Sunday, 28 January 2018

Attitudes to William Morris

Today was the last day of an exhibition at the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, dedicated to May Morris, Morris's younger daughter. This was the first time I had been to Walthamstow for over 20 years, and it was a welcome opportunity to see the gallery again – and to discover that admission is still free.

The exhibition, not surprisingly, is rather autobiographical, blending works by May Morris with her politics and her life. The exhibition was quite small and there was the chance to see the main display about William Morris himself. In the bookshop there was a very small collection of books for sale, including the biography of William Morris by Fiona McCarthy (1994). For someone of my generation, it is impossible to think of William Morris without the E P Thompson biography, first published in 1955 but extensively revised in 1976.  Which is the one to read? Each of them is vast (McCarthy, the shorter, is 780 pages).

I discovered reviews of both titles. Broadly speaking, and simplifying somewhat, McCarthy provides the creative artist without the politics, and Thompson provides the politics without the creative artist. Does this matter? Well, according to Terry Eagleton, it does.

There is a TLS review (by James Pope-Hennessy) of the first edition of E P Thompson’s book that, unsurprisingly for its period, dismisses it. “In spite of its inordinate length, this is not even a complete study of Morris, for it largely confines itself to his socialist theories.” This review complains about Thompson’s lack of impartiality and complains “how fluffy were Morris’s socialist views” – and claims the prose romances are largely unreadable. For Pope-Hennessy, “Mr Thompson is too shrill to be persuasive”. This review betrays its age. For this reviewer, the best approach to Morris is “to deny his socialism, to forget the prose romances, and remember only the poems, the textiles, the tapestries, and the typography”.

In contrast, Terry Eagleton’s review engaged more with its subject. Eagleton claims that Morris is “one of the greatest Marxist cultural theorists Britain has ever produced, which is not perhaps saying a great deal for British Marxist cultural theory.” “His achievement was to take the Romantic critique of industrial capitalism and harness it for the first time to a progressive political force, the British labour movement. He was thus medievalist and materialist together”. That sounds more interesting. Eagleton complains that McCarthy fails “to reflect on his elusive inner being” – whatever that was. Perhaps Morris was summed up by his external activities.

Perhaps the most balanced judgement is Ruth Levitas, of the University of Bristol, in a 1996 review. She points to Thompson’s revision of his biography in 1976.  In this revision, “Thompson insists that Morris is both a utopian and a Marxist, with neither a hyphen or a sense of contradiction … between the two terms” …. “Morris’s particular contribution was to sustain this synthesis”. Perhaps there might be a view of Morris that doesn't just see him as the last champion of Ruskinian craftsmanship, before the modern world was overwhelmed by machine manufacture. 

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Scandinavian Paradox

The popular image of Scandinavians is full of contradictions. Denmark, Norway and Sweden must be by several measures the richest, happiest and most successful societies the world has ever known. [...] Scandinavia is also famous for hedonism and sexual freedom; yet the plots of Scandi noir stories often turn not on crimes but on old sins: adultery, incest, abuse.
Tom Shippey, TLS, December 2 2016

What makes a city utopian?

In Utopia Drive, Erik Reece [...] suggests that utopian settlements are constructed to accommodate escape and evasion, to provide safety and privacy in an alarming world. [...] Yet on the question of what constitutes utopia, Reece appears suitably baffled. [...] Reece's utopias are consistently constructed on the struggle to give something up, be it belongings, individuality, alcohol, religion, or sex.
Jacqueline Wilson, review of Utopia Drive by Eric Reece, TLS December 2 2016