Thursday 19 July 2018

Rudyard Kipling Erased

Fiona MacCarthy gives us a memorable glimpse of Morris through the eyes of the fourteen-year-old Rudyard Kipling, who was a cousin of the Burne-Jones children: ‘Kipling, as a child, was impressed by “Uncle Topsy”, and especially taken with his story-telling facility, giving an account in his memoirs of a surprise visit by Morris to the nursery when Kipling was staying with the Burne-Joneses.  “We settled ourselves under the table which we used for a toboggan slide and he, gravely as ever, climbed on to our big rocking horse.  There, slowly surging back and forth while the poor beast creaked, he told us a tale full of fascinating horrors, about a man who was condemned to bad dreams.  One of them took the shape of a cow’s tail waving from a heap of dried fish”’.

However, Morris, had he lived long enough, might well have taken a dim view of much of Kipling’s own literary ‘story-telling’, and I imagine would have approved of the recent actions of students just down the road from me at Manchester University.  Finding that their Student Union building had been decorated, without consultation, with a mural of Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’, they have painted over it with Maya Angelou’s stirring anti-slavery poem ‘Still I Rise’, on the grounds that Kipling was a jingoist, an imperialist, and dehumanised people of colour.  This admirable gesture fits into a pattern of sustained student assault on university icons of Empire, as with the continuing Oxford campaign ‘Rhodes Must Fall’.  As one of the foremost anti-imperialist campaigners of late-Victorian England, Morris would wholeheartedly back today’s rebellious students.

Wednesday 18 July 2018

Pumping Poo with Panache

William Morris was a Londoner through and through, despite his occasional nostalgic yearnings for a quiet rural life on the upper Thames, so he would probably have been as fascinated and horrified as I was by BBC 2’s stunning programme on ‘The Five Billion Pound Super Sewer’ last night.  As Bazalgette’s Victorian sewer system, designed for two million people, collapses under the weight of the current insane levels of immigration into the capital – population now nine million, and estimated to rise to thirteen million imminently – so London’s rivers are polluted in the most obscene and extensive manner.  Morris’s beloved river Lea, where he used to fish as a lad, was particularly nauseating in this programme, with its regular discharges of shit and sanitary towels making it a festering mess of e-coli bacteria, and the Thames now receives 39 million tons of toxic sewage as overflow every year.  Not much hope for the salmon of the opening chapter of News from Nowhere then!

The new sewage project is indeed awesome – a seven-meter-wide, twenty-mile-long tunnel deep under the Thames which will carry a vast, unimaginable torrent of shit which then needs to be pumped spectacularly upwards, like a reverse waterfall, to the surface in east London to be processed.  The enormous machines and shafts, the extraordinary engineering feats and problems – all created a powerful image of what one might well term a ‘technological sublime’ in this programme, which reminded me of some of the science-fictional terraforming achievements in Kim Stanley Robinson’s great Mars trilogy of the 1990s.  But Morris might have been pleased to note that, however formidable the machines and resourceful the engineers, it is always in the end a single chap using his hands who needs to finish off the job: a man with a 50p sponge sanding down great walls of concrete to the necessary meticulous finish, or a solitary diver under the Thames removing river silt with his shovel. 

One can’t help but thrill to the giant gadgets, but the only real environmental solution, on a planet whose human population now vastly exceeds its biological carrying capacity, is a massive reduction in human numbers, a ‘great clearing’ of the city along the lines of that in News from Nowhere itself.  If we marched five or six million Londoners up the M1 to Scotland, which sees itself as needing additional people, then we might have a chance of building a human-scale, decent capital city again.  Until then, the Great Wen will continue to be an economic, moral, political and scatological force for corruption and calamity in our society.

Thursday 5 July 2018

In Our Time

On the 70th birthday of the National Health Service, we had a lively four-way discussion of Morris and his work on Melvyn Bragg’s weekly Radio 4 programme this morning.  Much basic exposition had to be done for the radio audience, but there were also some interesting and sharper angles coming through which alas could not get fully developed.  Bragg himself clearly didn’t think much of Morris’s medievalism as expressed in A Dream of John Ball.  Presumably his views here are shaped by his own researches on the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt for his 2015 novel Now is the Time, but, dutifully remembering that he is the programme’s host rather than an actual discussant, he didn’t really develop his own critique.

Ingrid Hanson boldly spoke up for Morris’s fascination with violence, a topic to which she has devoted a fine book.  This is a crucial emphasis, which breaks us away from a stereotypical image of gentle Morrisian rural Englishness, all willow trees and reed warblers chirruping on the upper Thames.  She also valuably stressed Morris’s Marxism, though I personally would have preferred the term Communism here.  Marcus Waithe shrewdly noted how central, yet how radically undefined, the term ‘beauty’ is in Morris’s aesthetic thought, and gave us an important insight that we should follow up further in his poetry: ‘the strengths of Morris’s poetry are very intimate with its weaknesses’.  At a time when the Morris Society does so very little in relation to its hero’s poetry, we should explore this paradox further.

Jane Thomas had a powerful leitmotif to her own contributions on Morris: ‘He’s so compromised all the way through’, ‘a deeply compromised man’, News from Nowhere is ‘as compromised as his poetry’.  This stress on self-contradiction in all facets of Morris – his personal life, his business practices, his politics – again welcomely gets us away from too easy praise of his endeavours.  I should want to give it a more literary inflection, I think, picking up Marcus Waithe’s stress on the poetry.  For it seems to me that the anxieties and self-doubts which afflict Morris constantly come through in the ghosts and monsters who so numerously populate his literary works, where they attain dream-like intensity and concretion.  Hauntology and teratology – these should be the next major directions in Morris studies, surely.