An Epoch of Rest
‘To change life, we must first change space.’
‘[W]hat would happen on the Morrow of the Revolution’? (p. 43). Such was the subject of discussion up at the Socialist League at the beginning of William Morris’s ‘Utopian Romance’ News from Nowhere, and it was a question that had been much on my mind one morning in the early days of a plague which had spread across the land. Like Morris’s pseudonymous hero William Guest, I was taking myself home to a western suburb of London, only further south, ‘using the means of travelling which civilization has forced upon us like a habit’ (p. 43), except that unlike the ‘vapour-bath of hurried and discontented humanity’ (p. 43) that Morris describes, the carriage that I was sat on was empty, and for the first time I could remember the trains were running on time – indeed it was almost eerily punctual as it pulled into each station.
As I passed through these familiar landscapes, a journey that I had done countless times before, I reflected on how much had changed in the past few months, but how little of that seemed visible, other than in this strange absence of people, and there were few signs of the disaster that begun to unfold. This was not a revolution, but it had changed the way we lived in ways that I had never before seen in my lifetime, and I thought of Henri Lefebvre who said that ‘to change life […] we must first change space’, but it was not space that had changed, but our relationship to it, and I began to think about these spaces in which we lived and worked, and how much – or how little – they had changed since the time of Morris’s writing.
I had been furloughed from a low-paid and insecure job of the kind that Morris would have despaired, and there began what felt like an epoch of rest, the first I could remember since the long, idle days of childhood. It was also at this time that I began to walk the Hogsmill, a chalk stream and tributary of the Thames, from its mouth in Kingston, the former market town in South-West London where I lived, to its source in Ewell; and as I walked, I began to feel that I was in fact travelling in the manner of H. G. Wells’s Traveller, that is to say not only in space but in time. ‘There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it’ (p. 4); it is only because of the ‘natural infirmity of the flesh’ (p. 4), the Traveller says, that we are only able to move in one direction, but we live in an old country, and it is easy to feel, even on a train, or walking along a river, that one is in fact travelling in all directions along this dimension, and that even on a short journey one has, in fact, travelled many centuries.
I was living at the time in a Victorian terraced house which was beset by all the chronic problems of living in such an old building – including a mysterious damp whose source could be found nowhere but which nevertheless seemed to seep through the walls – and it was where I would be spending a great deal of time in the coming months. Kingston, for all of the changes to its busy town centre, still looked in many places much like it would have done when Jerome K. Jerome’s clerks set out from here on their fateful boating trip at the end of the 19th century.
The river is no longer tidal beyond Teddington Lock, and indeed there were times that it felt as if the currents of history had not quite reached its banks; and walking along the Hogsmill, tangential as it is to the course of the Thames, it felt as if it had been forgotten by history altogether. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had also been here in the middle of the same century when, like Jerome’s clerks, they could travel here by train from London as if backwards in time to use what was still much of its rural landscape before the suburbanization of the 1930s as the pastoral setting to some its most famous paintings. I wanted to travel forwards as well as backwards, however, and walking along the Hogsmill from its mouth to its source, against the direction of its current, I thought perhaps I could overcome this ‘natural infirmity of the flesh’ and escape the narrow confines of the present.
In Patrick Keiller’s film The Dilapidated Dwelling, an investigation into what he calls ‘the predicament of the house’ in the United Kingdom, he dwells on the technological developments of the past century that have, in many ways, transformed our lives, but his surprise at how little the physical landscape has changed as a result, and that, for many of us, the houses that we live in have stayed the same. Consumer goods have become much cheaper, but houses have become much more expensive to buy and to maintain – and were often in a dilapidated state: ‘My colleague had told me’, Keiller says, ‘that though the United Kingdom is now one of the most electronicised and internationalised of the advanced economies, its houses are the oldest and most dilapidated in Western Europe’.
He dwells on the disparity between what seemed to be the wealth of the nation and its dilapidated appearance – what he calls in his Robinson films the ‘problem of England’ – and, indeed, there was something that still felt dilapidated about our country, not just our dwellings and decaying public services after a decade of austerity. The actual dilapidation of the Palace of Westminster – which has been in urgent need of repair for decades and is at almost constant risk of fire and flood – seemed to symbolise this disparity, but also the government itself, with its combination of social conservatism and free-market economics that has characterised British politics since Margaret Thatcher, the contradictions of which are embodied in anachronistic figures such as the Leader of the House of Commons, the old Etonian and author of ‘the Victorians’, and the co-founder of Somerset Capital Management, an investment firm that specialises in ‘Global Emerging Markets’; but are also epitomised by the authors of ‘Britannia Unchained’, the political manifesto written by several members of the cabinet, who claim that: ‘The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music’.
