Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast; or, How to have a Fake World War One Centenary

I suppose it was inevitable that, in a broadcast on the theme of ‘reconciliation’, the Queen would celebrate the informal truce that spontaneously broke out in the trenches between British and German soldiers in the First World War at Christmas-time 1914; and we have had the Sainsbury’s television advert over the last month or so to give some vivid visual imagery to this evocation (with football thrown in too, which the Queen did not mention). It’s good that there was such a truce, of course; at least it stopped the industrial-scale carnage for a few hours.

But if only it had gone much further. In his 1914 pamphlet ‘Common Sense about the War’, George Bernard Shaw recommended that the troops on both sides should shoot their own officers and go home and get the harvest in. Lenin knew that you had to go one stage further still and shoot your political leaders too. For him, you should take the weapons the ruling class gave you and turn them, not against each other, but against those ruling classes themselves, turning international wars into civil wars. So never mind cheery Christmas football, it would have taken uprisings on this scale by ordinary troops to bring down the capitalist elites whose competing imperialisms caused the unprecedented mass-slaughter.

As I've noted previously in this blog, my grandfather Henry Smith Pinkney fought with the Royal Artillery in France in the Great War, and though he didn’t actually turn his guns on officers or rulers, he did later join the Communist Party of Great Britain, which I take it was his way of saying that you had to hate and fight the entire economic system that had sent working men out to die in their millions to protect its imperialist super-profits. If you do not name, hate and fight that system, if you only mourn the deaths of so many individuals – the ‘fallen’ or the ‘warriors’ who ‘made the ultimate sacrifice', in that repulsive late-Victorian rhetoric - then you can have an enjoyably poignant emotional wallow, as did all those who admired the great flood of poppies at the Tower of London, but you show no real respect at all to those who have died in capitalism’s wars, then or since. I guess we are going to have to repeat these points frequently over the next three or four years!

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Teachers of Lore 2: John Goode

In June 1978 John Goode interviewed me for a place on the MA in Literature course at Warwick University, where I met my wife Makiko Minow, and at the end of that academic year he sent me down the road to Oxford to work with Terry Eagleton, so he certainly played a major role in shaping my personal, professional and political life. He co-taught literary theory to us on the Warwick MA course, and I did not then fully grasp what an important nineteenth-century scholar and critic he was. It was only later at Oxford, as my own thoughts turned to William Morris, that I began to take the measure of Goode’s significance as a Morris scholar in particular. His work mattered so much because – unusually among that generation of Morris critics – he brought the lessons of the ‘theory revolution’ of the 1980s to bear upon News from Nowhere and other key works. Under the impact of Louis Althusser and Pierre Macherey, he had moved from a ‘reflectionist’ to a ‘productionist’ concept of the literary text, and he produced his most important work on Morris in the light of the latter.

I attended John Goode’s inaugural professorial lecture at Keele University in February 1992, and learnt of his death in January 1994 at the age of fifty-four with great sadness. I heard later from Keele colleague Charles Swann that on his death-bed John had been reading, in such moments of respite as he had, Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove and volume two of Jürgen Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action, both immensely formidable texts in their different ways even if you were in the very best of health. So he leaves us not only an important body of writing about Hardy, Gissing, Clough, Morris and other Victorian literature topics (partly gathered in the Collected Essays of 1995), but also that moving example of intellectual dedication even in the face of great adversity.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Jeremy Deller's Colossus

I’m not so sure about Jeremy Deller’s painting of a giant William Morris hurling Roman Abramovich’s yacht Luna to the bottom of the ocean, grand ebullient image though it most certainly is. Firstly, the painting plays into a familiar stereotype of Morris’s eccentric rages and tantrums, as when ‘at Red Lion Square he hurled a fifteenth-century folio, which in ordinary circumstances he would hardly have allowed any one but himself to touch, at the head of an offending workman. It missed the workman and drove a panel out of the workshop door’ (Mackail, I, 215). Deller’s image of Morris manhandling the Abramovich yacht thus risks reducing politics to personality, or even pathology (Shaw believed that Morris at such moments suffered from a form of epilepsy).

Secondly, if we do interpret the painting politically, it strikes me as dramatising an individualist-anarchist gesture, a terroristic ‘propaganda by deed’ of the kind against which Morris himself polemicised vigorously in the 1880s and 90s, recommending in its place the slow, patient, frustrating but essential work of building up a collective socialist movement (though to articulate that is perhaps more a task for narrative than image). Thirdly, though I too certainly want to take Abramovich’s yacht out of private super-rich ownership, I don’t want to send it plunging to the bottom of the sea, even in fantasy, but rather to turn it into a floating oceanographic research institute, staffed with unemployed youngsters from east London investigating the effects of global warming upon marine life - roughly on the model of the ship Ganesh in Kim Stanley Robinson’s ecotopia Pacific Edge.

These are just preliminary personal responses, and perhaps in time to come I’ll warm more to Deller’s Morris-as-colossus. For it is certainly a powerful image and we ought therefore to be having a lively debate about its political meanings and impact. So let me here urge the editor of the Morris Society journal, Patrick O’Sullivan, to commission a range of brief responses to the Deller painting - 2000 words each, say - for the next issue, so that our necessary dialogue can begin.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Adjectives for Utopia

The British critic F.R. Leavis used to denounce the ‘adjectival insistence’ of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, by which he meant the way in which Conrad would relentlessly bang on about ‘implacable forces’, ‘inscrutable intentions’ and ‘inconceivable mysteries’ to heighten the enigma of Marlow’s quest for Kurtz in the African jungle. There can hardly be any doubt that Morris is guilty of such insistence in News from Nowhere, though with a very different set of epithets from Conrad’s own.

Everything in Morris’s utopian Thames valley, as John Helmer argued in a fine article on ‘The Prettiness of Utopia’ in 1979, is ‘touched by the same adjectives – pretty, nice, quaint, dainty, handsome and gay’ (p.5); and I’ve been particularly struck by the recurrence of the word ‘little’ in my recent readings of News from Nowhere: little cottage, little river, little hill – the list is endless! I think there is no doubt that, cumulatively, such adjectives have a diminishing effect on the utopian world, reducing it almost to the status of a dolls’ house. How much of the hostile critique of Nowhere as too pastoral and placid is actually the incremental effect in the reader of this relentless patterning of Morrisian adjectives?

