Sunday 22 January 2012

William Morris in Lancaster

Last summer my son and I made a little You Tube video entitled ‘William Morris in Lancaster’ which commemorates Morris’s lecture here on Tuesday 2 November 1886, when he addressed 600 Lancastrians in Palatine Hall on ‘Socialism: The End and the Means’. Three key reasons for doing so. I want first to highlight Morris’s profile locally and to launch a campaign to get a blue plaque celebrating that visit on the wall of Palatine Hall (we already have a plaque which records Charles Dickens’s stays in the Kings Arms Hotel here in 1857 and 1862).

Second, because my students only come across Morris towards the end of our chronologically organised Victorian Literature course, when we get to the 1880s, too late in the day for him really to become a force in their own thinking. So with the You Tube video I can highlight his local presence for them rather earlier in the course and then keep a Morrisian socialist and utopian orientation towards the other writers on it active throughout. I want Morris to be a contemporary ‘tool for thinking’ for them, not just another dusty Victorian.

Part of our You Tube video concerns the history of the Lancaster branch of the Socialist League set up in the wake of Morris’s lecture here; and I feel, thirdly, that we have too little local history of the League, too little sense of its colourful local characters, polemics, struggles, successes and failures. We know the story of some of the key London branches quite well, but there are plenty of other groups up and down the country whose record remains to be fully reconstructed both from the local press and Commonweal reports. So may I suggest that UK readers of this blog consider posting a You Tube account of their own local Socialist League branch? Such videos may only be brief tasters of the full histories we need, but they will at least get us started.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Tweaking the Kelmscott Chaucer

We are so accustomed to thinking of the Kelmscott Chaucer as the great aesthetic masterpiece of Morris’s later years that it comes as a bit of a shock to learn that in one significant respect at least he was disappointed with it. It wasn’t just that he couldn’t persuade Burne-Jones to illustrate Chaucer’s ruder tales; I don’t suppose he ever really expected that he would be able to! No, it is more a matter, as J.W. Mackail informs us in the biography, that ‘when designing the borders for the Kelmscott Chaucer, he expressed his regret at not being able to fill them with Chaucer’s favourite birds’ because of his incapacity for drawing birds and animals (I, 115).

I wonder, then, whether Morris’s famous meditation on political defeat in A Dream of John Ball might not also apply to aesthetic defeat? Would it be the case that, in the realm of art too, when the finished work comes it turns out not to be quite what you meant, and other men then have to fight for what you meant under another name? In which case, should we not seek out an enterprising artist today who could design us new Kelmscott Chaucer borders which would indeed feature the vigorous bird life of the medieval poet’s own verse, as Morris himself intended they should?

Wednesday 4 January 2012

New Year's Thoughts

Those spectacular fireworks over London at midnight on 31 December said it all. At a time of deep capitalist economic crisis, of accelerating unemployment and inequality, we in England will be offered New Year’s Fireworks, the Queen’s 60th Jubilee and the Olympics to keep us ‘proud to be British’. Or if all that’s not enough, David Cameron may even contrive a new little war - fireworks of a different kind - to add to the media spectacle: Iran, perhaps? ‘Bread and circuses’ indeed; but as bread gets scarcer in the Age of Austerity, so the circuses will get bigger and bolder.

As our Morrisian or Ernst-Blochian ‘principle of hope’ for 2012, we have the Occupy movement; tents in News from Nowhere signify utopian contentment, but for us they now indicate cultural and political struggle itself. If I complain that Occupy is more a question-mark than a movement, that it seems to me to lack strategy, tactics and clear-cut demands, then I reveal myself as the old-fashioned socialist I am; so let me, more generously, be delighted that young people are revealing so much political imagination and spirit of revolt, and let me be as open-minded as they themselves are about where it all might end up.

As for the William Morris Society, I think its own role should become more open too. As we enter the 21st century, so our old 19th century heroes begin to fall some 200 years behind us (as with the Dickens and Browning bi-centenaries this year); and discussion of their lives and works risks becoming an arcane hobby. We Morrisians are fortunate, however, in that our hero is a writer of the future, not just of the Victorian past, and that his greatest work is set in the mid-22nd century, not the 19th. So we need the Kelmscott Coach House to ring out once again with utopian debate about political choices and future destinations; and for starters we might well invite some of the London Occupy people in to set out their vision for us.