Wednesday 15 August 2018

Fascism Alert

The recent attack by far-right thugs on London’s socialist bookshop Bookmarks is a measure of how emboldened Fascist groups have become in the wake of Donald Trump’s Presidential victory in the United States and the Brexit vote here.  If their renewed activity requires, politically speaking, some new wave of anti-Fascist mobilisation along the lines of Rock Against Racism in the late 1970s, it also poses, in more historico-scholarly vein, the question: did William Morris predict or foresee Fascism?

Well, there are those alarming ‘Friends of Order’ in chapter XVII of News from Nowhere, counter-revolutionary para-militaries who ‘had some successes at first, and grew bolder … got many officers of the regular army to help them, and by their means laid hold of munitions of war of all kinds’.  Some editors of Morris’s utopia don’t footnote this group at all, while others, like David Leopold, are dutifully historical about it: ‘possibly an allusion to the “party of order”, the counter-revolutionary groups that Admiral Saisset (1810-79) tried to unite in opposition to the Paris Commune’.  Bolder commentators, such as Jack Lindsay, have seen Morris’s Friends of Order as forward- rather than backward-looking: ‘his insight into the middle class which already by the 1870s he had seen as “a most terrible and implacable force”, enabled him to prophesy the rise of Fascism in the epoch of imperialist decay, the counter-revolution of the Friends of Order’.

At a support event for Bookmarks on Saturday, former Morris Society chairperson Ruth Levitas read out a letter from her 103-year-old Uncle Max, who fought against Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts at the famous battle of Cable Street in 1936.  The struggle against Fascism goes on across the generations, and clearly, with an attack on a socialist bookshop, the Friends of Order are on the move again.  For, as we know from the mid-twentieth century, first you burn books, then you burn people.

Wednesday 1 August 2018

Teachers of Lore 3: John Burrow, Medievalist

Given the importance of the medieval period as a point of reference in Morris’s cultural and political thinking, I’ve often felt that the Morris Society should be offering public classes in medieval language and literature – particularly since such provision has been declining in universities in recent years.  I was lucky enough to benefit from such instruction as an undergraduate at Bristol University in the mid-1970s, and it certainly gives one a firsthand inwardness with aspects of the period which even the great cathedrals, so important for both Ruskin and Morris, can’t quite do.

One of my most inspiring medieval tutors back then was John Burrow, who had just arrived as Winterstoke Professor in the Department from Oxford. I worked my way breathlessly through his A Reading of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ (1965) – what beautifully lucid, delicate and thoughtful criticism it was, not in the least weighed down by its copious learning. Nor was John Burrow in any way a narrow medievalist.  He also taught a course on ‘The Language of Literature’, and in what was then a militantly Leavisite department, in which D.H. Lawrence represented ‘life’ and James Joyce ‘death’, it was Burrow who first taught us some pages from Ulysses, absorbed as he was in that novel’s avantgarde linguistic experiments.

I came across John Burrow again in later years, when he chaired a Quality Assessment panel inspecting the Lancaster English Department.  He carried out his task professionally enough, but you could also tell, from his occasionally bemused and quizzical demeanour, that to an old-style Oxonian scholar-gentleman of his type all this bureaucratic bean-counting was ultimately completely beside the point.  So I’m saddened to have recently learnt of my former teacher’s death in October 2017 at the age of eighty-five.  A great scholar and critic has left us, and it seems all the more important that we continue to invent new ways of promoting the study of medieval language and literature in his wake.