Monday 23 December 2013

Dramatising John Ball

I’ve often wondered what kind of plays are being performed in the octagonal theatre that Dick Hammond and William Guest pass as they travel across London in News from Nowhere. What sort of drama is appropriate to utopia, after all? Would figures like Henrik Ibsen (a favourite of the young socialists of the 1880s and 90s) or Samuel Beckett or Bertolt Brecht still be current? What about Morris’s own works, would they survive there? His little agit-prop ‘interlude’ The Tables Turned is perhaps too obvious a choice here, so I like to toy with the idea of a dramatised Dream of John Ball being performed in twenty-second-century utopian Hammersmith. John Ball on the stage is not as odd a notion as it sounds, for we have Morris’s own authority for this idea. In October 1894 he wrote to Chris Healy, who had suggested that he dramatise his medieval romance: ‘I am not of the timber from which playwrights are hewn. Why not have a try at it yourself to see what you can make of it?’. Why, then, has nobody risen to this challenge in the 119 years since Morris made it? Or perhaps they have and I just haven’t heard of it?

Friday 13 December 2013

Wombat Friday: A Critique

You might think that ‘Wombat Friday’, the practice of posting pictures of a cuddly ‘Top the Wombat’ on Facebook or Twitter on Fridays (backed up by wombat Christmas decorations and a new 'wombat trail' at Red House), was harmless enough. Surely it could only be dour Morrisian Communists, humourlessly failing to recognise that the young Pre-Raphaelite of the 1860s was not the grizzled political activist of the 1880s, who could possibly object to so innocent a piece of fun?

However, wombats were an enthusiasm of Rossetti’s not Morris’s. They have nothing whatever to do with Morris, except that Rossetti chose to call his wombat ‘Top’, which was the nickname Morris’s undergraduate friends had come up with for him in their Oxford years. And why did Rossetti choose this particular name for his diminutive furry friend? The answer is obvious enough: as yet another belittling insult to the man whose marriage he was busy wrecking – an insult which belongs with the series of caricatures which includes ‘The M’s at Ems’ or ‘Enter Morris, moored in a punt’, and with the vicious little playlet The Death of Topsy, which has Morris poisoned. If you want a graphic visual image of the nastiness involved in calling the wombat Top, just look at Rossetti’s caricature of ‘Janey and the Wombat’ which, as Fiona MacCarthy herself notes, ‘shows Morris as the wombat’ (p.245). You could hardly imagine a more sexually contemptuous image than that.

So in playing this little game every week, our Pre-Raphaelite friends perpetuate Rossetti’s crude sexual insults to Morris. One of the side effects of Wombat Friday is indeed a political trivialising of Morris; but the major objection to it, for anyone who cares for William Morris and his work, is that it gives new currency to Rossetti’s unpleasant adulterous humour at Morris’s expense. If the Rossettians promote Top the wombat, we’ll just have to shrug our shoulders crossly and put up with it. But that Morrisians, including Red House, should be doing so too – well, they need to think rather harder about what they’re up to.

Friday 22 November 2013

The Assassination of JFK

On the 30th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I was teaching at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, so I was able to announce to my American students (and I hope impress them in the process) that I knew exactly where I was and what I had been doing on the fateful day itself. As a seven-year-old boy I was helping my parents carry family belongings from one side of the road to the other as we moved across from number 65A to number 60, when suddenly a neighbour came running round the corner shouting “President Kennedy has been shot”.

Twenty years further on, and being over here rather than over there, the event itself inevitably feels more distant; and yet the 50th anniversary makes me reflect on how important the Kennedy assassination has been in cultural criticism. For as soon as you reject the Warren Commission’s report into it (one lone gunman firing three shots) you are caught up in the realm of conspiracy theory – which in its turn becomes one of the most important narrative paradigms of the postmodern. For the figuration of conspiracy is, in Fredric Jameson's words, ‘an attempt – “unconscious,” if you follow my loose, figural use of that otherwise individual term – to think a system [i.e. multinational late capitalism] so vast that it cannot be encompassed by the natural and historically developed categories of perception with which human beings normally orient themselves’. Conspiracy films and novels have their built-in limits, but they at least begin the process of mapping the unrepresentable system which is global capital itself.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

50 Years of Morris Studies

I certainly can’t match Peter Faulkner’s peerless erudition as he told the tale at of the 50 years of Morris studies in which he has been involved at Kelmscott House on Saturday. But I did have a feeling that I might want to tell the story in a rather different way. After all, Peter’s starting point, 1963, was also the very year in which my parents, as a young working-class couple with three children, moved from their rented first-floor flat to the new house they had just bought directly across the road, and three or four years later they bought their first car too.

My father was working very long hours to afford this – full days in the Ekco television factory followed by four-hour evening shifts there too – but still, British society was clearly entering a quite new phase of capitalism; and as such consumerism set in, debates about the ‘embourgeoisement’ of the working class were in full swing too. This new economic and cultural phase could not but have a considerable impact on ‘Morris studies’. For Morris himself, art was the explosive ‘outside’ of a philistine capitalist economy; but now – in what would eventually become full postmodernism – art was increasingly part of economic innovation and production. Could Morris still be of use in such a context, and if so, how?

In fact, I think the very phrase ‘Morris studies’ – as if it were an autonomous academic region, with its own laws and temporality – may not be very helpful. What we have, always, are mutations in capitalism and attempts at popular or socialist resistance to this; and the question is then to what extent Morris can be a resource for the latter. We have had another major mutation of capitalism and its ideologies in our own time – everything that the terms ‘globalisation’ and ‘neo-liberalism’ gesture towards – and so the question comes up freshly for us too: how can we make Morris’s thought and art newly useful to us in all this, how can we secure its relevance for the next 50 years?

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Grayson Perry's Reith Lectures

‘We are now in the end-state of art’ claimed Grayson Perry in his lively BBC Reith lectures, which came to a close this morning. But this didn’t stop him from generating and citing an extraordinary number of definitions of art in the course of these four talks. It was, by turns, an ‘asset class’, an ‘inner shed’ or psychological refuge, a ‘perfect R & D department for capitalism’, ‘spirituality in drag’ (Jennifer Yane), a means of ‘expressing one’s universal wound’ (Raymond Tallis), a process of ‘meaning-making’, and so on. It has to be something, at any rate – one or some or all of these things – because what seems to be Perry’s ultimate trauma as artist and thinker on aesthetics is Marcel Duchamp’s scandalous demonstration, with the famous urinal of 1917, that anything at all can be art. Avantgardism as extreme as that Grayson Perry will not accept: for him, there are limits or boundaries marking art from non-art, even if they are ‘softer’ than for traditionalist aesthetics itself.

Perry gave us an entertaining tour of the institutions as well as the definitions of contemporary art, from the high-end curators and museums of his first lecture, through the commercial art market of the second (with a staggering £43 billion pounds sloshing through it last year), to the art colleges of his more autobiographical final talk. So powerful are such institutional forces that they even remake urban space itself: Walthamstow becomes, in his term, ‘Awe-samstow’ as yesterday’s counter-cultural bohemianism becomes today’s gentrification under ‘the dead hand of the developer’. There doesn’t seem much – or anything – that multinational capital cannot incorporate, from the ‘ironic market sell-outs’ (among whom one senses Perry places Damien Hirst) to the ‘worthy activists’ who hoped they could make a difference.

