Thursday 31 December 2015

Cameron Leaves the North to Drown

As I’ve noticed before in this blog, it rains an awful lot in some early Morris poems – ‘The grey rain driveth all astray’ in ‘The Little Tower’, for example – and Morris was also mightily moved by Richard Jeffries’s post-apocalyptic novel After London, in which the blocked river Thames backs up and creates a great midland lake or sea in the heart of England.  Well, we have ourselves had unprecedented levels of rain this winter (which has not really been a winter at all, in any recognisable seasonal sense), and sizeable stretches of the north of the country have turned into lakes before our very eyes.  Here in Lancaster we recently had three feet of water in the city centre, power cuts for several days and nights, and the university had to abandon term a week early.

There is an immediate political point to be made here, but also a longer-term apocalyptic speculation worthy of the Jeffries novel itself.  We know that this Tory government, and its coalition predecessor, has shamefully neglected flood defences in the north, in contrast to the south-west and the midlands. Commentators like Owen Jones and George Monbiot have powerfully enforced this case in their recent columns.   No wonder David Cameron has been heckled on his patronising ‘green-wellie’ trips up this way to inspect the damage, and the Chancellor’s ‘northern power-house’ rhetoric has been exposed as the sham it is. 

The longer-term point here resides in the fact that climate change is on us much quicker and more radically than we ever thought it would be; it’s not going to get any better, and may well accelerate further.  In which case, we may just possibly be seeing the beginnings of a process whereby certain areas of the north of England may ultimately have to be abandoned as uninhabitable.  That’s a thought we are already used to in terms of British coastal erosion – we may now have to get used to it for certain inland territories too.  Morris himself depicted a truly watery world in his late romance The Waters of the Wondrous Isles, but even its heroine Birdalone doesn’t want to live amidst water all the time.

Sunday 20 December 2015

Kellingley Colliery closes

Some years ago my Auntie Dorothy and I did part of the Miners’ Walk in Kent.  The full circuit, which now links all the old Kent mining villages, wasn’t open then, but on that initial stretch of it we walked through fields where my aunt had been employed as a child by local farmers to pick flints out of the soil, and we passed my grandfather’s colliery (or rather what little is left of it) at Betteshanger.  Grandad worked as a miner for fifty years, first at High Spen in County Durham, then, from 1934, in Kent; and in the immediate post-war years my Uncles Harry, Jack, Bill and Stan all did stints down the Betteshanger pit.

So the closing this week of Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire, the last deep coal mine in Britain, has a personal edge for me as well as its wider sociological meanings.  With the end of that industrial tradition goes a political one too: the miners as the shock troops of the left, taking on not just the Coal Board but the governments of the day.  It’s a tradition that William Morris played his own admirable part in instigating, as when in April 1887 he spoke as a Socialist leader to some 6000 striking miners at Horton in Northumberland. 

We might thus feel elegiac about our own deep mining tradition, but of course, globally, mining continues unabated; after all, it is millions of tons of cheap coal imports from Russia and Poland that have led to the closure of Kellingley.  And in such countries, to which we might add China, South Africa and many others, mining continues to be as back-breaking, life-threatening and ruthlessly exploitative as it has so often been over here.  So in a wider frame the Morrisian struggle to radicalise the world’s miners remains as urgent as ever.  

Wednesday 2 December 2015

On Bombing Syria

‘If only he could stop these damned little wars’, Morris wrote of Prime Minister Gladstone on 10 February 1881.  It’s a colourful condemnatory phrase, though not having quite become a socialist at that point, Morris clearly  had not yet grasped the systematic and necessary nature of such wars to British Imperialism, of which he would later become such a courageous critic.

