News From Nowhere

1024px-Kelmscott_Manor_News_from_Nowhere(1890) William Morris

A utopian novel, set in the 2000s — It feels so strange to have lived through the futures named by so many utopian and dystopian writers, even if only by year and not imagining. A socialist returns home to Hammersmith frustrated with another meeting of argument and lost tempers (nothing has changed there) and wakes up in a world transformed by revolution. This is actually one of the nicer utopias I’ve read, here is the new Hammersmith and his dream of the Thames river banks, with his ideal residential architecture:

Both shores had a line of very pretty houses, low and not large, standing back a little way from the river; they were mostly built of red brick and roofed with tiles, and looked, above all, comfortable, and as if they were, so to say, alive, and sympathetic with the life of the dwellers in them. There was a continuous garden in front of them, going down to the water’s edge, in which the flowers were now blooming luxuriantly, and sending delicious waves of summer scent over the eddying stream. Behind the houses, I could see great trees rising, mostly planes, and looking down the water there were the reaches towards Putney almost as if they were a lake with a forest shore, so thick were the big trees… (loc 108)

More on the new face of Hammersmith, the modern return to ancient ways and the fate of the city to return to village and countryside:

We turned away from the river at once, and were soon in the main road that runs through Hammersmith. But I should have had no guess as to where I was, if I had not started from the waterside; for King Street was gone, and the highway ran through wide sunny meadows and garden-like tillage. The Creek, which we crossed at once, had been rescued from its culvert, and as we went over its pretty bridge we saw its waters, yet swollen by the tide, covered with gay boats of different sizes. There were houses about, some on the road, some amongst the fields with pleasant lanes leading down to them, and each surrounded by a teeming garden. They were all pretty in design, and as solid as might be, but countryfied in appearance, like yeomen’s dwellings; some of them of red brick like those by the river, but more of timber and plaster, which were by the necessity of their construction so like mediaeval houses of the same materials that I fairly felt as if I were alive in the fourteenth century; a sensation helped out by the costume of the people that we met or passed, in whose dress there was nothing “modern.” Almost everybody was gaily dressed, but especially the women, who were so well-looking, or even so handsome, that I could scarcely refrain my tongue from calling my companion’s attention to the fact. Some faces I saw that were thoughtful, and in these I noticed great nobility of expression, but none that had a glimmer of unhappiness, and the greater part (we came upon a good many people) were frankly and openly joyous (loc 328).

This is a future in which no one knows want, work is shared out equally in small portions — though I was a bit disappointed that women still reveled in domestic duties. Still, they also worked with stone and in building great buildings and other more unconventional places. I laughed out loud when we came to the ‘golden dustman of Hammersmith’! Because everyone can wear what clothes they like, woven for pleasure and beauty. Who will collect the garbage? Mostly this guy, but everyone, and they will do it happily. Their great fear is running out of work because everything is already so beautiful after they have built and rebuilt and rebuilt again. Needless to say the slums are no more:

“Tell me, then,” said I, “how is it towards the east?”

Said he: “Time was when if you mounted a good horse and rode straight away from my door here at a round trot for an hour and a half; you would still be in the thick of London, and the greater part of that would be ‘slums,’ as they were called; that is to say, places of torture for innocent men and women; or worse, stews for rearing and breeding men and women in such degradation that that torture should seem to them mere ordinary and natural life.”

“I know, I know,” I said, rather impatiently. “That was what was; tell me something of what is. Is any of that left?”

“Not an inch,” said he; “but some memory of it abides with us, and I am glad of it. Once a year, on May-day, we hold a solemn feast in those easterly communes of London to commemorate The Clearing of Misery, as it is called. On that day we have music and dancing, and merry games and happy feasting on the site of some of the worst of the old slums, the traditional memory of which we have kept. On that occasion the custom is for the prettiest girls to sing some of the old revolutionary songs, and those which were the groans of the discontent, once so hopeless, on the very spots where those terrible crimes of class-murder were committed day by day for so many years. To a man like me, who have studied the past so diligently, it is a curious and touching sight to see some beautiful girl, daintily clad, and crowned with flowers from the neighbouring meadows, standing amongst the happy people, on some mound where of old time stood the wretched apology for a house, a den in which men and women lived packed amongst the filth like pilchards in a cask; lived in such a way that they could only have endured it, as I said just now, by being degraded out of humanity–to hear the terrible words of threatening and lamentation coming from her sweet and beautiful lips, and she unconscious of their real meaning: to hear her, for instance, singing Hood’s Song of the Shirt, and to think that all the time she does not understand what it is all about–a tragedy grown inconceivable to her and her listeners. Think of that, if you can, and of how glorious life is grown!” (loc 900)

It is fascinating, this new topography of London which makes it no longer London, no longer a city. This is a vision of socialism in which cities are inimical, so different from those visions based on technology and scientific improvement. I did love titling banks as ‘swindling kens’, and that they were occupied in the transition to a new way of structuring society socially and materially:

“Tell me in detail,” said I, “what lies east of Bloomsbury now?”