And it was here, I felt, that in the end Grayson Perry’s Reith lectures were lacking. I wanted to hear more about what an activist art might be, about how – in the teeth of all the difficulties he evoked so cogently - one could forge aesthetic forms to effect that ‘cognitive mapping’ that Fredric Jameson used to talk about, or to articulate new ‘structures of feeling’ (to borrow Raymond Williams’s term) that might point in a socially utopian direction. It was heartening to hear of Jeremy Deller’s ‘Battle of Orgreave’ as politically-inspired participation art in the first lecture, but there was too little of this in the successor talks (though there has been more of it in Perry’s own tapestries and TV work). So I felt that, in these lectures at least, our ‘Essex transvestite potter’ was too much of an insider or licensed jester; for as he himself ruefully acknowledged in the last lecture (dressed this time not as Claire but as a Pierrot clown), mocking the pomposities and contradictions of the contemporary art world was like ‘teasing my best friend’.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Place Hacking Hammersmith Creek

As I walk to and from Lancaster University, I pass an interpretation board which celebrates the recent de-culverting of Burrow Beck in Hala Square. It took three months of work to remove the twenty-year-old, fifty-four meter-long culvert, and the newly revealed brook should reduce the risk of flooding, improve water quality and fish migration, and reconnect the local community to the river. Local schoolchildren were involved in designing the logo for the interpretation board itself, and I have indeed spotted pied and yellow wagtails perching on stones in the newly opened Beck (though I have yet to see the roach and brown trout we've been promised). So this would seem to be an entirely positive local environmental development.

We won’t any time soon be de-culverting the Hammersmith Creek beside Kelmscott House in London (though this has, of course, been one of the post-revolutionary tasks cheerfully undertaken in News from Nowhere), so we may have to adopt another approach in this case. The notion of place hacking, defined as ‘recreational trespass in the built environment’, has gained a lot of traction recently through the publication of Bradley L. Garrett’s Explore Everything: Place Hacking in the City (Verso). Garrett seems to be as at home in underground tunnels or disused military installations as he is on the counterweight of a crane 400 feet above the ground.

So in the spirit of place hacking a particularly hardy group of Morris Society volunteers, equipped with hard hats, wellies and powerful torches, might boldly venture up the Hammersmith Creek culvert at low tide, digitally recording everything as they go – a record which could then be played to visitors to the Coach House. In this way, we will at least keep interest alive in a waterway which may one day rejoin other lost London rivers (Counters Creek, River Fleet, the Tyburn, the Walbrook, and so on) in coming above ground again.

Thursday 3 October 2013

A Modern Utopia: Wells and Morris

It’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts about the Wells-Morris conference at Kelmscott House on Saturday 14 September, not least because of the extraordinary pace at which the day proceeded, with a long series of 18-minute papers jammed back to back with only minimal breaks. That was certainly testimony to the interest the event aroused among potential speakers, but it was also quite a test of the participants’ stamina, especially if (like me) you’d had to be on a train at the crack of dawn to be there in the first place.

Some lively scene-setting by Ruth Levitas and Mike Sherbourne reminded us of Wells’s attendance at Coach House socialist lectures, and we subsequently heard many fine papers, of which Patrick Parrinder’s meditation on ‘Do Utopias Need to be Modern?’ and Rhys Williams’s ‘Moreau’s Eewtopia’ (comparing Wells’s island to Thomas More’s) were particular highlights. Wells and Morris proved an admirable combination, and not just for biographical reasons: a focus on Wells pulls Morrisian-utopian concerns into the twentieth century and forces them into a fruitful confrontation with issues of science, technology and (in terms of literary genre) science fiction, while Morris’s communism sharpens up Wells’s own more diffuse political focus.

Ruth Levitas evoked Hammersmith as a ‘fulcrum of utopian thinking’, and a more formalised Wells-Morris pairing might be a way of furthering that admirable goal. The H.G. Wells Society is a peripatetic grouping that does not have an established base or venue; the Morris Society has the Coach House which is arguably under-used for academic and political work. So if the two societies combined forces in order to take the upstairs Coach House flat back into Morris Society usage, could not the expanded venue then become a ‘Morris-Wells Utopias Centre’ which would celebrate the lives and thought of two of our most important British utopian writers?

Thursday 19 September 2013

Return to Nowhere

If Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward has had over 150 sequels or other fictional responses, then it is high time News from Nowhere had a few sequels as well; and George Duncan has made a spirited effort in this direction in his Return to Nowhere, serialised in recent issues of the USA Morris Society Newsletter. A Canadian carpenter attends a lively book group meeting at which Morris’s utopia is discussed, and he wakes up the next morning in Nowhere itself, but twenty years after William Guest’s own visit there. So Ellen is now forty rather than twenty as in Morris’s text, old Hammond is dead, Dick and Clara have broken up again, and so on.

For my taste, there is rather too much focus on the previous William Guest visit, which takes time and energy away from exploring the new social and personal realities of this updated Nowhere. Certain significant cultural and political developments have indeed taken place: a group of ‘refusers’ lives off the new society without contributing anything to it in terms of work (the exact opposite of Morris’s Obstinate Refusers, who can’t stop working), and they arouse considerable resentment from other Nowherians; tokens are being used as a kind of currency as a result of certain undefined local problems; and a religious revival of sorts seems to be underway, initiated by old Hammond himself. These would all be interesting avenues to explore, though they remain undeveloped both politically and narratively: is a new exploitative leisure class really beginning to emerge, does Nowherian economics not work after all, is the return of religion a good or a bad thing, how do these three cultural developments relate to each other, and might they ultimately add up to a dangerous challenge to Nowhere’s communism? Such questions are raised, but not gone into.

In the case of the new personal developments, too, Duncan’s sequel seems to go half-way and no further. Ellen has taken over from old Hammond as custodian at the British Museum, which in my view makes her too much of a clone of the old man himself and ignores the wider political role which such a charismatic figure might play in her society She has had a child by Dick Hammond, but we see very little of this daughter Claire and thus do not really get a sense of what a new generation of Nowherians is making of socialism’s current problems and ultimate future. The narrator and Ellen head upriver together and get as far as her cottage at Runnymede, where the sequel ends; and this really does leave us frustratedly betwixt and between. The sacred spaces for Morris, the crucial locales where Nowhere’s future will surely be decided, are London and Kelmscott; and Runnymede is neither one nor t’other.

So while I admire the wit and energy with which George Duncan has composed his brief follow-up to Morris’s text, I feel that the political pressure behind this sequel is in the end too low, that having brilliantly fast-forwarded Nowhere by twenty years, it doesn’t then quite know what cultural and political questions to ask of this new reality. Still, Duncan has very welcomely broken the ice for us, and we can now hope that this pioneering News from Nowhere sequel will lead to many more.

Monday 9 September 2013

William Morris's Servants

My former Creative Writing colleague Jo Baker has just published a novel entitled Longbourn, which is described on its front cover as ‘Pride and Prejudice: The Servants’ Story’. Here are a few early sentences from it: ‘The air was sharp at four thirty in the morning, when she started work. The iron pump-handle was cold, and even with her mitts on, her chilblains flared as she heaved the water up from the underground dark and into her waiting pail. A long day had to be got through, and this was just the start of it’. If the Victorian novel famously gave us the experience of the governess, marooned uncomfortably between the upper-class family she serves and the servants below stairs doing the actual manual labour that keeps the house going, Jo Baker’s novel plunges us instead directly and brutally into that world of lower-class work.

Similar projects of recovery of lost social experience have been undertaken in the world of scholarship too, as with Alison Light’s weighty 2007 tome Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service. So it is high time someone undertook such a study – creative or scholarly – in relation to the Morris family. We have had occasional remarks pointing in that direction, as when Michael Wilding remarked of Morris in 1980 that ‘his was a vision that depended on having had servants’; but the detailed spadework of recovery and recreation has not yet been done. Some of the Morris servants across the decades achieve a limited picturesque individuality in the best biographies – Mary Nicholson of Red Lion Square pre-eminently, but also old Philip Comely, the gardener-handyman at Kelmscott House who tugs his forelock deferentially at every available opportunity. But we don’t, I think, yet know very much about the cook, housemaid and coachman-groom at Red House, or cook Annie, housemaid Elsa and parlour maid Elizabeth at Kelmscott House. For the tenacious feminist Victorian researcher, there may well be rich pickings to be had here.

