Monday 28 February 2011

The Guide in Utopia

In H.G. Wells’s National Observer version of The Time Machine, the Time Traveller, as he explores the baffling new world of 802,701 A.D., reflects that: ‘Odd as it may seem, I had no cicerone. In all the narratives of people visiting the future that I have read, some obliging scandal-monger appears at an early stage, and begins to lecture on constitutional history and social economy, and to point out the celebrities. Indeed so little had I thought of the absurdity of this that I had actually anticipated something of the kind would occur in reality’. And Marina Warner has suggested that ‘William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) was probably uppermost in his [Wells’s] mind when he wrote’ this passage.

Is Dick Hammond, then, as William Guest’s cicerone in the brave new world of Nowhere, an ‘obliging scandal-monger’? I’m not sure I’d use that phrase about Dick, but I do think that the Time Traveller’s remark can helpfully defamiliarise the literary convention of the guide-to-utopia for us, prompting us to observe it quizzically in the spirit of a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. We should not simply admire the guide for his or her genial helpfulness and expository patience, but also ask, more challengingly, ‘what’s in it for them? What does he or she get out of occupying this role?’ Or, as my colleague Keith Hanley wryly puts it, ‘who’s having whom?’

Clearly, you get a good deal of control of what the bewildered visitor to utopia sees or learns of the new society. You can ward off other utopians, as Dick Hammond does with Boffin the Dustman at the Hammersmith Guest House, and make sure that the visitor learns about the new culture only through the particular route that you want him to (Old Hammond at the British Museum, in Dick’s case). And as the guide does this, he may also be imposing his own particular utopian emphases upon the visitor, as Dick, with his passion for manual craft work, is clearly doing – to the point, indeed, where his friend Bob as mathematician and historian has to protest about this.

So H.G. Wells has done us good service, I think, in drawing to our attention the far-from-innocent convention of the utopian cicerone; and we now need to extend our study of this figure across the genre at large.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Feats of Wild Swimming

Outdoor swimming has become popular in recent years, particularly since the publication of Kate Rew’s book Wild Swim in 2008 – and the hyper-active Kate is also founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society . But we shall find, if we look carefully at Morris’s work, that here as in so many other areas, he was a great precursor who was well ahead of his time.

Dick Hammond and William Guest go for a brief dip in the Thames towards the end of News from Nowhere, but the truly great feats of outdoor swimming in Morris are elsewhere. Birdalone in The Water of the Wondrous Isles is without doubt his most athletic female; and ‘there is no swimmer stronger than I’, she hubristically declares as she embarks on her prodigious swim back across the lake to the Witch’s house.

But the most impressive of all Morrisian swims is surely that in his translation of the Grettir Saga, when Grettir and his friend ‘swam in one spell all down Hitriver, from the lake right away to the sea’ (ch. LVIII). Having had a brief, hypothermic dip myself one summer in a Norwegian fjord when on holiday out there with my son (who judiciously chose not to come in), I can truly appreciate just what an awesome achievement this is.

Saturday 19 February 2011

Eager Restless Heroism

News from Nowhere contains what must surely be one of the most inspiring sentences in all English literature to that date, when Old Hammond remarks that between 1952 and 1954 ‘the sloth, the hopelessness, and, if I may say so, the cowardice of the last century, had given place to the eager, restless heroism of a declared revolutionary period’ (ch. XVII). This stirring formulation surely gives us a fine epigraph for the current political struggles and sacrifices taking place in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and the Middle East generally. Not a socialist revolution in the making, admittedly, but a democratic one at least; and certainly involving an eager, restless heroism that can and should inspire us all.

Saturday 12 February 2011

Svend and Style

In a local secondhand bookshop a few years back I picked up a quaint little volume (which I have mentioned in this blog before) in the ‘King’s Treasuries of Literature’ series general-edited by Sir Arthur Quiller Couch. First published in 1922, it is titled: Atalanta’s Race and Two Other Tales from ‘The Earthly Paradise’. At the back of the book, after the three tales, we are offered a brief ‘Appreciation by Alfred Noyes’ and, more surprisingly, the text of Morris’s prose story ‘Svend and his Brethren’ from the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine.

