1 February 2015

William Morris: “the house clearances of 1955”

William Morris wrote News From Nowhere in 1890, 125 years ago. In the book Morris imagines Europe transformed into a socialist paradise 200 years in the future. It’s more of a curiosity than a serious political commentary, but I’m wading through it all the same in the interests of research, and found an unexpected reference to Walthamstow in the first few pages. William Guest, the protagonist from the 19th century, finds himself transported into the 21st, and quickly realises that he must prevaricate and explain himself by saying he has been living abroad for a long time.

I was just going to blurt out “Hammersmith,” when I bethought me what an entanglement of cross purposes that would lead us into; so I took time to invent a lie with circumstance, guarded by a little truth, and said: “You see, I have been such a long time away from Europe that things seem strange to me now; but I was born and bred on the edge of Epping Forest; Walthamstow and Woodford, to wit.” “A pretty place, too,” broke in Dick; “a very jolly place, now that the trees have had time to grow again since the great clearing of houses in 1955.”

Morris disapproved of the rapid spread of London in his lifetime, and envisaged the whole city largely transformed into something like the way Walthamstow must have been in his youth, houses spread out among gardens and orchards. Morris has some interesting things to say about work and property, and about the equality of men and women (rather spoilt by generous helpings of casual sexism). The basic premise of the book is that money and private ownership have become unnecessary. But is there a snake in paradise: will Morris come to the conclusion that people in this imaginary future are unfulfilled because they lack conflict and competition? There are hints along those lines - why does the little art that is produced always refer to the past, not the present? - but evidently that was something he couldn't make his mind up about.

News From Nowhere is available as a free e-book on Amazon and on Project Gutenberg.