Saturday 22 December 2018

Farming Today, and As It Might Be

If I wake up unusually early in the morning, I sometimes catch BBC Radio 4’s ‘Farming Today’ programme.  With its lively discussions of food production, forestry policy, environmental concerns, etc, it never ceases to fascinate, and indeed makes me wish I were an earlier riser in general, so that I could catch more of it on a regular basis.

Farming practice and policy is alas one of the telling absences of Morris’s News from Nowhere.  It is true that we get glimpses of great herds of cows on the Essex marshlands at the start of the book and then hear a good deal about the hay-making up country towards its end; but there isn’t any detailed account of how food production might be organised in utopia – and there couldn’t be a more fundamental topic than that.  Nor am I aware of much discussion of the topic elsewhere in Morris, in his political lectures, say.

And yet the utopian tradition has had a good deal to say about agricultural practices in an ideal society, following on from Thomas More’s splendid suggestion that everybody in his Utopia has to work on a farm for two years in the course of their working life, so the whole society understands the practical skills and vital social significance of food production.  That sounds as though it would be an admirable policy to introduce in the wake of Brexit next March, when all the East-European fruit-pickers in this country suddenly vanish!

It is curious, then, to find May Morris early in the twentieth century taking up the topic that her father had neglected in his writings.  On New Year’s Eve 1916 she wrote to John Quinn: ‘Our agricultural question is enormously interesting – and enormously serious.  I see no way out of it but a genuine universal cooperation’.  Whether any detailed writings by May on agricultural policy survive I do not know, but in this field, as in several others, it may be that we need the work of Morris’s younger daughter to supplement trends of thought that he broached but did not quite follow through. 

Thursday 13 December 2018

Vive les Gilets Jaunes!

In November 1887 William Morris wrote an article for Commonweal entitled ‘London in a State of Siege’, and what we saw last weekend, and will no doubt see again this coming weekend, is Paris in a state of siege, as Emmanuel Macron floods it with his security thugs to exercise extreme State violence against the economic protestors of the Gilets Jaunes movement.  When the BBC uses the language of ‘riots’ and ‘rampages’, as it mostly has about the Paris demonstrations, then you know that what is actually being talked about is what we on the Left would term an ‘uprising’, or at least, a form of protest which is getting well on towards being an uprising.  What are a few burnt-out cars compared to the destruction of hope, health services, economic prospects and actual lives which neo-liberal austerity has inflicted on European workers for the last thirty-odd years?  Finally, a stand is being taken on the Paris streets against that process of State-inflicted destruction; the 99% are once more challenging the 1% and, in France, its banker-President.

Just as Morris knew that his role was to be out on the streets with the Socialist League during London’s state of siege in 1887, when Charles Warren was licensed by the State to unleash any amount of violence on the unemployed and workers in Trafalgar Square, so our political responsibility today, as Morrisians, is to give what support we can from this country to the brave insurgents of the Paris streets and squares (while being simultaneously aware that there is a worrying far-right strand within the much broader Gilets Jaunes phenomenon).  We can’t expect any kind of lead or guidance from the official William Morris Society here; it will flinch as fastidiously away from rough actual politics as it usually does and go back to its cosy embroidery workshops.  But we have the courageous political example of Morris himself in his own time as a beacon of resistance and hope in ours.

Wednesday 28 November 2018

Sartre and Intention

In his exposition of Jean-Paul Sartre in Marxism and Form, Fredric Jameson notes the radical reinterpretation of the concept of intention that is at stake in Sartre’s later drama.  For ‘if it is useless to try to determine the meaning of an act by introspection, in these later plays we proceed in reverse, on the assumption that whatever was done, whatever objective results the act in question had, must have been in some sense willed or desired by the actor himself’.  How might this apply to Morris’s own later works?

In The Well at the World’s End Ralph chooses to go swimming and leaves the Lady of Abundance on her own in the Chamber of Love, which gives the Knight of the Sun the opportunity to steal up upon her and kill her.  So must we then assume, on Sartrean principles, that Ralph somehow desired that outcome, however stricken by grief he might on the surface appear to be afterwards?  Or again, in The Water of the Wondrous Isles Birdalone refuses the injunction to remain safely in the Castle of the Quest and heads off to explore the Black Valley of the Grey Wethers.  The three returning questers must therefore set off to track her down, in the course of which the Golden Knight Baudoin is killed by the evil Red Knight.  So did Birdalone then in some sense desire this to happen?

We should note that there are characters within the late romances who themselves take something like this stance towards intention, as when Roger had predicted to Ralph of the Lady of Abundance that he ‘would take her luck from her and make it thine’, which is not in the least, needless to say, Ralph’s conscious aim.  So to adopt a Sartrean view of intention would, I think, productively complicate our response to these late works, getting beneath the lofty chivalric gestures of which they are so full and opening up darker dimensions of meaning.

Tuesday 13 November 2018

Thomas Hardy and William Morris

‘What a strenuous character Morris’s was’.  Thus Thomas Hardy, writing to Sydney Cockerell on 23 February 1917, as he and his wife read through Mackail’s Life together.  Hardy never met Morris, as far as I am aware, though he had attended the Eastern Question conference in London in December 1876 at which Morris was elected as treasurer.  In 1881 Hardy joined the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and was certainly repentant in later life about the church restoration work which he had unreflectively undertaken in his early architectural years.   He had clearly read some of Morris’s cultural writings, and in a 1912 ‘Plea for Pure English’ cites ‘that “grin of delight”, which William Morris assured us, comes over the real artist’ – this being a reference to ‘The Art of the People’ from Hopes and Fears for Art (1882).  The description of Hardy’s first, and unpublished, novel The Poor Man and the Lady as ‘socialistic’ in the Life of Thomas Hardy, that supposed biography actually written by himself, seems even to promise a political alignment with Morris’s later activism which of course never in the end materialised.

In 1881 Hardy wrote to Morris to offer him a copy of Tess.  Morris accepted and in his reply notes that he has already read Far from the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native: ‘the first one is the most pleasing and I suppose you would look upon it as the most typical of your works’.  Whether Hardy did regard that novel in that light, I do not know; and Morris’s phrasing doesn’t give away whether he agrees with the judgement he imputes to the novelist here.  Either way, it’s not a valuation that I can share.  To any reader of Raymond Williams’s marvellous chapter on Hardy in The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence – which for me was a life-changing reading experience some forty years ago – it is The Return of the Native, in its exploration of the tension between educated and customary community (by which Tess’s life will be so disrupted too), that is the ‘most typical’ Hardy novel of them all.

Thursday 25 October 2018

The Poet of Comrades: Walt Whitman in the 1880s

What would it mean to have a poet of socialism for our time?  I suppose there was a moment in the 1980s, with the publication of V and the ensuing controversy around the film version of it, when it felt as though Tony Harrison would occupy that position.  Yet that marvellous poem, though it does so much – rewriting Thomas Gray’s Elegy, anatomising contemporary northern working-class culture, evoking the Miners’ Strike and excoriating Thatcherism – in the end lacks a positive vision of socialism.  For all its transgressive sociological and linguistic explorations, it seems ultimately to retreat into the epiphanic time of domestic sexual love and the unthinkable, non-human perspectives of geological transformation.  Collective action is the missing term between the two.

For the early British socialist movement, however, as Kirsten Harris’s fine talk yesterday at the Working Class Movement Museum in Manchester showed, there was indeed such a poet, though he was American rather than British, and certainly never declared himself a socialist.  Whitman’s work was pervasive in the buoyant early days of the movement: published both in newspaper columns and complete editions, set to music by Edward Carpenter, read out aloud in Labour Church services, recommended in socialist reading lists.  For the ethical socialists of the north in particular, socialism needed the spiritual foundations that Whitman’s evolutionary optimism was seen to provide, though his own key political term was ‘democracy’, which could of course have a range of meanings.  A discourse of youth, health, physical vigour, manual labour and same-sex comradeship found abundant resources in Whitman’s verse, which was as exuberantly revolutionary in form and rhythm as it was in content.

That 1880s sense that socialism must forge a new culture as well as conduct its usual economic and political arguments and activism remains crucial, though the poetic optimism we need, after the political calamities of the twentieth century, will be an altogether steelier and more nuanced one than Whitman’s own.  What an adequate political poetry for our own moment might look like, what kind of Jamesonian ‘cognitive mapping’ it might be expected to do, in both form and content, is an inquiry which the William Morris Society, with the ‘Chants for Socialists’ and ‘Pilgrims of Hope’ among its own resources, should be peculiarly well-equipped to explore.