Leavis occasionally recommended drastic surgery for texts which displeased him, famously wanting to throw out the Daniel Deronda material from George Eliot’s great novel of that title to produce a much slimmer new work called Gwendolen Harleth. Could we do something similar with Morris’s utopia? How about producing an edition from which all the belittling adjectives – pretty, dainty, quaint and especially little itself – had been entirely banished? Would the utopian world of Nowhere then feel more substantive and challenging? I suspect so; but is there is a publisher bold enough out there to give it a go?

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Terry Eagleton 50th Anniversary Interview

‘For the university, is there hope?’, Professor John Schad asked yesterday in the Lancaster Institute of Contemporary Arts Building. Terry Eagleton, whom he was interviewing there, seemed inclined to answer no, speaking apocalyptically of the ‘effective end of universities as a centre of humane critique’ in our time. So, in Kafkaesque fashion, plenty of hope, but just not for us, in the twenty-first-century academy. But is there not a performative contradiction here? Does not the very fact that Eagleton could make such an announcement, to an enthusiastic audience of 130 (including the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and admirers who had travelled up from as far away as South Wales), at a public interview that celebrated both Lancaster University’s 50th anniversary and Terry’s own extraordinary 50 years in the literary-critical business – does not all this suggest that we might in fact need a slightly more nuanced account of ‘hope in the university’ today?

John Schad’s wide-ranging and beautifully judged interview reminded us of the many ways in which Terry has been not just a brilliant literary critic and theorist, but also an important public intellectual, speaking on behalf of socialism and the oppressed in a variety of tones and registers (including humour, a topic which had some prominence in the interview: ‘I know I’m going to write a book on comedy’). The fact that a revered Marxist public spokesperson is now, since his enforced retirement from Manchester University in 2008, a celebrity intellectual in the neo-liberal university system, complicates matters no end, but does not just cancel out that former role.

Perhaps we need some new sociology of the role of stellar oppositional figures – particularly in retirement, as they now ‘sit loose’ to formal academic requirements – in the marketised university economy, since they are themselves commodities (in terms of institutional visibility and recruitment) and yet eloquent enemies of commodification. To walk that fine line, to sustain critique without just being absorbed and marketised oneself, seems a lot more complex now than it presumably was in the good old days when F.R. Leavis, after retirement from Cambridge in 1962, took up his new post at York three years later. So we look forward to a comparative study of figures like Eagleton, David Harvey and Alain Badiou, as they wrestle with such contradictions and do their best to speak for radical hope still. Moreover, as I reflected during the wine reception in the LICA foyer that followed this splendid Schad-Eagleton interview, we shall all hopefully be assembled here again in ten years time, for Terry’s 60th anniversary as critic, theorist and socialist.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Theses for a William Morris Communism Project

1. William Morris was above all a communist – and this crucial fact is too little recognised. As he declared in Commonweal on 18 May 1889, ‘I will begin by saying that I call myself a Communist, and have no wish to qualify that word by joining any other to it’; and his pamphlet ‘Why I am a Communist’ was published by James Tochatti’s Liberty Press in 1894. George Bernard Shaw, who had been very close to Morris in their early activist years, confirmed in 1934 that ‘Morris, when he had to define himself politically, called himself a Communist ... He knew that the essential term, etymologically, historically, and artistically, was Communist; and it was the only word he was comfortable with’.

2. With so much of the discourse on and around Morris in our culture consisting of gossip about Pre-Raphaelitism, admiration for flowery wallpaper or textile designs (which you then have reproduced on your tea-towels and wellies), worthy but in the end merely historical scholarship about his life and writings, or benign approval of his environmental and conservationist commitments, there is room and need for a group or network which locates itself firmly on the terrain of Morris’s communism, at the extreme edge of his and our culture, and which strives to get his role as a major communist activist, artist and theorist widely acknowledged.

3. This is, however, not just a historical project. Alongside the global capitalist crisis from 2008 onwards, we have witnessed a growing affirmation that communism is once again a viable term for radical politics and thinking in our own time. Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Jodie Dean, Bruno Bosteels and others have been key thinkers in this project. For as Badiou puts it, ‘We know that communism is the right hypothesis. All those who abandon this hypothesis immediately resign themselves to the market economy, to parliamentary democracy – the form of state suited to capitalism – and to the inevitable and “natural” character of the most monstrous inequalities’. After its twentieth-century history, communism certainly remains a challenging term, but the wager of these theorists is that now is clearly the moment to reinvent it.

4. Past and present can and should powerfully illuminate each other. The return of communist thinking in our own time once again makes visible this neglected but central dimension of Morris, while his own political activism, artistic work and utopian writing make available new resources to the communist revival of the early twenty-first century. There is thus now the possibility of an invigorating conversation between communisms past and present – a conversation which will be a matter of artistic production as well as intellectual analysis. Given the continuing hegemony of neo-liberalism, and all the human and ecological damage it does, no contemporary use of William Morris could be more necessary or urgent than this.

Monday, 22 September 2014

A Bollocking for Beowulf

For William Morris’s translation of Beowulf, that is, not the Anglo-Saxon epic itself, which I am ancient enough to have had to learn to read in the original Old English on my undergraduate English Literature course at Bristol University in 1975-6. Morris’s translation has always had a very lukewarm press, despite one or two bold attempts at critical redemption (by Robert Boenig, for example). But its most contemptuous dismissal ever may well be that of Kevin Jackson in his Invisible Forms: A Guide to Literary Curiosities (1999). For he there refers witheringly to ‘Morris’s dismal version of Beowulf, written in collaboration with [F.J.] Furnivall’s junior colleague A.J. Wyatt. The glossary for Morris’s Beowulf gives some indication of what a Teutonized form of twentieth-century English might have sounded like: in the hands of Wyatt and Morris, “disregard” became forheed, “mansion” or “dwelling-place” became wickstead, “curiosity” became witlust, “brave” became moody, and “poured out” became skinked‘ (p.105). And as for F.J. Furnivall’s own project of Teutonising the English language, that, Jackson neatly remarks, ‘was largely forheeded’. Are there, I wonder, any still nastier treatments of Morris’s version of Beowulf lurking out there?

