Sunday 18 October 2015

Food Security in Utopia

My daughter-in-law Ciara Dangerfield has just made an excellent podcast on the topic of food security, a term which seems to have recently grown beyond the question of national food supply to encompass far-reaching global issues of food production, including the appalling fact that, in a world of plenty, nearly 800 million people currently go to bed hungry each night. The podcast, the first in a planned series, is available at:; and it prompted me to reflect on issues of food security in the literary genre of utopia.

In the founding text of the genre, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), there is a good deal of concern about this matter, albeit in the narrower sense of the phrase. More’s utopia exists in a very hostile world and must therefore make sure it can feed its citizens securely; hence it is that everyone has to spend two years of their adult life practising agriculture, so that these crucial skills are well-embedded in the general population. The more precariously a particular utopia exists, the more it must attend to its food supplies. Aldous Huxley’s utopian island Pala, threatened as it is by powerful and oil-greedy neighbours, invests a lot of its social energy in its Agricultural Experimental Station, though a good deal of Dr MacPhail’s attention seems to be given to the science of mycology and the production of hallucinogenic drugs rather than food as such. In Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed food supply is always an issue on the bleak moon Anarres, and during the great drought that afflicts the Odonians there, it tests utopia almost to breaking point.

In utopias that occupy the world more comfortably, food security is more taken for granted: plentiful supplies and equitable distribution are givens from the start. H.G. Wells’s Modern - and global - Utopia doesn’t seem unduly interested in agricultural matters; and Morris’s News from Nowhere blithely assumes that all its eager craftspeople will happily knock off during harvest season and get out mowing in the fields instead (although, interestingly, there are a few Obstinate Refusers who won’t); it doesn’t feel any need to specify institutional mechanisms that would match up supply of volunteer labour to the areas of the country where it might be most needed. If we are looking for Morrisian thought about food security issues, we should turn rather to May Morris during the Great War, when she gives a considerable amount of thought to how food production around Kelmscott can be improved under war-time pressures. In our own dystopian times, I suspect that thought about food security, as the Greedy Planet podcasts open up the issues beyond science and technology, will eventually take one far into the grotesque economic inequalities under our globalised turbo-capitalism.

Thursday 8 October 2015

Shakespeare and Scandinavia

So, a blog post can grow, under the right circumstances, into a fully-fledged conference paper. For my former Lancaster colleague Richard Wilson fastened upon my post on ‘Eirikr Magnússon 100 Years On’ (24 January 2013) to suggest that I might elaborate its claim that Morris’s Icelandic language teacher and fellow-translator had significant effects upon future English Shakespearean studies at his ‘Shakespeare and Scandinavia’ conference at Kingston University this weekend. So I’ve done what I can in that direction, starting from the fact that Magnússon translated The Tempest into Icelandic, the first edition-translation of any Shakespeare play in that language, and following through to his Cambridge pupils Israel Gollancz (who published a study called Hamlet in Iceland) and Bertha Phillpotts, and then through the latter onto the Leavises on Hamlet. I thus float the hopefully suggestive idea that there was something like a ‘Magnússonian school of English Shakespeare studies’.

No doubt Morris would have thoroughly approved the title of Richard’s Kingston event, but I’m wondering whether we can’t enlist Morris himself, or at least News from Nowhere, into the putative Magnússonian Shakespeare school. For his utopia is certainly strongly marked by both Icelandic and Shakespearean motifs, and might it not then be interesting to think of William Guest materialising suddenly in Nowhere as the equivalent of old Hamlet’s ghost appearing so alarmingly on the battlements of Elsinore in that play? Guest may seem nowhere near as formidable or frightening as old Hamlet, but he is, none the less, like Shakespeare’s ghost, the ancestor of those he meets in the realm he visits (the Hammonds in this case); and as recent critics of News from Nowhere have made clear, he bears a good deal of disturbance with him in that work. Moreover, there have been sexually motivated murders in Nowhere as well as in Shakespeare’s Denmark. So I suspect there might well be mileage in a Hamletian and hauntological reading of Morris’s utopia; it would certainly be worth trying out as a suggestive hypothesis, even if we don’t fully accept it in the end – as, arguably, with the idea of a ‘Magnússonian school’ itself.

Thursday 1 October 2015

Return of the Native

When I gave my paper on ‘William Morris and the Return of Communism’ at the recent Birmingham symposium I described it in the opening remarks as an exercise in political philology. Audience questions afterwards focused, understandably enough, on my exploration of the history and complexities of the word ‘communism’, in Morris and subsequently. But the same philological attention should probably also be paid to the other central term of my title: ‘return’. This too isn’t an easy word or notion by any means, since as Bob Dylan so memorably sings in ‘Mississippi’, ‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’.

We know that Morris had read Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878), the most searching exploration of what it means to return – or at least, try to - in English literature, so he presumably thought deeply about these matters as he did so, even if he didn’t have the benefit of Raymond Williams’s stunningly insightful discussion of that book in The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970). And of course many characters in Morris’s own fictional writings also return to their geographical starting points after variously transformational journeys.

The Morrisian return I ponder most is that of William Guest, as he time-travels back to Kelmscott House in late-Victorian capitalist England at the end of his utopian experiences in News from Nowhere. The critics have been mulling this over for years: Norman Talbot declared in strongly upbeat tones that ‘Guest is back among us, more resolute than ever’, while Barbara Gribble sceptically remarked that ‘one expects him to take up again his former and ineffectual habits’. So how should we think about Guest’s return here? Will he be as formidable as Ralph and Ursula when they finally get back to Upmeads in The Well at the World’s End or, rather, as radically disturbed as H.G. Wells’s Prendick at the end of The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) and Conrad’s Marlow at the close of Heart of Darkness (1899)? We would need some lively sequel-writing to Morris’s own text to fully explore the possibilities here.