British history since the 19th century and the loss of Empire is seen in terms of decline, and they offer instead a vision of ‘Global Britain’ in which they aspire to former Imperial greatness through low taxation and deregulation – in which they seek to both emulate and exploit these ‘emerging markets’ – but also the restoration of ‘Victorian values’. Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic one minister, in a parody of this kind of paternalism, suggested that workers had become ‘addicted’ to the furlough scheme – in which workers’ wages were paid for by the government – and that they should be ‘weaned’ off of it. Like Jerome’s clerks, they seem to suggest, the British suffer from ‘a general disinclination to work of any kind’ (p. 4).
Is this form of capitalism peculiarly British or is Britain peculiarly capitalist? Keiller asks. In Robinson in Ruins, set and filmed during 2008, the narrator reports news of the financial crash over long shots of the English landscape, as well as events from the history of the enclosure movement, and therefore the origins of industrial capitalism in Britain, and laissez faire – although, as Karl Polanyi points out in The Great Transformation, from which Keiller quotes at length, laissez faire was itself planned, just as it required state intervention after the crash.This required ‘the mobility of the previously settled agricultural workforce’, and set in motion the forces of displacement which were the result of the new market society.
Is England a backward capitalism because it has never had a bourgeois revolution? This is the so-called ‘Nairn-Anderson’ thesis. Did it industrialise too soon, leaving its archaic institutions in place, and therefore never fully develop? Or is it, in fact, as Ellen Meiksins Woods suggests the ‘most capitalist culture in Europe’? Britain is still, after all, the world’s fifth-largest economy. What has changed – or what has not changed – is the distribution of wealth. ‘[T]he UK’s social and physical impoverishment was not a consequence of some inevitable “decline”’, Keiller says, ‘but of the successful operation of a particular economic system in the interests of those who own it. The “problem” that the film had set out to examine was revealed as the result of political decisions that could be challenged’ (p. 6).
It was with therefore with interest that I began to re-read ‘speculative’ fiction from the period – and, therefore, also the period that many houses, including the one I was living in, had been built – which seemed to have such an enduring presence in our society. This was the fin de siècle, and the authors believed themselves to be living at the end of an era – or the beginning of another – and imagined, in various ways – social, political and technological – the transformation of the present, and I was curious to know to what extent their hopes and fears had been realised in the previous century. I had not read many of these books since I was a child, and I was surprised not only to find that some of them were prescient descriptions of our current situation, and that they shared many of our present concerns and preoccupations, but also that many of them were set in the same part of the country that I was living, and in my own time. Looking backward might, after all, be a way of looking forward.
In The War of the Worlds, the Martians land in Woking – Robinson and the narrator visit the crater on Horsell Common – and Wells says that in writing the story he ‘wheeled about the district marking down suitable places and people for destruction’. The editors of my own edition provide a helpful map of the Martians’ path as they travel towards central London which, perhaps not by coincidence, follows a similar route to the South Western Railway, and which therefore seemed to fulfil the wish of many commuters into the city – the same pleasure and delight of recognition that the audience receives from watching their homes destroyed at the cinema – and it was not without satisfaction that that I witnessed the destruction of most of Surrey, where I had spent much of my childhood and adolescence. Kingston is the site of what would have been a spectacular battle, where the artillerymen lie in wait on Kingston Hill, were it not for the sudden introduction of the poisonous gas which is used to such deadly effect here as elsewhere after the Martian’s earlier fatal encounter with their guns, and in the event, the Martians pass through unhindered, and continue their grim march towards the city.
