Friday, 29 April 2011

Who gives a fuck about the royal wedding?

In his great study Culture and Society (1958) Raymond Williams takes Morris to task for his ‘generalised swearing’. Perhaps it is more the generality than the actual swearing that bothers Williams, so some more particularised political swearing (as in this blog post’s title, which I have borrowed from an anti-monarchist Facebook site) might therefore conceivably serve some useful purpose.

Today’s royal wedding has already been the occasion of the usual spectacular display of obsequiousness on the part of the British media (the BBC’s Jenny Bond and Nicholas Witchell have over the years been perhaps the most abject specimens of all in this respect). In the wider society, however, I don’t sense quite such intense devotion as usual. Perhaps we are all remembering what an utter fake the so-called ‘fairytale’ wedding of Charles and Diana (which I watched in an Oxford pub thirty years ago) actually was, and we might therefore be a tad more sceptical and cautious this time round – and these are, anyway, chastened economic times.

So a Windsor is marrying a commoner – one, indeed, who even (like myself) has County Durham miners among her ancestors; so might there be a socially utopian dimension to our celebration of this particular wedding? Good luck to the young couple themselves, of course; but if William were becoming a miner rather than Kate a princess, if the social transformation were operating that way round, then I might believe that utopia really had come.

Morris’s derogatory references to Queen Victoria as ‘Empress Brown’ are a good index of how refreshingly rude his attitude to British royalty could be; and in July 1887 my own local (i.e. Lancaster) branch of the Socialist League was doing its best to disrupt Victoria’s Golden Jubilee by distributing leaflets denouncing Britain’s imperial violence. So it must always be the task of socialists to challenge such national royalist outpourings, to prick the nauseating bubble of British complacency and obsequiousness in whatever ways they can.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

TV: William Morris MasterChef

‘Cooking, Morris’s skills at’ runs an entry in the index to Fiona MacCarthy’s biography, and J.W. Mackail backs her up: ‘to Morris cookery had an important place among the arts of human life, and he knew a great deal about it in theory, and something also in practice’ (I, 223). So we might expect Morris to be an enthusiastic viewer of Gregg Wallace and John Torode’s BBC ‘MasterChef’ series; and perhaps his daughters Jenny and May, in a moment of family mischief, might even have put his name forward as a potential participant.

What would a Morrisian analysis of the ‘MasterChef’ TV series look like? No doubt Morris would have admired the inventive culinary skills on display, the concern for excellent ingredients and presentation, and the cooperative endeavours of the amateur cooks on the many challenges they are given to face during the programmes. On the other hand, he wouldn’t care much for the programme’s occasional forays into ‘molecular gastronomy’, he would loathe the rampant social snobbery of some of those challenges (cooking for the Duke of Bedford in his big country house), and, most crucially of all, he would surely deplore the competitive nature of the programme’s basic format.

For it is here, above all, that we receive a subliminal cultural training in the values of a capitalist society. We don’t particularly mind the over-the-top competitiveness of the repulsive young entrepreneurs who enter Alan Sugar’s TV show, ‘The Apprentice’, for this just is capitalism pure and simple; what you see is what you get. But when so many other cultural and social activities are turned into competition too – cooking on ‘MasterChef’, dancing on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, singing in ‘The X Factor’, and even just living itself as in ‘Big Brother’ – then capitalist values are insidiously colonising our entire life world.

So we must imagine a new version of ‘MasterChef’ altogether, in which our amateur cooks, like the craftsmen at work on the medieval cathedral for Ruskin and Morris, would express their individual culinary creativity in ways that also contributed to a satisfying and spectacular collective project. If there still is TV in utopia (for Morris, there probably wouldn’t be), this is what we would then be watching.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

90% Blogging

The Chinese artist, architect and activist Ai Weiwei, who has recently been arrested by his government at Beijing airport, remarked of his blog (before it was closed down by that same government): ‘I spend 90% of my energy on blogging’. Wow, that’s certainly very impressive, though it doesn’t seem to leave a lot of time or energy over for the rest of life. Posting an entry every day for nearly four years surely would take it out of you, even if you were doing a terrific job of challenging an authoritarian regime in the process.

