Saturday 26 May 2018

Hyndman's Utopia

Towards the end of Chushichi Tsuzuki’s H.M. Hyndman and British Socialism (1961) you come across this exciting sentence: ‘Two notable pieces of writing by Hyndman were published posthumously … One of these was a pamphlet called Introduction to ‘The Life to Come’.  Hyndman had planned to write a utopia in the vein of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward or Morris’s News from Nowhere, and this was to be called The Life to Come: only a prefatory section, however, was completed before his death’. 

So you then dutifully chase up that pamphlet, which was published by the Hyndman Literary Committee in 1926, only to feel some disappointment.  Of its thirty-odd pages, the first half surveys the history of utopian thought from Plato to Marx and Engels, while the second half enunciates the general principles of a socialist utopia as Hyndman sees it without, however, getting down to the task of giving them fictional embodiment – which is precisely, of course, when worthy political platitudes start to get interesting.

And yet Hyndman did have a very genuine interest in literary utopia, it appears.  In the pamphlet he mentions a lecture called ‘The First Monday Morning under Socialism’ which he used to deliver ‘frequently’ in the early 1880s: ‘I endeavoured to show how a visitor to a Socialist community established long years after he had joined the majority would be received, and what he would see going on around him’.  It would be interesting to know if William Morris ever sat through that lecture in the early days of the Democratic Federation.

Hyndman’s wife Rosalind suggests that a much fuller version of his utopia did actually exist: ‘As I read it at Lelant it was a series of visions of a glorious London, and a happy and blooming England, under the future Co-operative Comonwealth of Social-Democracy.  It left upon the reader’s mind an impression of unbroken sunshine’.  Perhaps this utopia was too sunny indeed, for she also mentions a joint writing scheme whereby she would ‘put in all the shadows’ she thought necessary.  But death intervened and this never happened.

Does that fuller version of Hyndman’s utopia The Life to Come still exist anywhere – fictionally embodied rather than just generally sketched out, as in the pamphlet?  What a startling literary-political find that would be, if the dusty manuscript should ever turn up in some attic or basement somewhere.

Sunday 13 May 2018

On Translating Homer

In the correspondence that ensued from his recent review in the London Review of Books of three new translations of the Odyssey, Oxford academic Colin Burrow remarks that “one doesn’t have to read beyond the first two lines of William Morris’s verse translation to realise it’s not going to offer much poetical joy (‘Tell me, O Muse, of the Shifty, the man who wandered afar,/After the Holy Burg, Troy-town, he had wasted with war’)” .  I’m not sure how well any of us are equipped to challenge that critical judgment.  Even devoted Morrisisans may well not have read Morris’s 1887 version of Homer, and even if we have, we probably do not possess the mastery of ancient Greek which would let us do a comparison with the original itself.

So we perhaps have to turn to older and better equipped commentators for some help here.  One looks first to J.W. Mackail, as always, but he doesn’t give us much comfort, since in his view Morris’s Odyssey chiefly demonstrates a “disparity between the original and the method of rendering”, which in this case is the anapaestic meter of Sigurd the Volsung.  Half a century later, Geoffrey B. Riddenhough, who wrote learnedly about several Morris translations, notes that in the Homer version Morris ‘once more … reveals his curious hatred of the Latin element in the English language, a feeling which he allows to falsify his translation”.

So far, so bad, then; and Colin Burrow’s judgement would appear to be in the ascendant.  So we must turn instead to Oscar Wilde who reviewed the two volumes of Morris’s Homer as they came out with gusto: “of all our English translations this is the most perfect and the most satisfying”.  Or, twenty-seven years later, there is A. Clutton Brock’s little book on Morris where, though conceding that the translation is “rough and odd at times”, he insists that Morris “has kept the momentum and excitement of the story better than any other translator … it is as near to Homer as we are likely to get until another master of narrative poetry as great as Morris chooses to spend some years of his life upon a translation”.  These assessments should be enough stimulus to us, surely, after the BBC’s recent gripping mini-series on Troy: the Fall of a City, to turn to Morris’s Odyssey to follow up the character – admirably played by actor Joseph Mawle - who was far and away the most intriguing figure in the BBC version.

Monday 7 May 2018

Marx at 200

As for everyone else on the Left, the bicentenary of Karl Marx’s birthday means a lot to me.  But ‘Marx at 200’ has been emotionally overshadowed by what I might term ‘Nigel North at 60’, the death on April 16 of my close childhood friend as his multiple health problems took him away from us three months short of his sixty-first birthday.  I mentioned in a previous post that the white working-class neighbourhood in which I grew up from the late 1950s now barely exists in its old form, and Nigel’s death gives that observation traumatic concrete force; he still lived just around the corner from my parents’ home in Southend-on-sea, so had remained quite literally part of that neighbourhood all his life.  His death therefore feels to me not just a great personal loss but an historical end-point, as if not just a deep part of my own being, but a certain precious idea of England, has gone with him.  “I love my country as it used to be,” he once said to me, and I can feel that immense pull of a shared working-class past too.  I shall have to be careful that my mourning does not turn into melancholia.

How move forward, then, emotionally and politically?   Perhaps by going one generation further back, paradoxically – to my paternal grandfather Henry Smith Pinkney, who was a lifelong Communist.  That was a political identity which itself took rise from a particular experience of class and locality – the mining villages of the North-East and then Kent, in Grandad’s case; but which also generated a universal idea of emancipation which, a generation further back still, could pull even a wealthy middle-class Victorian like William Morris across to its new utopian dreams and practice.   So the ‘idea of Communism’ still persists – and Marx at 200 is part of that – even if a particular historical embodiment of it, i.e. the Leninist party, is now definitively past.  So I here rededicate myself to that project of liberation, true in that to the working-class neighbourhood and upbringing that Nigel North and I shared – even if, his own father having been a Conservative Party activist, his political identity was more conflicted than mine.  I don’t ever want to stop remembering and mourning my dear friend, lost to us as he has been far too early, but the idea of Communism is a project open and utopian enough to point also to Miltonic fresh fields and pastures new.