Thursday, 24 September 2015

Insitute for Social Futures

Listening to my distinguished colleague Professor John Urry talking to us this morning about Lancaster University’s new interdisciplinary Institute for Social Futures (, I felt I had grasped why Jan Marsh introduced me at the recent Birmingham Symposium as a ‘contrarian’ in Morris studies. For I suppose I have always hoped that the William Morris Society might, in effect, become something like such an Institute, that the necessary scholarly and curatorial work it does around the biographical individual William Morris would serve as the springboard for a more ambitious project – which takes News from Nowhere rather than Morris himself as its starting-point – of thinking about the future, both futures as they have, historically, been envisaged and as they are being imagined, planned and built at this very moment. ‘Imaginaries of alternative futures’ was a phrase that John Urry used several times; and it’s one that nicely evokes my own sense of what my ideal Morris Society would explore.

This is not to say that the Morris Society as we currently have it has not already done some of this work. For it has indeed, as any reader of Martin Crick’s splendid history of it will know, made occasional forays in this kind of direction, with events on work, utopias, the environment, and so on. But always in the end, I feel, historicism wins out, and we return to questions about Morris and his circle, Pre-Raphaelite art, the early Arts and Crafts movement, 1880s socialism – all worthy and necessary topics, but which pull us backwards rather than take us forwards. Could we imagine, as at least a strand of what it does, a sustained Morris Society project devoted to the future, to digital futures as well as green futures, to futures for religion as much as futures for radical secular politics, to everything in fact that that most interdisciplinary of all literary genres, utopia, has explored so voraciously across the five hundred years of its existence? I hereby take a solemn vow – with my sword on the hallowed Boar of Sôn, as in Sigurd the Volsung – to do what I can to encourage the Society in that direction.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Solar Eclipse in Norway

‘O how their hearts were heavy as though the sun should die!’. This line from Sigurd the Volsung set me thinking about Morris’s final journey abroad, to Norway in July-August 1896. He travelled with John Carruthers and Dr Dodgson in a rather desperate last attempt to restore his health by a sea voyage, and the ship on which he travelled, the S.S. Garonne, was making a special trip to observe the total solar eclipse of that year – ‘the astronomers were playing their little game’, as Morris later wrote to Shaw. Morris biographers have assumed that the fact that his vessel was also a scientific mission was sheer coincidence; but my Sigurd quote shows that the notion of the sun dying or disappearing is actually deeply part of Morris’s imagination. Sigurd in that poem is a kind of mythological sun god, in his golden hauberk and with his ruddy rings and blazingly vivid eyes; and he is indeed ‘eclipsed’ and destroyed by the ‘Cloudy people’, the Niblungs.

So was Morris himself consciously in pursuit of a solar eclipse in August 1896? Did he want finally to literalise what had always been a powerful literary motif to him? I’m not sure; but I think that a more inventive mode of biographical writing might make something of this ‘coincidence’. It would certainly look at the role of sun imagery across his writing. It would also meditate on the role of Norway (rather than the more familiar Iceland) across his literary career, from the travellers of The Earthly Paradise, who set out from that country, to the Norwegian folktale evoked by old Hammond in News from Nowhere. It might take the occasion too to think about Morris and astronomy, which also comes up in The Earthly Paradise, and about Morris and science in general; does being on a boat of astronomers indicate a more open-minded attitude to it than we might have thought, and how might that bear, say, upon the invention of ‘the force’ in News from Nowhere? And if, in his bad moments on board, the ropes on deck appeared to Morris in hallucinatory guise as snakes, this might be the prompt to an examination of the imagery of serpents, worms and monsters across his work.

In short, I’m recommending a more adventurous and free-wheeling approach to Morrisian biography than we normally get. After Fiona MacCarthy’s spectacular effort of 1994, there is certainly no excuse for writing a routinely factual one any longer. And I would wager that, as a start in this direction, a booklength study of ‘William Morris’s Last Journey’ could be made very interesting indeed.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Chairman Mao smiles down on William Morris

As you walk into Jeremy Deller’s Morris/Warhol exhibition in the Birmingham Art Gallery, you at once see a vivid Warholian image of actress Joan Collins set next to a Rossetti painting of Jane Morris as a Dantesque 'Donna della Finestra’; and that seemed entirely as it should be – at least to my preconceptions about how a show like this might work. The mournful enigmatic depth or Walter-Benjaminian ‘aura’ of the Victorian work contrasts so strikingly with the glittery, cheery, in-your-face one-dimensional brashness of the 1980s celebrity image, just as Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes contrasts with Van Gogh’s dour but resonant painting of a pair of peasant boots in Fredric Jameson’s now canonical analysis in his great Postmodernism essay of 1984.