Sunday 1 September 2013

Bombing Syria, Finding a Voice

In his lively but flawed biography of Raymond Williams, Fred Inglis writes of the Thatcherite 1980s: ‘it mattered like mad that there were still a few people capable of a calm courage when a country’s best values were down and out, and defeat so familiar an experience. As long as Raymond Williams and Edward Thompson were still there, still speaking and writing in the splendid rhythms and time-honoured litany of the Labour movement, of common hopes and purposes, of the visible and monstrous injustice and indifference, the cruelty and wrong so apparent in all that mere power and ruling class did, then we could keep up a good heart’. Personally, I would want to add cultural theorist Stuart Hall to that list of two, since he was certainly one of the Left’s best orators in those dark years.

We have some very effective radical voices speaking out today against the continuing neo-liberal assault on working people – David Harvey, Owen Jones, Caroline Lucas and Slavoj Žižek among them, though I think that none of these has quite the gravitas of Raymond Williams himself. But I have a dream (if I may borrow a currently topical phrase) that the William Morris Society might join this roster, that at moments of national cultural and political crisis – from the London riots of August 2011 through Thursday’s Parliamentary debate on bombing Syria without United Nations authorisation to whatever comes our way next – it might find both the political will and the appropriate internal mechanisms of consultation to make public statements from a Morrisian viewpoint, with the weight and authority of Morris’s unique brand of communism behind it – ‘Socialism seen through the eyes of an artist’, as he once memorably phrased it. And if the current Morris Society were to prove incapable of doing this, then we would need an alternative Morris network that can.

Friday 23 August 2013

Ceremonies of Ecology

A few posts back I wrote about my son’s D.Phil. graduation ceremony at Oxford University, and I’ve found myself since then reflecting on the term ‘ceremony’ itself. It has some very memorable (albeit right-wing) poetic manifestations in the work of W.B. Yeats, in poems like ‘The Second Coming’ – ‘everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned’ – and ‘Prayer for my Daughter’: ‘How but in custom and in ceremony/Are innocence and beauty born?’. But it crops up significantly in Morris criticism too, as when J.M.S. Tompkins remarks of the Germanic romances that ‘Morris enjoyed devising ceremonies ... Morris enjoys to the full the devising of ritual and ceremony’ (pp.300, 310).

The Morrisian literary ceremony that I most enjoy is the brothership ritual that crops up in both Sigurd the Volsung and The Story of the Glittering Plain. It appears in the latter as follows: ‘the Erne had already made the earth-yoke ready. To wit, he had loosened a strip of turf all save the two ends, and had propped it up with two ancient dwarf-wrought spears, so that amidmost there was a lintel to go under ... they went under the earth-yoke one after the other; thereafter they stood together, and each let blood in his arm, so that the blood of all three mingled together fell down on the grass of the ancient earth’ (ch.XXII).

It is the ecological rather than military-machismo dimensions of this ritual which are most likely to move us today, that sense here of forging in the most practical way an intense identity between humanity and earth. So I wonder whether we might not turf over some of the Coach House garden at Kelmscott House to make Morris Society ‘earth-yoke’ initiation ceremonies possible there too.

Monday 12 August 2013

Art Everywhere: A Morrisian Critique

Today the United Kingdom turns into one giant art gallery, with 57 famous art-works from Nicholas Hilliard’s portrait of Elizabeth I to Peter Blake’s Pop Art cover for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album and beyond, appearing on poster and billboard sites up and down the country for the next two weeks. Pre-Raphaelite enthusiasts will be glad that Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts, Millais’s Ophelia, Madox Brown’s The Last of England and Waterhouse’s Lady of Shallott are represented here. Those of us with twentieth-century aesthetic interests will be pleased to see a good deal of modernism and postmodernism, and even a sprinkling of political art too (Bob and Roberta Smith’s 1997 Make Art Not War).

It will, I agree, be pleasant to have commercial advertising imagery driven off these public sites for the next fortnight, but does this really constitute ‘bringing art to the masses’, as The Guardian newspaper calls it? Depends what you mean by art, of course; and the great, radical insight of William Morris’s work is given in his insistence that ‘first I must ask you to extend the word art beyond those matters which are consciously works of art’ (1883). Art for Morris is first and foremost pleasure, creativity and self-direction in the labour process, in the world of everyday work; and art in the conventional sense – works by Hilliard, Millais and Peter Blake – are only spin-offs from this wider social creativity, ‘superstructure’ to its formative ‘base’, to borrow that old Marxist distinction.

In a culture in which, as we have been learning recently, companies such as McDonalds, Sports Direct, Wetherspoons, Boots, Amazon and many others have up to a million workers being ruthlessly exploited by zero-hour contracts, there clearly is precious little creativity, happiness and self-direction in the world of UK work at the moment. ‘Art Everywhere’ is certainly a good Morrisian slogan, but, as he makes clear in his 1884 talk ‘At a Picture Show’, unless you take the demand for art (in the expanded sense) into the world of work – which immediately takes you to socialist and communist politics – you are just pussy-footing round the real issue here in a mild, liberal-philanthropic sort of way.

Friday 9 August 2013

Odin's Sword, or the Enigma of the Gift

In a 1942 anthology for schools called The Narrative Art in Verse, we find Morris represented by two pages excerpted from early in Sigurd the Volsung and entitled ‘Odin’s Sword’. The one-eyed Norse god strides into the Volsung hall, buries his sword deep into the Branstock tree in the middle of the hall, and challenges the warriors to draw it out if they can. The passage concludes: ‘For they knew that the gift was Odin’s, a sword for the world to praise’. Is this a well-chosen snippet from Morris’s great epic or not?

Well, yes; but perhaps not for the reasons the editor, N.L. Clay, has in mind. In The Water of the Wondrous Isles one of the minor characters cries: ‘The Gift? ... what meaneth that?’; and the Odin’s sword episode suggests some answers to this question. The gift here is also a test, clearly; many warriors try and fail to pull it from the tree before Sigmund finally succeeds in doing so. But such a gift is also a curse (quite as much as Andvari’s Ring, the more ‘official’ curse in this text). For the Goth king Siggeir is so humiliated by his failure to draw the sword from the tree and so envious of it that just a couple of months later he unleashes the terrible vengeance that almost destroys the Volsungs entirely.

So a gift is a test is a curse. A rich complex of ideas is tangled together here, and the question this passage then begs is: is it always so in Morris, are gifts always ambivalent in this way, as destructive as they are honorific? My schools anthology excerpt may indeed ‘tell a story in verse, with manly sentiment’, in the editor’s words, but it also raises some searching questions about gift-giving across Morris’s oeuvre.

Thursday 1 August 2013

Lucia Joyce and Margaret Morris

James Joyce’s daughter Lucia had aspirations to be an avantgarde dancer before the mental health problems which so devastated her life set in (she spent her last 31 years in an asylum in Northampton). In pursuit of this goal, she took dance lessons in Paris from late 1925 onwards with Margaret Morris. ‘Lucia could not have found a better teacher’, her biographer Carol Loeb Shloss writes, and continues: ‘In her native England, Morris based her work in a studio and a club in Chelsea ... As the granddaughter of William Morris, she had a high visibility in the arts’ (p.125). Hold your horses, one interjects at this point: William Morris didn’t have any granddaughters, or grandsons for that matter – both of his own daughters having remained childless.

So what is going on here? Is this is a simple scholarly error in a book that is otherwise careful and accurate? Could Margaret Morris herself have floated the notion of being Morris’s granddaughter as a way of attaining visibility in English and French artistic circles? Was she perhaps actually a grand-niece of Morris, second-generation offspring of one of those copious Morris siblings whose family trees my friend Dorothy Coles was assiduously researching? In which case, there would be some genuine family connection, which has then got inaccurately blurred to being a granddaughter, which is palpably wrong. Someone with more time on their hands than I have might do a little digging here.