Wells only gives us a brief glimpse of the reconstruction that follows the sudden defeat of the Martians by the bacteria against which – unlike humanity in its long, slow evolution – it had no immunity; ‘slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest thing that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth’ (p. 168). The solidarity of the clerks, shopmen and navvies working together to rebuild the railway is perhaps a sign of things to come. ‘It may be that in the larger design of the universe this invasion from Mars is not without its ultimate benefit for men; it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence, the gifts to human science it has brought are enormous, and it has done much to promote the conception of the commonwealth of mankind’ (p. 179). Wells could not have predicted the two world wars that were to follow in quick succession, the bombing of Britain’s cities during the Blitz, but also the creation of the Welfare State, and the greatest period of social housing, which was in many ways built from the ashes of the Second World War. The destruction of the Luftwaffe, like the Martians, was perhaps not without its ultimate benefit for the commonwealth of mankind.
Despite the return to normality, however, the narrator is traumatised by the events, and suffers an almost complete mental breakdown before he is able to return home: ‘I go to London and see the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the Strand, and it comes across my mind that they are but the ghosts of the past, haunting the streets that I have seen silent and wretched, going to and fro, phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life in a galvanized body’ (p. 180). We had not witnessed the destruction of our cities, but for those of us who had seen their empty streets, I wondered if we would not feel the same.
I knelt by the bank of the Hogsmill and I was surprised to find flecks of what looked like the red weed which had choked the streams, the Mole and the Wandle, and I wondered if we had not been visited after all.
Near the mouth of the Hogsmill, beyond the Clattern Bridge, built in the 12th century, and next to the Guildhall, is the coronation stone on which the Anglo-Saxon kings of England were said to have been crowned, and from which the town is often assumed to have derived its name, although historical records state that the name in fact refers to an earlier settlement.
A security guard was also quick to point out that the sarsen stone was a ‘fake’, and that it had in fact been used as a mounting block until the 19th century. The names of the seven kings are nevertheless inscribed on the stone, and it is surrounded by a railing, although it seems to have attracted few visitors, let alone vandals.
As I left Kingston, walking upstream, following the faint metallic smell, I passed the School of Art at what is the widest point of the river, near the Swan Public House – which had since been converted into the ‘Centre for Useless Splendour’ – where clouds of gnats swarm in the summer.
A blue plaque on a house near here informed me that a fellow time-traveller ‘Darian Mosspin […] will live here 2167-1904’.
The river then passes a spiritualist church – which I have never seen open its doors – built in 1927, with a foundation stone laid by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had himself written a dystopian fiction in the form of The Poison Belt, in which the earth passes through a belt of poisonous gas in space, the last Professor Challenger story before his writings became influenced by his Spiritualist beliefs after the death of his son, brother and two nephews in First World War.
There were still traces of this ‘ether’ as you pass the Household Reuse and Recycling Centre. I had lived near here when I was a student, and on hot summer nights, if there was an unfavourable wind, its noxious vapours would drift in our direction and linger in the air like a miasma.
The path disappears as the river passes Kingston Cemetery and Crematorium, and I was forced to take a detour through Berrylands. I had looked at a flat near here where the bedroom overlooked the cemetery, and the estate agent who was showing us around told me, without a hint of irony in his voice, as we looked out the window that at least it had ‘quiet neighbours’.
Finding the river again is like arriving in the ‘Zone’ in Stalker – not least in the industrial ‘zone’ that you have to pass through to get there, the huge concrete tanks and filter beds of the Hogsmill Sewage Treatment Works – and at first I thought I was lost as I wandered past garage doors, a discarded shopping trolley, and what appeared to be some sort of shrine, and it was only the sudden appearance of two children that alerted me to the presence of a path, and the sudden transportation into what seemed like another green world.
Perhaps the most prescient – and disturbing – vision of the transformation to life brought about by technological changes is E. M. Forster’s short story The Machine Stops; published in 1909, the same year that Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published his Futurist Manifesto, which imagines a very different transformation of space to Wells, for it is not the annihilation of space by the Martian Heat-Rays, but the annihilation of space instead through connection. Forster imagines a future in which humanity lives underground in small, hexagonal rooms, like the cells of bees. The surface of the earth, they are told, has become inhospitable; no life remains there, and they would need a respirator to walk upon it or they would perish in the outer air. Everyone is connected by the ‘Machine’ which also provides for their every need at the push of a button; the characters communicate through the Machine, and although they can ‘isolate’ themselves they are otherwise in almost constant contact with each other; delivering and attending lectures, and sharing their second-hand ‘ideas’. They never leave their cells, however, and are afraid what they call ‘direct experience’ (p. 11); first-hand information is distrusted and discouraged. In his story Forster anticipates the Internet and instant messaging, and in what already seems like a parody of social media, he says of his character Vashti: ‘She knew several thousand people; in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously’ (P. 2). He also anticipates the disinformation that is the result of information technology; the rise of ‘fake news’ and populism; the social atomization; as although they are ‘connected’, they live in isolation. The Machine gives a new, ironic meaning to the epigraph of Howards End: ‘only connect’.