David Mabb, in his own artistic work around Morris, has been brilliantly clashing the visual iconography of our Victorian hero against the early twentieth-century visual ethic of Soviet Constructivism. Morris versus modernism: who knows, really and finally, what emerges from the explosive montage of those two things? And now, it seemed, Deller was having a stab at montaging Morris and postmodernism (in the iconic personage of Warhol). Whether you feel that ‘works’ in this exhibition or not - and what would it mean for it to ‘work’, anyway? - that seems to me to be, in principle, an absolutely worthwhile thing to have a go at.

So two surprises, then, as I finally got to this exhibition with my good friend Dave Cumner, first, that Deller doesn’t use the term ‘postmodernism’ anywhere. But no matter: it is the word we none the less need to conceptualise what he has tried to do ‘in the practical state’ (as Louis Althusser used to say). Secondly, and more importantly, that there was a fascinating vein of Warholian political art which I hadn’t been aware of, in the room devoted here to ‘Hopes and Fears for Art’. Not diamond dust shoes but white American policemen with vicious dogs attacking black protestors, and, above all, not the faces of Marilyn Monroe or Jackie Onassis or Shirley Temple or Elizabeth Taylor but rather of Chairman Mao Tze-Tung, five times over, above a display of Morris’s own political pamphlets and other writings.

What do the Warhol images have to say about China’s Communist leader? Do they celebrate him, satirise him, exploitatively play with an already iconic image to no particular effect, combine all of these in various proportions, or do something different entirely? You tell me. The same Jamesonian issues of one-dimensionality, depthlessness and ‘waning of affect’ seem to apply here as in the US pop-celebrity portraits, but none the less I felt productively unsettled by learning that there might be a postmodern political art of sorts after all. And since I had just spoken about ‘William Morris and the Return of Communism’ at the Birmingham Morris symposium, Warhol’s five Chairman Maos poised with their faint smiles as teasing as the Mona Lisa’s own above that range of Morris political pamphlets will be my abiding memory of Jeremy Deller’s fine exhibition.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Contexts for the Birmingham Symposium

When the London 7/7 bombs went off on the first day of the 2005 Morris conference in the city, history truly announced its impingement on the event with a vengeance. With the 2015 Morris symposium now so close upon us, perhaps we can think our way ahead of history this time. The most enlivening context for the Birmingham event, for British Morrisians at least, is Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable campaign for the Labour Party leadership. Corbyn has galvanised the Left here in a way that no-one has for a very long time, and he seems well on the way to creating a genuinely broad-based anti-austerity movement, regardless of the outcome of the Labour contest. So we shall reflect on Morris’s politics in Birmingham at a time of genuine hope for British Left aspirations.

But if Corbyn does win the Labour leadership, massive hostile forces, both within and beyond the Labour Party, will be trained against him; and, as we have just seen on the European political canvas, Left projects can be rapidly destroyed by such pressures. Thus the Greek Syriza party, which has carried so many of our hopes over the last few years, is now in an advanced state of disintegration after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s disastrous failure to follow through on the rousing ‘OXI’ (No) result in the referendum of 5 July. So our local Cornbynmania has to be tempered by that wider calamity for the European left; and as Morris sagely reminds us, other people will have to fight for what Syriza stood for, under another name.

Meanwhile, the European migrant crisis continues apace, as hundreds of thousands flee from Middle-eastern war and horror; and that miserable hypocrite Obama visits Alaska to preach the dangers of climate change having just allowed Shell to start oil exploration operations in the Arctic. The big corporations pull the strings of their presidential puppet, as ever, but at least, with the Corbyn campaign, we are beginning to recreate a public language in which we can talk about such things again. As one of my colleagues said to me yesterday, ‘my children have grown up without ever hearing the word “socialism” in British political discourse’. And our Birmingham Morris symposium can play its own modest part in adding to this necessary conversation.