Sunday 28 July 2013

Summer Thoughts in the Sheldonian

Sitting in Oxford University’s august Sheldonian Theatre on a hot summer’s afternoon for my son’s splendid D.Phil. degree ceremony, I was of course aware of Morris having spoken there on 15 November 1879 as part of the SPAB campaign against the restoration of St Mark’s in Venice. As the ceremony proceeded, however, I was also aware of the sound of drilling and hammering wafting in from the upper-floor open windows, which at first I took (in the spirit of News from Nowhere chapter VII) to be a road-mending gang outside in Broad Street, but in fact, as I realised later, was workmen revamping the New Bodleian Building opposite. So perhaps the more apt literary reference for the occasion was Jude the Obscure, which my MA supervisor John Goode once described to me as a novel about an Oxford workman repairing the very college walls and architecture which kept him excluded in the first place.

Vice Chancellor Andrew Hamilton (who incongruously appeared with a sticking plaster down his nose) told us in a trenchant opening address that we were to have a ‘solemn ceremony’, and with all the organ music, mutual doffing of mortarboards and Latin speeches, we certainly got that. He justified such heavyduty ritualism in Matthew Arnold-style terms, as being appropriate to the university’s 900-year dedication to pursuing the ‘best that has been known and thought’. Well maybe; but I couldn’t help feeling that it had as much or more to do with that other absolutely crucial social function of Oxford University, that of consolidating English ruling-class culture and values, of ideologically cementing that public school-Oxbridge circuit of privilege and entitlement which gives us, say, Boris Johnson, George Osborne and David Cameron today.

So the Morris we needed to remember in the Sheldonian was not after all the SPAB activist of 1879, but rather the revolutionary socialist who spoke just down the road at University College in 1883 or in the Holywell Music Room in 1885, and whose Oxford branch of the Socialist League did indeed try to break down the divide between undergraduates and workers, to let the drillers into the Sheldonian as it were. For if Oxford is a place where ruling-class cohesion is forged, it is also, by the same token, a place where it can be challenged; and the William Morris Society should certainly establish an intellectual and political presence there and rouse young minds to idealism and justice. Morris’s own ‘Oxford campaign’ between 1879 and 1895 sets an interventionist standard and challenge we have yet to match.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Why I Must Read Alain Badiou

Have just watched an excellent little online video in which Peter Hallward of Kingston University discusses Alan Badiou’s book on ethics (Verso, 2001) in the middle of London’s Housmans Bookshop: see Hallward lucidly summarises what he calls the negative and positive side of Badiou’s book, and it was the latter that suddenly made my Morrisian ears prick up.

Ethics for Badiou in this positive sense, according to Hallward, is a matter of ‘giving the participants, the militants of these [emancipatory] causes ... the resources that they need to continue in their projects when they become difficult, when they are vulnerable to despair or exhaustion or doubt, and ethics is about trying to meet that challenge and to find the resources ... to persist’. Hallward’s evocation of the activist’s crisis of morale recalls John Ball’s confession of his crisis of motivation in Canterbury prison in A Dream of John Ball or Old Hammond’s evocation in News from Nowhere of the doubts that afflicted late-Victorian socialists (‘shrunk from what seemed to them the barren task’); and we could certainly find such moments of political discouragement in Morris’s own personal letters too. So if Badiou can offer us an ethics of hope for such bad times, then I feel I had definitely better buy and read his book.

Sunday 7 July 2013

Peter Faulkner at 80

As we celebrate Peter Faulkner’s 80th birthday and his long and admirable contributions to Morris studies and the Morris Society, I recall a festive gathering which Samuel Beckett’s friends organised for him in New York in 1965. As his first biographer Deirdre Bair informs us, ‘Jean Reavey planned a special dinner to include all the foods mentioned in his writing, ending with a grand finale of Banane à la Krapp’ (p.485). Could we then devise the Morrisian equivalent of such a literary banquet for Peter’s birthday event?

The centrepiece of our feast would surely be roasted dragon’s heart, but other meats would be available too: good foison of venison, salt pork, elk and even, albeit unseasonally, the Holy Boar of Yule (though the vegetarians among us will be happy to see girls arriving with baskets of early peas). The fish course might include a leash of fine perch, fat and red-flecked trouts cooked outdoors on a fire of sticks, and Icelandic char. There would surely be cabbage-leaves full of strawberries, and plenty of cherries, pears, apricots and wood-berries. Also curds and new cheese (meat of the herdsmen) and syllabub fresh from the farm dairy. Many different breads would be on the table: dark-coloured farmhouse loaves, rye bread, thin pipe-stems of wheaten crust, bread made of sweet-chestnuts.

All this would be washed down with ginger-beer and lemonade for the youngsters, and for the adults plenty of Steinberg wine, good Kentish mead, Grimhild’s thick murky concoctions and, naturally, some deep invigorating draughts from the Well at the World’s End (for how else can one wash eight decades away?). And as a final, non-Beckettian touch we should have Sigurd and Gunnar playing on the harp in the background throughout. Happy birthday, Peter.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Spirit of 45 - which 45?

Among the sailors returning victorious from the fight against Fascism in 1945 in the opening scenes of Ken Loach’s documentary film Spirit of 45 would somewhere have been my Uncle Harry and Uncle Jack, each of whom had done years of service in the navy during World War Two. And I imagine that both of my young Uncles-to-be were as keen on a Labour electoral victory, as determined that this country would not go back to the slums and unemployment of the 1930s, as all the other returning servicemen and women in Loach’s film. There was much rousing celebration in this wonderful documentary of Labour’s post-war achievements – the creation of the National Health Service, nationalisation of mines and railways, the building of council houses and new towns – but there were, importantly, some dissenting voices from the Left too. The creation of the National Coal Board actually meant ‘the same old gang back in power’, one ex-miner wryly remarked; ‘we are defending a flawed project’, commented a historian, and Tony Benn offered some astute critical thoughts on top-down reform too.

It was surely one of the greatest prophetic achievements of William Morris’s political imagination to have offered us just such a critique of the Welfare State fifty years before its actual formation, when he pondered in 1893 ‘whether the Society of Inequality might not accept the quasi-socialist machinery above mentioned, and work it for the purpose of upholding that society in a somewhat shorn condition, maybe, but a safe one ... The workers better treated, better organized, helping to govern themselves, but with no more pretence to equality with the rich, nor any more hope for it than they have now’. The achievements of Clement Attlee's 1945 Labour government look all the more precious and poignant, now that so many of them have been destroyed by neo-liberalism from Thatcher onwards; but they were, in Morris’s own term, ‘State socialism’, not socialism proper as he understood it. And we will have to come up with a vision beyond them, a prospective rather than retrospective politics – Spirit of 2045 rather than 1945 – if we are ever to turn that neo-liberal tide.

Sunday 16 June 2013

Introducing 'News from Nowhere'

At the end of Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, the journalist-narrator William Weston, who has decided to settle in Ecotopia rather than return to the dystopian United States, declares: ‘I want to try out some different kinds of writing’. I’ve been wanting to do so too for some time now, which is why my Introduction to News from Nowhere for Florence Boos’s Morris Online Edition takes the form of a catechism between ‘TP’ and an imagined reader of Morris’s utopia (see This is, I believe, the first introduction to the book that has been written in that form, though the long dialogue between old Hammond and William Guest within the text constitutes a kind of precedent here (particularly chapter XI).

