Saturday 14 December 2019

Reflections on the General Election

It seemed a cruel irony to have the final seminar of my Utopias course on the very day of such a comprehensive electoral defeat for progressive politics in this country: Boris Johnson very firmly in, Jeremy Corbyn now on his way out.  Our Lancaster MP, Cat Smith, successfully defended her seat, so there was a grain of local comfort in that.  But after the immediate emotional shock of Thursday night to Friday morning, which was deep indeed, how does one make sense of the overall result?

Liar, racist and self-interested buffoon he may be, but Johnson very capably did what he had to do, which was to neutralise the Brexit Party: once that was achieved, he automatically had some forty-plus per cent of the national vote.  Corbyn had the near-impossible task of holding together Remain – his young Labour Party activists and metropolitan supporters – and Leave – the older, northern, white working class for the most part.  I’ve been at local Labour branch meetings at which I felt totally isolated as a Lexiteer, at which the assumption was utterly that Labour was now a Remain party, despite the national leadership’s own, more nuanced position.  To hold these two wings of the movement together would have required a consummate performer, and Corbyn was never that; I’ve been recurrently frustrated over the last couple of years by how lacklustre and energyless he seemed on television.  Add to that extraordinary levels of media vitriol, the anti-semitism issue, and what I think really was a ‘policy incontinence’ which weakened the initial impact of a strong left manifesto, and yes, Labour was indeed in trouble.

Today’s issue of the Morning Star, the Communist Party newspaper, heads one of its election postmortems with a quote from William Morris: ‘Intelligence enough to conceive, courage enough to will, power enough to compel.  If our ideas of a new society are anything more than a dream, these three qualities must animate the majority of the working people; and then, I say, the deed will be done’.   The ways forward are certainly pointed out there: renewed projects of political education (adult and community education, I can’t help thinking, rather than university-based education); the forging of an activist party engaged in the struggles of its local communities in all their diversity and complexity.  The Labour Party will now need a new leader, but the heritage of Corbynism itself – that absolutely welcome break with ‘New Labour’ towards a class-orientated politics – must subsist; and the mass membership that Jeremy Corbyn inspired to join the Party during his years of leadership will hopefully be strong enough to resist rightwing and centrist calls for class compromise.  Brexit will now get done, and with that behind us, no longer poisoning the national political discourse, Labour politics can move forward again.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

J.W. Mackail Revisited

In the dark backward and abysm of time I published in the Morris Society Journal an article entitled ‘J.W. Mackail as Literary Critic’, in which I argued that Mackail – best known now as Burne-Jones’s son-in-law and Morris’s first biographer – was also worth reading as a literary scholar and critic in his own right.  I would still defend the underlying project of that essay, and indeed I have just re-read Mackail’s Springs of Helicon (1909), which still strikes me as a useful account of Chaucer, Spenser and Milton.

In the years since I wrote that piece I’ve occasionally happened upon mentions of Mackail’s criticism.  In his lively volume The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life since 1800 (1969), John Gross gives what is I suppose the typical twentieth-century view of Mackail, who is here unceremoniously lumped in with some of his contemporaries: ‘the orthodox Late Victorian literati do seem to merge into an unusually compact group – the Courthopes and the Mackails, the Sidney Colvins and the Sidney Lees’.  While conceding that they had ‘the Civil Service virtues’, Gross concludes damningly that ‘they were also stuffy, conventional, sedate, out of touch with the growing points of literature in their time’. 

However, there is an alternative view possible here.  Thomas Hardy admired Mackail's work and coresponded wtih him in 1916: 'your lecture on Shakespeare ... suggests all sorts of ideas about him'. In June 1920 C.S. Lewis wrote enthusiastically to his friend Arthur Greeves: ‘the only book I have read with satisfaction lately is Mackail’s Lectures on Poetry: I think he is one of my favourite moderns – he always has just the right point of view and deals with the right subject: he has sent me back to “Endymion” … ’.  And even as late as his An Experiment in Criticism (1961), though admittedly in more muted fashion – ‘Yes, even Mackail’ – Lewis lists the Scot among the ‘emotive critics’ who communicate to you their own enthusiasm for literary works and thus send you off to authors you didn’t know about or had undervalued. In the twenty-first century, J.W. Mackail will certainly never be current again in any major way, but his critical writings might still be worth dipping into now and again.

Tuesday 19 November 2019

The Interpretation of Dreams

In her exuberant utopia The Female Man Joanna Russ notes that the Whileawayans ‘practice secret dream interpretation according to an arbitrary scheme they consider idiotic but very funny’.  The visitor from the future, Janet Evason, almost expounds this system to the teenager Laura, but alas does not, so we never do learn ‘the secret dream-system by which Whileawayans transform matter and embrace the galaxies’.  Janet’s dream that she was skating backwards and Laura’s that a beautiful stranger was teaching her how to shoot remain undeciphered.