Space is annihilated through connection, and the world has been ‘globalized’, although this ‘globalization’ is brought about not by the instantaneity of travel but communication. As the French theorist Paul Virilio says: ‘There is no such thing as globalization, there is only virtualization. What is being effectively globalized by instantaneity is time.’ ‘Few travelled in these days’, Forster says, ‘for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilization had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself […] Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul’ (p. 13). This, then, is the paradox of speed, and the vision of the Futurists, which ends by defeating itself, and which is also the paradox of globalization, for although the world is ‘global’, the characters themselves never move. As Vashti’s son Kuno, who becomes part of the resistance against the Machine, says: ‘You know that we have lost the sense of space. We say “space is annihilated”, but we have annihilated not space but the sense thereof. We have lost a part of ourselves’. ‘Near’ and ‘far’ no longer have any meaning, and therefore neither does ‘local’ or ‘global’, a situation that Marinetti in fact anticipates in his manifesto: ‘Time and Space died yesterday. Already we live in the absolute, since we have already created speed, eternal and ever-present’. The ‘absolute’ that we live in is in fact stasis, inertia; ‘time’ and ‘space’ no longer have any meaning. ‘Man is the measure’, Kuno says. ‘That was my first lesson. Man’s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong’ (pp. 24-25). It is only in the embodied experience of space and time that they have any meaning, and as long as they remain virtual, they have no meaning at all.
The machine had stopped during the pandemic, although not in the sense that Forster imagines, for it was also the machine that had allowed so many to stay connected, and so many to stay at home. It was only part of the machine that had stopped, therefore, that part of the machine that required the movement and gathering of people; as Forster says in in his short story, ‘the clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned’ (p. 7). The machine stopped but it accelerated other processes – the death of the high street and the death of the office – and it was therefore not only an ending but a continuation of processes that were already taking place. ‘In the last few decades domestic life has been transformed in many more or less electronic ways’, Keiller says, ‘underemployment, telephone banking, computers, email, superstores, and online shopping. Most of these things make it easier to be at home, or more difficult to go out […] It looks as if we’re all going to be spending a lot of time at home.’
In some ways what we were experiencing was a disruption to the normal functioning of the machine, but in others it was the machine functioning perfectly, and which allowed companies and individuals to make huge profits. As Forster says, ‘she had studied the civilization that had immediately preceded her own – the civilization that had mistaken the functions of the system, and had used it for bringing people to things, instead of for bringing things to people’ (p. 10). In our society this system has not yet been perfected for it is still people bringing things to people – although it would no doubt like to do away with people altogether – and during the pandemic the ‘key workers’ were not only the doctors and nurses working on the ‘front line’, but also the delivery drivers and couriers who are part of this system i.e. the people who bring things to people, but who were also disproportionately the people doing low-paid and insecure work, many of whom in the gig economy on zero-hour contracts. It is a system, therefore, in which goods are mobile but people are static, which of course has important political consequences – if people are no longer able to assemble, or even imagine themselves as a collective – but also has important consequences for our experience of space.
This is the landscape that Keiller visits in the second film in his trilogy, Robinson in Space, and which had changed, although in ways which were often imperceptible, for the changes that had taken place were often in marginal places; the ports and warehouses that are part of this global supply chain – and that many were surprised, despite the early panic buying, had not immediately broken down during the pandemic. In these places Keiller discovers a form of capitalism working very well, although like the towns and countryside, they were often empty as many of the jobs had already been mechanised or automated, and therefore required very few people to actually be there. ‘The true identity of London is in its absence’, the narrator says in the first Robinson film. London had begun as a port, but like many other industries, it had either moved to the margins or had disappeared. Walking through central London during the pandemic, especially through what was until recently its busy financial district, there was now the absence of life altogether, apart from what felt like the ghosts of the past haunting its empty streets.
