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.