So I feel myself inspired by Weiwei’s blogging commitment, though I think I’ll stay well on this side of his 90%. And I’m inspired too by his project of contemporary cultural and political challenge, even if in a democracy that obviously doesn’t pose the severe dangers that it did to him. I don’t want to give up my exploration of William Morris and literary utopia, which has been the goal of this blog from its beginning in late 2007; but I do want – moved partly by Weiwei’s example – increasingly to turn both Morris and utopia to contemporary account, to make them ways into an engaged cultural analysis of our present.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Countries of Ultimate Testing

In her biography of Morris Fiona MacCarthy uses a most evocative phrase to conjure up our hero’s 1873 trip to Iceland with Charles Faulkner: ‘Sometimes they met whole barricades of boulders and great mounds of shaly flagstones. It was the country of ultimate testing, a deathscape drawn by Dürer’ (p.333).

Such landscapes of testing then occur regularly in Morris’s later literary works. One thinks of Golden Walter’s strenuous ascent across the mountainous waste in The Wood beyond the World, or of Hallblithe’s near-fatal wanderings amongst the mountains in The Story of the Glittering Plain, or of the armies of Face-of-god and the Burgdalers making their arduous way up to the great waterfall and then across the volcanic ‘rock-maze’ in The Roots of the Mountains, or, above all, of Ralph and Ursula threading their way painfully across ‘this huge manless waste lying under the bare heavens and threatened by the storehouse of the fires of the earth’ in The Well at the World’s End. It’s all a far cry from William Guest rowing cheerily through the verdant upper Thames Valley in News from Nowhere.

All of which is to suggest that ‘ultimate testing’ just as much as genial fellowship ought to be the goal of the William Morris Society itself, that, in the spirit of its namesake’s own romances, it should be organising SAS-style survival treks in the wilderness, now and again parachuting a party of stout Morrisians into the very inner heart of Iceland in winter and letting them make their own dogged way back to Rekyavik living off the land as best they can and using all their Ray Mears skills in the process. All is not sweetness and light in Morris’s literary works, not by means; and therefore it should not be so in our celebrations of him either.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

To Boldly Go ...

Fifty years ago today, on 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to orbit the earth, in what was surely one of the great technological leaps forward of human history; but I also recall a remark by one of Aldous Huxley’s utopians in Island just one year later, who firmly declares that his society ‘has not the slightest desire to land on the backside of the moon’ (ch.13). There are advanced 'force-vehicles’ in William Morris’s News from Nowhere, but they only travel horizontally (up the river Thames) and not vertically (into space).

The Western utopian tradition has been fissured from its very origins by a split between low-tech utopias of ecological sustainability, like the founding text of the genre, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), and high-tech utopias of endless scientific advance, like Francis Bacon’s fragmentary New Atlantis of 1627 (which has its own dreams of flight, if not quite of space flight). The Thomas More tradition has assumed that human desires can be simplified down to a decent minimum; the Francis Bacon counter-line assumes the infinite expansibility of our desires, which only a vigorous science could possibly satisfy. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward is a powerful late nineteenth-century restatement of the high-tech tradition, of which News from Nowhere is then the angry repudiation and ecological mirror-image.

But we today shall surely want to get beyond this split, this T.S. Eliot-style ‘dissociation of sensibility’ at the very core of the utopian tradition. Green utopias are always immensely appealing, but a genuinely cooperative human society will in my view want to spend at least some of its physical and intellectual energies launching its Morrisian ‘force-vehicles’ vertically as well as horizontally. Yuri Gagarin’s extraordinary feat in 1961 was totally caught up in Cold War ideology; and only a utopian society could afford to be genuinely and disinterestedly curious about the wider universe beyond itself.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Journalists in Utopia

I always enjoy the literary ‘Ten of the Best’ column in the Review section of the Guardian newspaper on Saturday, which is this week devoted to Journalists in the novel. One invariably comes across some old favourites – in this case, Henrietta Stackpole from Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, a text I’ve shamefully not re-read since undergraduate days – and discovers some intriguing new works that one at once adds to an already long ‘to read’ list. Part of the fun is that there will always be letters the following Saturday saying: why on earth didn’t you include X, Y or Z, as blindingly obvious examples of last week’s topic? - and I’ve even contributed to that particular epistolary genre myself on occasion.