I’ve always admired a formulation of Frederic Jameson’s in his discussion of Adorno and Benjamin in Late Marxism, where he evokes ‘the possibility of forms of writing and Darstellung [presentation] that unexpectedly free you from the taboos and constraints of forms learnt by rote and assumed to be inscribed in the nature of things ... the possibility of another kind of writing – which is eventually to say: another kind of thinking’ (p.52). So it is that my year of tweeting and six years of blogging on and around Morris, my catechistic Introduction to his utopia, and above all my idea for News from Nowhere Two, a sequel using Morris’s characters to explore twenty-first-century political dilemmas – all these constitute plans for new kinds of writing or Darstellung. Whether they amount to new thinking too is a judgement for you, dear reader, to make for yourself.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Roman Abramovich Goes for a Swim

The Morris community is understandably excited by Jeremy Deller’s wall painting at this year’s Venice Biennale of a giant William Morris rising from the sea like Neptune and hurling Roman Abramovich’s yacht down to a watery doom. It’s a grand ebullient image certainly, with all the immediate, one-dimensional vigour of Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art comicbook paintings of the 1970s (like ‘Whaam’, for instance, which shows a fighter plane firing its missiles). How enjoyable to see Abramovich getting his comeuppance - a whole series of sacked Chelsea football managers might feel this too - and how invigorating to see Morris turned into an iconic superhero, brusquely meting out justice to the super-rich. We turn from this witty, exuberant image with a rosy glow in our hearts on both counts.

How different Deller’s wall painting is from David Mabb’s exhibition ‘Regime Change Begins at Home’ at the William Morris Gallery, where political slogans past and present are framed within Morris floral fabric designs. Each individual work here is modest and low-key compared to Deller’s enormous wall painting, but Mabb, we might say, is a classical modernist as political artist, in contrast to Deller’s depthless postmodernism. That is to say, Mabb’s Morris-based work has constantly operated by the principle of Eisensteinian montage, clashing discordant realities violently together to generate an effort of thought on the observer’s part which may result in a third term or new concept which goes beyond both of the original images. If I had to choose, I would plump for Mabb’s abstemious, thought-provoking political aesthetic over Deller’s one-dimensional sensuous exuberance; but perhaps we can clash these two opposites together too, and tentatively imagine a future political art which would combine the strengths of both.

Friday 7 June 2013

James Joyce reads William Morris

In Stephen Hero, the draft version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce tells us that Stephen was ‘captivated by the seeming eccentricities of the prose of Freeman and William Morris. He read them as one would read a thesaurus and made a garner of words’. It has usually been assumed that it is Morris’s late romances which are being referred to here; and one is certainly reminded of the decorously chivalric style of those works in reading, say, the more parodic elements of the ‘Cyclops’ chapter in Ulysses.

But if we were to follow up the Stephen Hero Morris reference, we might want to cover more than the late romances. Take these lines from ‘A Painful Case’ in Dubliners: ‘he had assisted at the meetings of an Irish Socialist Party where he had felt himself a unique figure amidst a score of sober workmen in a garret lit by an inefficient oil-lamp. When the party had divided into three sections, each under its own leader and in its own garret, he had discontinued his attendances’. It is hard not to believe that Joyce - himself a socialist in the early years of the twentieth century - has just come away from reading the first page of News from Nowhere, with its dysfunctional Socialist League meeting at which socialists are divided against anarchists; and that he has carried the fissiparous political tendencies at work there even further in his own story.

The hero of Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses is, like Morris himself, a man who painfully tolerates his wife’s adultery, even if it’s a far cry from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Blazes Boylan; and as parents both Joyce and Morris had to cope with daughters who had life-changing illnesses (Lucia’s schizophrenia, Jenny’s epilepsy). I suspect the Morris-Joyce literary relationship is capable of much further development, and the mention of Morris in Stephen Hero is thus a signpost announcing ‘dig here!’.

Friday 24 May 2013

Campaigning at Oxford

In my address to last year’s Morris Society AGM held in Mansfield College, Oxford, I suggested that the Society should consider setting up a utopian studies subgroup based at Oxford University. A few years before that, in William Morris at Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-95 I argued that Morris’s nine talks and lectures at Oxford over that sixteen-year period constituted a systematic campaign to win both city and university to his architectural and political values. So if we want the Morris Society today to become a campaigning as well as scholarly organisation, then Morris’s old university is certainly one possible starting point for this.

Just the other day, for instance, Oxford University opened a new lab in its Earth Sciences department funded by nearly six million pounds from the oil company Shell. This funding, over a five year period, will include research into ‘unconventional hydrocarbons’, including fracking, which is currently proving so controversial in my own county, Lancashire. Green campaigners argue that accepting massive funding from Shell will undermine Oxford’s credibility and work against its own research into global warming. The student group People and Planet claims that government cuts to research funding are ‘pushing our best universities into bed with the world’s worst companies’. The Shell-Oxford linkage is certainly an egregious example of that, and no-one in his own time better understood the link between capitalism and environmental despoliation than Morris.

So I suggest that the Morris Society – including its American and Canadian sister organisations – intervene in the anti-Shell campaign at Oxford, as a practical way of making our most important English communist thinker and utopian writer more relevant and better known at his own university. There are idealistic young minds to be won over here, a green-socialist future to be fought for.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Reading Morris at School

On last night’s ‘Archive on 4’ programme on BBC Radio Four, we heard former Conservative MP Jill Knight (b.1923) recalling her schooldays at the King Edward Grammar School for Girls in Birmingham: ‘The English mistress was a keen Fabian and she gave us to study a book called News from Nowhere ... by William Morris. He describes how England will be when the golden age of Socialism has dawned. I read this book and I thought I had never read such utter rubbish in all my life, so I started writing essays and each week I fairly tore it to pieces. So my marks started to get lower and lower, and I thought, well, it’s not my English that’s at fault, it’s my opinion, and I’m not going to change my opinion, and at the end of term I came bottom of English instead of top. I didn’t know anything about these Socialist people or the Conservative people or what, but I decided I was on the other side. Been on the other side ever since’. So Morris’s marvellous utopia clearly doesn’t always have the benign political consequences that we tend to assume it does!

Tuesday 14 May 2013

How to Corrupt Utopia

Our brightest young commentators on News from Nowhere have tended to see William Guest as a disruptive force in the Epoch of Rest he visits. Matthew Beaumont argues that Guest ‘unsettles the tranquillity of utopia’, and Marcus Waithe uses an even stronger verb, maintaining that ‘Guest seems at times in danger of contaminating Nowhere’. Traditionalist readers of Morris tend to be dismissive of such views, believing: 1. that Guest’s relation to Nowhere is entirely benign; and 2. that anyone who thinks otherwise has him or herself been ‘contaminated’ by modern literary theory into perverse excesses of interpretive ingenuity.

However, if we delve back into the history of utopia, we shall find that some of its founding fathers have shared these Beaumont-Waithe suspicions of the visitor to utopia. Take Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627). Its utopian lawgiver, Salamona, ‘amongst his other fundamental laws of this kingdom ... did ordain the interdicts and prohibitions which we have touching entrance of strangers ... doubting novelties and commixture of manners’. So Salamona certainly fears that guests may unsettle or contaminate his utopia, although whether Bacon’s fifty-one visiting mariners actually have this effect upon the various Bensalemites they meet, we cannot tell, since New Atlantis remains only a brief fragment. Just as Terry Eagleton has argued that literary theory is actually more traditional than its traditionalist opponents (because it goes back to the founding concerns of ancient rhetoric), so today’s theory-inspired young readers of News from Nowhere go back, whether they realise it or not, to the concerns of the earliest utopias we have.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

How Poems End

I’ve just got back home from a poetry reading by Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon at which I did my best to attend to his own verses as he declaimed them in the spirit of his 2006 book The End of the Poem, a volume which (in one of the meanings of its title) might be seen as belonging in a very particular lineage of literary criticism. I.A. Richards kicked it off many years ago with his witty essay entitled ‘How Does A Poem Know When It Is Finished?’ and Barbara Herrnstein Smith followed up in 1968 with her Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End. How – these various works ask - does a poem convince us that it has ended in some substantive and satisfying way, pulling the diverse threads of theme and imagery back together so that (to borrow Coleridge’s image for the organically closed text) the snake ends up with its tail in its mouth.