Why the ‘Svend’ story, then? Well, first, ‘it is given here for purposes of literary comparison with the foregoing verse romances from the Earthly Paradise’. All well and good: let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. But then, second and much more intriguingly, ‘it is suggested that the reader should attempt the rendering of portions of it into one or other of the poetic forms represented in the three verse stories of this collection’ (p.169). The question of why one should want to perform this curious creative writing exercise is never addressed, but it is surely a lovely idea none the less.

To rewrite one of Morris’s works in the style of another, just for the hell of it! To an extent Morris himself did something like this, of course, since May Morris notes that he would occasionally write a particular story first as prose and then, not liking that version, as poetry – or vice versa. We might regard such stylistic rewritings as a kind of five-finger exercise that any keen Morrisian ought to chance his or her arm at now and again. So, just to start the ball rolling, I offer my own (very crude) version of the first chapter of News from Nowhere rewritten in something like the forceful anapaestic manner of Sigurd the Volsung. Comments – or improvements – would be very welcome:

At the League one sullen evening, great debate there gan to flare,
On the Morrow of Revolution, and the days that are fairer than fair;
And as Anarchists rant onwards, representing different schools,
Silent William broke amongst them, damning all the rest for fools.
As he wends his iron way homewards and stews in the vapour-bath,
‘If I could but see the future!’ he cries, and his great heart laughs.
Ugly bridge upon the river, young moon tangled in the sky,
Swirling waters up to Chiswick, as the hot debate goes by.
And as William lies to slumber loss and doubt come to the fore,
But he shapes them to a story, and they fall back to the floor.
Clock strikes three and he is sleeping, and now time begins to shift,
As the dark past gins to loosen, the claws of Capital to lift.

He awoke and tossed the bed-clothes, dazzled in the gleaming sun;
For the past was rent asunder, the days of Nowhere had begun.

Friday 4 February 2011

Prequel to Nowhere

I have speculated occasionally in this blog on what the elements of a ‘sequel’ to News from Nowhere might consist in (Old Hammond coming out of retirement, say, and re-engaging in political struggle); but J.J. Abrams’ wonderful recent Star Trek film, which tells the ‘back story’ of how the original Enterprise crew of Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Uhura, etc, first came together, suddenly opens a new Morrisian possibility to us: what would a prequel to News from Nowhere look like?

There certainly already are prequels within the utopian tradition. Several years after his environmental masterpiece Ecotopia (1975), Ernest Callenbach published Ecotopia Emerging (1981), which fleshes out in more detail how the Ecotopian society on the west coast of America first came into being. One might argue that Morris himself has already provided us with a prequel of this kind in chapter XVII of News from Nowhere on ‘How the Change Came’, which vividly narrates the civil war of 1952 onwards and the early days of the new socialist society. The French scholar Paul Meier has written particularly well about this, the immediate Morrow of the Revolution.

That may be so politically, but we have always valued News from Nowhere for its personal immediacy as well as its social content, and therefore we shall want a prequel at the level of character as well as politics. Such a work would need to answer many questions: how did Old Hammond become Old Hammond, what was he in his long-past youthful and middle-aged phases? Who exactly was the man for whom Clara abandoned Dick Hammond, and how did that painful episode play itself out in detail? How had Dick and Bob the weaver met and become fast friends in the first place, given what total physical and intellectual opposites they are? What were the nature of Ellen’s earlier sexual entanglements which had led to her living in a kind of exile at Runnymede, and how had she come to have once been Old Hammond’s pupil in the first place? And the list could go on.

The real trick in writing a prequel would be in relating such personal issues to the wider development of the post-revolutionary society, thereby demonstrating that (as the 1960s so abundantly taught us) the personal always is the political after all. And since Morris was certainly interested in time travel to the past (as in John Ball) as well as to the future, we can take it that he might well have approved the principle of a prequel to his utopia.