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.