Wednesday, 24 February 2021

David Attenborough, Communist

I’m glad to see that David Attenborough’s powerful speech to the United Nations Security Council ends up with a communist vision for our shared human future.  He may begin with the statement that ‘I am not a politician’, but his searching account of the dangers we face globally as a result of rising temperatures, the despoiling of the oceans and changing weather patterns, is rich with a social concern that necessarily in the end tips over into political and economic critique.

Now that we are ‘perilously close to tipping points’, he argues, we can already, in the present, see ‘the impact on the poorest and most vulnerable people’.  Though Attenborough does not use the term capitalism in his eight-minute speech, there is no doubt that his is an anti-capitalist discourse, as when he notes that we will be ‘compelled to question our economic models and where we place value’.  And his longer-term utopian vision is that, if we can come together in ‘global cooperation’ to deal with the climate crisis, ‘we may finally create a stable healthy world where resources are equally shared’.

 A ‘world where resources are equally shared’ is a trenchant definition of communism, and I’m therefore glad that Attenborough has lent his immense moral authority to this Morrisian social vision. 


Sunday, 14 February 2021

Medieval Ructions at Leicester

The Morris Society online talks in March and April to celebrate the achievements of the Kelmscott Press look good, and since the ultimate artefact produced by that Press was the Kelmscott Chaucer, the Society might also pay some heed to developments in English Studies currently going on at the University of Leicester.  For the English Department there is planning to close down provision of courses in medieval literature and English language in the quest for a curriculum devoted to ‘diversity’ and ‘decolonisation’.  Hackles have been mightily raised by this plan: the MA external examiner Catherine Clark has resigned, and lit-crit luminary Professor Isobel Armstrong has handed back her honorary degree from Leicester in protest.



Current medievalists have pointed out that much good work is being done in that field under the very labels of ‘diversity’ and ‘decolonisation’, a fact which thoroughly undercuts the Leicester rationale for these cuts.  Recalling my own undergraduate enthusiasms for the medieval side of my Bristol English curriculum, I would point to the remarkable sense of linguistic expansion and gusto early-period literature can offer – Basil Cottle, John Burrow and Myra Stokes, a belated but deep thank-you for all that!  But then, perhaps I was an unusual student, with A-levels in French and German testifying to a pre-existing passion for language work.  That is something I didn’t see so much of in my own recent undergraduates, but that’s all the more reason why they need it as a curriculum possibility.



But for Morrisians, the crucial defence of medieval studies must surely involve ‘diversity’ too, but not quite in its current sense, of gender, racial, class and other identities.  Medieval study has the capacity has to lift us bodily out of the capitalist-individualist categories that have dominated Western thinking since, say, the sixteenth century, to turn our minds inside out and open us to the possibility of other modes of social organisation, other ways of collective being.  And from ‘diversity’ of that kind – reculer pour mieux sauter – a utopianism of the future might arise too.  Did not Morris try to show exactly how this could be so in News from Nowhere, after all, where so much of his twenty-second-century socialist future has a faint fourteenth-century resonance to it too?  So, Leicester University English Department, back down!


Sunday, 7 February 2021

Stories in Verse

The image I have attached to this post gives a sense of Morris's commanding position - for one poetry editor at least - in the tradition of narrative verse.  It is taken from George G. Loane's little volume Stories in English Verse (1925), from the 'King's Treasuries of Literature' series general-edited by Sir Arthur Quiller Couch.



The actual Morris texts in Loane's collection are 'The Writing on the Image' and an extract from 'The Doom of King Acrisius', both from The Earthly Paradise, of course.  But those particular choices are less important for us than the rousing visual image with which the book opens.  It should surely serve as a clarion call to the William Morris Society to make more of Morris's poetry than it currently does.  I intend to see that it achieves precisely that!






Wednesday, 27 January 2021

In Memoriam: 1 in 100,000

My dear mother Gloria Jean Pinkney died of Covid pneumonia in Southend Hospital on New Year’s Day and her body was cremated this morning.  She was eight-seven years and four months old and, being down in Essex, it seems likely that she succumbed to the new UK variant of the virus, though I can’t be sure.  Blessedly, it was a very short illness, but it’s also an immensely painful loss because she was so close to vaccination, so near to getting through this crisis; she and I were discussing my post-lockdown Easter visit to Southend, and she was planning a trip down to the New Forest in May.

But our deep family grief is cast into another dimension by the fact that yesterday the UK reached the grim official milestone of 100,000 Covid deaths.   Personal grief is transmuted by statistics – above all that statistic - into analysis and politics: Mum’s cremation took place against a background of intense media discussion of why we have one of the worst Covid fatality rates in the world, possibly the very worst per capita.  For Labour, Jonathan Ashworth spoke of Boris Johnson’s ‘monumental mistakes’; the Independent assailed his ‘dither and delay’ throughout this crisis; health professionals on the radio gave stark accounts of existing health inequalities and long-term cuts to public provision which had left this country so badly equipped to face a pandemic.

Even now our borders are not adequately closed, something other countries did ten months ago.  We had an ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ policy which basically meant: Eat Out to get infected and spread infection.  Our test-and-trace programme was farmed out to a bunch of private-sector cowboys who pocketed huge public funds and delivered a shambles.  Over and over again, the interests of business have been prioritised over public health.  Capital has reigned supreme, and working-class people in frontline roles of all kinds have born the terrible brunt of the pandemic. 

I can’t quite say ‘Boris Johnson killed my mother’ because I suppose that Mum could in fact have improved her personal Covid security by a few notches, which might have made a key difference.  But we certainly can say that Johnson, the Tory government, UK capitalism in general left us disastrously exposed to potential medical danger and have proved serially incompetent to protect us from it once it arrivedMy Mum, in a sad irony, was herself a Tory voter, but if we are to have a truly worthwhile future on the other side of Covid, then Morrisian communism and utopianism will have to be at the very informing core of it.