This week I’m inclined to write in again saying: why didn’t you include that important trope in some recent utopian writing of having a well-travelled but also hard-boiled and deeply cynical journalist as the visitor to utopia, as with Will Farnaby in Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962) or William Weston of the Times-Post in Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975)? Such aggressively debunking investigators – men who, in Farnaby’s own phrase, ‘won’t take yes for an answer’ – are determined to test to destruction every positive assertion that utopia makes to them. So if the good new society can win even them over, as in complex ways in both books it does, then there is hope that consciousness more generally can be transformed in a socially benign direction.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Varieties of Violence

Well done to those Morris Society members who marched behind the Hammersmith Socialist League banner at the Trades Union Congress’s recent day of action against the Tory-Lib Dem cuts to public spending. Very splendid they and the banner look in the photos posted up on the Society website, and I’m sure this outing must have aroused much interest in Morris amongst other marchers on the day. Media coverage of the event predictably focused on the violent actions of some small protest groups later in the afternoon, rather than the vast mass of peaceful protestors; and in response to such disturbances the Society website carries a notice recording – accurately enough – that ‘Morris condemned anarchist violence’.

Indeed he did; but he did not by any means condemn all kinds of political violence. I have just been external examiner to a wonderful PhD thesis by Ingrid Hanson of Sheffield University on the functions of violence in Morris’s writings. She notes the intense fascination with physical combat in his stories and poems – to the point, indeed, where one might almost think he was reformulating the Cartesian cogito as ‘I fight, therefore I am’; and she convincingly shows too that Morris believed passionately in the disciplined collective violence of the oppressed against the often invisible violence that an oppressive system inflicts upon them.

So: anarchist violence, no indeed; that is just counter-productive. But in response to the silent and actual violences of capitalism, Morris certainly agreed with Sun-Beam in The Roots of the Mountains that ‘if ye would live your happy life that ye love so well, ye must now fight for it’ (ch. 20); and he has shown us in the English revolution of News from Nowhere how that might be done in detail.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Blogs and Hedgehogs

Skimming through Simon Critchley’s entertaining Book of Dead Philosophers, I’ve come across the famous defence of the literary fragment that the German Romantics Novalis and Schlegel published in their journal, the Athenaeum, in the late 1790s: ‘A fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a hedgehog’.

Now if we are looking for traditional literary genres on which to model our blogs (see my entry for 1 January 2011), then we could certainly do worse than adopt this Novalis and Schlegel maxim. But it is surely the final memorable simile of the hedgehog that is most telling here. Blog entries, like German Romantic fragments, should sting you and hurt you if you try to pick them up. Whereas John Keats’s Grecian Urn may ‘tease us out of thought’, blog entries, more painfully but therefore also more rewardingly, will prickle us into further reflection!

Monday, 4 April 2011

Universities: What's in a Name?

‘These are the neighbours, and that like they run in the Thames valley’, remarks Dick Hammond proudly as he sets off across a transfigured London with William Guest in Morris’s utopia (ch. IV). But Thames Valley University, I learnt today, doesn’t want to keep a name that thus finely resonates with Morrisian utopian values. Instead, orienting itself rather to what Morris, after William Cobbett, contemptuously referred to as ‘the Great Wen’, it wants to rename (or should that be rebrand) itself as the University of West London.

The change of name, the University’s website tells us, is not just a matter of geographical reorientation. Rather does it also signal a ‘change of emphasis in terms of its mission with a strong focus on employer engagement’; and since the new Chancellor Designate of Thames Valley/West London University is the President and CEO of Strategic Hotels and Resorts, it certainly sounds as though they have the right kind of man for the job.

