October 13, 2004

Clarion recall

Somebody at the Paul Foot meeting - I forget who - compared the loss people felt at the death of Foot, to that expressed by the editor of the Clarion when William Morris died in 1896:
I cannot help thinking that it does not matter what goes into the Clarion this week, because William Morris is dead. And what socialist will care for any other news this week, beyond that one sad fact? He was our best man, and he is dead.

It is true that much of his work still lives, and will live. But we have lost him, and, great as was his work, he himself was greater ... he was better than the best. Though his words fell like sword strokes, one always felt that the warrior was stronger than the sword. For Morris was not only a genius, he was a man. Strike at him where you would, he rang true ... he was our best man. We cannot spare him; we cannot replace him. In all England there lives no braver, kinder, honester, cleverer, heartier man than William Morris. He is dead, and we cannot help feeling for a while that nothing else matters.
How apt, how utterly appropriate, I thought at the time, and still think two nights later when there has been time for the sentimentality of the moment to wear off.

Appropriate, because I love William Morris, just as I loved Paul Foot - for their creativity, their imagination, their greatness of scope. For their ability to speak of one time while thinking of another and to see the actions of great bodies of people as the cumulative actions of many individuals. Appropriate, because it was precisely the sort of comparison that Foot himself would have made, thinking as he always was of the labour movement as a movement in history as well as in the present, sometimes weakening, sometimes strengthening, always having many things in common no matter how disparate the time, the causes fought for or the numbers fighting for them. When Foot died he was writing a book about the struggle for the vote, a struggle which, it occurs to me now, was the greatest political theme of the century in which William Morris lived, one whose consequences shaped his politics and his turn to socialism, - reversing the ordinary pattern - as late in life as early middle-age.

The editor of the Clarion was Robert Blatchford, of whom I would like to know more than I do. I would like, too, to know more of the Clarion, and to have something like it now. (I cannot really think of a socialist journal of any circulation in this country today - nor any recently, not since the demise of the New Socialist and not unless you count the New Statesman, which most of the time I do not.)

Nor can I ever hear enough about William Morris, who has enthused me for most of my adult life. I remember first hearing him discussed in a lecture by the late Raymond Williams, not long before his death, in which he quoted the line I mentioned once before, about the familiar paucity and mutual rancour of the attendees at a party meeting:
there were six persons present, and consequently six sections of the party were represented.
I laughed, and resolved to read his News From Nowhere, his vision of an egalitarian and largely rural future, as soon as I could. I think I had managed to do so, and enjoyed it - I am not sure - before I read an article by Paul O'Flinn which helped explain his reasons for writing News From Nowhere in the way he did. (Years later I worked in the library at the university where Mr O'Flinn lectures, and he was somewhat surprised to be interrupted, when routinely checking out his books, by the new library assistant thanking him for the splendid article he had written several years before. I like doing things like that. It's one of the reasons I work in libraries.)

It explained the circumstances that shaped its ideas, both regarding the future he imagined, and the struggle he imagined leading up to it:

"Tell me one thing, if you can," said I. "Did the change, the `revolution' it used to be called, come peacefully?"

"Peacefully?" said he; "what peace was there amongst those poor confused wretches of the nineteenth century? It was war from beginning to end: bitter war, till hope and pleasure put an end to it."

"Do you mean actual fighting with weapons?" said I, "or the strikes and lock-outs and starvation of which we have heard?"

"Both, both," he said.

It was that part of the book which has always stuck in my mind about News From Nowhere, even more than the journey which Morris undertakes along the Thames or the world he encounters: his chapter How The Change Came, with its decades of "both, both" and its drama in Trafalgar Square.

Had I read it by February 1985, I might have thought of How The Change Came, when I looked back from Trafalgar Square to see the miners and their supporters fighting the police all along Whitehall and outside the recently-erected gates of Downing Street. It seemed an image and a moment for great turning-points in history, though, as we knew at the time, it was the turning-point that leads to defeat, and the only change that came was that things were much as they were before except without the hope of changing them.

I would at least have liked to have thought of Morris at that moment. As it was, as I remember uncomfortably (just as I remember, equally uncomfortably, that the next time there were riots in Trafalgar Square, I was actually at Oakwell, watching Barnsley beating Oxford) that what came into my head was Tolkein, an opposite to Morris except for their shared love of older, ancient things. Lord Of The Rings, and Sam saying something to Frodo about "here we are, at the end of all things". And there we were, at the end, it seemed, of all good things, and the eagles never came.

I would rather have thought of Morris than of Tolkein. I would rather it had gone the way of Morris than the way of Tolkein. Now Tolkein is everywhere, and Morris is forgotten - and even I, working, as I do, in Hammersmith - I have not even been to see where he lived, and where he began his journey down the river, on "a beautiful night of early winter, the air just sharp enough to be refreshing", just as it was last night, just as October has packed away the last of the London sun.

I should go and see for myself. Go and watch, "watch the familiar face of the Thames", watch and think of William Morris and Paul Foot, of where their lives and ideas took them and have taken me. If I could but see it! If I could but see it! This is what is needed, surely, just as Orwell came back from Spain and wrote to Cyril Connolly:

I at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before
for without such experiences, all we have is grim reality, not just the tradition of the dead generations weighing on the living, but the tradition of the present weighing us down as well. If I could but see it. If I could but see it.


At September 09, 2005 9:40 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This brought a tear to my eye, Paul O'Flinn was my beloved, irreplacable father - and he is dead too. Five years ago, before Paul Foot who was his friend, long after William Morris who was one of his inspirations

At September 11, 2005 3:45 pm, Blogger ejh said...

I'm terribly sad to hear that. I liked his articles immensely.


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