The genre of poetic elegy traditionally ends with a moment of apotheosis, as when Milton’s Lycidas is converted into the ‘Genius of the shore’ at the conclusion of that poem. Shakespearean sonnets achieve closure by the semantic snapping shut of the final couplet after the three quatrains that precede it. The Romantic ode returns at the close to its opening landscape imagery, but at a higher level, transformed and deepened by the inward meditation that constitutes the middle part of such poems. Victorian poet Matthew Arnold plays many resonant concluding variations on his pervasive river and sea imagery, as with the ‘unplumb’d salt estranging sea’ which so memorably ends ‘To Marguerite’. Modernist poems that finish with an indeterminate Eliotic ‘whimper’ rather than a bang still negatively depend upon the conventional modes of closure which they transgress. Within the literary criticism devoted to Morris’s verse I don’t recall any systematic attention to how his poems end, but as the Richards, Herrnstein Smith and Muldoon studies all suggest, we would certainly benefit from such work.

Sunday 28 April 2013

A Factory As It Is: Dhaka, Bangladesh

Should the William Morris Society not have something to say, publicly and collectively, about the collapse of that 8-storey building housing garment factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in which at least 350 people have been killed? Well, yes, in my view it most certainly should. First, because Morris himself wrote a series of articles for Justice in 1884 on ‘A Factory As It Might Be’, and the utopian projections there imply an angry concern for the actual state of factories under capitalism in his own present. Second, because – in the light of his analysis of the ‘world market’ in News from Nowhere and elsewhere – he would very readily have understood the threats to Third World workers’ lives (makeshift buildings in this case) posed by the First World’s current insatiable appetite for cheap goods.

But will any of the Morris websites (other than this one), official or unofficial, say anything at all about the ghastly tragedy we have just witnessed in Dhaka? I doubt it. In late nineteenth-century debates about whether English Literature was or was not a proper subject for university study its opponents argued that it could not possibly be a rigorous discipline because it amounted to nothing more than ‘chatter about Shelley’. And it seems to me that rather too much of what both the Morris Society itself and other Morris websites offer us is, analogously and disappointingly, just ‘chatter about the Pre-Raphaelites’.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

On the Day of Margaret Thatcher's Funeral

Can’t watch any television or listen to radio today because of the obsequious wall-to-wall coverage of that nauseating public charade down in St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s taken some time for my feelings to settle down a bit in the wake of Thatcher’s death (if indeed they have). She certainly affected my life: her attacks on the universities after she first came to power in 1979 meant there were no jobs in that sector as I emerged from postgraduate study, so I headed off to Japan for a few years to escape unemployment here. That hardly compares, I readily acknowledge, to her brutal impact on British shipbuilders or steel workers or, above all, on our mining communities, which she was vindictively determined to destroy in retaliation for their role in bringing down Ted Heath’s government.

So I shall have a quiet stroll into town and buy a copy of the Communist Party daily newspaper The Morning Star from W.H. Smiths and the bi-monthly radical magazine Red Pepper from our local wholefood store Single Step. Important to keep the print organs of the Left in reasonable working order, as Morris himself knew in investing so much time, effort and money in first Justice and then Commonweal. Here are the voices arguing for a decent, just, caring, neighbourly society, against the rapacious, violent, grotesquely unequal, growth-obsessed England that Thatcher inaugurated for us as she attacked the post-war Welfare State consensus in the 1980s. Back to Victorian values indeed: Carlyle, Ruskin, Dickens and Morris would all have recognised a world in which a failed banker today retires on a pension of £580,000 a year - the sheer unthinkable greed of these people! - while disabled benefit claimants are subject to the new ‘bedroom tax’. Margaret Thatcher herself is (after today) no longer very important, but the long neo-liberal counter-revolution alas continues.

Sunday 14 April 2013

Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead

On the day the BBC caves in to Tory pressure and refuses to play in full the Wizard of Oz song which the anti-Margaret Thatcher campaign has managed to get into the download charts this week, we might just pause and quietly reflect that rather a lot of witches die in the late romances of William Morris.

The Witch-Wife of Evilshaw who kidnaps Birdalone in The Water of the Wondrous Isles dies alone and unmourned in her lakeside cottage, and her no less wicked sister is crushed when her house falls down after her defeat by the questing knights on the Isle of Increase Unsought. The dangerous Mistress of The Wood beyond the World kills herself in despair after having (as she believes) murdered Golden Walter, and that deeply ambivalent figure the Lady of Abundance in The Well at the World’s End, gorgeous nature-goddess to some but malevolent witch to many others, is killed by the Knight of the Sun after Ralph slopes carelessly off from the Chamber of Love for a little early-morning bathing.

The Morrisian quest hero seems to face an archetypal Victorian sexual choice: Mistress or Maiden for Walter, Lady of Abundance or Ursula for Ralph, i.e., the dark, dangerous, sexually experienced (even voracious) woman on the one hand, or the demure, fair, inexperienced middle-class virgin on the other: in short, madonna or whore, that tired old dualism. But Morris’s texts deviously manage to have their cake and eat it. You get to sleep with the wickedly lascivious woman (even if only for a single night, like Ralph) while also, in the end and after many painful adventures, winning the demure virgin as wife too. Nice work if you can get it.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Best Foot Forward: Morris and Beckett

There can’t be many points of literary contact between William Morris and Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, one would think, but one such might be the role of feet (of all things) in the writings of both men. Beckett’s first biographer Deirdre Bair informs us that ‘When Roger Blin asked him who or what Godot stood for, Beckett replied that it suggested itself to him by the slang word for boot in French, godillot, godasse, because feet play such a prominent role in the play. This is the explanation he has given most often’ (p.333). And the opening vignette of Waiting for Godot is, of course, Estragon sitting on the low mound struggling to ease his tormented foot by removing his boot: ‘He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He gives up, exhausted, tries again’.

Feet in Morris’s literary works function rather differently. For one thing, they are female feet rather than male ones, and while you’d run a mile to get away from Estragon’s smelly appendages, you’d run eagerly towards the delectable female feet of Morris’s imaginings. Discussing his archetypal quest-tale, Fiona MacCarthy mentions ‘the apparition of the maiden with her girt-up gown and sandalled feet (the foot has a curious significance for Morris)’ (p.205). And J.M.S. Tompkins rather bluntly elaborates: ‘Morris’s preoccupation with women’s feet is, as I read, an accepted mark of masochism. Certainly, they are kissed too often, all through his imaginative writing, for modern taste’ (p.80).

So there is one somewhat flippant mapping of literary relations between Morris and Beckett. A more serious one – worth an entire essay rather than just a blog post – would be to ask: will they still be playing Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape and Not I in the octagonal Hammersmith theatre in News from Nowhere? What, if anything, might a twenty-second-century socialist utopia make of Beckett’s arguably nihilistic drama?

Monday 1 April 2013

One Socialist Party

Socialist unity was an issue which deeply occupied Morris in the last years of his life. On 9 March 1892 he wrote to John Bruce Glasier, ‘I sometimes have a vision of a real Socialist Party at once united and free’. In early 1893 he tried to put that vision into practice, chairing a Joint Committee of Socialist Bodies (comprising Hammersmith Socialist Society, Fabian Society and Social Democratic Federation members); Morris, Hyndman and Shaw worked on the Committee’s behalf on a joint, but anodyne, Manifesto of English Socialists which was published on 1 May. Morris clearly realised how unsuccessful this particular venture had been, since he confessed in a letter to Emery Walker in October: ‘More and more at any rate I want to see a due Socialist party established’. On 25 October 1894 he wrote to Robert Blatchford’s newspaper The Clarion again urging ‘the necessity of the formation of a definite and united Socialist Party’; and his very last lecture in the Kelmscott Coach House, delivered on 5 January 1896, was entitled ‘One Socialist Party’.