In short, to rename yourself as the University of West London is to play your own bit part in that wholesale commercialisation of British universities which Laurie Penny finely exposed in her ‘Dispatches’ programme on Channel 4 this evening. One might think the scale and cynicism of all this (especially as reflected in Vice Chancellors’ pay and perks) is far beyond anything that Morris himself could have imagined; and yet since Old Hammond informs William Guest in News from Nowhere that in the Victorian period British universities ‘became definitely commercial’ (ch. X), Morris might in fact not have been that surprised after all.

Morris among the Pinkneys

Did any of my family members, I wonder, ever hear William Morris at one of his innumerable socialist lectures up and down the country in the 1880s? There is a possibility – just a faint one – that my great-grandfather Mark Pinkney may have been in the audience when Morris addressed striking miners at Ryton Willows on 11 April 1887.

The day before Morris had travelled down from Glasgow to Newcastle. On the morning of the 11th he headed north to Horton in Northumberland, where he and other speakers addressed a huge crowd of between 6,000 and 10,000 people. Morris then returned to Newcastle and in the evening spoke again at Ryton Willows, ‘a piece of rough ground by the Tyneside under the bank by which the railway runs’, as he describes it in his Socialist Diary. And, he continues, ‘we had a very fair meeting there of most attentive persons’.

Now Ryton Willows is only some three miles from High Spen, the colliery village where my grandfather Henry Pinkney grew up and later, working as a miner, raised his own family; my Uncle Harry used to recall his boyhood there fondly in later years. So the geography works nicely, but does the chronology hold up? Grandad himself was born in 1894, so it is a question of whether his father Mark Pinkney, who was also a miner and would have been in his early twenties when Morris spoke at Ryton Willows in 1887, might have attended that event.

I can’t be sure. My great-grandmother Mary Pinkney is buried in High Spen, but I suspect that my great-grandparents in 1887 were living further to the south in County Durham (their third child, my Grandad, was born in Wingate seven years later). Still, no matter; next time I revisit our old family mining haunts in High Spen I shall think of Morris speaking to striking miners at Ryton Willows just up the road, and that will be almost as good as my great-grandfather actually having been there!

Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Next Thirty Years

One’s thirtieth wedding anniversary seems a good moment for reflection and taking stock – not just in marital and life terms, but even for one’s Morris-and-utopias blog too. How, after all, can a blog really hope to contribute to William Morris studies, given both the brevity and transience of its entries? Perhaps this is a question I should have asked myself long before now, having posted 140 entries over the last few years; but it poses itself more sharply today, in the midst of personal celebrations.

Thirty years of marriage takes us to our pearl wedding anniversary; and no doubt blog entries are, ideally, pearls of a sort too, lustrous miniatures that one can appreciate for their compact artistry. But I would like to think that they can (again ideally) be more than this, be outward-looking and impactful rather than nacreously self-contained. I like to imagine them as tiny grenades of meaning, that can explode transformatively in the reader’s mind if all goes well.

Blog entries can, I would hope, illuminate the strange by-ways of both Morris’s writing and utopia as a genre, their peculiarities and perversities, all that crucial semantic potential which can at times get lost in mainstream scholarly criticism. They can also, at their best, sustain a Morrisian and utopian political commentary into our own historical moment, into a postmodern capitalist present vastly more complex than Morris himself could ever have imagined (or, it can sometimes seem, than utopia itself can cope with). They should certainly also test both Morris and utopia against the best thought and theory of our own time, but they will of course do this in short and snappy, heuristic and suggestive, rather than systematically elaborated ways.

And lastly, they will aim, while doing all these things, to entertain, to contribute to a Morrisian fellowship in the blogosphere which can sustain us in difficult political times. For as Folk-Might wisely announces in The Roots of the Mountains, ‘in that fellowship shalt thou find both the seed of hope, and the sun of desire that shall quicken it’ (ch. 36).

Right, enough reflection: time now to climb a Lake District mountain by way of strenuous celebration; for I am not at all sure that we will still be up to that on our fortieth wedding anniversary and beyond.