Would that we possessed the secret of Whileawayan hermeneutics so that we could interpret in a suitably arbitrary and galaxy-embracing way Bob the weaver’s oneiric experience in News from Nowhere – ‘I dreamed last night that we were off up the river fishing’ – or even that dream of Morris’s own from May 1886:  ‘We were all together in the High-street near the end of River Court Road, and watching shooting stars which were red & green & yellow like the lights on the new Hammersmith bridge, when all at once one fell to earth in the middle of the road and we all bolted for fear it should burst like a shell’.

Asserting that ‘this is the one occasion where he tells of an actual dream of his’, Jack Lindsay interprets Morris’s account in terms of ‘imagery of what is called the birth-trauma’, thereby drawing silently on the work of Otto Rank.  I’m more struck by the near-science-fictional imagery here, as if we have an anticipation of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds.  Aliens landing on earth may be a scary prospect, as in Wells, but there is another way of telling that story, as Russ herself has shown: let a visitor from the utopian future descend to our world, rather than sending a William Guest from the bad old world to the transfigured new one.  So in my application of Whileawayan dream hermeneutics, Morris has distantly anticipated that great mutation in the utopian genre which comes about in the 1970s with The Female Man and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time.

Tuesday 12 November 2019

Gothic Remixed

I haven’t actually read Megen de Bruin-MolĂ©’s recently published Gothic Remixed: Monster Mashups and Frankenfiction in 21st Century Culture.  But I like the blurb for it on the Amazon website, which starts as follows: ‘The bestselling genre of Frankenfiction sees classic literature turned into commercial narratives invaded by zombies, vampires, werewolves, and other fantastical monsters’.  And in a local charity shop this afternoon I came across a secondhand copy of Pride and Prejudice and Sea-Monsters, which contained a nice introductory quote from an American critic: ‘What work of literature wouldn’t be improved by the inclusion of a few zombies?’

So I’ve been playing with the idea of turning News from Nowhere into Frankenfiction, in the spirit of Barbara Gribble’s 1985 observation that ‘One wonders how Dick [Hammond] or Walter [Allen] would react to a sudden epidemic of smallpox or an invasion of malicious aliens’.  Only, with Morris’s utopia, we wouldn’t have to import the aliens, monsters and zombies from outside, from a literary elsewhere, since there are plenty of them in Morris’s own works, who could be colourfully unleashed against his utopian socialists in some great Thames valley Ragnarok.

Those two vicious werewolves in the first book of Sigurd the Volsung will try to sink their teeth into Dick Hammond’s throat.  Fafnir the dragon from that work will incinerate Kelmscott manor with his fiery breath.  He will be backed up by assorted monsters from The Earthly Paradise: the hideous serpent from ‘The Love of Alcestis’ and the uncanny Chimaera from ‘Bellerophon in Lycia’, among others.  The repulsive dwarf from The Wood beyond the World will be ‘scuttling along on all-fours like an evil beast and anon giving forth that harsh and evil cry’, and the Harpies from The Life and Death of Jason will launch aerial attacks when required to.  Their leader is the shape-shifting witch-wife of The Water of the Wondrous Isles, who ferries them all down the Thames on her blood-powered Sending Boat to attack communist London.  And they have recruited Grettir from Morris’s translation of the Grettis-Saga, who, though not strictly a monster, has near-superhuman strength which allows him to hurl great boulders and reduce the Hammersmith Guest House to rubble.

Ellen, Dick, Clara, Boffin, Bob the weaver and old Hammond will need all their wits about them (and perhaps William Guest’s time-travelling advice too) to prevail over this terrifying Morrisian crew.

Sunday 3 November 2019

Fracking in England

In chapter XXIV of News from Nowhere Walter Allen mentions ‘the earthquake of the year before last’, so we might be inclined to assume, in the light of the seismic activity we’ve experienced just down the road from me at Preston New Road, Lancashire, that someone has been trying out fracking as an energy source in Morris’s utopia.  But then we realise that cannot be so, since, as old Hammond has already told us in the British Museum, ‘whatever coal or mineral we need is brought to grass and sent whither it is needed with as little as possible of dirt, confusion, and the distressing of quiet people’s lives’.  So it seems impossible that the activities of Cuadrilla, against which many of my local Green Party friends have been protesting for years, would be tolerated in Nowhere.

And now we’re not going to tolerate them here any longer either, it would seem.  For the government has imposed a moratorium upon fracking in England with immediate effect, with Andrea Leadsom telling us that it has been won over by the science which declares that fracking’s seismic impacts cannot be adequately predicted or managed.  All well and good for the moment, but it does not take much political nous to see this announcement as yet another of the shamelessly cynical ‘promises’ that the Tory Party is rolling out in the run-up to the December 12th General Election.  Boris Johnson has been fulsome in his praise of fracking in the past, the government has pumped millions of pounds into support for the industry, and, as Jeremy Corbyn has rightly remarked, the likelihood is that, in the event of a Tory election victory, fracking would be instantly reallowed on the 13th December.