Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Questions about William Guest

I’ve been thinking of writing a talk, perhaps for delivery one day in the Kelmscott coach house, which would be entitled ‘Some Reflections on William Guest in News from Nowhere’, and which would attempt to answer a series of questions about Morris’s utopian narrator that have always interested and puzzled me.  But before I do so, I thought I’d share my thirteen questions and canvass the opinions of readers of this blog.  Are there other issues which you think should be addressed about William Guest?  If so, please post them via the Comments facility below and perhaps we’ll arrive at a collective sense of what intrigues us about this strange and memorable Morrisian character.

1.Why does he behave so oddly at the political meeting that opens the book?

2.What do we learn (or what can we infer) of his social background?

3.Is he or isn’t he William Morris?

4.Why, when he arrives in Nowhere, does he choose the surname ‘Guest’?

5.Why doesn’t he just tell the Nowherians that he has come from another time instead of being so evasive about this?

6.Why is he 56 years old?  What is the textual function or necessity of this fact?

7.Is he really old Hammond’s grandfather, and how much does it matter if he is?

8.Is it really his own literary works and visual image that he sees spread around Nowhere?

9.Does he actually grow younger rowing up the Thames?

10.How many times does he go swimming in the book?

11.Did he ever really have a chance of a relationship with Ellen?

12.Would he have done better with any of the other women in the book?

13.Why does he have to go back to the 1890s, and how will he get on when he returns there?

I look forward to your thoughts!

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Olympic Success under the Microscope

What would a Morrisian analysis of the current spectacular UK Olympic success look like?  There would, of course, be a standard Marxist critique here, along the lines of ‘false consciousness’ or ‘bread and circuses’.  In a neo-liberal epoch of extreme and increasing inequality, and of major economic instability since 2008, let's keep the masses happy and diverted with huge colourful shows like London 2012 and Rio 2016.

I think we might feel a more local irony too.  If the BBC and UK newspapers are frantically pumping out news of all the Team GB medals to cheer us (and themselves) up after the decision for Brexit in the recent European Union referendum, we can enjoy the irony that it was precisely the artificially inflated nationalism and patriotism that they invariably indulge in so repulsively on such occasions which played a significant part in producing that anti-EU result in the first place (though there were also other, and better, reasons for wanting it). 

But a more specifically Morrisian critique of the Olympics would concentrate on the nature of work in our society.  What we currently have, you might say (to caricature just a little), is a nation of coach potatoes, suffering from alarming rates of obesity and diabetes, obsessively watching on television the hyper-trained, lavishly funded elite athletes who are delivering the impressive UK successes of the last few days.  The physically under-developed thus obsess over the physically over-developed; both are two sides of the same wretched coin – the ‘torn halves of an integral freedom to which, however, they do not add up’, to borrow Adorno’s fine phrase. In a utopian Morrisian world in which social labour was both physically invigorating and satisfyingly creative, you would no longer have or need either extreme.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Jeremy Corbyn for Leader!

Much of William Morris’s life in the 1880s was an experience of and meditation on political leadership.  With the formation of the Socialist League in December 1884, he was thrust into a much more prominent role in the British socialist movement than he had ever initially envisaged.  Looking back on his most vigorous activist years in November 1890, he wrote: ‘When I first joined the movement, I hoped that some working-man leader, or rather leaders, would turn up, who would push aside all middle-class help, and become great historical figures’.  And News from Nowhere, in its account of ‘How the Change Came’, vividly imagines how such leaders might emerge in a revolutionary situation: ‘now that the times called for immediate action, came forward the men capable of setting it on foot … though, as aforesaid, the abler men were not then the recognised leaders’.

Whether Jeremy Corbyn will turn out to be  a ‘great historical figure’, I do not know; but he certainly achieved something remarkable in his Labour leadership campaign of last summer, re-energising anti-austerity politics in this country among the young, reawakening old social-democratic traditions within the Party itself that we thought had been buried forever by the Blairite capitulation to neo-liberalism.  Ever since, the right-wing elements of the Parliamentary Labour Party have waged a determined and unscrupulous campaign against his leadership, culminating in the attempted coup which has triggered the latest contest.  So it now behoves all on the Left to defend Corbyn and the idea of a new politics that he represents to the best of their ability.  I’ve been slow off the mark in this, I realise, fettered I suppose by residual local Green Party loyalties, but, having been impressed by a Lancaster Momentum meeting the other night, I shall now apply to join the Labour Party and, if accepted, will get stuck in.  Labourite social-democracy may not be socialism in the full Morris sense, but it is certainly the best challenge to the neo-liberal consensus that we have going at the moment.