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Go for it, Scotland!

‘We discourage centralisation all we can’ declares old Hammond in News from Nowhere (ch.X), a statement which we may take as giving his positive endorsement to the current Scottish independence campaign. As the Westminster, banking and business establishments go into panic mode in the final days before the referendum, what is at stake in all the turmoil?

Of course, Scotland will not get socialism if it votes ‘yes’ next Thursday, but it will think at least some new political thoughts (booting UK nuclear weapons out of the country, for one). And new thought is ultimately what this campaign has been all about. Live without ideas, the neo-liberal establishment tells us all; just get on with your shopping, for docile consumerism is life. Never mind grotesque and growing levels of inequality, the accelerating trashing of nature all around you, or US and NATO military adventurism across the globe – just go to Sainsburys or Topshop and get on with it.

So we must hope that Scotland holds its courage and lives up to the recent YouGov poll that gave a one per cent lead for the independence campaign. If it does so, it will have shown us what life lived in the light of an Idea looks like, even if, as I concede, this is not a socialist Idea as such. And that example will mobilise others, stirring us from consumerist slumbers into becoming militants of utopian Ideas of other kinds. So, invoking the memory of my beloved Auntie Edna from Aberdeen (pictured below, circa 1985) as well as Morris’s old Hammond, I heartily say: go for it, Scotland.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Objects in Utopia

My favourite literary theorist Roland Barthes once remarked that ‘Notre littérature a mis très longtemps à découvrir l'objet; il faut attendre Balzac pour que le roman ne soit plus seulement l'espace de purs rapports humains, mais aussi de matières et d'usages appelés à jouer leur partie dans l'histoire des passions : Grandet eût-il pu être avare (littérairement parlant), sans ses bouts de chandelles, ses morceaux de sucre et son crucifix d'or?’ Morris’s News from Nowhere might equally well be considered the moment when utopia discovered the object, when those rather colourless, merely generic utopian objects from Thomas More to Edward Bellamy give way to the intensely rendered object-world of Morris’s Thames valley: Dick Hammond’s damascened belt buckle, William Guest’s elaborately crafted pipe in the Piccadilly booth, and so on.

There are no doubt major benefits for utopia in this discovery of the object. The more sensuously embodied the abstract schema of your good society is, the more persuasive it and its values will appear to the reader. But there are paradoxical dangers here too. For if objects, landscape and even characters are indeed welcomely concretised and individualised in this fashion, there opens the possibility that they will acquire a thematic momentum and narrative force of their own, which may lead in directions that stray away from, or even directly challenge, the official thematic values that your utopia was trying to propound.

An ‘incarnational’ aesthetics thus proves to be a mixed blessing. It’s now hard to imagine a satisfying (or even readable) utopia without it, but it may also lead us to a view of the genre that veers close to the Marxist literary theory of Pierre Macherey: that the very fleshing out of the author’s ideological intentions – in this case, the abstract schema of a good society - in literary form may itself problematise those intentions, may revealingly expose their gaps, limits and silences. Whether or not Macherey's claim is true of literature as a whole, it certainly seems to capture the constitutive joy and dilemma of utopia as a genre, strung unsettlingly between politics (abstract) and literature (concrete) as it has been from More onwards.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Corncrakes on the Thames

If you head off into the Oxfordshire countryside this summer, are you likely to hear the sound of corncrakes in the fields? Dick Hammond eagerly anticipates doing so in News from Nowhere. In ch.XXII he announces how much he wants to ‘lie under an elm-tree on the borders of a wheat-field, with the bees humming about me and the corncrake crying from furrow to furrow’; and we know his wish will be fulfilled, for as the rowers arrive at Kelmscott in ch.XXX they hear ‘the ceaseless note of the corncrake as he crept through the long grass of the mowing-field’.

Those other late-Victorian rowers, the anti-heroes of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889), imagine what it will be like to camp on the river bank, when ‘only the moorhen’s plaintive cry and the harsh croak of the corncrake stirs the awed hush around the couch of waters’. In an 1884 article on ‘The Birds of Oxford City’ in The Oxford Magazine, W.W.F. announces that the ‘Landrail or Corncrake’ is ‘a summer migrant, visiting the Parks occasionally, but preferring the safe side of the Cherwell. I have heard it in Merton Meadow and elsewhere’. In the early twentieth-century Midlands, D.H .Lawrence’s poem ‘End of Another Home-Holiday’ announces that ‘In the valley, a corncrake calls/ Monotonously,/ With a piteous , unalterable plaint’; and a particularly pesky corncrake pops up in his first novel, The White Peacock, too. The bird features regularly in Samuel Beckett’s fictional Ireland, with Belacqua hearing ‘crex-crex, the first corncrake of the season’ in More Pricks than Kicks, and the ‘awful cries of the corncrakes that run in the corn’ turning up again in Molloy.

Plenty of corncrakes around once upon a time, then. But my Larousse Field Guide declares, sadly enough, that they were ‘once widespread, now decidedly scarce’, and it doesn’t show Oxfordshire in its map of their current UK distribution at all. So Dick Hammond in 2014 could well be disappointed on the upper Thames, but if he ventured a little further afield – ‘still relatively numerous in Ireland and Hebrides’ – he might have better ornithological luck after all.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Strawberry Thief Game

Coming soon to an I-pad near you will be the Morris-inspired Strawberry Thief computer game designed by Sophia George, the Victoria & Albert museum’s first games designer in residence. The game was given a first outing at the recent Abertay University festival of digital art, and it certainly looks pretty enough: a thrush icon flies over Morris’s colourful design and apparently you have to collect flowers as the bird passes. I’m all for Morris and his work being brought into the digital age, and have written about that issue previously on this blog (see ‘The Digital Imagination’, 1 February 2012). But I also recall that May Morris remarks somewhere that, as a girl, she had been scared of the birds in the Strawberry Thief design, so I wonder if there isn’t an emotional edginess in the visual field here which Ms George hasn’t quite got into what I’ve seen of her game. Excessive prettiness can quickly become vapid, after all.

