Wouldn’t it be great to wake up and find yourself somewhere else? To discover that the cares of the past have all dissolved into a glorious new future where, if you don’t feel at home, you can at least know that all you were fighting for back in your day finally came to pass? That’s what happened to a certain Mr Guest back in 1890 … and at the moment I can’t help wishing it would happen to me.
Yes, it’s a utopian idea. Utopia – good place? Or no place? Certainly no place like home at the moment. My jaw dropped when I saw Teresa May’s comments about those claiming to be a citizen the world – indeed, the whole Tory Party Conference has seen my jaw on the floor. But it’s that comment “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere” that really got me. What would William Morris say? I think he’d be laughing. Nowhere? Has she never read anything? Doesn’t she know what Nowhere is? Nowhere? Yep, I’ll take that – I’ve read about Nowhere and it sounds like a great place to be.
Nowhere is a place of poetry, of song, of storytelling and of friends gathering together to share laughter and talk over good food and drink in beautiful places. Well, so far so good – I’m very lucky, I live in Nowhere if that’s the case, for my life is filled with creativity and creative friends. Lucky me – others here in today’s Non-Nowhereland don’t have that. In Nowhere, everyone has that chance to express themselves and be supported in their creative self-expression.
Nowhere is a place where everyone has a job, a place in the world. But it’s not a Non-Nowhereland day job, wage-slavey, tied to the mortgage, to the rent, to your parents’ house, to poverty kind of job. And it’s not a big business, doing deals to add to your 3 million a year kind of job either. Its community working together, slotting people into the right jobs at the right time. Everybody who can helps in the harvest, and people take themselves off onto working parties to work on the land, to mend roads, to maintain Nowhere and its workings. Because they want to. Because they are fit and healthy and want the exertion of physical work. Because they feel in their hearts that this is useful work that needs doing. There’s plenty of time to create craft and art – and, why not, the scientific discoveries that were rather off Morris’s radar.
In Nowhere there’d be no fracking. No way. The people of Nowhere would stare at you with jaws dropped as low as mine has been all the time, it seems, since the 23 June. There’d be no extensive logging. No waste in the sea. No open caste mining. (Although in Nowhere, I fear, they’ll still be clearing up what Non-Nowhereland did.) So how do they power Nowhere? Well, there’s plenty of dung in the Houses of Parliament, they can use that, perhaps? But in Nowhere they’ve sloughed off our Non-Nowhereland need for excessive consumption and they need less energy than we believe we do. In Nowhere they care for the land, and they care for the buildings in it. Morris spent some considerable time trying to preserve some trees near his home on the river in Hammersmith … in Nowhere that care encompasses everywhere.
Yes, I know – it’s a utopia. It won’t happen. Not like this. Nowhere wouldn’t be ideal for me, I know. But it would find a place for me, it wouldn’t turn me away. In Nowhere there is tolerance. Criminals are cared for – in the end the punishment they get is that that they inflict on themselves. But crimes are rare, because the community supports people, and because, perhaps, people have freedom. They don’t feel trapped in relationships, in jobs, in places – in lives that they can’t bear. And there is little private property (Nowhere is a Socialist dream, of course – albeit one tending towards anarchy). The historian Guest spends (a lot of) time talking to says this on Guest’s question about punishment:
“There, neighbour!” said the old man, with some exultation. “You have hit the mark. That punishment of which men used to talk so wisely and act so foolishly, what was it but the expression of their fear? And they had no need to fear, since they – i.e., the rulers of society – were dwelling like an armed band in a hostile country. But we who live amongst our friends need neither fear nor punish. Surely if we, in dread of an occasional rare homicide, an occasional rough blow, were solemnly and legally to commit homicide and violence, we could only be a society of ferocious cowards. Don’t you think so neighbour?”
We did think so, didn’t we? But now I see a culture that is becoming more cowardly again. In Non-Nowhereland we don’t love ourselves or take responsibility for ourselves and we don’t love our neighbours. We are now being encouraged to hate them. How long before we go back to 1890 and start ‘solemnly and legally’ committing crimes against humanity? I am afraid. As Morris was afraid. And Morris didn’t see what the people of Non-Nowhereland in the 20th and 21st centuries have done to each other in fear.
Nowhere isn’t perfect. Parents today would boggle at Morris’s Lord of Flies type children bringing up the children in the summer ideas. I suspect he was writing with hindsight of having brought up two boisterous young girls who had the good fortune to escape the ‘hideous town’ and play in the gardens and around the Old House on the Thames that Morris rented alongside his friend/romantic rival Dante Gabriel Rossetti. But in Samoa (I think!) it was the older children who brought up the younger because the women had better things to do with their time – making craft, as it happens. For me, Nowhere is a bit anti-intellectual, but Morris hints that those who want to spend their time investigating the past can – it’s up to them, even if it’s a bit odd. Then there is the woman thing. Morris actually changed his text in the wake of cross comments from his feminist friends and readers and included more active female characters when the serial was published as a book – although he still believed women were more likely to want to do domestic stuff. Well, as a man of his time he still had a ways to go in imagining what women could do and be – but he saw further than most and he allows choice. And then there’s his almost-silence on the rest of the world – it is a very English utopia, after all. As I say, not perfect.
Morris’s Nowhere doesn’t need to be ours. Morris’s Nowhere was written in part as a response to another Nowhere, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward – a machine-led society imagined in 1887. More than 100 years on we need new Nowheres. Each age produces its own: from Plato’s Republic through to Utopia (Thomas More, riffing on the delights of the Greek language in which the ‘u’ or ‘eu’, which sound the same in English, could mean something negative – that ‘Noplace’ – or something positive, that ‘Goodplace’ – or both at the same time…) and to the Erewhons and Nowheres of the 19th century. We need Nowhere. If you are a citizen of Nowhere, you might have your head in the clouds, but your feet are on the ground. You are dreaming a better world, but perhaps, like Morris, you are also prepared to go out there and help make it.
I’m proud to be a citizen of Nowhere. And somewhere, Morris is still laughing. It’s the only way to stop himself crying about how we never, ever seem to learn from the mistakes of the past.