Thursday 29 November 2012

The Manor in the Floods

‘The grey rain driveth all astray -/Which way through the floods, good carle, I pray?’, asks the narrator in Morris’s ‘The Little Tower’; and if you explore Lechlade and Kelmscott in November, you are likely to encounter weather conditions every bit as challenging as those in this poem or the more famous ‘Haystack in the Floods’.

The path from St Lawrence’s Church in Lechlade across to the Trout Inn has become a causeway with flooded fields on both sides; water rats swim beside it and a great gathering of migrant geese honk furiously from a raised bank a stone’s throw away. Vast quantities of muddy water force their way through St John’s Lock and the Trout Weir, and under such inclement conditions the normally idyllic upper Thames takes on some aspects of the Icelandic sublime (faint shades of the great waterfall at Dettifoss, perhaps). At Kelmscott itself the field you normally walk over to get to the Thames now is the Thames (see image above). The brook behind the Manor has burst its banks and reached the outbuildings, so the staff are moving items up to the first floor for fear of worse to come. ‘God send us three more days such rain’, cries the ‘Little Tower’ narrator, which is the very last thing people here want.

November tourism has much to be said for it; you certainly avoid the madding crowd. ‘I am a man of the North’, William Morris once stoutly declared, and I therefore can’t help feeling that the gentle, willowy, summer Thames-scapes of Kelmscott frustrated as well as delighted him. So we can and should share his own November exhilarations, as with that ‘insane attempt to fish’ here on 9 November 1875: ‘out on the river ... the wind right in one’s teeth and the eddies going like a Japanese tea-tray: I must say it was delightful: almost as good as Iceland on a small scale’.

Friday 23 November 2012

Names and Naming

The publication of Alastair Fowler’s Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature affords an opportunity to think about William Morris’s naming practices. Basically, there are two options in the field of literary nomenclature. Realist fiction wants its characters’ names to signify as little as possible, and ideally not at all, so Fielding’s Tom Jones, which Colin Burrow calls ‘the least interpretable name you could imagine’, is representative here. Other modes of fiction, such as allegory or Gothic, aspire towards the ‘Cratylic name’: in this case name and nature bond, as the former very strongly signifies what the character is or does. Charlotte Brontë gives us Jane Eyre (air) and Helen Burns (fire) as the four elements make themselves felt in her Gothic characterisation in that novel.

Morris doesn’t write realist fiction and in his late romances names are often unashamedly Cratylic. The central figures in The Story of the Glittering Plain are Hallblithe and Hostage, so we at once know exactly how and where the former likes to spend his time and what’s soon going to happen, in plot terms, to the latter. News from Nowhere, however, doesn’t fall into either camp and its names are therefore unsettling, we can’t quite tell if they are meaningful or not. George Brightling sounds like a Sigurdian sun-god appropriate to this happy utopia (compare Marissa Brightcloud in Callenbach’s Ecotopia), but though we hear of him he never actually features in the narrative. And consider Hammond/Hammersmith: is Morris working a pun there, phonetically asserting the unity of man and nature in his utopia? I’m not sure: maybe, maybe not. Or what about Biffen/Boffin? Why should those two names (Victorian boatyard/utopian dustman) be so curiously akin to each other? Is that phonetic resemblance semantically meaningful for Morris? Perhaps, then, we shall need a third category, beyond the realist/Cratylic binarism, for Morrisian naming in News from Nowhere.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Caroline Lucas in the Coach House

To have Caroline Lucas, Britain’s first Green Party MP, delivering this year’s Kelmscott Lecture in the Coach House was indeed to feel that that venue had been restored to its 1880s/90s purpose as a debating hall for pressing contemporary political concerns. The debate took place not so much in the lecture itself, which was a lively overview of Morris’s manysided aesthetic and political commitments, as in the questions and answers that followed, many of which focused on prospects for Green politics in our own time.

For me, Lucas’s talk was a chance to reflect on my own relation, as a Morrisian, to the Green Party. Having been a member since about 1993, I put in two very intense years of local campaigning for Lancaster Green Party in 1997 and 1998, and accordingly got elected as one of Lancaster’s first-ever Green city councillors in May 1999, standing down at the end of my four-year stint in April 2003 (though the local Party successfully defended what had been my seat). I felt then that in the Green Party one could both be a full-blooded socialist and engage people’s pressing everyday concerns – housing, transport, recycling, anti-social behaviour; but my confidence that I could reconcile those two frameworks there has dwindled since.

