Monday 18 August 2014

Corncrakes on the Thames

If you head off into the Oxfordshire countryside this summer, are you likely to hear the sound of corncrakes in the fields? Dick Hammond eagerly anticipates doing so in News from Nowhere. In ch.XXII he announces how much he wants to ‘lie under an elm-tree on the borders of a wheat-field, with the bees humming about me and the corncrake crying from furrow to furrow’; and we know his wish will be fulfilled, for as the rowers arrive at Kelmscott in ch.XXX they hear ‘the ceaseless note of the corncrake as he crept through the long grass of the mowing-field’.

Those other late-Victorian rowers, the anti-heroes of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889), imagine what it will be like to camp on the river bank, when ‘only the moorhen’s plaintive cry and the harsh croak of the corncrake stirs the awed hush around the couch of waters’. In an 1884 article on ‘The Birds of Oxford City’ in The Oxford Magazine, W.W.F. announces that the ‘Landrail or Corncrake’ is ‘a summer migrant, visiting the Parks occasionally, but preferring the safe side of the Cherwell. I have heard it in Merton Meadow and elsewhere’. In the early twentieth-century Midlands, D.H .Lawrence’s poem ‘End of Another Home-Holiday’ announces that ‘In the valley, a corncrake calls/ Monotonously,/ With a piteous , unalterable plaint’; and a particularly pesky corncrake pops up in his first novel, The White Peacock, too. The bird features regularly in Samuel Beckett’s fictional Ireland, with Belacqua hearing ‘crex-crex, the first corncrake of the season’ in More Pricks than Kicks, and the ‘awful cries of the corncrakes that run in the corn’ turning up again in Molloy.

Plenty of corncrakes around once upon a time, then. But my Larousse Field Guide declares, sadly enough, that they were ‘once widespread, now decidedly scarce’, and it doesn’t show Oxfordshire in its map of their current UK distribution at all. So Dick Hammond in 2014 could well be disappointed on the upper Thames, but if he ventured a little further afield – ‘still relatively numerous in Ireland and Hebrides’ – he might have better ornithological luck after all.

Monday 11 August 2014

Strawberry Thief Game

Coming soon to an I-pad near you will be the Morris-inspired Strawberry Thief computer game designed by Sophia George, the Victoria & Albert museum’s first games designer in residence. The game was given a first outing at the recent Abertay University festival of digital art, and it certainly looks pretty enough: a thrush icon flies over Morris’s colourful design and apparently you have to collect flowers as the bird passes. I’m all for Morris and his work being brought into the digital age, and have written about that issue previously on this blog (see ‘The Digital Imagination’, 1 February 2012). But I also recall that May Morris remarks somewhere that, as a girl, she had been scared of the birds in the Strawberry Thief design, so I wonder if there isn’t an emotional edginess in the visual field here which Ms George hasn’t quite got into what I’ve seen of her game. Excessive prettiness can quickly become vapid, after all.

So lest the artist David Mabb add this Strawberry Thief computer game to his already sizeable catalogue of ‘Morris kitsch’, let me suggest a follow-up idea to Ms George. Morris was a Communist as well as a designer, so how about a second V&A game based on this rather more rugged aspect of his life and work? It could be called the ‘Bloody Sunday’ game, and would involve police brutally attacking unarmed protestors in a digital recreation of late-Victorian Trafalgar Square. If the police kill three protestors and injure over one hundred more (as they actually did on 13 November 1887), then they win; but if Morris and his fellow-socialists, who would be operated by the game player, manage to fight them off and protect the crowd, then the good guys win. Morris saw his aesthetic and political activities as part of a continuum, so if we are going to have computer games inspired by him, let’s have them across the full range of his endeavours.

Monday 4 August 2014

First World War centenary: a Shavian reflection

George Bernard Shaw’s rural Hertfordshire home, Shaw’s Corner (where he lived from 1906 to 1950), is a marvellous setting for outdoor theatre, and my birthday expedition this year was to a performance of his 1919 play Heartbreak House there on Saturday 26 July. On a glorious summer’s evening the actors put in spirited performances, with Captain Shotover being the star as far as I was concerned; and the first hour or so was very lively, even if the content seemed rather silly at times. But thereafter things got tedious, as the antics of these Chekovian upper-middle-class misfits dragged on and on. Fortunately, there was a revival of interest towards the end, as we saw the war and its Zeppelin attacks impinging on this hapless bunch. The audience (or at least, that part of it sitting around me) seemed as vapidly middle-class as the characters themselves, discussing its latest holidays in Hawaii, Los Angeles or Singapore in the intervals, rather than, say, the current savage Israeli campaign in Gaza.

So in terms of Shaw on the Great War, as we today mark the centenary of its outbreak, I’m inclined to turn away from Heartbreak House itself to the provocative formulations in his 1914 ‘Commonsense on the War’ article, which I quoted in my talk on ‘William Morris and the First World War’ at the Morris Gallery on 19 June. There he finely recommends that ‘both armies should shoot their officers and go home to gather in their harvests in the villages and make a revolution in the towns’, which is pretty much Lenin’s line on that imperialist bloodbath: take the weapons the ruling class gives you, and turn them against that ruling class itself.

My paternal grandfather, Henry Smith Pinkney (1894-68 – pictured above), served in the war with the Royal Artillery in France, and in later years joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, so I can assume that he too would have agreed with the Shaw/Lenin position, at least retrospectively. So in the great national wallowing in emotion we are going to get today from church, government and media, and amidst all the repulsive rhetoric of ‘sacrifice for their country’(pro patria mori), those coldly analytic terms ‘capitalism’ and ‘imperialism’ need to be kept firmly in mind. Working-class lives in their millions were brutally wasted as British and German ruling classes fought over territory and profits, and the only decent thing to come from that four-year spree of industrialised mass-killing was the Bolshevik Revolution itself.