Said he: “There are but few houses between this and the outer part of the old city; but in the city we have a thickly-dwelling population. Our forefathers, in the first clearing of the slums, were not in a hurry to pull down the houses in what was called at the end of the nineteenth century the business quarter of the town, and what later got to be known as the Swindling Kens. You see, these houses, though they stood hideously thick on the ground, were roomy and fairly solid in building, and clean, because they were not used for living in, but as mere gambling booths; so the poor people from the cleared slums took them for lodgings and dwelt there, till the folk of those days had time to think of something better for them; so the buildings were pulled down so gradually that people got used to living thicker on the ground there than in most places; therefore it remains the most populous part of London, or perhaps of all these islands. But it is very pleasant there, partly because of the splendour of the architecture, which goes further than what you will see elsewhere. However, this crowding, if it may be called so, does not go further than a street called Aldgate, a name which perhaps you may have heard of. Beyond that the houses are scattered wide about the meadows there, which are very beautiful, especially when you get on to the lovely river Lea (where old Isaak Walton used to fish, you know) about the places called Stratford and Old Ford, names which of course you will not have heard of, though the Romans were busy there once upon a time.” (loc 992)

Morris is quite specific in this remapping and remaking of London. Here is the new topography south of the Thames:

About these Docks are a good few houses, which, however, are not inhabited by many people permanently; I mean, those who use them come and go a good deal, the place being too low and marshy for pleasant dwelling. Past the Docks eastward and landward it is all flat pasture, once marsh, except for a few gardens, and there are very few permanent dwellings there: scarcely anything but a few sheds, and cots for the men who come to look after the great herds of cattle pasturing there. But however, what with the beasts and the men, and the scattered red-tiled roofs and the big hayricks, it does not make a bad holiday to get a quiet pony and ride about there on a sunny afternoon of autumn, and look over the river and the craft passing up and down, and on to Shooters’ Hill and the Kentish uplands, and then turn round to the wide green sea of the Essex marsh-land, with the great domed line of the sky, and the sun shining down in one flood of peaceful light over the long distance. There is a place called Canning’s Town, and further out, Silvertown, where the pleasant meadows are at their pleasantest: doubtless they were once slums, and wretched enough.” (loc 1007)

As the protagonist travels through this new civilisation, asking questions that younger people don’t understand, the answers he receives from older ‘scholars’ make this a bit like a book of FAQs. Morris has clearly been asked about what happens to the population, how a dense city can be transformed into a series of villages and country houses.  I couldn’t buy it, but spreading out across England and the world is the answer:

“I am rather surprised,” said I, “by all this, for it seems to me that after all the country must be tolerably populous.”

“Certainly,” said he; “the population is pretty much the same as it was at the end of the nineteenth century; we have spread it, that is all. Of course, also, we have helped to populate other countries–where we were wanted and were called for.” (loc 1096)

But I liked that he grappled with imperialism, re-envisioned work to end exploitation both of the English working classes and the oppressed workers of other nations. Here is more on labour, machines, exploitation and imperialism:

“What’s that you are saying? the labour-saving machines? Yes, they were made to ‘save labour’ (or, to speak more plainly, the lives of men) on one piece of work in order that it might be expended–I will say wasted–on another, probably useless, piece of work. Friend, all their devices for cheapening labour simply resulted in increasing the burden of labour. The appetite of the World-Market grew with what it fed on: the countries within the ring of ‘civilisation’ (that is, organised misery) were glutted with the abortions of the market, and force and fraud were used unsparingly to ‘open up’ countries outside that pale. This process of ‘opening up’ is a strange one to those who have read the professions of the men of that period and do not understand their practice; and perhaps shows us at its worst the great vice of the nineteenth century, the use of hypocrisy and cant to evade the responsibility of vicarious ferocity. When the civilised World-Market coveted a country not yet in its clutches, some transparent pretext was found–the suppression of a slavery different from and not so cruel as that of commerce; the pushing of a religion no longer believed in by its promoters; the ‘rescue’ of some desperado or homicidal madman whose misdeeds had got him into trouble amongst the natives of the ‘barbarous’ country–any stick, in short, which would beat the dog at all. Then some bold, unprincipled, ignorant adventurer was found (no difficult task in the days of competition), and he was bribed to ‘create a market’ by breaking up whatever traditional society there might be in the doomed country, and by destroying whatever leisure or pleasure he found there. He forced wares on the natives which they did not want, and took their natural products in ‘exchange,’ as this form of robbery was called, and thereby he ‘created new wants,’ to supply which (that is, to be allowed to live by their new masters) the hapless, helpless people had to sell themselves into the slavery of hopeless toil so that they might have something wherewith to purchase the nullities of ‘civilisation.’ (loc 1411)