So we in the UK should certainly welcome the ‘Left Unity’ initiative which has emerged in the wake of socialist film-maker Ken Loach’s appeal for a new political party to the left of Labour. Given the ferocity of the Cameron-Clegg Coalition’s attack on the welfare state, and the abject failure of the now neo-liberal Labour Party to offer any serious opposition to it, unity of Left forces in this country could hardly be more timely or necessary; and the current disarray in the Socialist Workers Party means that there may be possibilities of new thought and alignment on the Leninist left too. Left Unity groups are springing into being up and down the country (see their website for details of activity in your own area), and while the difficulties here should certainly not be underestimated, as Morris himself painfully discovered in early 1893, the prospect of a serious new national working-class party is a glittering prize indeed. If I could but see a day of it!

Sunday 24 March 2013

Narrative and Violence

Advances in longevity mean that we’re going to see literary critics and theorists working and writing into their eighties in ways that would once have been unthinkable (F.R. Leavis’s productivity at that age being a rare earlier exception). So though, in our videoconference between Lancaster and Yale the other day, it was sad to see Geoffrey Hartman so afflicted by Parkinson’s disease as he spoke to us, one had to admire the determination with which, none the less, he clearly wants to remain visible and active in intellectual debate. May we be as brave when our time comes!

Hartman began as a critic and theorist of Romanticism, but operates on a broader canvas these days. He left Germany at the age of ten in 1939 as a Kindertransport refugee, and has recently set up a centre for Judaic studies at Yale, so Hartman the Romanticist looks like an interlude in a wider experience of and meditation on the violence of the twentieth century – which includes Stalin and Mao as well as Fascism, Hiroshima and Dresden as well as Nanking. In the quest for a literary form adequate to such horrors, ‘passion-narrative’ was a generic term he wanted to extend beyond its original religious meaning. But that traditional term may not be so neutral after all, since in his next breath Hartman was telling us that the ‘modernist event’ (Hayden White’s phrase) had ‘injured story-telling’ and that ‘older modes of fictional treatment are more resilient than avantgarde artists acknowledge’. So we get rapidly pulled back towards an aesthetics of redemption and reparation – precisely those contemplative values (the work of art as a consolingly harmonious totality, even if its contents are horrible) which the avantgarde felt were contemptibly inadequate to the bloodbath of the Great War in the early twentieth century.

We as Morrisians, if we are not to be just Victorian historicists, need to think hard about issues around political violence too; and I deeply admire Hartman’s attempt to do that (rather than endlessly go on explicating Wordsworth), even if I can’t follow him in his brusque dismissal of modernism and the avantgarde. For we can surely say of Geoffrey Hartman in his early eighties, as of the Chinamen at the end of Yeats’s ‘Lapis Lazuli’, that as he stares on the tragic scene of the twentieth century, his eyes, his ancient glittering eyes, are gay.

Sunday 17 March 2013

Merging with Europe

‘In him the British tradition merged with the European’, writes Jack Lindsay in his Morris biography (p.381); and this is an important emphasis, given how often we hear that Morris’s work is somehow peculiarly or quintessentially ‘English’. Lindsay is talking about social theory here and stressing Morris’s break beyond Raymond Williams’s local ‘culture and society’ tradition (Coleridge-Carlyle-Ruskin) to Marxism in the 1880s. But we should, I think, be looking for evidence of his European intellectual interests earlier than this, and in other fields too.

In August 1869, for example, Morris wrote to Philip Webb from Bad Ems in Germany announcing that he was reading Carlyle’s translation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, and in mid-1871 Jane Morris offered a more extended Goethe commentary, also in a letter to Webb: ‘I have nearly finished “Elective Affinities”. I think with all due respect to Goethe it is a most unsatisfactory book. What! Is nothing real? Must everything that is delightful change and leave nothing behind. I can’t believe it; one begins by liking his characters very much, then they change, and one can no longer look upon them as real people’ (Letters, p.44). A couple of years later, in 1873, ‘she had told Webb that she was reading Goethe’s Conversations with Eckermann’ (Lindsay, p.198). It is surely highly likely that she discussed both these works with her husband too.

‘Close thy Byron, open thy Goethe’, as Carlyle famously admonished his parochial contemporaries; and it certainly appears that the Morris family heeded his advice. So I’m inclined to think that Ellen’s most important river journey in News from Nowhere is not that on the Thames with William Guest, but rather that ‘on the Rhine two years ago’ (ch.XXX), where I imagine she was practising her German and reading Goethe, Heine, Freiligrath and others in the original.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Morris's Favourite Phrases: 2

In an earlier post on this blog I totted up a list of Morris’s recurrent phrases as noted by family members, friends and biographers (17 January 2009). In a comment to that post Linda noted that ‘What is the next job to be?’ was Morris’s ‘refrain’, according to his daughter May (Introductions, vol II, p.400); and since then I’ve come across a few additional ones myself. In her book on Morris’s poetry, J.M.S. Tompkins cites Mackail as saying that Morris ‘used, again and again ... the words of Christ to his disciples: “He that endures to the end shall be saved”’ (p.254); and in his 1975 biography, Jack Lindsay remarks that ‘”We of the middle-class” were words often upon his lips’ (p.133). We should also note that Morris himself knew exactly how irritating recurrent phrases could be, as with the relentless ‘You like that, do you?’ of the Old Grumbler in News from Nowhere.

More recently, I think I’ve spotted yet another Morrisian locution. In her biography Fiona MacCarthy writes that he ‘liked to describe a peach as “pinch-ripe”’ (p.7); and in May Morris’s letters to John Quinn she at one point remarks that after a long and draining day she is ‘what my Father would have called “bed-ripe”’ (26 March 1912). Are these the faint archaeological traces of another favourite Morris formulation, then? Could we even extend its usage, so that the England of 1950 in News from Nowhere is presumably ‘revolution-ripe’, or Birdalone in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, as she quivers with desire, might be described as ‘sex-ripe’? I suspect that the list of Morrisian turns of phrase will continue slowly to grow, though we may have to become more ingenious, or just more lucky, as to how we happen across them.

Saturday 2 March 2013

Morris and his Glasses

A visit to the city of Carlisle has many pleasures: strolling along the banks of the river Eden, admiring the stained glass and the blue ‘starred’ ceiling in the cathedral, spending much more than you’d ever intended in the stunningly good secondhand bookshop in Castle Street, and enjoying the fine architecture of the historic quarter between cathedral and castle. These were all bonuses, however, since my main motive in finally visiting Carlisle today was to pop in to the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery to see the 1875 right-profile pencil drawing of Morris by George Howard, made on one Morris’s sojourns at Castle Howard, near Brampton. Its claim to fame is that it is the only image we have of him which shows him with his spectacles on.

The Howard drawing is surrounded by the Tullie’s Pre-Raphaelite collection, which is a matter of interesting oddments (such as an unfinished version of Rossetti’s Found from 1854 or Arthur Hughes’s tiny ink-on-paper La Belle Dame Sans Merci of 1862) rather than major holdings. But Morris in 1875 was no longer in any straightforward sense a Pre-Raphaelite. He had made the two Iceland trips, reorganised the Firm, was working on Sigurd the Volsung, and would soon become treasurer of the Eastern Question Association and founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. So as I peered close up at the Howard drawing was it fanciful to detect a new, middle-aged determination and steeliness behind those spectacles? Was I responding to what was genuinely in the aesthetic object before me, or projecting what, historically, I know is to come and what, politically, I want to come?

Friday 22 February 2013

Terry Eagleton at 70

As Terry Eagleton celebrates his 70th birthday today, there are certainly no signs of his extraordinary intellectual productivity slowing down at all. This sapient sutler of Marxism remains as polyphiloprogenitive as ever, and since I frequently find myself absorbing new ideas from him which can then be applied to William Morris, I for one am certainly glad of this.

