A Vision of Britain: Industrialism and Beyond

Sheffield 10 - 12 Setember 1993.

There are many myths large and small which police the shape of our collective imagination: Myths which organise the shape of our human relations. There are the generalised and rigid myths which we call stereotypes and which are often more subtle than we would prefer to believe. These define the groups in which humanity is divided. Then there are the heros and villains. Those humans whose larger than life exploits give us the living caricatures who define good and evil - and lesser values.

I had attended the Ruskin/Morris conference with Chris Saunders because Morris had been the subject of a chapter in the book Conspiracy of Good Taste that I had just written, and I imagined that it was a chance to hear the latest scholarship in the area. In fact the event was something rather different and I found my role transformed from humble student to anthropologist with an axe to grind.

We found ourselves in a surreal Middle Earth world in which humans became hobbits within the careless blink of an eyelid. I was brought face to face with my own naive belief in the objectivity of academic discourse. All the debate was firmly inscribed within the requirements of maintaining the myths in good order. It should have been obvious I suppose, the William Morris Society and the Ruskin Gallery have a clear vested interest in protecting the value of their investments. Although I wonder if the newly promoted Hallam University would have known of the sinister right wing rumbling in their midst. A lot of bumbling hobbits, some old communists amongst them being shepherded towards some very dodgy landscape. Maybe I'm even super naive: maybe all academic conferences are bounded by some shady vested interests, fear and confusion which manages their myth content to ensure the status quo is maintained. It was only my efforts of the last two years to break out of the mind cage that allowed the picture at Sheffield to become so disconcertingly clear.

Under pseudo academic cover we had a gathering of enthusiasts and opportunists to preen, adjust, maintain, re-jig, protect, defend and celebrate their love. Ruskin as the stern father, Morris as the humanistic, energetic, lovable and cuddly but still authoritative father figure: simply on this level I guess it is easy to see how they would attract plenty of adherence to the cause. If we had simply been observing 'The Keepers of The Myth at work' the event would have been interesting as it turned out some of the purposes to which the myyth were being put were more than a little disturbing.

Nicholas Salmons talk on 'Morris as a Socialist Propagandist' was itself propaganda delivered at breakneck speed. After imparting much solid research which did not contextualise the six or so short years of Morris' socialist activity, his tone rose to near hysteria as he finished his learned tirade with the line. "Morris was not merely a prophet: but A HERO!" Applause! applause! This set the tone for the day and it seemed a requirement that what ever the implications of what was discussed the final word must be a doff of the proverbial hat and three cheers for Mr Morris. After it was revealed that the peculiar arts and crafts skills imparted to Morris' workers in The Firm made them unemployable elsewhere.. we hear nothing about the lives of such workers. No empathy with their predicament.

Linda Parry, the emminent textile expert from the V&A, followed Salmon with an account of the revival of hand-spinning by Ruskin with his 'Guild of St George'. This was his plan to revive the medieval guild system. We might expect this topic to include as a central theme the history of working womens activities, employment and culture but no: Ruskins effort functioned to keep alive picturesque and idealised images of labour but the picturesque was not a subject for discussion. Question time didn't offer relief and none of these issues raised their awkward heads.

Lunchtime was passed in the affable company of Roger Coleman whose book The Art of Work(1988)I seem to have missed, but who I felt promised to deliver an antidote to some of the blinkered reverrence we had had so far. Our first afternoon lecture was by non hobbit David Gerrard, translator of the seminal textbook The Coming of the Book, he informed us about Ruskin with a series of pithy quotes from the man himself. Ruskin is shown as an antidote to the bleak formalism of the capitalist theorists such as Ricardo and Mills with an emphasis on people rather than things. Whereas Mills had said "to be wealthy is to have a large stock of useful articles" Ruskin defined wealth as a quality of life. Gerard, who seemed to be the only contributor with no vested interest in myyth consevation, clearly pointed out Ruskins dark side: his belief in hierachy and patriarchy. These values were built into his model Guild of St George in which well treated workers would be ruled over with firm authority by the master. As Ruskin said "the French got fraternity right, but forgot paternity". Behind his attractive 'fireside humanity' he was fiercely against working class or womens autonomy. He socialism was of the national variety.

Morris' writing are less consequential, it is in action, as a businessman that he comes to life. His culminating vision is News from Nowhere which has the town as its economic unit, but "Morris' vision ends (only)in myth".

Now we had the most telling contributor: Jon Press, a professor of Business history whose book on Morris as a model small businessman published at the beginning of the nineties had recently won the coveted Wadsworth prize for business history. "Morris' significance is as the practical man who puts Ruskin's ideas into practice." The myth often refers to Morris as an artist, but he failed as a painter and architect succeeding as a pattern designer and writer. His success in business was largely dependent on his wealth and fame as the author of the Victorian soap The Earthly Paradise. "His stature was such that he could prescribe without being offensive". He was a highly respected businessman who used The Firm to forge public taste. He followed Ruskins edict to develop consumer standards and form the market as much as supply it, to "accept the honour of educating the public". The combination of the qualities he brought to business has been wildly successful and his products have been selling steadily ever since! Press' thesis is that Morris' example of the small firm of less than one hundred employees with bosses in contact with their workers like the squires of yore, was a great lesson for the revitalisation of capitalism in the nineties.

"Inequalities of wealth, justly established benefit the nation" Ruskin quoted by Press.

We can see here how the myth of Morris, giving a human face to the more difficult figure of Ruskin, is being brought up-to-date for the post-Thatcherite nineties. Small is beautiful. The old comrades in the audience, from the era of EP Thompson gave nary a murmur of dissent.

Then Roger Coleman got up. To my disappointment his long slide show was on the level of someone reading from a glossy coffee table book. His definition of work with its emphasis on tools was archaically chauvinistic, lacking any recognition of parenting and other caring work. There was no acknowledgement of any class dimension to work, beyond a touching reference to his fathers tools shop in Clerkenwell, in which he failed to take up the offer of an apprenticeship. A irony here was in his own choice of intellectual work.

As one woman remarked to me later, some of his slide images were a subtle form of brutalisation. Katherine Hammett alone in her studio whilst on the other screen there is a sweat shop of Bengali women. No comment: it's a statement of belief. An attempt to disempower with style. When I asked here why she had not spoken up against the chauvinism, she told me that it was difficult to speak after so long being silenced. In question time I remarked on how frightening I found his talk: the whole room shifted uneasily.

Fortunately for the (dis)assembled devotees the witty pleasantries of David Blunketts evening talk reassured us that all was well. His main political influence had apparently been via all the newspapers he used to wipe his arse with when he was young and poor. Its nice to be nice and I'm pleased at least he's in work.

Sunday morning was workshops, at last, a chance to talk! First we had an amusing and informative double act, Roger and Merv, local business theory taught with an intricate and beautiful choreography. Taylorism has never been so enchanting! The subject was the small firm and Sheffield. No Morrisian nonsense and a lot of useful information imparted by the duo who paced the room to a rythmic and unwritten music etc. I have always wondered why socialists do not study capitalism objectively to see how the organisation of work is structured. These people were doing it.

Next the timid but persistent Jan Carder who questioned patriarchal assumptions and gave a realistic context to the position of women at the end of the nineteenth century. The constraints of myth maintenance forced her to tread carefully, balancing any mild criticisms with validations of Morris and the Arts and Crafts. At least it gave me the opportunity to bring up the issue of Jane Morris's forced rapid upward mobility on meeting William and the brutalising effect it must have had on her. Jan Marsh, the main historian of the women around Morris, does not analyse this although it results in a terrible rift from her parents.

The final Sunday morning workshop was taken by the cheery Rose Cooper and was the most disturbing of the whole conference. It was a long tribute to A.J.Penty who she saw as the most important follower of Ruskin/Morris. Penty was an architect, Guild Socialist whose books; Old Worlds for New a Study of the Post-industrialist State (1917) and Post Industrialism (1922) developed the Ruskinian critique of the machine age and were a lone voice against the Pevsneerian version of modernism and the uncritical celebration of the machine aesthetic. Penty pointed out how Taylorism aimed to strip the workers of skill and place control of production into the hands of a much smaller group of bribbed and favoured workers called 'the management'. He takes off from News from Nowhere and begins to make Morris' vision realistic. To Pevsner and the modernists discussion of the production process was unspeakable. Penty carried the wisdom of Morris and Ruskin into the twentieth century. Work as ennoblement.

A well structured talk. The first questioner was enthusiastic he'd just been to Japan and they were keen Penty fans over there. His books had been translated and there was a movement.

I must have been as white as a sheet. Chris, who had probably seen the steam coming out of my ears leant over and reminded me to try to keep my voice down. As calmly as I could, for in my head I had been throwing chairs around the room, I pointed out that although this all sounded very nice it was a well known but presently ignored fact that Penty was a raving fascist. The social secretary of The Society went very red and told me it was unfair of me to "push people into a corner". I pointed out that the values which Penty did indeed derive from Ruskin and Morris were quintessential values of the owning class and that so far the discussion had been happening soley within that arena.

Of course there is 'debate' about the significance of News from Nowhere amongst the hobbit intellectuals. Maybe as Nicholas Salmon pointed out from the floor, we should be looking at Morris's other utopian works rather than 'News' with its problematic medievalist model. How about The House of the Wolfings with its barbarian model? This Salmon claimed in a rash burst of enthusiasm was where Morris' heart really lay. It was quickly pointed out that The Wolfings had disturbing scenes of 'gatherings of the Volk' which had in the past lead it to be taken up as a National Front text and the claiming of Morris for the NF hall of fame. Whoops! Change of subject please.

But I wouldn't wish to end on a note of hysteria. Let me leave the last word to the cool and dapper Jon Press;

"Capitalism has done well by the Morris enterprise."

Stefan Szczelkun. first draft 14-9-93