The Importance of being William Morris

IMG_1531When William Morris died, his doctor said that he died of being William Morris – of doing the work of ten men. The enormous endeavours of his lifetime, the things he achieved, are nicely represented in the exhibition ‘Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy 1860-1960′ at the National Portrait Gallery. At first, looking at the familiar faces of his circle in the portraits on display, seeing the swathes of familiar Willow pattern fabric, the beautiful Prioress’s Tale wardrobe, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the comfortable familiarity of it all. The sheer versatility aIMG_1533nd energy of the man is apparent in his craft, his politics, and his writing – but we also get a sense of the man himself, from delightful small exhibits such as his membership card of the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League, or the cartoons of ‘Topsy’ by Burne-Jones. Possibly one of my favourite items here was Morris’s leather and canvas satchel, battered but serviceable, in which he carried books, tools, lecture notes etc; somehow its sturdy, practical beauty seemed to sum up the man himself.
The early part of the exhibition, then, is inspiring. Even though I know quite a lot about Morris, it was appealing to see so many objects relating to aspects of his life, and so many of his friends and acquaintances featured. Aspects of his work, from his subversive gender politics to his anarchic socialism, his rehabilitation of craft as a form of art, his emphasis on the accessibility of education for all and his interest in social conditions and housing, are all touched on here. The exhibition gives you a real sense oIMG_1534f how connected the nineteenth century world was, where one man’s life could touch so many others.
And this, of course, is the point of the exhibition. Morris’s legacy began during his lifetime, and spread outwards rapidly. Like John Ruskin, his energies were spread wide, and he had a huge effect on the world around him. But as the exhibition moved on, I must confess I was disappointed. Though there are some clear links to Morris’s ideas about design in the Festival of Britain, for example, or his ideas about social living in the garden city movement, not enough was made of these, particularly visually (apart from a chair by Terence Conran, and a few pieces of fabric by Lucienne Day, the Festival of Britain section seemed to mostly include photographs of men sitting at desks). Outside the exhibition there were some photographs of and quotations from artists and others who have been inspired by Morris, including the writer A S Byatt, who comments on the inspiration of how he lived his work, and how she now lives with his designs.AS Byatt
I must confess that I did find the exhibition lost impact, then; there is so much more that could be said about the direct influence of Morris’s work and ideas right up to the present day, and so although I was inspired by the early parts of the exhibition, by the end it left me with the impression that Morris’s legacy was not as vibrant and alive as I know it to be. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to see a final board which reminded those leaving the exhibition of Morris’s relevance today, for a revival of craft skills, issues of the environment, and ‘art as a vital force within society’ which crosses cultural divides.




The Children’s Book

One of the good things about reading A.S. Byatt’s novels is that one gets the feeling that she is a novelist one can really trust; nothing happens by accident, and the plot is so well crafted that it alwaysn288598 feels as though everything is in the right place. Also, I’m always amazed by the minute detail in which everything is apparently recorded in her work, and the intense research which must go into it. I can never read one of her books without wishing I’d written it myself.

The Children’s Book is set around the turn of the century, in a now mythical Edwardian golden age, particularly remembered for its children’s fiction. A vast array of characters feature in the book, including Humphry and Olive Wellwood, whose family is central to the plot. Olive is a writer of children’s books, and writes a story for each of her children, which she adds to from time to time. These stories, parts of which are included in the novel, cleverly give the reader an insight into the children’s characters and their relationship with their mother. The family, unconventional in many ways, takes in a young boy, Philip, who has run away from his home in the Potteries to come to London, hide out in the V&A, and make pots. Eventually he goes to live with the Fludds, as assistant to the master potter and unreliable and temperamental patriarch, Benedict Fludd. In these two homes, Philip sees a world he had never dreamed of, in which creativity and productivity are crucial, but which mean very different things.

One of the things that especially captured me about this book is Byatt’s uncanny rendering of the historical moment. She captures the period in a way which is both somehow exactly how it is now enshrined in popular mythology, and yet manages to deflate precisely that myth. And then she delivers an excellent social and cultural summary of the period, explaining the feeling of belatedness (that is, after the more serious and significant coverVictorians) that the Edwardians themselves seem to have suffered, combined with the way in which we now see the period, as a brief golden moment which arose between the Victorians and the First World War (p.391, if you’re interested). The plot is absolutely tied to the period, and yet somehow that seems to free it, for the events are both generally quite believable, and also utterly magical.