How to Read Literature (a follow-up to his 2007 poetry book) comes out this Spring, closely followed by Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America. Then there’s one in the pipeline on culture replacing religion - or trying to, anyway; and one also hears of new writing projects under way on the politics of the scapegoat and on the idea of hope. There’s Morrisian mileage in that notion of the scapegoat, I should think. Perhaps we could imagine Ellen, immured in her Runnymede cottage in News from Nowhere, as a kind of scapegoat, whose reintegration into the utopian community at the Kelmscott church feast can only be won at the cost of the eventual scapegoating and expulsion from utopia of William Guest himself. Scapegoats of a feather flock together, in that text.

As for a book on hope, well, that sounds like a Morrisian theme in its own right, but after the bloody political history of the twentieth century – the crimes of Nazism, but even more the crimes of Stalin and Mao – the hope available to us is likely to be a much more straitened thing than the socialist hopes of the 1880s. For, as Eagleton puts it in a 2006 essay on ‘Political Beckett’: ‘Like Freud and Adorno, Beckett knew that the sober, bleak-eyed realist serves the cause of human emancipation more faithfully than the bright-eyed utopians’. So: I wish you a happy and in that politically chastened sense hopeful 70th birthday, Terry.

Monday 18 February 2013

What is to be Done?

It was certainly a fine idea of Ruth Levitas’s to convene a Society meeting about Morris’s political lectures, and the twenty or so people who turned up on Saturday to this discussion enjoyed into the bargain a splendid rendition by Rob Hunter of the ‘Death Song’ that Morris wrote for Alfred Linnell, who was killed by police on Bloody Sunday in November 1887. That reminder of the violence that ruling classes are always prepared to unleash when seriously challenged served as a sombre backdrop to Ruth’s 12-page handout of key passages from Morris’s lectures, which ranged from the breathtakingly utopian to the hard-headedly pragmatic – his 1896 insistence that we ‘organize a real definite Socialist party’ being both at once, I suppose.

Without organisation, you don’t make much headway against a still powerful capitalism, as the Occupy movement sadly demonstrated to us. But are there any real signs of an effective Party emerging to the left of Labour in the British political spectrum? I used to feel that the Green Party might be that, but I don’t now believe it has an analysis adequate to the global economic crisis we’ve faced since 2008. The Respect Party successfully got George Galloway returned to Parliament in March 2012 and he is an important, if controversial, voice for the Left. But Respect’s aim is to occupy the space of the Labour Party before it became New Labour under Tony Blair, i.e. to be a social-democratic party aiming to curb or humanise capitalism, whereas what we want (just as Morris did in 1896) is a real party of the socialist Left aiming to replace it.

The two successor organisations to the original British Communist Party don’t seem to be making much headway, though it is certainly my own personal hope that communism is now a political term we could start using again. On the Trotsykist Left, the Socialist Workers Party is in crisis, as internal difficulties over its handling of a rape allegation have spiralled into a general challenge to its version of Lenin’s ‘democratic centralism’; let’s hope that the wider membership can overcome the sclerotic Central Committee on this issue and renew the SWP’s energies. As for the independent or libertarian Left, it looks longingly at the Syriza coalition in Greece as a possible model for a new start (see Hilary Wainright’s article in Red Pepper). So our Morrisian utopian values, now as in 1896, lack a plausible political embodiment, though we can be sure that the capitalist ‘age of austerity’ will generate new forms of class consciousness that will eventually find a vehicle of their own.

Saturday 2 February 2013

Harold Bloom's Last Poems

In his days as an important literary theorist in the 1970s, Yale critic Harold Bloom showed no discernable interest in William Morris. In that decade he elaborated a complex psychoanalytical account of the ‘anxiety of influence’ between poets in the Romantic tradition. If you were thinking through the relations between Shelley and Wordsworth in Bloomian terms, you would need a whole arcane terminology of clinamen, tessera, kenosis, askesis and apophrades at your disposal. Bloomianism in those days was a strange but exhilarating theoretical system.

More recently, however, Bloom has abandoned literary theory to become one of the crustiest conservative critics around, cantankerously devoted to ‘the western canon’; and as he has done so, oddly enough, his interest in Morris appears to have grown. In The Anatomy of Influence (2011) he remarks that ‘Sigurd the Volsung, the marvellous verse epic of William Morris, has few readers that I have met, but I go back to it every year or so’ (p.173); and in his intriguing anthology Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems (2010) he represents Morris by the last page or two of Sigurd, in which Gudrun kills Atli and then commits suicide.

A ‘last poem’ for Bloom is either one that definitively sums up the overall impulses of a poetic career or one which is literally the last text that particular poet wrote. I’m not convinced that his chosen pages from Sigurd work as the former, and if we want the latter we will have to turn to the poem ‘She and He’, which Morris wrote in early January 1896 and immediately posted to Georgiana Burne-Jones. That strange, intense work, with its bitter ‘farewell to hope’ in the last line, gives little sense of consolation or completeness as its author entered the final year of his life.

Thursday 24 January 2013

Eirikr Magnússon 100 years on

On this day one hundred years ago, Morris’s Icelandic teacher and co-translator of the sagas Eirikr Magnússon died in Cambridge, where he is buried in the Mill Road cemetery. Whether any events are being mounted in Iceland to commemorate this centenary, I do not know; there certainly aren’t any over here. So could we at least invent a new Morris-and-Iceland research project to celebrate the day?

I have a feeling that we should be taking a closer look at the work of some of Magnússon’s pupils. Shortly after Morris’s death, the early English and Shakespeare scholar Israel Gollancz published Hamlet in Iceland: Being the Icelandic Romantic Ambales Saga (1898), a book which is dedicated to Magnússon, who had taught him at Cambridge, and which traces ‘Iceland’s long and painful struggle for a Hamlet Saga’ (p.vii). This field of argument was later developed by another important Magnússon student, Bertha Phillpotts, who published The Elder Edda and Ancient Scandinavian Drama (1920) and Edda and Saga (1931). Of the latter, the English literary critic F.R. Leavis once remarked that ‘I and my wife are always pushing it’, and he explains its significance for them in English Literature in our Time and the University (1969): ‘Miss Phillpotts’ book (I wonder it is not used more by literary students) establishes that there was a second ritual origin of tragedy in the North, and that a continuity of dramatic tradition runs down through the Middle Ages to Shakespeare’ (p.162).

One imagines Morris, who himself tried to displace Greek and Roman epic by a Northern version of the form in Sigurd the Volsung, being wholly sympathetic to such arguments; and any Morris student who tracks through the detail of the case as developed by Eirikr Magnússon’s protégés would be doing us all a favour.

Saturday 12 January 2013

Audiences for Socialism

In his 1996 essay ‘The Morris Who Reads Us’ (which is certainly a neat title), Norman Kelvin remarks that ‘As for the late audiences for socialism, they heard him [Morris] at the Hammersmith Socialist Society (his last, smallest and most congenial socialist group). They were composed for the most part of loyal friends and employees of Morris and Co. (for several of whom attendance might have been prudence only)’ (p.347). That’s a rather peculiar final comment, surely, which potentially undermines the authenticity of Morris’s socialist meetings. It’s the kind of remark that you might expect from an avowed political opponent, from some snide Tory hack on Rupert Murdoch’s The Times newspaper, rather than from one of our best Morris scholars (who gave us the marvellous Collected Letters, after all).

So I think we have to insist that in this matter Professor Kelvin should either put up or shut up. He needs to produce documentary evidence that some of Morris’s workmen attended meetings purely for ‘prudential’ reasons – i.e. under real or perceived threat of reprisal from their employer if they didn’t - or he should withdraw this claim. And his speculative ‘might have been’ formulation here suggests to me that there is no such evidence. Morris gives us a graphic portrayal of an employer victimising an employee for his political views in section VI of The Pilgrims of Hope, so he hardly seems likely to have indulged in the same practice.