So lest the artist David Mabb add this Strawberry Thief computer game to his already sizeable catalogue of ‘Morris kitsch’, let me suggest a follow-up idea to Ms George. Morris was a Communist as well as a designer, so how about a second V&A game based on this rather more rugged aspect of his life and work? It could be called the ‘Bloody Sunday’ game, and would involve police brutally attacking unarmed protestors in a digital recreation of late-Victorian Trafalgar Square. If the police kill three protestors and injure over one hundred more (as they actually did on 13 November 1887), then they win; but if Morris and his fellow-socialists, who would be operated by the game player, manage to fight them off and protect the crowd, then the good guys win. Morris saw his aesthetic and political activities as part of a continuum, so if we are going to have computer games inspired by him, let’s have them across the full range of his endeavours.

Monday, 4 August 2014

First World War centenary: a Shavian reflection

George Bernard Shaw’s rural Hertfordshire home, Shaw’s Corner (where he lived from 1906 to 1950), is a marvellous setting for outdoor theatre, and my birthday expedition this year was to a performance of his 1919 play Heartbreak House there on Saturday 26 July. On a glorious summer’s evening the actors put in spirited performances, with Captain Shotover being the star as far as I was concerned; and the first hour or so was very lively, even if the content seemed rather silly at times. But thereafter things got tedious, as the antics of these Chekovian upper-middle-class misfits dragged on and on. Fortunately, there was a revival of interest towards the end, as we saw the war and its Zeppelin attacks impinging on this hapless bunch. The audience (or at least, that part of it sitting around me) seemed as vapidly middle-class as the characters themselves, discussing its latest holidays in Hawaii, Los Angeles or Singapore in the intervals, rather than, say, the current savage Israeli campaign in Gaza.

So in terms of Shaw on the Great War, as we today mark the centenary of its outbreak, I’m inclined to turn away from Heartbreak House itself to the provocative formulations in his 1914 ‘Commonsense on the War’ article, which I quoted in my talk on ‘William Morris and the First World War’ at the Morris Gallery on 19 June. There he finely recommends that ‘both armies should shoot their officers and go home to gather in their harvests in the villages and make a revolution in the towns’, which is pretty much Lenin’s line on that imperialist bloodbath: take the weapons the ruling class gives you, and turn them against that ruling class itself.

My paternal grandfather, Henry Smith Pinkney (1894-68 – pictured above), served in the war with the Royal Artillery in France, and in later years joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, so I can assume that he too would have agreed with the Shaw/Lenin position, at least retrospectively. So in the great national wallowing in emotion we are going to get today from church, government and media, and amidst all the repulsive rhetoric of ‘sacrifice for their country’(pro patria mori), those coldly analytic terms ‘capitalism’ and ‘imperialism’ need to be kept firmly in mind. Working-class lives in their millions were brutally wasted as British and German ruling classes fought over territory and profits, and the only decent thing to come from that four-year spree of industrialised mass-killing was the Bolshevik Revolution itself.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Voting Socialist

Since leaving the Green Party a few years back, I have regularly voted for socialist candidates in local, national and European elections. Often enough, I have rather wondered about the point of this, given the tiny percentage of votes such candidates attract; but at least, it seemed to me, one was keeping a Morrisian red flag flying in this way, however faintly. However, much more positively, in the recent by-election in my city council ward, Scotforth West (which I used to represent as Green Party councillor between 1999 and 2003), I note that the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidate took enough socialist votes away from the Labour Party to give victory to my friend Abi Mills for the Greens. The modest TUSC tally of 49 votes thus took Labour down to 802, which let the Green Party win with 823 (Conservatives third on 517). That’s not too bad an outcome from a leftwing point of view, keeping the neoliberal parties out and letting a mildly leftish one in – so if only it could be replicated nationally!

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Fellowship and Julian Assange

As an earlier post on this blog suggests (25 June 2011), I remain on the lookout for namesakes in Morris’s copious oeuvre, so I really should not have missed the Antony who briefly crops up in A Dream of John Ball: ‘Hob Horner and Antony Webber were slain outright, Hob with a shaft and Antony in the hand-play’. I’m glad that my namesake died fighting bravely against medieval tyranny, and his fate is a reminder of just how serious the issues are in Morris’s celebration of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. The famous invocation of fellowship in that text – ‘fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death’ – is often cited at Morris Society meetings as a celebration of their genial hospitality, yet its contextual meaning in the romance itself is rather more fraught than that.

For what John Ball is celebrating in those memorable words is the villagers’ forcible freeing of a political prisoner, i.e. himself, ‘when ye lighted the archbishop’s house for the candle of Canterbury’, an act which brings down on them the retributory military attack we witness in the opening chapters of the work – in which my namesake and several others are killed. So Morrisian fellowship in the present isn’t just a matter of warm mutual feelings over a glass of wine on Morris’s birthday, March 24. Its contemporary equivalent would be something more like marching off to the Ecuadorean embassy, driving away the British policemen who keep round-the-clock guard there (at an annual cost of several million pounds to the tax-payer) and freeing the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, whom the UK government has in effect been vindictively keeping political prisoner there since June 2012. Unless one is willing to embark on ventures of that order, one should not be invoking John Ball-style ‘fellowship’ quite so lightly.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Michael Gove and the GCSE Literature Syllabus

Education Secretary Michael Gove read English at Oxford University from 1985 to 1988, exactly the moment when the student pressure group Oxford English Limited (OEL) was campaigning to open that outmoded literature syllabus to new developments in the subject. Did the young Gove, I wonder, attend our March 1986 conference on ‘The State of Criticism’, at which 400 students and academics – though hardly any members of the Oxford English Faculty – listened to talks on literary theory, women’s writing, cultural studies, and extending the canon? Did he buy copies of our journal News from Nowhere, which appeared twice yearly from April 1986 and extended the OEL reform campaign across all aspects of the subject?