The war, of course, is the elephant in the room for much of the book; it doesn’t take much maths to work out that the children were born at just the right time to be part of the generation most affected by it, and though we remain uncertain of their eventual fates until the end of the book, somehow our knowledge adds a dramatic irony to the text. Yet the novel is woven through with fairy tales, pottery (in the spirit of Morris’s arts and crafts), Fabianism and museum culture alongside the trials of growing up in extraordinary families. Byatt’s novel weaves its magic spell, and is totally irresistable.

There is an excellent podcast of Byatt reading an extract from the novel and discussing it on The Guardian website here.

Books in Lincoln

I have recently returned from a lovely trip to Lincoln. I’d never been there before, but have a friend who recently moved there, who lured me to visit him by supplying me with a brochure for the Lincoln Book Festival. I’m pleased to say that Lincoln struck me as a remarkably literary city, but my view may be warped by the things I did while I was there…So many excellent secondhand bookshops! I particularly liked this one, halfway up Steep Hill (they’re not kidding) – Reader’s Rest; how appropriate! I’d hardly been in Lincoln for two hours when I went to my first event, a talk by Joanne Harris about her new book, The Lollipop Shoes, which I have to admit I haven’t read yet, but she’s an engaging speaker whom I’ve been to hear before (and you can read about that here). She suggests her new book is about fear, and managing what we are afraid of, which is often reflected in fairytales and European folklore, which has permeated Western thinking and affects every story we tell. Perhaps we’re not as sophisticated as we’d like to be, she says; we still believe there are monsters out there, be they disease, stalkers or other threats; and so we also need to think that there are people who can fight for us and vanquish these dangers. As she put it, we’re still sitting round the campfire hoping the light will extinguish the darkness.
The next day I went to a discussion on A S Byatt’s Possession, one of my very favourite books. Actually I didn’t feel it covered a great deal that I didn’t know, though I was intrigued by the suggestion that Christabel LaMotte is signposted by Byatt as being based on Christina Rossetti by referring to her as the “Monna Lisa” instead of the “Mona Lisa”, thus referencing Rossetti’s sonnet sequence “Monna Innominata”. Much could be made of that, in terms of gender roles in romantic relationships etc, but this was sadly skipped over – and besides, Byatt says she intended to base LaMotte on Rossetti but eventually settled for Emily Dickinson (for rather odd reasons, I think, but I won’t go into that now!). What did strike me from the talk, though, is how you can read Byatt’s book as a kind of puzzle she’s set, for those with the patience to unravel it. It’s an enormously intertextual, referential, erudite volume, drawing on classical and Norse mythology, Victorian literature and history, genre boundaries, academic mores and so on – you could spend a lifetime unravelling it.
After an exciting day of bookshops, tea and the cathedral, of which Ruskin said: “I have always held and proposed against all comers to maintain that the Cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles”, we went to hear the linguist David Crystal lecture. Like most linguists that I have come across, he is afflicted with an enormous fascination for place names, with which he entertained us for a while (did you know that Bricklehampton is the longest place name in the world – I think – that is a first order isogram?) We also learned some interesting terms such as an unkindness of ravens, a puddling of ducks (really!), and a wisp of snipe (which may be specific to Snitterfield.) I was fascinated to hear about the Americanisation of Harry Potter, which has changed crisps for potato chips, crumpets for English muffins, wastepaper basket for trashcan, and so on, but his (and my) favourite is that the nicely English “That’s a bit rich coming from you!” has been changed to “You should talk!” American English seems so pointless when you compare it like that…We also heard about naming places (why don’t we have a town called Shakespeare? The Russians even renamed a town Gagarin, to honour Yuri). Equally, why do we name objects? In the course of researching his book, Crystal came across Yorrick the Yucca (Alas, poor Yorrick…but apparently he lived longer than the owner anticipated); Tardis the garden shed, Cedric the ashtray, and a butter knife called Marlon. The best, though, is a car called Simon because of the Rattle…and a teddy called Isaiah, because one eye’s higher…I have to confess, I went through a stage in my teens of calling things Engelbert; the last, I think, was Engelbert XIII, who was a potted baby Christmas tree. I loved the Victorian phrases that people learning English were taught: “Unhand me, Sir, for my husband, who is Australian, waits without.” “The postillion has been struck by lightning.” But the most uproarious moment of the evening must have been Hamlet’s soliloquy delivered in words which began with H, concluding with “Head holy housewards!” I have a feeling I may be working on King Lear with words starting with L…