In her Kelmscott Lecture Caroline Lucas mentioned the word ‘capitalism’ only once, and that to me is the problem. In the light of global economic crisis since 2008 (and with general strikes taking place in Spain and Portugal as I write), I’ve come to feel that Green politics and socialism are quite different things. The former is an essentially ethical appeal for lifestyle changes in the name of a universal interest - the survival of human life on this planet - while the latter addresses a class interest against a class enemy in the name of the overthrow of the existing economic system. Yes, certainly, there is some overlap here: capitalism is committed to endless growth and thus threatens the environment too. But though Caroline Lucas herself probably is a person of the Left, I have ceased to believe that the UK Green Party as a whole is or can ever be a party of the Left; and that is why, regretfully, I am a member of it no longer.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

I slombred in a slepying

Since undergraduate days I’ve always loved the works of the medieval Gawain-poet (in fact, I owe my marriage to them, but that’s another story), so I am intrigued by one of David Leopold’s footnotes to his edition of News from Nowhere. Noting that old Hammond appears to be William Guest’s grandson, Leopold remarks: ‘In making his authoritative guide a descendant there is perhaps an echo of Pearl (Morris was certainly familiar with medieval dream-poetry)’ (p.195). Well, yes, he clearly knew Piers Plowman with its opening dream-vision in the Malvern hills, though I can’t actually recall any reference to the Gawain-poet's Pearl in Morris's voluminous writings.

However, the beautifully elegiac Pearl does turn up in Jane Morris’s correspondence, for on 15 June 1908 we find her writing to Sydney Cockerell: ‘Thank you so much for the “Pearl”. I like it exceedingly and wonder that I never came across it before’, which the editors learnedly inform us is a reference to Israel Gollancz’s 1891 edition Pearl, an English Poem of the 14th Century with a Modern Rendering (p.412). Whether this remark helps or hinders Leopold’s interesting speculation about the influence of Pearl on News from Nowhere, I can’t say; perhaps it’s just neutral in that respect.

Thursday 8 November 2012

R.I.P. Time Team

We know that Morris valued being educated at Marlborough College mostly for the rich variety of prehistoric monuments in that part of the country, and his utopians early on in News from Nowhere conversationally engage the visitor from the past, William Guest, on his ‘archaeological natural-history side’. So I conclude that Morris (and Guest) might share my sadness in learning that Channel Four is to axe its flagship archaeology programme Time Team, which has been running on our screens since 1994. With Tony Robinson as its hyperactive frontman, and the shaggy-haired Professor Mick Aston in his trademark multicoloured jumper leading a trusty band of eccentric archaeologists, Time Team achieved the unlikely feat of making archaeology into popular television. My eight-year-old son and I watched it enthusiastically from the beginning and it kept us gripped for years, though perhaps becoming a little formulaic eventually.

There was even a certain politics to Time Team. I wouldn’t call it Marxist, but Mick Aston’s historical sympathies were certainly always with the lowly and humble rather than with the aristocrats, and Tony Robinson was at one point a member of the Labour Party’s National Executive. Moreover, there was a latent socialism to the form as well as the content of the programme in the utopian image of cooperative labour it afforded, as this gaggle of learned eccentrics meshed in the course of each episode and the series overall into a dynamic collective entity (such as Ruskin and Morris imagined labour on a medieval cathedral to be). So: Robinson, Aston, Phil Harding and trowel, field archaeologist Carenza Lewis, Victor Ambrus of the beautiful pencil sketches, historian Robin Bush, John Gater the geo-physics man, Stewart Ainsworth the batty theorist, Mick the Dig – all memorable figures of my son’s childhood cultural world – we bid you a sad farewell.

Thursday 1 November 2012

The Jane Morris Letters

The Collected Letters of Jane Morris, edited by Frank Sharp and Jan Marsh, is such a beautifully produced and meticulously edited volume, and gives so vivid a sense of Jane Morris herself across its 570 letters, that it seems churlish to ask for more. And yet it is the book itself that prompts one to do so. For example, I’m glad to learn from the editors that Jane’s handwriting is ‘steady, clear, cursive ... simple and direct, lacking both “copperplate” loops and calligraphic flourishes’, but I also want to see this for myself, to make my own judgements about what qualities of character might be deciphered from such writing, so surely a book as comprehensive as this might have found room for a photographic reproduction of at least one of Jane’s letters.

Jane at moments holds forth to correspondents about her own craft activities – ‘I achieved the design for your book cover’, ‘I am sending you a bit of embroidery I finished for you long ago’ – and I would therefore gladly sacrifice the book’s colour image of Rossetti’s picture of Rosalind Howard or even one of its many Rossetti versions of Jane herself, for an image or two of her craftwork, so that we should see her as a subject rather than object of aesthetics (since transforming her from object to subject, from silence to voice, is the very point of this volume in the first place). I’m intrigued too to learn of ‘two surviving letters’ by Jane’s sister, Elizabeth Burden, and would have liked to have them in a brief Appendix to this collection.

Still, this is indeed a wonderful tome, which leaves us enduringly in its editors’ debt. Its learned footnotes also intrigue by virtue of the number of references they contain to unpublished letters by William Morris himself, which makes one suspect that Norman Kelvin’s great four-volume Collected Letters may not be so definitive after all. Who, I wonder, is going to be bold and assiduous enough to gather all the Morris strays together to complete the project?