If Michael Gove did attend any OEL events, he obviously didn’t learn much from them, but rather – on the evidence of booting American texts out of the GCSE literature syllabus in favour of English classics – remains wedded to definitions of English literature which were moribund even in his own undergraduate days. Most of the traditionalist dons of 1980s Oxford have retired by now, but since this backward-minded pupil of theirs occupies high office, their dead hand still malignly grips the throat of the subject nationally. If the Secretary of State can spare some quiet reading time from his busy campaign of educational retrogression, I’ll happily send him a complete set of News from Nowhere so that he can update himself on his subject. Better late than never.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Exit pursued by a Wolf

Browsing through various publishers’ catalogues and websites, I’ve come across new or recent books on The Dog in the Dickensian Imagination (Ashgate), Beckett and Animals (CUP), Stage, Stake and Scaffold: Humans and Animals in Shakespeare’s Theatre (OUP) and Jane Austen and Animals (Ashgate again). And at my local Oxfam bookshop I have just snapped up a literary theory volume entitled Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal (Minnesota); it contains an important essay by Jacques Derrida, whose work has been formative in this field. I remember, some thirty years ago, when postgraduate friends and I were casting around for topics for our next cultural theory seminar, Sue Vice (now Professor in the Sheffield University English Department) eagerly suggested ‘animals’. The rest of us looked at her in complete bewilderment then, but clearly she was well ahead of her time and is thoroughly vindicated now.

So one’s mind naturally starts trying out the topic of ‘William Morris and Animals’. In a general way, the motif of animality is central to Morris’s utopianism: a hedonistic celebration of our own animal nature resituates us in the natural environment that capitalism has so despoiled and downgraded. But there are more transgressive versions of this theme elsewhere in his oeuvre, in the motif of actual human-animal metamorphosis. Glimpsing those ponies in the new Kensington forest in News from Nowhere seems genial enough, but when Birdalone is magically turned into a deer early in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, or when Sigmund and Sinfiotli are transformed into ravenous wolves in Sigurd the Volsung, the porous nature of the human-animal binary is altogether more unsettling. Certain it is, at any rate, that we would now benefit from a full-scale – and properly theorised - study of this topic in Morris’s work. Prospective PhD students, please note!

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Reading Aloud

In a review of the recordings which T.S. Eliot made of his own Four Quartets, F.R Leavis judged the poet’s oral performance to be inadequate and concluded that ‘These records should call attention to the problem of reading Four Quartets out. The problem deserves a great deal of attention, and to tackle it would be very educational’. Well, we don’t have a recording of Morris reading out his own verse (as we do of Tennyson and Browning), though Fiona MacCarthy refers, in her account of his undergraduate days, to ‘the funny singsong voice he always used when reading poetry. He laid great stress on the rhymes’. But we do have Gary Watson and Peter Orr reading some of Morris’s verse on the 1986 Argo ‘Treasury of Victorian Poetry’ tapes, which I’ve just happened across in a local charity shop. How educational is that, to borrow Leavis’s adjective?

In any performance of a poem we are likely to gain insight into those features of tone, pace and rhythm which are so difficult to establish in a written analysis; and this is certainly the case here. But additional effects come into play through the choice and sequence of texts, with its reversal of chronological order. First, ‘The Message of the March Wind’ (1885), and then ‘Summer Dawn’, ‘Shameful Death’ and ‘In Prison’, all from the 1858 Defence of Guenevere collection. In the first of these, the reading voice is torn between lush Hardyesque rural nostalgia – ‘the fiddler’s old tune and the shuffling of feet’ – and the more turbulent tones and energies which the wind introduces with its news of the grim political realities of the distant city

This conflicted voicing then reveals ‘Summer Dawn’ as the worthless little exercise in a stale Victorian convention which it so clearly is; the reading voice can do nothing with it, but remains ‘patient and colourless’, to borrow the poem’s own words. Plenty of colour in the next two Guenevere poems, though, which are delivered here with an appropriate mix of anger, grief and bitterness. But they have been brilliantly reframed by this sequence, with the political message of the March Wind implicitly turning their violent medieval events into episodes in the kind of vicious civil war which brings political change in chapter XVII of News from Nowhere. Early Morris, as Ingrid Hanson has recently reminded us, is all about fighting – ‘I fight, therefore I am’ – and that combative energy just needs a political ideology (which it gets in 1883) to give it contemporary point and purpose. So in reading aloud more than one poem, it would seem, a phonic and semantic interplay can be set up which may unexpectedly transform the texts involved.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

On being Oxford Professor of Poetry

On Tuesday evening the sonorous tones of Geoffrey Hill rang around the Oxford University Examinations Schools as he delivered his latest lecture as Professor of Poetry. Hill read out to us Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’ and then meditated searchingly upon its linguistic and religious complexities – his own splendid lecture style being (to borrow a phrase he applied to the poem itself) ‘vaticised beyond the reach of commonplace propriety’. There are political as well as religious implications to Hopkins’s unique practice of language, as when the poet informed Robert Bridges on 2 August 1871 that ‘I am always thinking of the Communist future … Horrible to say, in a manner I am a Communist’; but these Hill didn’t explore. None the less, this was a marvellous offering in what is clearly intended as a coherent five-year lecture sequence devoted to the proposition that ‘the grammar of a poem decides the grammar of belief’.

It was on 16 February 1877 that William Morris wrote to James Thursfield of Oxford University declining to let his name go forward for the Professor of Poetry election of that year. I’ve always felt that, as a valuable exercise at the critical-creative frontier where so much important work is being done in literary studies today (not least by my Lancaster colleague John Schad), someone should have a stab at writing the sequence of lectures that Morris might have given had he accepted the nomination and won the election. In the nineteenth century the Professorship of Poetry was a ten-year stint rather than today’s five, so Morris’s tenure – 1877-1887 – would have covered his conversion to socialism in 1883. We would thus see a Pre-Raphaelite Professor of Poetry maturing into a full-bloodedly Communist one across that decade, and reworking his views of poetry and literature accordingly. So I look forward one day to reading the volume of William Morris’s lost Oxford lectures.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Announcing David Mabb

‘On a touché au vers’. Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous 1894 remark could well be applied, with the necessary modifications, to visual artist David Mabb who, for some 15 years now, has ‘touché’, i.e. productively tampered with, the designs of William Morris. The typical Mabb artefact involves two elements: Morris’s floral late nineteenth-century imagery is boldly contrasted with the more aggressive, often geometrical iconography of the early twentieth-century Soviet avantgarde. The two modes of imagery, and by implication the two moments of socialism they represent, deeply unsettle each other, but without any possibility, on our part, of synthesising the two.

