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.