A settled sentimental socialist

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

This was Engles' verdict on William Morris, and the quote was prominently displayed in the house where he lived as a teenager, and which I visited recently.  It's now the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, and makes for a fine day out, complete with splendid artisan lunch options.

The house is a treasure trove of all things WM, at least as far as the decorative arts are concerned, and there is a focus on both process and outcome.  His politics are dealt with in an upstairs gallery, together with an emphasis on his environmentalism.  His frustration about how his social reformer ambitions took second place to wallpaper design are clear enough. For example, here's a comment he made whilst supervising the decoration of a Yorkshire mansion:

"I spend my life ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich."

It's clear that the working class couldn't afford the wallpaper; whether they wanted to is less obvious. That's the problem with the unwashed; they tend never to be really appreciative of their betters putting themselves out on their behalf.  Morris, we are told, was frustrated by both the depth of ignorance of many of his working class audiences at his lectures, and his own inability to communicate effectively with them.  And they, it's to be supposed, were the ones motivated enough to turn up to hear him.  The majority, it's to be presumed, were both ignorant and indifferent.

A fabled environmental educator once told me that the world would have been different if it had listened to Morris rather than Marx, and he wasn't talking about the wallpaper.  It's an open question, of course, but maybe the members of the RSL – revolutionary socialist league (aka Militant) –  would have found entryism more difficult if they'd all been wearing smocks.

News from Nowhere [*] was Morris's utopian view of the future where money no longer exists, wage slavery replaced by craftwork, marriage become flexible bonds of affection, and where Parliamentary democracy has given way to informal patterns of co-operation.  In this, however, women still did the housework.  The clue to the amount of sense that the book contained was in the title.  Anyway, as Aldous Huxley noted:

"It has become obvious that the machine is here to stay.  Whole armies of William Morrises and Tolystoys could not now expel it."

My favourite quote from Morris, as it's a constant reminder of where I've been going wrong all these years, is this:

"If a chap can't compose an epic poem while he's weaving a tapestry, he had better shut up, he'll never do any good at all."


[*] The original British Library link to News from Nowhere is now broken; the one now in place does not give full access owing to a recent cyber attack.


Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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