Mabb’s new exhibition, 'Announcer' – which debuts at the Focal Point Gallery in my old hometown Southend-on-sea – could be seen as involving three elements rather than two. El Lissitsky images sit strikingly on top of often ornate pages from the Morris-Burne-Jones Kelmscott Chaucer – so far, so Mabbian – but the semantic content of Chaucer’s prose (if one leans in close to read it) means that thirteenth-century feudalism is also put into play alongside late-Victorian socialism and Soviet Communism. This three-way interaction is a step forward for Mabbian aesthetics, but still leaves the question of synthesis problematic.

Mabb’s sleek, sophisticated images are visually stunning, no doubt about it, particularly in the sheer scale with which they confront you in the Southend gallery. But why take this sustained detour through Morris and Constructivism rather than having a shot at an immediate contemporary political art of one’s own? Mabb marks out a space for the latter (the implication being that it will share aspects of both its predecessors without being reducible to either), but then does not deliver it. Is he thereby agreeing with Fredric Jameson, who in the 1980s used to argue that utopian representations had to be empty abstract schema because, in a postmodern image-culture, any positive content would at once be co-opted by the system, by consumer capitalism itself. Does this argument hold good today, do we still need to be as abstemious as that? After his 15 years of brilliant and thought-provoking montage – of clashing Morris and Constructivism together, and now Chaucer too – I wonder whether David Mabb might not take a risky next step towards a political art of his own, of our own. For certainly no-one’s contribution to an early twenty-first-century Communist aesthetics could be more important than his.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Flowers and Sex

In his still impressive biography of Morris, Jack Lindsay early on mentions ‘a combination that never ceased to excite him: a lovely girl merged with his childhood-imagery of flowers’ (p.4). One of the more inventive literary renderings of that particular fantasy must surely be this passage from D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover: ‘With quiet fingers he [Mellors] threaded a few forget-me-not flowers in the fine brown fleece of the mound of Venus. “There!” he said. “There’s forget-me-nots in the right place!” She [Constance Chatterley] looked down at the milky odd little flowers among the brown maiden hair at the lower tip of her body. “Doesn’t it look pretty!” she said’ (ch.15).

Whether Morris’s famously restless fingers ever occupied themselves threading flowers through Jane Burden’s pubic hair, we do not know (though we do know that pansies were later to be a sexual signal between Jane and W.S. Blunt). Not many Morris biographers have been bold enough to speculate about the details of Morris and Jane’s sex life, though Fiona MacCarthy characteristically pulls no punches in asking: ‘How did the honeymoon work out?’, and concludes rather unsettlingly that ‘Morris’s brusqueness and shyness may well have been a problem, combined with his peculiar jerkiness of movement’ (p.152). Hum, yes, physical jerkiness is certainly not what one wants in bed, so let’s hope that at some point Morris’s woman-plus-flowers fantasy did take the form of Mellor’s gentle floral practices.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Keywords and 1980s Art

William Morris gets a mention in Raymond Williams’s indispensable 1976 volume Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (over his choice of Communist as a political self-designation in the 1890s), and I went along to the Liverpool Tate exhibition ‘Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain’ with high expectations. The curators have picked thirteen of Williams’s keywords: these feature on the walls in a flamboyant script, while a rich selection of 1980s art – for the most part of a politically committed variety – is lined up opposite to them.

Well, that’s the theory, though there is in fact some slippage in the practice. David Hockney’s fine portrait of his parents, for instance, which according to the exhibition brochure should be aligned - rather boringly, one can’t help thinking - with ‘private’ actually hangs opposite the term ‘structural’, which certainly has you racking your brains to make connections between the two (the Oedipal triangle was the only linkage I could come up with). Similarly, Stephen McKenna’s painting of ‘An English Oak tree’ which according to the brochure belongs with ‘folk’, actually hangs opposite ‘violence’, a rather more challenging montage-effect. And Stuart Bisley’s untitled oakbeam and soft wood installation, which alludes to the heavy labour of the mining and shipbuilding industries in Sunderland, certainly touches on important Williams preoccupations (work and working-class experience), but is oddly placed opposite the term ‘myth'.

I think that in the end this is more a show about 1980s political art than about Raymond Williams’s historical semantics. But given the slant of its choice of keywords – criticism, formalist, materialism and theory all feature, for instance – there is something of a bias towards conceptual art by politically motivated artists who probably did have some general awareness of Williams’s work. Some of the artefacts on display themselves focus on issues of language – Rose English’s ‘Plato’s Chair’ performances interrogate such terms as death, the sublime, soul, representation and so on – so there is a nice fit there with the Williamsite framework . Overall, this exhibition is a salutary reminder of how varied and resourceful the radical art of the decade was (black, feminist, gay, lesbian, Irish and ecological as well as socialist voices are represented here), and how shrunken progressive political prospects were in the epoch of Thatcher, Regan and Kohl. Only Gorbachev’s coming to power in the Soviet Union in 1985 gives a flicker of hope, but then, look how that turned out.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

In Search of Yellowhammers

I love those vivid yellowhammers who feature so prominently in Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Self-Unconscious’: ‘Bright yellowhammers/Made mirthful clamours,/And billed long straws with a bustling air’, and so on across two stanzas. And D.H. Lawrence (who wrote a booklength study of Thomas Hardy) follows up this motif through Ursula Brangwen in Women in Love: ‘Some yellowhammers suddenly shot along the road in front of her. And they looked to her so uncanny and inhuman, like flaring yellow barbs shooting through the air on some weird, living errand, that she said to herself: “ … They are of another world. How stupid anthropomorphism is”’ (ch.XIX).

Birds are important for William Morris too; and Cormell Price once recorded in his diary that Morris could ‘go on for hours about their habits: but especially about their form’. But among the robins, thrushes, blackbirds, lapwings, wood-ouzels, herons, nightingales, moorhens, woodpeckers, kestrels, ernes, willow-warblers and others who enliven his pages and designs, I don’t recall any yellowhammers. Have I missed something in his voluminous works - some stray text or manuscript that hasn't yet been digitised, perhaps? Can anyone help with an apt reference? In The Well at the World’s End the Lady of Abundance shamefacedly tells Ralph that, as a girl, she had set snares for birds (‘though when I had caught them, it irked me sore to kill them’), so I here, more benignly, set a literary snare which may one day capture us a memorable yellowhammer reference in Morris’s vast oeuvre.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Passwords and Tokens: A Quiz

Morris’s tales and romances are fascinated by the idea of secret passwords and tokens, so here, for the keen Morrisian reader, is a quiz based upon them. I should warn you that in at least one of the stories you will be slain outright if you cannot answer. The answers follow the image below, so take care how you scroll down.

