithological critic.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Seeds beneath the Snow: Anarchism in Nowhere

The moving obituary in today’s Guardian newspaper for the eminent British anarchist theorist Colin Ward (p.35) turns my thoughts to those pesky Anarchists who dominate the Socialist League meeting in the opening pages of News from Nowhere: ‘there were six persons present, and consequently six sections of the party were represented, four of which had strong but divergent Anarchist opinions’. So fractiously anarchistic are the SL Anarchists here that they don’t seem capable of agreeing even with each other as to what anarchism might represent!

So anarchism has a bafflingly paradoxical position in Morris’s utopia. It deeply shapes the vision of a fully achieved socialist society in the body of the book, with its decentralised, libertarian and ecologically responsible political and cultural habits. Yet, as the opening frame narrative shows, it is the greatest obstacle of all to the practical building of such a society in the first place because it disastrously fractures the unity a revolutionary party would need in order to grow into any meaningful challenge to a powerful capitalist system. News from Nowhere can neither live with anarchism (because with it a strong party cannot be built), nor live without it (because in that case a dangerously centralist State might install itself permanently in the post-revolutionary period).

We will need a new, appropriately paradoxical concept for thinking about the role of anarchism in Morris’s utopia, then; and I suggest that the philosopher Jacques Derrida’s (non-)concept of the pharmakon (which he derives from Plato) might serve our purpose. The pharmakon is both ‘cure’ and ‘poison’ simultaneously, or the illness and its cure. This is a contradiction that cannot be erased upwards in some benign Hegelian sublation or Aufhebung; but just remains in its stubborn and prickly unthinkability. And so it is with News from Nowhere: utopia can’t exist without its pesky anarchists, but it can’t exist with them either.

Saturday 20 February 2010

In Praise of Steampunk

Visiting my son in Oxford the other day, I took the opportunity to see both the Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the refitted Ashmolean Museum and the exhibition of Steampunk artefacts at the neglected Museum of the History of Science opposite Blackwells Bookshop in Broad Street.

The new Ashmolean is indeed a joy – spacious new galleries and stairways, so many additional objects on display, not to mention excellent breakfasts in its delightful rooftop restaurant. The nucleus of its Pre-Raphaelite collection is that of Thomas Combe, Printer to the University in the 1850s and the first important patron of the young PRB artists. In its attractive green display room this material was being perused silently and intently by an audience that was middle-class and middle-aged (if not older) to the last man and woman. Highlights for me were the Chaucer-decorated wardrobe which Burne-Jones gave to Morris as a wedding present and Charles Allston Collins’s lovely painting ‘Covent Thoughts’.

The Steampunk exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science, by contrast, was consigned to the cramped and dingy basement of the building – a daft curatorial decision if ever there was one. For on the day I visited it was absolutely packed, with people from the whole social and age range (including many children) chattily admiring the weird and wonderful ingenuity of the Victorianised artefacts on display. The contrast of this bustling enthusiasm with the hushed awe of the Pre-Raphaelite Room at the Ashmolean was wholly invigorating.

So it is the bizarre mechanical ingenuity of Steampunk - which is no longer just a minor science-fictional genre but, it seems, on the evidence of this exhibition, a whole emergent sub-culture - it is this extraordinary effort to reimagine the Victorians, to unleash a Victorian and Jules-Vernian technological future which never in fact happened, that is surely where the real energies are in our own current engagement with the nineteenth century. I may still love the hushed devotionalism of ‘Covent Thoughts’, but to my son and his contemporaries it is the fabulously complex goggles and helmets, the peculiar brass chronometers, mechanical animals and whirring robotic arms of Steampunk, that represent an exciting vision of the (neo-)Victorian age; and to which we should, I believe, make Morris’s work responsive too.