Friday, 26 March 2010

In Praise of Strikes

With the strikes by workers at British Airways and the looming possibility of a national rail strike after Easter, things are hotting up in British industrial relations; and today 95 academics, led by Professor Ralph Darlington, have written to The Guardian newspaper to condemn the ‘macho’ tactics of BA Chief Executive Willy Walsh, which in their view are aimed at breaking the union rather than resolving the dispute. In a Radio 4 interview this evening Professor Darlington notes that the BA management tactics are ‘symptomatic of something happening on a broader front’ and that we are now in a ‘life and death struggle’ for the future of trade unionism in this country.

Strikes can be inconvenient for the wider public, no doubt about it; my son and his girlfriend lost their planned holiday in Amsterdam last weekend because of the Unite union’s industrial action at BA. Where the public’s overall sympathies are in relation to both the BA dispute and the threatened rail strike is hard to say. In my view, one’s basic commitments in these matters are not arrived at intellectually but go very much deeper; whatever the detailed rights and wrongs of particular disputes, one is, finally and in one’s gut as it were, either for the bosses or for the workers.

But we can at least be quite sure what William Morris’s attitude to these strikes would have been; for he expresses it memorably in his fine letter to the Daily Chronicle on the miners’ strike of 1893: ‘The first step, therefore, towards the new birth of art must be a definite rise in the condition of the workers … this change for the better can only be realized by the efforts of the workers themselves … The struggle against the terrible power of the profit-grinder is now practically proclaimed by them a matter of principle … What these staunch miners have been doing in the face of such tremendous odds, other workmen can and will do’.

So: Morrisian best wishes to our own staunch cabin crews and railway workers!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

William Morris's Birthday

It is Morris’s birthday today, March 24th, way back in 1834. So: happy birthday to you, William Morris! How does it feel being 176 years old – a figure that even Old Hammond in News from Nowhere, who is a respectable 105 years old himself, doesn’t come anywhere near matching?

Yet Morris’s birthday is not the only literary anniversary of note taking place on March 24th each year. We might also want to notice that:

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, of ‘Hiawatha’ fame, died on March 24th 1882

J.M. Synge, the Irish dramatist, died from Hodgkin’s disease on March 24th 1909

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the colourful New York poet, was born on March 24th 1919

Charlotte Mew, Thomas Hardy’s favourite female poet, committed suicide on March 24th 1928

Ian Hamilton, poet and author, was born in King’s Lynn on March 24th 1938

Jo Shapcott, poet and translator, was born on March 24th 1958.

I have gleaned my facts from those indispensable volumes Poem for the Day nos 1 and 2 (2001 and 2003), which contain brief poems to memorise for each day of the year; and I intend to alert Jo Shapcott to the coincidence of dates and to invite her to write a birthday poem to William Morris on the strength of it. But there must be other things that the list above misses out ...

Monday, 22 March 2010

Morris, Photography, Utopia

Ashley Givens’s enjoyable talk on ‘William Morris and the Photography of Frederick Hollyer’ at Kelmscott House on Saturday drew resourcefully on the V&A’s archives to show us many images by this photographer we hadn’t seen before. But she also ventured interestingly into the photographic work of Frederick H. Evans, including that fine platinum print ‘From a Window at Kelmscott Manor’ (1896), a detail from which forms the cover illustration to the Oxford World Classics recent edition of News from Nowhere.

I’ve often wondered what made OUP choose this image as the front cover of the book: what is it about the semiotics of this image which fits it for that role, for our first glimpse into utopia? News from Nowhere ends at Kelmscott Manor, of course, so there is a general geographical aptness there; but then, any other of Evans’s Kelmscott images might equally have been chosen, so there must surely be more to it than that.

Does Evans’s open window motif, as used here, allude to that moment in the text when Ellen, berating her grandfather for his regressive fixation on books and the past, suddenly throws ‘open the casement wider’ to show him the rich sensuous world of Nature beyond (ch.XXII)? Or does it, less encouragingly, imply that we, the readers of Morris’s book, are trapped in a room ourselves, only able to look longingly out at utopia from an enclosure (our own dystopian present) which we cannot in the end escape – just like William Guest himself in that respect?

Your own sense of the appropriacy (or otherwise) of Evans’s image to Morris’s book may well differ from mine – if so, do please comment. But that haunting 1896 platinum print certainly seems to me to be an inspired choice by editor David Leopold. There are always new windows to be thrown open in William Morris studies!

