Sunday, 28 July 2013

Summer Thoughts in the Sheldonian

Sitting in Oxford University’s august Sheldonian Theatre on a hot summer’s afternoon for my son’s splendid D.Phil. degree ceremony, I was of course aware of Morris having spoken there on 15 November 1879 as part of the SPAB campaign against the restoration of St Mark’s in Venice. As the ceremony proceeded, however, I was also aware of the sound of drilling and hammering wafting in from the upper-floor open windows, which at first I took (in the spirit of News from Nowhere chapter VII) to be a road-mending gang outside in Broad Street, but in fact, as I realised later, was workmen revamping the New Bodleian Building opposite. So perhaps the more apt literary reference for the occasion was Jude the Obscure, which my MA supervisor John Goode once described to me as a novel about an Oxford workman repairing the very college walls and architecture which kept him excluded in the first place.

Vice Chancellor Andrew Hamilton (who incongruously appeared with a sticking plaster down his nose) told us in a trenchant opening address that we were to have a ‘solemn ceremony’, and with all the organ music, mutual doffing of mortarboards and Latin speeches, we certainly got that. He justified such heavyduty ritualism in Matthew Arnold-style terms, as being appropriate to the university’s 900-year dedication to pursuing the ‘best that has been known and thought’. Well maybe; but I couldn’t help feeling that it had as much or more to do with that other absolutely crucial social function of Oxford University, that of consolidating English ruling-class culture and values, of ideologically cementing that public school-Oxbridge circuit of privilege and entitlement which gives us, say, Boris Johnson, George Osborne and David Cameron today.

So the Morris we needed to remember in the Sheldonian was not after all the SPAB activist of 1879, but rather the revolutionary socialist who spoke just down the road at University College in 1883 or in the Holywell Music Room in 1885, and whose Oxford branch of the Socialist League did indeed try to break down the divide between undergraduates and workers, to let the drillers into the Sheldonian as it were. For if Oxford is a place where ruling-class cohesion is forged, it is also, by the same token, a place where it can be challenged; and the William Morris Society should certainly establish an intellectual and political presence there and rouse young minds to idealism and justice. Morris’s own ‘Oxford campaign’ between 1879 and 1895 sets an interventionist standard and challenge we have yet to match.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Why I Must Read Alain Badiou

Have just watched an excellent little online video in which Peter Hallward of Kingston University discusses Alan Badiou’s book on ethics (Verso, 2001) in the middle of London’s Housmans Bookshop: see Hallward lucidly summarises what he calls the negative and positive side of Badiou’s book, and it was the latter that suddenly made my Morrisian ears prick up.

Ethics for Badiou in this positive sense, according to Hallward, is a matter of ‘giving the participants, the militants of these [emancipatory] causes ... the resources that they need to continue in their projects when they become difficult, when they are vulnerable to despair or exhaustion or doubt, and ethics is about trying to meet that challenge and to find the resources ... to persist’. Hallward’s evocation of the activist’s crisis of morale recalls John Ball’s confession of his crisis of motivation in Canterbury prison in A Dream of John Ball or Old Hammond’s evocation in News from Nowhere of the doubts that afflicted late-Victorian socialists (‘shrunk from what seemed to them the barren task’); and we could certainly find such moments of political discouragement in Morris’s own personal letters too. So if Badiou can offer us an ethics of hope for such bad times, then I feel I had definitely better buy and read his book.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Peter Faulkner at 80

As we celebrate Peter Faulkner’s 80th birthday and his long and admirable contributions to Morris studies and the Morris Society, I recall a festive gathering which Samuel Beckett’s friends organised for him in New York in 1965. As his first biographer Deirdre Bair informs us, ‘Jean Reavey planned a special dinner to include all the foods mentioned in his writing, ending with a grand finale of Banane à la Krapp’ (p.485). Could we then devise the Morrisian equivalent of such a literary banquet for Peter’s birthday event?

The centrepiece of our feast would surely be roasted dragon’s heart, but other meats would be available too: good foison of venison, salt pork, elk and even, albeit unseasonally, the Holy Boar of Yule (though the vegetarians among us will be happy to see girls arriving with baskets of early peas). The fish course might include a leash of fine perch, fat and red-flecked trouts cooked outdoors on a fire of sticks, and Icelandic char. There would surely be cabbage-leaves full of strawberries, and plenty of cherries, pears, apricots and wood-berries. Also curds and new cheese (meat of the herdsmen) and syllabub fresh from the farm dairy. Many different breads would be on the table: dark-coloured farmhouse loaves, rye bread, thin pipe-stems of wheaten crust, bread made of sweet-chestnuts.

All this would be washed down with ginger-beer and lemonade for the youngsters, and for the adults plenty of Steinberg wine, good Kentish mead, Grimhild’s thick murky concoctions and, naturally, some deep invigorating draughts from the Well at the World’s End (for how else can one wash eight decades away?). And as a final, non-Beckettian touch we should have Sigurd and Gunnar playing on the harp in the background throughout. Happy birthday, Peter.