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!