Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Heroes and Babies

My son Justin’s very first excursion from the house as a month-old baby was to a conference on ‘The State of Criticism’ which I had co-organised in the Oxford University English Faculty building in March 1986. Our great coup, as organisers, was to have got Raymond Williams as a plenary speaker. So as Williams adjusted his papers at the lectern under the splendid Oxford English Limited banner at the front of the hall and Terry Eagleton pondered his opening remarks as chair and the 400 people in the audience waited expectantly, I held Justin up at the back of the room, pointed him towards our famous speaker, and said, ‘Look, that’s Raymond Williams down there’. He gurgled (appreciatively, I trust), and I then returned him to his pram outside and crept back into the lecture hall.

I think some Oxford English Limited colleagues, possibly including Justin’s mother, felt at the time that this was rather eccentric behaviour. So I am delighted to find, decades later, that I have good Morrisian authority for this supposedly curious practice. For as the crowds gather round the Burg of the Niblungs to see Sigurd the Volsung pass in and out in Morris’s great epic poem, ‘oft the mother turned,/And spake to the laughing baby: “O little son, and dear ... thou [may] sayest when all is sung,/’And I too once beheld him in the days when I was young’” (Book III). So there you are: all doting parents want their babies to see their heroes, all the way from Sigurd to Raymond Williams. Nothing in the least abnormal about that!

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