The forms of architecture that are privileged in these landscapes are spaces of transit, like the Futurists, the ‘big hotels, railway stations, immense roads, colossal ports, covered markets, brilliantly lit galleries’, but not homes. ‘We are dissatisfied’, Keiller says, ‘because we are no longer able to come up with a truly promising form of architecture in which we would like to live’. The houses that we do build, however, the ‘luxury apartments’, begin themselves to resemble these big hotels, transitory spaces through which we are merely passing on our way to work or leisure; or else barracks, prisons, spaces we are unable to leave. ‘We have become nomads, restlessly wandering about, even if we are sedentary and our wanderings consist of flipping through the television channels’. Mobility is not experienced as freedom, but again, as displacement, and as Forster says, ‘all unrest was concentrated in the soul’. People are displaced not only within their own homes, but within themselves, also anticipating the crisis in mental health. As a result, very little attention had been paid to dwelling until the pandemic during which suddenly people were forced to spend much more time at home, and suddenly ‘luxury’ was no longer about location or amenities, but about space, and the middle-classes began to flee the inner-city for the suburbs and countryside.
In Forster’s short story the Machine starts breaking down, but the characters don’t believe it, or rather they can’t believe it, as it has no meaning to them. ‘The phrase still conveyed nothing. If Eternity was stopping it would of course be set going shortly’ (p. 51). As it becomes more dysfunctional – at one point, Forster says, ‘the Mending Apparatus was itself in need of repair’ (p. 49) – they simply adapt to the defects, and convince themselves that they are, in fact, part of the normal functioning of the machine. It had become like a religion, and the characters sometimes catch themselves praying to the machine. ‘You talk as if a god had made the Machine’, Kuno says. ‘Men made it, do not forget that’ (p. 3). His words remind us of the famous quote from Fredric Jameson in The Seeds of Time, which Mark Fisher adapts in Capitalist Realism, and Keiller uses himself in Robinson in Ruins: ‘It seems to be easier for us to day to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth, and of nature, than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some failure of our imagination’. The Machine – like the ‘market’ for Jameson and Fisher – becomes like nature itself, like a living thing, and during the pandemic people continued to talk of the ‘health’ of the economy, and in the US one governor even suggested that people should be willing to give their lives to save it. Similar ideas are expressed by one of the ‘lecturers’ in Forster’s story: ‘of course we shall not press our complaints now. The Mending Apparatus has treated us so well in the past that we all sympathize with it, and will wait patiently for its recovery. In its own good time it will resume its duties. Meanwhile let us do without our beds, our tabloids, other little wants. Such, I feel sure, would be the wish of the Machine’ (p. 49). ‘Courage! courage! What matter so long as the Machine goes on? To it the darkness and the light are one’ (p. 50). Like the 2008 financial crash there were desperate attempts at restarting the machine – and unprecedented state intervention – and like 2008 there were similar hopes, or as Keiller says, ‘it seemed possible for a moment to imagine this was no ordinary crisis and that some larger historic shift might be occurring’.
The Hogsmill was not quite the rural idyll, or the ‘home of repose’ (p. 68), that William Holman Hunt remembers from his youth, but it was wild, and much of it had since been turned into a nature reserve where one could still spot herons and kingfishers, although I never saw the ‘flash of blue’ that I was told to look out for.
Indeed, there seemed to be an odd symbiosis between its marginal location and the wildlife, in this liminal space between the town and country – what Marion Shoard and others have called ‘edgelands’ – and it seemed sheltered by its various municipal uses: the dump, the sewage works, the mail depot, the cemetery, the football grounds, the roar of the A3 as it passes through Tolworth – under the shadow of Tolworth Tower, designed by George Marsh – and which hid it from view.
Much of the land is still in public ownership, and you can still walk most of its length, often through open fields and woods – indeed the area around Ewell Court Farm where Hunt had painted ‘The Hireling Shephard’ looks much the same, except for the missing flock of sheep and the fields in the distance which are now a recreation ground. The river itself forms a significant green corridor that links Wimbledon Common, Richmond Park and Hampton Court to the North Downs and Epsom.