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

'Ruskin's Venice' Exhibition

I’m lucky to have Lancaster University’s Ruskin Library on my doorstep. Its art exhibitions are always interesting and informative, and the current one on ‘Ruskin’s Venice’ (to 21st March) is up to the usual excellent standard, with many fine drawings, etchings and water-colours of Venetian Gothic architecture by Ruskin and his cronies. There’s nearly always a William Morris spin-off too, which in this case takes the form of a display copy of the Kelmscott Press edition of Ruskin’s Nature of Gothic, which Morris describes in that unforgettable phrase as ‘one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of our century’.

But the Morris connection reminds me that I would like the Ruskin Library to be utopian as well as historical, to open itself up to zany futuristic artistic and architectural impulses as well as to the sensible scholarly ones it usually embodies in its shows. Could it not, for example, chance its arm with an exhibition of the utopian architecture of German Expressionism (which is certainly in the Ruskin-Morris tradition)? With its ‘Glass Chain’ utopian correspondence between architects in 1919 and 1920, its 1925 compendium of Architecture Which Was Never Built which gathered together the architectural utopias of all periods, with its bizarre projects for ‘architecture plays’ and utopian architectural films full of ‘flame-buildings’, naturally ‘grown’ houses and ray-domes, the exhilarating Gothic modernism of Bruno Taut, Hermann Finsterlein, Erich Mendelsohn and the early Bauhaus might fire up our own utopian imaginings today.

All museums, I think, should aspire to be museums of the future, not just of the past. May the Ruskin Library under its energetic Director Stephen Wildman be bold enough to make a start in that direction!

Sunday, 7 March 2010

May Morris in New York: A Centenary

The week I spent in New York with my son three Christmases ago was certainly one of the most memorable weeks of my life. It was our first trip out to the Big Apple, and we did many standard tourist things: ice-skating in Central Park and at the Rockefeller Centre, a nighttime ascent of the Empire State Building, a chilly stroll across Brooklyn Bridge, an ice-hockey match in Madison Square, a hike across Harlem to admire Columbia University, the Christmas window displays at Macy’s. My great regret was that the USS Intrepid was not in position as a naval museum that December; I had so wanted to send a postcard of it back to my Uncle Harry, who had served in the Royal Navy in World War Two.

So the memory of that magical winter week comes vividly back as I open Janis Londraville’s collection of the May Morris-John Quinn correspondence: ‘Even though it was January, it was quite unusual for such a great snowstorm to invade New York City. The young lawyer, exhilarated by the company of his lady friend, decided not to attend the reception at Columbia University for the ambassador of England. Instead, he hired a double-seated horse-drawn sleigh, complete with bells, and toured the city with his charming companion. They rode for hours’.

We are still within the centenary of May Morris’s American lecture tour, which lasted from late 1909 to Spring 1910. Personally, the relationship with Quinn caused her much pain: she so clearly wanted it to deepen towards permanence, he very clearly didn’t. Yet intellectually it gave her so much: John Quinn, as a notable patron of modernist writers and painters, must have greatly expanded her own developing sympathies towards modernist art; and as Janis Londraville so truly says, May’s ‘position in early 20th century art and literary circles has been little celebrated’. So when a full account of that hoary but indispensable topic ‘Morris and Modernism’ comes to be written, it will certainly have to include May as well as William himself.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Wanted: Good Ornithological Critic

In his lively study of Morris in the old ‘English Men of Letters’ series (1908), Alfred Noyes throws down the gauntlet to readers of Morris’s poetry. There is, he claims, only a ‘narrow range of natural objects which he [Morris as poet] will allow himself to mention … The lark and nightingale and a few other birds he will allow; but the bullfinch and the yellowhammer, the white-throat and the herring-gull are all, we may say beforehand, avoided by him as if they were turkeys’. Nine times out of ten in the poetry, Noyes argues, Morris ‘would be content with some such phrase as “the brown bird’s tune”’ (p.45).

Can we rescue Morris from this charge? When Sigurd the Volsung kills the dragon Fafnir in Morris’s epic and tastes the blood of its heart, ‘there came a change upon him, for the speech of fowl he knew’, and he then hears the great eagles prophesying to him. Can we effect such a magical transformation on Morris’s verse itself and show it as being a good deal more sensitive to the variety of bird life than Alfred Noyes allows? We certainly know how attentive Morris himself was to birds and their habitats; for as Cormel Price recorded in his diary on February 22 1883: ‘Spent the evening at Top’s – a long talk on birds: T’s knowledge of them very extensive: can go on for hours about their habits: but especially about their form’.

As far as I know, Noyes’s challenge has not been definitively answered, even a hundred years on. Philip Larkin once wrote an essay entitled: ‘Wanted: Good Hardy Critic’. What we now need, in relation to Morris’s poetry, is a good ornithological critic.