Such a simple breakdown of how imperialism worked and still works. I also like that he gives details of how utopia was all actually achieved — through mass movement. The reason the revolution could not be repressed and destroyed:

“The members of the Committee went off quietly to prison; but they had left their soul and their organisation behind them. For they depended not on a carefully arranged centre with all kinds of checks and counter-checks about it, but on a huge mass of people in thorough sympathy with the movement, bound together by a great number of links of small centres with very simple instructions. These instructions were now carried out (loc 1803).

And of course, you then have the GENERAL STRIKE. Never in America did I hear people go on at such length about the general strike the way they do in the UK, a venerable tradition I can see. Just as the newspapers continue on:

The ordinary newspapers gave up the struggle that morning, and only one very violent reactionary paper (called the Daily Telegraph) attempted an appearance, and rated ‘the rebels’ in good set terms for their folly and ingratitude in tearing out the bowels of their ‘common mother,’ the English Nation, for the benefit of a few greedy paid agitators, and the fools whom they were deluding.

That made me laugh. The revolution had no manifesto though people kept waiting for it, clearly a bone of contention for the socialists of the day, just as it was recently for the occupy movement. What will happen to all of our stuff — another FAQ. Morris is, of course, focused on work and art and the ideal relationship between them, the end of capitalist production means the creation of objects for use not profit, and frees time to make them well and beautifully:

The loss of the competitive spur to exertion had not, indeed, done anything to interfere with the necessary production of the community, but how if it should make men dull by giving them too much time for thought or idle musing? But, after all, this dull thunder-cloud only threatened us, and then passed over. Probably, from what I have told you before, you will have a guess at the remedy for such a disaster; remembering always that many of the things which used to be produced–slave-wares for the poor and mere wealth-wasting wares for the rich–ceased to be made. That remedy was, in short, the production of what used to be called art, but which has no name amongst us now, because it has become a necessary part of the labour of every man who produces (loc 1996).”

Thus the good life can be lived without a trace of the guilt that we always carry with us in a capitalist society, because anything created by the work of others is created through their oppression.

The evening passed all too quickly for me; since that day, for the first time in my life, I was having my fill of the pleasure of the eyes without any of that sense of incongruity, that dread of approaching ruin, which had always beset me hitherto when I had been amongst the beautiful works of art of the past, mingled with the lovely nature of the present; both of them, in fact, the result of the long centuries of tradition, which had compelled men to produce the art, and compelled nature to run into the mould of the ages. Here I could enjoy everything without an afterthought of the injustice and miserable toil which made my leisure; the ignorance and dulness of life which went to make my keen appreciation of history; the tyranny and the struggle full of fear and mishap which went to make my romance. The only weight I had upon my heart was a vague fear as it drew toward bed-time concerning the place wherein I should wake on the morrow: but I choked that down, and went to bed happy, and in a very few moments was in a dreamless sleep (loc 2104).

There is a great deal in here about the openness of relations both between the sexes and between friends, who can choose to live with each other in different configurations of large home or village. There are no prohibitions, rules against divorce, class distinctions, roles for men and women, requirements for nuclear families and children come and go. While sadly queer happiness is not cared for here, for its time (and in many ways ours as well), this is quite advanced in ways I like. The ideas around education — that it just sort of happens by itself — I found the strangest, but from what I have heard of Victorian rote and miserable schooling, also served as an advancement. All in all I quite enjoyed this, in all its sincerity and simplicity.

Just one last thing, because I’ve run into older uses of the word ‘cockney’ in a couple of other places and found it quite interesting, is this description of ‘cockney villas’, also a description of the further suburbs of London in Morris’s own time:

As we went higher up the river, there was less difference between the Thames of that day and Thames as I remembered it; for setting aside the hideous vulgarity of the cockney villas of the well-to-do, stockbrokers and other such, which in older time marred the beauty of the bough-hung banks, even this beginning of the country Thames was always beautiful… (loc 2154).

For more on Morris himself, I’ve looked at the massive biography by E.P. Thompson, you can read Part 1 and Part 2, and also some words on the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960.

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