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!