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?