Friday 16 June 2017

The Grenfell Tower Inferno

As I have had occasion to note in this blog before, towers turn up in both Morris’s early poetry and late romances: the former offers us ‘The Tune of the Seven Towers’ and ‘The Little Tower’, while the latter contains, for instance, the evil Baron of the Seven Towers who oppresses the citizens of Whatham in the unfinished ‘Kilian of the Closes’.  However, towers do not crop up in his utopia News from Nowhere, which is a notably ‘horizontal’ work compared to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the book that inspired it (albeit by intense dissent).  William Guest sees a good deal of Nowhere from a boat on the river Thames, and you can’t get much more horizontal than that; while Julian West, in Bellamy’s volume, is very early on sitting high up on Dr Leete’s belvedere taking an aerial survey of the new Boston.

So if there are fires in Morris’s utopia, as I suppose there may be from time to time, just as there are other mishaps, they will not be of the alarmingly ‘vertical’ nature of the Grenfell Tower fire that we have just witnessed in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  The literary concept that keeps being trotted out by the mainstream media for this appalling event is ‘tragedy’, but this notion, as Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton have shown, brings a whole ideology along with it: of fatalism, of inevitability, even of nobility in suffering. ‘Tragedy’ in this context is a deeply passive and depoliticising concept; it thus fits in well enough with what I believe to be the media and authorities’ early efforts to downplay the number of dead in this event, which will surely exceed one hundred.

For the Grenfell Tower inferno is political through and through; Labour MP David Lammy is absolutely right to say that this is ‘corporate manslaughter’ and that there must be resulting arrests and prison sentences.  The avoidable deaths of so many poor people in the richest borough of one of the richest cities on earth, after the whole sickening history of ignored warnings, cheap and dangerous building materials (the cladding), and failures to update planning and safety laws, is a vivid index of the neoliberal England of austerity, inequality and deregulation which both Tory and New Labour governments have bequeathed to us.  ‘Another emblem there!’, if we may borrow that memorable phrase from W.B. Yeats’s ‘Wild Swans at Coole’ – just as Theresa May’s aloof and sanitised visit to the disaster scene is an emblem of her crippled psyche in contrast to the human warmth which Jeremy Corbyn was able to communicate during his.  No doubts there, then, about who the real British Prime Minister should now be.

Sunday 11 June 2017

Gestures in Life

In an earlier entry in this blog I gave some thought to the issue of gestures in utopia (15 April 2010); but of course William Morris himself had many memorable gestures of his own, and his physical presence is vividly recorded in memoirs by contemporaries: Morris plucking single hairs out of his bread in exasperation, or rhythmically rocking backwards and forwards as he spoke in the Kelmscott Coach House, and so on.

 But Val Prinsep in 1857 recorded a Morrisian gesture that I don’t remember being mentioned in the standard biographies.  As the young Morris read out his poems in a sing-song chant to friends in Oxford, ‘all the time, he was jiggling about nervously with his watch chain ... the poet at the table reading and ever fidgetting with his watch chain’.  And Edward Burne-Jones confirms this recurrent behaviour; for No. 3 in the sequence of his satirical Topsy Cartoons ‘represents Topsy in his usual action with his watch chain’ (Memorials, pp.162, 165).

It is a curious image we get here, then, as the man whose utopia so beautifully asserts the benefits of doing things slowly, comes across as a figure almost akin to Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit who compulsively consults his watch and mutters ‘I’m late, I’m late!’