For a good part of my adult life this country has been engaged in a series of damned little wars: among others, Margaret Thatcher’s escapade in the Falklands/Malvinas, Tony Blair’s Iraq and Afghanistan wars, David Cameron’s bombing of Libya and now his proposed bombing of Islamic State in Syria.  Never mind how these have turned out in practice (reducing both Iraq and Libya, for example, to the very chaos and rubble in which ISIS thrives in the first place).  If you have one of the biggest arms export industries in the world, as we do, you have to regularly show your customers the weapons at work.  And there’s that minor matter of Middle Eastern oil supplies too.

The wars may be little, but the lies that attempt to justify them to the British public are often very big indeed.  Tony Blair’s lie to us – those weapons of mass destruction at Saddam Hussein’s disposal that could hit this country in 40 minutes – was the grossest of them all; there were no such WMDs, and Blair must have known that all along.  And David Cameron is at this very moment in the process of telling us a similar whopper: those 70,000 moderate Syrian rebels whom he has suddenly conjured up out of thin air. 
Until we manage to stop this machismo cycle of ‘damned little wars’, British governments and British forces will just continue making the world out there a more chaotic and dangerous place, and putting us at home ever more at risk of terrorist reprisal.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Re-reading 'Modern Tragedy'

I haven’t been back to Ruskin College in Headington since the William Morris Society held its 1990 conference there to mark the centenary of the publication of News from Nowhere, so it was good to return yesterday, with Merlin Gable, for the Raymond Williams memorial lecture given by Susan Watkins, editor of New Left Review.  We admired some of the beautiful traditional houses of Old Headington on the way there, and enjoyed the glorious view across the Oxfordshire countryside from the room in which the lecture was delivered.  Its title: ‘Social Perspectives in Hard Times: Re-reading Modern Tragedy’.

‘Our present social conditions have an undeniable tragic aspect,’ Susan Watkins kicked off, adding that she ‘turned to him [Raymond Williams] more, rather than less, as the years go by’.  She offered a fine account of Williams’s critique of the 1960s Cambridge academic ideology of tragedy, whereby suffering caused by work, war, poverty or unemployment would be mere ‘accident’, too drained of ‘ethical substance’ to merit the paradoxically approving term ‘tragedy’.  And she offered, as Terry Eagleton has also been doing recently, a spirited case for Left thinking including tragedy as a major category of analysis of its own.

For in a period in which capitalism confronts ‘no structural opposition at the global level’, it produces tragic economic, social and military disintegration across the globe, which then, as we saw with last week’s appalling Paris attacks, unleashes ‘tragic blowback’ too.  The magnitude of the post-2008 capitalist crisis was, as one would expect from the editor of New Left Review, powerfully and synoptically evoked.  But what might count as ‘action’ against all this – ‘action’ being in Watkins’s view a central but insufficiently clarified term in Modern Tragedy itself – remains problematic.  Many forms of opposition arise, from Occupy through Syriza to Jeremy Corbyn, but whether they can consolidate themselves seems quite another matter.  Susan Watkins enjoined upon us the task of ‘measurement of the prevailing forces’, necessary without a doubt, but hardly in itself amounting to ‘resources for a journey of hope’, to borrow another of Williams’s own memorable phrases.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Morris Dictum (via Yeats)

W.B. Yeats wrote a good deal about William Morris in his autobiographical writings and also has that fine essay on him, ‘The Happiest of the Poets’, but I do not offhand recall in all that material this particular Morris saying, which is relayed at secondhand by L.A.G. Strong, a student at Wadham College who knew the Irish poet during the years in which he lived in Broad Street, Oxford (from 1919).  In his own autobiography, Green Memories, Strong writes: ‘One night, an undergraduate was present who professed a very fastidious taste in literature, and looked pained when he was advised to read a certain popular author.  Yeats was always extremely tolerant of young men’s opinions, unless they affected superiority.  Then he could flatten them as well as anyone.  He turned on the young man, telling him that if a thing was good the setting did not matter.  “William Morris used to say, to the people who claimed they could only read Shakespeare, ‘Rubbish.  Flame is flame wherever you find it’”.