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 pav├ęs, 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.