Monday, 30 July 2012

On Being 56 Years Old

Today is my 56th birthday, so I am now the same age as William Guest in Morris’s utopia. Does that mean I’ll be reading the book differently from this day on? Or perhaps even living my life differently? Some immediate middle-aged thoughts come to mind, certainly.

Concerning Love: What I know here is something that William Guest, most painfully for himself, forgets in the course of the text. If, when I walk into town, a 20-year-old woman on the other side of the road looks interestedly across in my direction, that will be because I’m walking into Lancaster beside my 26-year-old son, and it will be him, not me, that she is looking at so keenly. 20-year-old women (like Ellen in Morris’s text) do not sleep with 56-year-old men, so it was highly imprudent of Guest to have got himself so infatuated with Ellen as to think that she might (old Hammond having warned him about this very syndrome in the first place, after all).

Concerning Politics: Does William Guest, having seen utopia, return to the nineteenth century a more resolute socialist than he was on the first page of the book? Critics have wrangled a good deal about this over the years, so perhaps we might ask instead: how much energy should one put into radical politics at the age of 56? Is there time and will-power available for one further great burst of activity, or should one ease back at this point, not withdrawing entirely but leaving the main thrust up to the younger generation (who will have their own new ideas about all this anyway)? After all, illness soon compelled Morris himself to find a new distribution of time and energy between politics and cultural pursuits.

Concerning Friendship: Morris once remarked to Burne-Jones that ‘the best way of lengthening out our days, dear chap, is to finish off our old things’, in which remark lies the seed of the Kelmscott Press. One can hope in the early twenty-first century to have a good many more years available after becoming 56 than Morris’s own mere six and a half; but even so, the picking up of precious old friendships and their associated activities, within the shared sense of a finite time span, will surely be part of what one’s later decades are about.

So my Nowherian birthday lessons are threefold: 1. stay well clear of much younger women; 2. make one judicious last political push, perhaps in directions the next generation is not much attending to (watch this space!); and 3. finish off old things with dear friends of many years standing. And if points 2 and 3 can be in some way combined, so much the better.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Butterflies in Utopia

In his later years, the great English literary critic F.R. Leavis would occasionally start student seminars at Cambridge University by bemoaning the decline of the butterfly population of East Anglia rather than addressing the text in hand. One assumes that butterfly populations will recover and flourish handsomely in utopia; but though Morris tells us that birds of prey are much commoner in News from Nowhere, he alas does not mention butterflies. So if you want a seriously lepidopteran utopia, you will have to turn to Aldous Huxley’s Island; for the multifarious butterflies of Pala are very much part of the wonder of this tropical utopia to its English visitor Will Farnaby: ‘Why were they so large, so improbably cerulean or velvet-black, so extravagantly eyed and freckled?’ And the nineteenth-century French theorist Charles Fourier takes this relationship between butterflies and utopia one stage further by installing these colourful insects in the very structure of his utopian theory. The ‘butterfly passion’ is one of his three most precious human passions (the others being the cabalistic and the composite) and will require complex institutional arrangements in utopia to satisfy its constant demand for change and variety. So not only will there (quantitatively) be more butterflies in utopia, but we ourselves (qualitatively) will have become lepidopteran there too.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Deal in Kent

The small seaside town of Deal on the Kent coast still has for me today all the glamour it possessed when I was a child. My grandfather worked at Betteshanger colliery just a few miles inland, so we had many relatives in the area and made many visits to them, sometimes by boat from Southend Pier. I never could get over the contrast between the vast lowtide mudflats of the Thames estuary at Southend-on-sea in Essex (where I grew up) and Deal’s steeply stepped shingle beach where the difference between low and high tide isn’t more than a few yards. And Deal, blessedly, never did succumb to all the crass, conventional seaside amusements to which Southend has long since sold its soul.

So it is good to learn that, in a minor way, Deal is part of the William Morris family story too. In July 1876 Jane Morris was there with the children for an extended stay; Georgiana Burne-Jones took her daughter Margaret down to join them on 13 July; and Morris himself seems to have gone down later in the month to spend three days there. Given May Morris’s tomboyish proclivities (‘roof-riding’ at Kelmscott, for instance), I wonder if she ever thought of pinching a boat and rowing out with Jenny to the dangerous Goodwin Sands, as my father and my Uncle Stan did when they were boys?

Do the materials exist for a literary history of nineteenth-century Deal? Esther Summerson spends some time there in chapter XLV of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-3), pages which well capture the maritime importance of the town for Victorian England (‘Some of these vessels were of grand size – one was a large Indiaman just come home’); and John Ruskin evokes ‘this neat, courageous, benevolent, merry, methodical Deal’ in a few pages of his Harbours of England (1856). These are just preliminary starting points – I shall keep digging!

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Olympics 2012 - William Morris-style

‘But the next morn ... the games began’, as we learn in Book XVI of The Life and Death of Jason, so what would a Morrisian Olympics look like, what sports might it contain? Here are a few suggestions, culled from across his copious oeuvre:

1. throwing quoits like Jason’s Argonauts.

2. seeing how much pickwork you can get done in an hour, as Dick Hammond suggests.

3. heaving boulders as far as one can, as Grettir frequently does.

4. heaving another man as far as one can, as Child Christopher does.

5. sprinting as in ‘Atalanta’s Race’ in The Earthly Paradise (though Milanion would certainly be disqualified for his golden apples trick).

6. scaling crags for the eggs of the gerfalcon, as in Roots of the Mountains

7. shooting arrows either at a prisoner’s buttocks (Well at the World’s End) or to kill a chaffinch on the twig one hundred yards away (Roots again).

8. reforging shattered swords, as Regin does in Sigurd

9. sailing races in the floods off Runnymede on a frosty January morning (Dick Hammond again).

10. projecting images into someone else’s mind, as the evil Lady does in Wood beyond the World.

11. foraging for herbs which open secret caskets, charm dragons to sleep and/or cause clothes to spontaneously combust in sunshine (Medea).

12. seeing how high you can throw up your sword while still catching it by the hilt (Water of the Wondrous Isles).

13. distance swimming (Birdalone and Grettir are the Morrisian competition to beat).

14. spear-casting for both distance and accuracy within the great hall, as with Face-of-god in Roots.

15. wrestling, as between Hercules and Nereus in ‘The Golden Apples’ (though Nereus’s self-metamorphosis will be grounds for disqualification).

That will do for starters, though I have left out some of Morris’s own personal favourites such as singlestick, and he might well have been keen to make freshwater angling an Olympic sport too. Moreover, since his last public speech was to the Society for Checking the Abuses of Public Advertising, I need hardly say that no commercial sponsorship of any kind will be allowed at the 2012 Morrisian Games.