It was only as I drew closer to Ewell that building sites began to appear, drawn to its ‘riverside’ location, some to the edge of the river itself, although by this point it had narrowed to a still, stagnant stream that was covered in a thick layer of algae.
Developers had clearly tried to evoke the memory of the gunpowder industry which had begun here in the 18th century by giving these new homes names like ‘The Mills’, although it was not quite as picturesque as they suggest. The gunpowder that was produced here is said to have to been used in the American Civil War, although its poor quality is also blamed for the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and there were frequent explosions which could be felt for miles around – one is said to have been experienced as a small earthquake in London – causing great damage and loss of life, and production had ended by 1875. I passed one site where they were in the process of digging a deep pit which resembled a crater that had been left by some such earlier explosion. Hunt remembers the ‘blow-up’ of one of the mills near where he kept his materials and it was in the door of one of these abandoned huts that Hunt painted ‘The Light of the World’: ‘On the river side was a door locked up and overgrown with tendrils of ivy, its step choked with weeds. I stood and dwelt upon the desolation of the scene, and pictured in mind the darkness of that inner chamber, barred up by man and nature alike’. The location, he said, also brought to mind the memory of an ‘unexplained experience’ as a child, the appearance of an apparition, a ghost lit by the lamp of the stationmaster at Ewell.
John Everett Millais had also painted ‘Ophelia’ by the Hogsmill. Barbara Webb, a retired schoolteacher and resident of Old Malden, published a short pamphlet in which she claims to have discovered the exact location of the painting based on her research; using maps, the letters and diaries of Millais and Hunt, the direction of the river and the steep bank in the painting, even the shadows cast by Millais’s umbrella. She narrowed it down to a bend in the river at Six Acre Meadow, which is still a wildflower meadow although 97%, a sign informed me, have been lost since 1945. His painting is often praised for the botanical accuracy and detail of the flowers, ‘the dog-rose, river-daisy, forget-me-not’, and a ‘soft, straw-coloured blossom’ which he thinks is meadow-sweet. His son John recalls ‘a certain Professor of Botany, being unable to take his class into the country and lecture from the objects before him, took them to the Guildhall, where this work was being exhibited, and discoursed to them upon the flowers and plants before them, which were, he said, as instructive as Nature herself.’ By the time I visited the loosestrife and meadow-sweet had withered, but it had been replaced by a vast profusion of what I later discovered was ‘Himalayan balsam’, an invasive species that had a sweet fragrance and pink, helmet-shaped flowers.
Millais experienced many difficulties in the painting of ‘Ophelia’, however, and in his letters he complains of the uncomfortable lodgings, the monotonous meals, the Surrey flies and the coarse manners of the countryfolk. He was threatened with prosecution for trespassing in the meadow, as well as by a bull in the same field after the hay had been cut; strong winds almost blow him into the river, and swans disturb the weeds he was trying to paint. It was a happy bachelor party, however, which consisted of Millais, Hunt, Charles Collins, and Millais’s brother William, and as Hunt later reminisces: ‘Never did we live again together in such daily spirit-stirring emulation. I feel this deeply in my old age when I alone am left of the band who worked together with so much mutual love and aspiration. I have dwelt much on homely details of the time; they carry with them a significance that no artist will deny’ (pp. 305-306).
Millais satisfied his thirst from the river as he painted, and although we were upstream from the sewage treatment works, I didn’t risk drinking from it, and it no longer had the ‘sparkling purity’ (p. 68) that Hunt describes. The Hogsmill, like all other rivers in England, had failed to meet its water quality test; the result of changes to its course, reduced flow due to water abstraction, and pollution, which included sewage as well as agricultural and industrial chemicals.
Lizzie Siddall, the model for Ophelia and the future wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, never lay in the Hogsmill, but in a bath in Gower Street that was kept warm by oil lamps; but when they blew out, she caught a severe cold, and although she recovered Millais was forced to pay the doctor’s bills of £50 by her father.
I did not discover Ophelia, but I was surprised to find a discarded tyre where she was supposed to have drowned, that had died a similar muddy death, as well as other pieces of office furniture further upstream which revealed it to be favourite location for fly-tipping, and as I left the meadow and crossed the bridge to Old Malden there was a hastily erected fence and a sign which read ‘For Sale’, and I dwelt upon the desolation of the scene.