A: When Arnald and Florian gather their men in the Abbey in ‘The Hollow Land’, their guards ask new arrivals, ‘Who went over the moon last night?’ What is the correct reply?

B: Just before Cissela is sent to king Valdemar as Peace-Queen in ‘Svend and his Bretheren’, what token does Siur give her?

C: In A Dream of John Ball Will Green whispers in the narrator’s ear, ‘John the Miller hath y-ground, small, small, small’. What is the correct reply?

D: What token is borne by the runner who arrives at the House of the Wolfings in that romance?

E: ‘When I have set a mark on thee and given thee a token’, says the old man to Hallblithe on the isle of Ransom; what password does he teach the young man to ensure his safety?

F: How do the questers after the Well at the World’s End recognise each other?

G: What token of recognition do Osberne and Elfhild potentially have in The Sundering Flood (which May Morris tells us her father would have made more of if he had lived to complete the tale)?

In a period in which, as Edward Snowden has so heroically shown us, the NSA in the United States and GCHQ over here are remorsely spying on all our electronic communications, perhaps there is more to be said for Morris's low-tech means of mutual identification than we might first have thought.


A: ‘Mary and John’
B: He breaks a thin golden ring in two and gives one half to her.
C: ‘The king’s son of heaven shall pay for all’
D: A war-arrow ragged and burnt and bloody.
E: ‘The House of the Undying’.
F: They wear ‘a little necklace of blue and green stones with gold knobs betwixt, like a pair of beads ... and tied to the necklace was a little box of gold with something hidden therein’ (I, 3)
G: Osberne breaks a gold coin decorated with warriors and the rood in half and shoots one half across the river to Elfhild.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Farewell Stuart Hall (1932-2014)

In the wake of the death of cultural theorist Stuart Hall on the 10th of this month, a tweet from the William Morris Gallery pointed us to his remarks on Morris in his account of the ‘Life and Times of the First New Left’. Hall wrote: ‘The notion of a “socialist propaganda of ideas” was, of course, borrowed directly and explicitly from William Morris and the relationships forged in the Socialist League between intellectuals, struggling to make themselves what Gramsci called ‘organic’, and the working class. We had all read and been inspired by the ‘Making Socialists’ chapter of Thompson’s William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. Indeed, the first editorial of New Left Review was framed at either end by a quote from Morris’s Commonweal article of July 1885: “The Labour movement is not in its insurrectionary phase.” I added: “we are in our missionary phase”.’

It has been moving to see how much grief the loss of Stuart Hall has unleashed on the Left and beyond, comparable only to that occasioned by Raymond Williams’s death twenty-five years earlier. I didn’t know Hall personally, though I listened to his spell-binding oratory at various events in the 1980s and was an avid reader of Marxism Today, with its analyses of Thatcherism and ‘New Times’. But reading the statement of Hall’s debt to Morris under the immediate impact of his passing, I wonder if it isn’t now time to run the traffic the other way, as it were.

Instead of Stuart Hall being indebted to Morris, as in the mid-1950s, the William Morris Society of 2013 might open itself to the themes and projects of Stuart Hall. It might then think of itself as an explicitly leftwing outfit with a mission to intervene in the cultural, political and economic debates of the present (rather than retreating to safe historicist work on the nineteenth century). For starters, what about a London lecture course on ‘The Theory and Practice of Contemporary Utopia’, as an early twenty-first-century equivalent of Edward Aveling’s 1885 Socialist League lectures on Marx’s Capital? Such a metamorphosis of the Morris Society would be a small but useful compensation for the loss of a truly great figure on the Left.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Capitalism and Climate Chaos

When this winter’s severe flooding was confined to the Somerset levels, we could feel that it was at a safe distance, in an already vulnerable part of the country, so that it had no further implications for the rest of us. But now that flooding has come to the Thames valley and elsewhere, we are beginning to think again. Indeed, ‘winter’ in my first sentence is palpably the wrong word; there has been no recognisably wintry weather for the last three months or so, just the unending rain and the ever-rising floods. Winter-without-winter: if that’s not climate chaos, it’s hard to know what would be.

But what are those ‘further implications’? Whose narrative is going to win out as we seek to interpret this national disaster? The first step – as all the green groups and spokespeople and even the occasional mainstream politician like Ed Miliband are telling us – is that this is manmade climate change in action, that these are the dire practical consequences (arriving very much earlier than we had ever dreamed) of throwing unthinkable amounts of carbon dioxide up into the atmosphere. Hopefully, that key first insight will get through. We probably need a much sharper terminology in these matters: of corporate ‘climate criminals’ who – like war criminals – will one day face justice for their irresponsible actions.

But what drives all this relentless carbon dioxide emission in the first place? Here comes the second interpretative step, which no mainstream and very few Green politicians will ever take. With its ruthless desire for the maximisation of private profits and its imperative of unending ‘economic growth’ on a finite planet, capitalism as a globalised economic system disrupts our climate and other eco-systems, with the disastrous consequences we are now living through. We must ‘name the system’, as that 1960s political slogan so aptly put it; but we must be able to name the alternative too, and here William Morris, with his own deep attachment to the Thames valley, is a precious resource. For until we are clear that it is for a Morrisian green communism that we are fighting, capitalism will continue to dominate the terms of economic debate and climate chaos can only deepen.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Ellen in and out of Nowhere

‘Just who is Ellen ... ?’ asks Patrick Parrinder impatiently, even angrily, in his fine 1991 essay on News from Nowhere (thus confirming her claim that she troubles men’s minds). Plenty of critics have tried to answer that question. Here are a few of their colourful suggestions.

