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.