Monday, 12 January 2015

Project for a new Journal

So: the William Morris Society is advertising for a new editor for its journal. My feeling, however, is that matters are actually the other way round: it needs a new journal for its editor. So here is a proposal for a Society journal that would be contemporary rather than historical, political rather than antiquarian – and thus, in my view, much truer to the spirit of Morris himself.

Let’s borrow Morris’s title of his 1888 lecture collection and call the new journal, provisionally, Signs of Change: Journal of Contemporary Culture and Politics, to kick off in 2016. It would then divide up its field of concerns into three, roughly equally weighted sections. So 33% would address the issue of Morris in contemporary culture (currently, e.g., Deller’s Morris-Abramovich image and its political aesthetics, or the Oxford Morris-Warhol exhibition, as a way of posing questions about Morris and postmodernism). The second 33% would focus on contemporary utopianism and dystopianism, both practitioners (in literary, architectural, visual and cinematic arts) and theorists (Jameson, Bloch, Levitas, Moylan).

The third 33% tranche would tackle concerns of the contemporary Left, broadly conceived (i.e. green, feminist and anti-globalisation as well as socialist): analysis of changes in capitalism, exposition of important theorists (return of communist thinking in Badiou and Zizek, say), transformations of working practices, survey of important international political developments, examination of current initiatives in the UK (Left Unity, for instance) – so this section would be doing some of the work that Morris’s socialist newspaper Commonweal used to do.

The reviews section of the new journal would be organised on a similar tripartite model. The only way historical work on Morris would get in is if someone used his writings or activities to draw cultural and/or political lessons for our twenty-first-century present. I’d be inclined to cap essays at 3000 words to ensure both a range of coverage and that they don’t become too academic. A recomposition of the editorial board, with some more overtly political people, would be necessary to make this work. I commend the idea to you!

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Is William Morris Enough?

Love is Enough, Morris confidently tells us in his over-elaborate poem of that title in 1872; but is William Morris himself enough, I wonder? Enough for what or for whom, you ask. Well, for culturally-minded socialists in the early twenty-first century, let us say. Much as I love Morris and his works, I feel that he is, alas, not enough, not quite; and I therefore need to complement him with Raymond Williams and his work.

It was indeed a ‘river of fire’ that Morris had to cross in 1883 from Victorian middle-class comfort to revolutionary socialism; and that undoubtedly required a degree of courage which it is hard for us to gauge accurately now. Doggedly though he laboured for the working-class cause, however, Morris didn’t thereby simply cease to be a Victorian gentleman and, as Fiona MacCarthy has suggested, in his last days he was ‘more or less reclaimed by his class’ (p.669).

Morris went to Oxford University in 1853 as a matter of course, given his family and class background. But for those of us from working-class families who got to the elite middle-class educational institutions, there was a ‘river of fire’ of a rather different nature to cross; and it is Raymond Williams, son of a railway signalman in a Welsh village who went to Cambridge in 1939, who helped us make sense of that. Morris’s river of fire is Williams’s ‘border country’ (the title of his first and finest novel), less something you cross definitively than a difficult liminal space you have to inhabit, strung out between the working-class neighbourhood to which you remain loyal and the expanded intellectual horizons that have been opened to you.

I remember the shock of recognition when I first read Williams’s chapter on Thomas Hardy in his book on The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence when I was twenty-one years old; for so many of Hardy’s own characters inhabit just such a border country between class identities, none more so than Clym Yeobright, the returning native. Nothing in Morris’s work, formative though it too has been, has ever moved me quite as deeply as that Williams chapter– though Morris makes a brave stab at ventriloquising something like working-class experience in Pilgrims of Hope. So there it is, then: William Morris is very nearly enough – but not quite.