Saturday, 28 November 2020

Radicalising the Troops?

What, the Times newspaper sending excerpts from a communist utopia to British frontline troops during the First World War?  One could well imagine the Bolsheviks smuggling out such extracts to Russian troops on the Eastern front in the run-up to October 1917, but that pillar of the English Establishment, the Times?

But, yes, a section from Morris’s News from Nowhere did indeed form part of Broadsheet XXVIII for the troops (who included my paternal grandfather, Henry Smith Pinkney).  These Times­-sponsored publications were, according to their historian Geoffrey Dawson, ‘printed during the autumn of the year 1915 in the form of a “broadsheet” – a single page of thin paper suitable for inclusion in a letter – and distributed in hundreds of thousands to the forces in the field or at sea’.  Broadsheet XXVIII contained both material from News from Nowhere and Morris’s poem ‘O June’ from The Earthly Paradise.

Needless to say, however, and as the attached poem indicated, it was not the most energizingly revolutionary sections of Morris’s utopia which got posted out to the troops - ‘How the Change Came’, say - but rather an excerpt entitled ‘The Upper Thames’, which thus fits into a conservative vision of settled rural Englishness promoted by other broadsheets in the series.  Broadsheet I contained ‘A Choir Practice’ from early in Thomas Hardy’s novel Two on a Tower, and Broadsheet IV featured ‘On Birds and Trouts’ from Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, and so on.

Given that the later pages of News from Nowhere were seen by the Times as lending themselves to such nostalgic, politically pacifying purposes, we ought perhaps to look at these closing chapters set in the upper Thames valley and at Kelmscott Manor with a rather more sceptical eye ourselves.  My Grandad, I’m glad to say, was not pacified in this manner, but – more in the spirit of the first page of Morris’s utopia, with its Socialist League meeting – joined the Communist Party of Great Britain some years after his return from service with the Royal Artillery in France.

1 comment:

Tony Pinkney said...

And here's a handy link to Dawson's collection of the Broadsheets, which was first published in 1928 and then reissued by Routledge in 2015: