The exhibition “News From Nowhere revisited” examines William Morris’s visionary novel, News From Nowhere.
Artist Brian Daubney and American architect Jeremiah Sheehan discover how much of modern London was envisaged in Morris’s book. They use his words on images from the time until now.
In News From Nowhere, Morris’s hero meets an historian who provides the link between the present and the possible future. “Old Hammond” remembers the revolution (which Morris sets in 1952).
Morris wanted the book to “add a little hope to the struggle”. The exhibition has a similar aim, in a way.
In the book the hero asks Hammond, “Tell me one thing, if you can ... Did the change, the ‘revolution’ it used to be called, come peacefully?”
“Peacefully?” comes the reply, “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.”
Trafalgar Square is where the revolution starts—it is then turned into a cherry orchard. But it has continued as a place of demonstration. One of the panels in the exhibition shows demonstrations then and now.
Brian Daubney, the exhibition’s co-curator, spoke to Socialist Worker.
“Morris hated the plinths in Trafalgar Square,” he said. “But he would have loved the people on the fourth plinth at the minute.”
According to Daubney, “Morris set the book future in 2100. For instance, kites have just come back to the Thames Valley.
“When Morris wrote, the kites and the birds of prey had gone because they had all been shot for game. But almost a century before he thought it would happen, they are back.
“I started to draw a list of similar predictions and stopped at 150.
“He writes about humid vapour and the stench of humanity in the London Underground. So we have a picture of one of the steam locomotives of his time and of now.
“One shock for readers was that Hammond is 104 in a time when the life expectancy of the reader was in its 40s.
“The barges move down the Thames without obvious means, looking forward to the combustion engine.
“When he describes women’s dress saying ‘women shouldn’t be upholstered like sofas’ there is presumption of equality. In News From Nowhere he argues people should be able to work whenever they want to.
“His was a humane communism. Morris makes clear and direct arguments. He asks: do we not want education not for the few, wealth not just for the few, and would you like freedom? The argument then ends.
“In the novel he quotes ‘A song of a shirt’, a bitter attack on piece-work, full of puns. Morris loved puns.
“The book is not about Utopia. In a sense it is ‘news from now, here’.
“He was an embarrassment to the founders of the Labour Party. And he is an embarrassment to Labour now.
“In the novel we have turned parliament it into a manure store. That is, of course, one prophecy that hasn’t come true,” he says, grinning.
“But we have a photo of waste being carried out to sea past parliament. I’ve stood on the terrace overlooking the river at parliament.
“On a summer’s day, you can indeed smell the shit coming.
“Morris deserves to be better known and have a wider audience.
“My co-curator asked why Morris isn’t accepted for what he is. Around the world there are major exhibitions, but in his own parish he is hardly noticed.
“It is not about putting pretty patterns on ornaments. His attitudes were about changing the world. Anyone who comes into contact with Morris’s work is changed by it.”
News From Nowhere Revisited by Brian Daubney and Jeremiah Sheehan. 15 August–27 September 2009, William Morris Gallery & Vestry House Museum, Walthamstow, London