Wells also imagines a world in which humanity has moved underground, but in The Time Machine it is only half the population, whilst the other lives in idleness on the surface. We travel to the year ‘Eight Hundred and Two Thousand Seven Hundred and One A. D.’, in which everything has hypertrophied, from the fruit – most animals having become extinct long ago – to the inequalities of the present. He discovers a society living in a state of ‘ruinous splendour’ (p. 29), and the Eloi, who he describes as ‘very beautiful and graceful […] but indescribably frail’ (p. 23). He plays on the double meaning of consumptive as both consumer and something being consumed, and, as he says, like the authors of Britannia Unchained, ‘I never met people more indolent or more easily fatigued’ (p. 28).
At first the Traveller believes that he has discovered a more enlightened age than his own, the perfection of humanity, and a society ‘erected on a strictly communistic basis (p. 7) in which private property has been abolished. ‘Apparently the single house, and possibly even the household, had vanished. Here and there among the greenery were palace-like buildings, but the house and the cottage, which form such characteristic features of our own English landscape, had disappeared’ (p. 29). ‘There were no hedges, no signs of propriety rights, no evidence of agriculture; the whole earth had become a garden’ (p. 30). What is the explanation of all this? ‘Communism’ (p. 29), he thinks to himself. ‘Social triumphs, too, had been effected. I saw mankind housed in splendid shelters, gloriously clothed, and as yet I had found them engaged in no toil. There were no signs of struggle, neither social nor economical struggle. The shop, the advertisement, traffic, all that commerce which constitutes the body of our world, was gone. It was natural on that golden evening that I should jump at the idea of a social paradise’ (p. 32). The wells, however, for which he can find no explanation, lead him to a darker truth in the form of the Morlocks, who in the past, like the Machine, had provided for the every need of the Eloi, until recently they had begun to climb out of their underground lairs to prey on their former masters. Humanity, he discovers, had evolved into two separate species, but the division of labour results in the degeneration of both master and slave, the logical conclusion of both social Darwinism and laissez-faire.
‘At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age’, the Traveller explains, ‘it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position. No doubt it will seem grotesque enough to you – and wildly incredible! – and yet even now there are existing circumstances to point that way […] Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth […] Again, the exclusive tendency of richer people – due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor – is already leading to the closing, in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land […] So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour […] The great triumph of Humanity I had dreamed of took a different shape in my mind. It had been no such triumph of moral education and general cooperation as I had imagined. Instead, I saw a real aristocracy, armed with a perfected science and working to a logical conclusion the industrial system of today’ (pp. 48-49).
Well’s division between Capitalist and Labourer is crude, but it is no more crude than some of the divisions that still exist in society, and which, as he demonstrates, have both spatial and temporal dimensions. The pandemic was not the ‘great leveller’ that people thought it would be, rather it simply revealed the existing inequalities: the people who live in cramped, overcrowded housing; the people who could not work from home or were forced to return to work, and who were therefore at increased risk of exposure to the virus, and who were disproportionately the poor and people from ethnic minority backgrounds.
The class divisions might seem less crude now, but divisions and inequalities, for example, between owners and renters are just as stark. During the pandemic there was a ban on evictions and the homeless were housed, but there was no freeze on rents, and so with the lack of affordable housing that was already available the gulf simply widened.It should perhaps be no wonder that in The Machine Stops the ultimate punishment for a refusal to comply with the rules of the Machine is homelessness – which, as Forster says, means exposure to the outer air, and certain death – for indeed it felt as though that was the same punishment that our own society had inflicted on its citizens. In The Time Machine, not only do the ‘Have-nots’ live below ground, and have to adapt themselves to the conditions of their labour, but they also have to pay rent for ‘the ventilation of their caverns’, for ‘if they refused, they would starve or be suffocated for arrears’. This is the true vision of Britannia Unchained.
‘In some of these visions of Utopias and coming times which I have read’, Well’s Traveller says, ‘there is a vast amount of detail about building, and social arrangements, and so forth. But while such details are easy enough to obtain when the whole world is contained in one’s imagination, they are altogether inaccessible to a real traveller amid such realities as I found here’ (p. 40). In Morris’s News from Nowhere, there is a vast amount of detail, not only about building and social arrangements but also how it came about, most of which we learn from in conversation with Greylocks who lives in the British Museum. Guest wakes up to find himself in 2003 but a world which resembles 14th-century England, in an anarchist utopia; decentralized and without government, without authority, without property, and without laws – because without property, as Greylocks says, it is without the need for laws.
