Sunday, September 09, 2018

The road plunged at once into a beautiful wood

Because News From Nowhere is a dream vision of the future I have found myself wondering sometimes if certain details I recall are really in it, or whether I dreamed them myself.  After a trip to Hammersmith last weekend, when we walked past William Morris's old house on the Thames, I had an urge to go back to the text, to check whether he really had name-checked Stoke Newington, the part of London where I live.  In Morris's future London, I recollected, it was possible to walk all the way here from Hammersmith along a forest path.  And indeed it was as I remembered it - the description comes in Chapter 5, which begins with the narrator at Hammersmith Broadway (now a shopping centre from which the Thames can be reached only by negotiating a complex system of noisy roads round the Hammersmith Flyover).  'Past the Broadway there were fewer houses on either side.  We presently crossed a pretty little brook that ran across a piece of land dotted over with tree...'  Presently they reach Kensington, where the urban woodland begins.
"People are apt to gather here rather thick, for they like the romance of the wood; and naturalists haunt it, too; for it is a wild spot even here, what there is of it; for it does not go far to the south: it goes from here northward and west right over Paddington and a little way down Notting Hill: thence it runs north-east to Primrose Hill, and so on; rather a narrow strip of it gets through Kingsland to Stoke-Newington and Clapton, where it spreads out along the heights above the Lea marshes; on the other side of which, as you know, is Epping Forest holding out a hand to it..."
They walk on and
'The road plunged at once into a beautiful wood spreading out on either side, but obviously much further on the north side, where even the oaks and sweet chestnuts were of a good growth; while the quicker-growing trees (amongst which I thought the planes and sycamores too numerous) were very big and fine-grown.
'It was exceedingly pleasant in the dappled shadow, for the day was growing as hot as need be, and the coolness and shade soothed my excited mind into a condition of dreamy pleasure, so that I felt as if I should like to go on for ever through that balmy freshness.  My companion seemed to share in my feelings, and let the horse go slower and slower as he sat inhaling the green forest scents, chief amongst which was the smell of the trodden bracken near the wayside...'
A constant delight in the natural world is central to life in this future London.  As Fiona MacCarthy writes in her biography of Morris, there is no real dividing line between country and town life. 'Morris's visionary landscape is both decorous and lavish, mysterious and homely, an extraordinary and deeply imagined image of urban possibility. We can see its effects as the Garden Cities burgeoned early on in the next century...'   The narrator of News From Nowhere eventually leaves London for a journey up the river by boat, arriving at an old house resembling Kelmscott Manor, Morris's home in Oxfordshire.  Here the dream has to end and after a period of darkness he finds himself back in 'dingy Hammersmith.'  We left Hammersmith in bright sunshine and walked along the Thames Path and over the bridge, eventually reaching the Wetland Centre, with its otters and sand martins and dragonflies.  It is almost possible there to imagine a city partially reclaimed for nature.  Meanwhile, News from Nowhere continues to inspire readers across the world - I read just yesterday that Korean artists Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho will be using the title for a new exhibition, coming to Tate Liverpool later this year.

Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Water Willow, 1871
Jane Morris with Kelmscott Manor in the background

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