Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Heroes and Babies

My son Justin’s very first excursion from the house as a month-old baby was to a conference on ‘The State of Criticism’ which I had co-organised in the Oxford University English Faculty building in March 1986. Our great coup, as organisers, was to have got Raymond Williams as a plenary speaker. So as Williams adjusted his papers at the lectern under the splendid Oxford English Limited banner at the front of the hall and Terry Eagleton pondered his opening remarks as chair and the 400 people in the audience waited expectantly, I held Justin up at the back of the room, pointed him towards our famous speaker, and said, ‘Look, that’s Raymond Williams down there’. He gurgled (appreciatively, I trust), and I then returned him to his pram outside and crept back into the lecture hall.

I think some Oxford English Limited colleagues, possibly including Justin’s mother, felt at the time that this was rather eccentric behaviour. So I am delighted to find, decades later, that I have good Morrisian authority for this supposedly curious practice. For as the crowds gather round the Burg of the Niblungs to see Sigurd the Volsung pass in and out in Morris’s great epic poem, ‘oft the mother turned,/And spake to the laughing baby: “O little son, and dear ... thou [may] sayest when all is sung,/’And I too once beheld him in the days when I was young’” (Book III). So there you are: all doting parents want their babies to see their heroes, all the way from Sigurd to Raymond Williams. Nothing in the least abnormal about that!

Friday, 25 May 2012

The Oxford Project

Like Morris himself, I love and loathe Oxford University in about equal measure. So when this year’s University Boat Race was disrupted by swimmer Trenton Oldfield I found myself simultaneously furious that Oxford had been deprived by him of victory and anarchistically delighted that this ridiculous elite event had not after all been allowed to close the river Thames to everybody else that day. In similar mode, once booked in to give a talk on ‘William Morris in Oxford’ at the Morris Society AGM in Mansfield College last weekend, I didn’t just want to indulge dreaming spires nostalgia – even if this was the political nostalgia of celebrating Morris’s own architectural and socialist campaigns in the city – but decided to say something about possible future uses of our venue too.

So my full title was: ‘William Morris in Oxford: As It Was and As It Might Be’. In part a rehearsal of my 2007 book on the topic (available through Amazon), with one or two new discoveries thrown in too - Morris’s student ‘bodyguards’, for example; but also a utopian proposal, as with Ellen in News from Nowhere (which itself has to pass through Oxford): ‘I shall make a proposal to you to do something which would please me very much, and I think would not hurt you’. Ellen, living in utopia, knows that the Nowherians need more history, but we, living in history, in my view need more utopia.

So the proposal – William Morris in Oxford As It Might Be – was to launch a Morris Society Utopian Studies group in Oxford, building upon certain relevant traditions of the place itself (the Speculative Fiction Society of Brian Aldiss and C.S. Lewis, for instance) and intervening in both undergraduate and local civic and political culture from this base. Would it work? Could we muster the personnel? I’m not sure. But if we want to tell a story – i.e., make a story – about Morris at his old university rather more activist than Pre-Raphaelite stained glass in Christ Church cathedral, then I think it’s worth a shot.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Today We Have Naming of Parts

‘What’s in a name?’ asks Dr Robert MacPhail in Aldous Huxley’s utopia Island: ‘Answer, practically everything’ (ch.9). Morris’s own works seem to be in two minds about the issue. On the one hand, Dick Hammond in News from Nowhere blithely asserts, in relation to Trafalgar Square, that ‘the name of a dead folly doesn’t bite’ (ch.VII). But Morris’s early poem ‘King Arthur’s Tomb’ disagrees rather sharply, since Guenevere there claims that ‘The ladies’ names bite verily like steel’.

The question of the effectivity of names came up in the earliest discussions about founding a Society to commemorate the life and work of William Morris, as Michael Crick informs us in his excellent history of the Society: ‘May [Morris] had suggested the Morris Guild or Morris Fellowship, but Emery Walker felt that this would narrow the scope of the organisation. It would, he thought, tie it too closely to the personality of Morris and might therefore lead to a type of antiquarian society, devoted to the past and with no impact on the present’ (p.18).

I think Emery Walker was clairvoyant here, and that though the Morris Society has often attempted to have an 'impact on the present’, there is a momentum about its name which does indeed, slowly but steadily, pull it regularly back towards the Victorian past. Therefore, almost a century after Walker first issued his warning, I wish to make a Swiftian modest proposal: that we re-name the William Morris Society as the News from Nowhere Society. For in that great work all of Morris’s political and aesthetic concerns are intensely active, and yet, as a utopia, it orients us necessarily towards the future rather than the past, towards a collective project rather than an individual personality.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Celebrating Aldous Huxley

The fifth of May is the day the investigative journalist William Weston arrives in San Francisco, the capital city of Ecotopia, in Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 utopia of that title. It was also the day on which twenty of us assembled in the Kelmscott Coach House to celebrate Aldous Huxley’s utopia Island (which is itself centred on an investigative journalist, Will Farnaby) on the 50th anniversary of its publication. Chilly though the day was, the sun glittered gaily on the Thames at high tide, and the Coach House garden was beautifully awash with bluebells. This pleasant English scene could hardly be further removed from the tropical setting of Huxley’s island of Pala, with its eerie lizards and great snakes, its jungle creepers and ubiquitous mynah birds. In his essay on ‘Wordsworth and the Tropics’ Huxley famously argued that the Romantic poet’s genial pantheism wouldn’t have lasted two minutes if he’d been parachuted down in the tropics.

Where better to discuss utopia than Kelmscott House, which, in its guise as the Hammersmith Guest House, is our very own English portal to utopia, after all? The more you constellate utopias against each other, the more they give off their own distinctive meanings. Morris’s utopia is good on rivers, Huxley’s on mountains; movement in Morris is doggedly horizontal (horse and cart across London, rowing up the Thames), in Huxley consistently vertical (climbing up a ravine, ascent to the High Altitude Station). In both, we find Old Grumblers and Obstinate Refusers, but in Island they pose a deadly threat to the utopian community, as Morris’s don’t. So should you then, as in Callenbach’s Ecotopia, have a secret police to deal with them – can utopia have a secret police and still be utopian? And so on.

In his 1962 review of Island Wayne Booth remarked that it ‘carried me through to the end, arguing all the way’; and what finer tribute could one pay to any utopia? We shall in the days to come be arguing all the way about many more utopias in the Kelmscott Coach House.