‘A forecast of the next age’ (Middlebro, 1970); ‘we should not take Ellen to be Morris’ (Goode, 1971); ‘the anti-Janey’ (Lindsay, 1975); ‘Guest’s girl-friend’ (Parrinder, 1976); ‘echoes of course of Helen’ (Sharratt, 1980); ‘a multi-dimensional figure’ (Silver, 1982); ‘just stepped out of a painting by Burne-Jones’ (Holzman, 1983); ‘really Guest’s double’ (Sypher, 1984); ‘in a complex sense his daughter’ (Spear, 1984); ‘The Helen of the new world ... anticipates Santayana ... a Christ-figure’ (Boos, 1990); ‘an isolated Cassandra’ (Talbot, 1990); ‘bewitching Helen, destroyer of cities’ (Buzard, 1990); ‘Ellen’s symbolic significance of a further temporal dimension’ (Mineo, 1992); ‘dream combination of Pre-Raphaelite angel and Socialist New Woman’ (MacCarthy, 1994); Ellen-in-sunlight’ (Buzard, 1997); ‘Ellen-Diotima’ (Abensour, 1999); ‘Nowhere’s reassertion of the Gothic spirit’ (Kinna, 2000); ‘the model for a kind of dynamic immobility’ (Beaumont, 2004); ‘an element of May [Morris] in the character of Ellen’ (Cherry, 2007); ‘Ellen-as-world, or world-as-Ellen’ (Plotz, 2007); ‘Guest’s Beatrice, so to speak’ (Boos, 2010); Ursula Le Guin’s Shevek in Morris’s text (Pinkney, 2011); ‘the sublime’ (Pinkney, 2012). Ellen even has a Morrisian family, it would seem, since ’Birdalone is younger sister to the vibrant Ellen’ (Meier, 1972/78).

Let me add one or two more ideas. Ellen is a Lady of Shalott who breaks out of the enclosure of the Runnymede cottage to follow her Lancelot up the Thames, or a Medea-figure rowing up river to prepare her secret spells of power. Like her fellow-Nowherians, the critics compulsively fall ‘to making stories of [Ellen] to themselves’ (ch.XXVIII), and we can’t expect such story-telling about News from Nowhere’s most vivid character to end any time soon.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Art Turning Left

Liverpool Tate’s ‘Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making, 1789-2013’ announces itself as ‘an exhibition to be used’, so one can either accept its own juxtapositions of radical art from different cultures and periods or – better – try out a few additional montages of one’s own. Thus, though they are in different rooms, I wanted to hold in a single mental image Walter Crane’s spectacular banner for the Workers Union, Holloway branch (1898), with its proletarians from different continents dancing merrily round a globe, and the banner of the International Union of Sex Workers from a century later (1998). Heaven knows what Crane would have made of the latter, but if there is a common factor here, it might be the lavish use of curvilinear organic forms in contrast to, say, the dynamic geometric abstractions of El Lissitsky’s Soviet ‘New Man’.

I then found myself playing a similar mental game with the Morris items gathered here. For one can juxtapose books as well as banners, contrasting the gorgeous Kelmscott Press News from Nowhere on display with Tim Rollins’s 'Amerika – for Karl' (1989), where disadvantaged South Bronx schoolchildren have produced eerie, Salvador Dali-like doodlings all over the pages of Kafka’s novel Amerika. Or you could play off against each other, as images of community, a sober photograph of the Hammersmith Socialist Society from 1893 with a romanticised folk-art painting of ‘The Production Brigade’s Reading Room’ (1975) from the Chinese Cultural revolution. Other paintings in this group introduce the motif of the abundance of nature – great swarms of fish and ducks – which is also there in the Morris Rose and Thistle fabric displayed here, but isn’t much in evidence elsewhere.

The Morris corner of this very rich exhibition (which includes wonderful things like Jeremy Deller’s Folk Archive and witty Situationist détournements which I don’t have space to notice here) sits next to the Office of Useful Art, one of whose formative principles is: ‘Re-establish aesthetics as a system of transformation’; and that – for both Morris and for us today – is the right note on which to end this post.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Who Killed William Morris?

In 1951 E.P. Thompson published an article with the dramatic title ‘The Murder of William Morris’, though the killing to which he referred was metaphorical rather than literal, a matter of the depoliticising of Morris’s life and work by the American biographer Lloyd Eric Grey. Still, just occasionally Morris scholars have taken Thompson’s title more literally and suggested how their subject might indeed have been killed rather than dying in his bed from the complications of diabetes in October 1896.

A. Clutton-Brock memorably gives us two such scenarios in his 1914 study of Morris. In the chapter on ‘Morris as a Socialist’, he writes: ‘we cannot doubt that, if the revolution which he hoped for had come in his time, he would have been a revolutionary leader; or that, if it had failed, he would have been put to death by the victors. He might also, if it had degenerated into a terror, have been put to death by the victors of his own side. But even, then, we may be sure, he would have died with courage and without despair’ (p.150).

It has been one of the recurrent motifs of this blog, prompted by the extraordinary rise of creative writing courses in university English Literature departments in recent years, that creative means may avail where history, criticism or scholarship let us down. We may not have had that Morrisian revolution in the UK, but could not some aspiring short story writer out there take up Clutton-Brock’s two imaginary scenarios and narratively flesh out for us his powerful political answers to the title of this post: who killed William Morris?

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Splinters in your Eye

The German Marxist theorist Theodor Adorno once remarked that ‘in psychoanalysis nothing is true except the exaggerations’, a mischievous thought second only (in my view) to Karl Kraus’s witty observation that psychoanalysis was the illness to which it believed itself to be the cure. Whether Adorno was correct or not in his assessment of Freudianism, he certainly had a striking belief in the power of exaggeration; as Martin Jay notes, for Adorno, ‘essential to any valid cognition is “an element of exaggeration, of over-shooting the object, of self-detachment from the weight of the actual”’. Such acts of exaggeration might, however, take very minimal linguistic form, as in the sharply observed vignettes of Adorno’s masterly Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life.

We might argue, then, that Theodor Adorno gave us something like a theory of blogging avant la lettre. In its brief compass, a blog post pushes an insight or argument as hard as it can, making a case which is almost certainly too forceful, which lacks ultimately necessary reservations and qualifications (of the kind for which Raymond Williams’s occasionally stodgy prose was so famous or notorious); but which none the less, by force or excess of argument, hopefully illuminates its object in new ways. Thus a blog post may become, in its challenge and difficulty, a splinter in one’s eye, to borrow from another memorable Adorno dictum: ‘the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass’. It is in that provocative spirit that I intend to continue blogging through 2014. Happy New Year, readers – better put your protective goggles on now!