London, along with all of the other centres of industry, has been broken up and, and with it the movement of people from the town into the country as a result of the changes to the way of life. As he travels from Hammersmith to Bloomsbury, he passes through Trafalgar Square, the site of a massacre during the revolution, which has become an orchard planted with apricot-trees; and the Houses of Parliament which have become a dung market. England, Morris says, is no longer the workshop to the world, it has become a garden, but it is one very different from the The Time Machine, for it is cultivated, and it is the product of labour rather than neglect.
‘This is how we stand. England was once a country of clearings amongst the woods and wastes, with a few towns interspersed, which were fortresses for the feudal army, markets for the folk, fathering places for the craftsmen. It then became a country of huge and foul workshops and fouler gambling-dens, surrounded by an ill-kept, poverty-stricken farm, pillaged by the masters of the workshops. It is now a garden, where nothing is wasted and nothing is spoilt, with the necessary dwellings, sheds, and workshops scattered up and down the country, all trim and neat and pretty. For, indeed, we should be too much ashamed of ourselves if we allowed the making of goods, even on the large scale, to carry with it the appearance of desolation and misery’ (p. 105)
He learns about the changes to crime, politics, property and marriage, but the greatest and most important change – or the change that makes all the others possible – is the change to work. The system of the ‘World-Market’ is abolished, the cheap production of cheap goods which are not worth producing, and to which everything else is sacrificed: ‘the happiness of the workman at his work, nay, his most elementary comfort and bare health, his food, his clothes, his dwelling, his leisure, his amusement, his education – his life, in short’ (p. 124).
News From Nowhere was written, in part, as a response to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, set in the year 2000, and its vision of state socialism which is achieved by the nationalization and monopolization of industry. The machinery of life, however, is left in place although its owners have changed hands. ‘In short’, Morris says, ‘a machine-life is the best which Mr Bellamy can imagine for us on all sides; it is not to be wondered at then that his only idea of making labour tolerable is to decrease the amount of it by means of fresh and ever fresh developments of machinery’ (p. 357). Under the influence of Ruskin, he expresses his belief that the solution – and also the solution to the problem of the incentive to labour – is the pleasure of work. ‘It is necessary to point out that there are some Socialists who do not think that the problem of the organization of life and necessary labour can be dealt with by a huge national centralization, working by a kind of magic for which no one feels himself responsible, that on the contrary it will be necessary for the unity of administration to be small enough for every citizen to feel himself responsible for its details, and be interested in them; that individual men cannot shuffle off the business of life on to the shoulders of an abstraction called the State, but must deal with it in conscious association with each other: that variety of life is as much an aim of true Communism as equality of condition, and that nothing but a union of these two will bring about real freedom: that modern nationalities are mere artificial devices for the commercial war that we seek to put an end to, and will disappear with it. And, finally, that art, using that word in its widest and due signification, is not a mere adjunct of life which free and happy men can do without, but the necessary expression and indispensable instrument of human happiness’ (p. 358). If the machinery of life is left in place, then there is nowhere for the individual to realise their potential other than as part of the machine. The true aim of Communism, the equality of condition, should be the diversity, and the variety of life. The only answer for Morris, is therefore, to stop the machine.
In Morris’s utopia he does not only describe how it came about but the details of everyday life, and indeed it is the everyday details of life in which the people that he meets are interested, and for which they have an almost childlike fascination, unlike the childish Eloi who are interested in nothing, not even the Traveller. In News from Nowhere life has become everyday. In our own lives we separate the everyday from other activities such as work and leisure, and if everyday life in the past has been associated with struggle, it is now often associated with boredom, but in News from Nowhere it is associated with pleasure as much as work. The changes that have come about did not come about peacefully or inevitably, however – another criticism of Bellamy’s utopia – for ‘rest’, he says, is not the same as ‘idleness’, and it only comes after work or struggle, and the ‘epoch of rest’ that Morris imagines has followed an epoch of revolution.
Morris also describes in detail the dwellings of the people that Guest meets, most of which are new and have been built by their inhabitants. The Arts & Crafts Movement did in fact produce a form of architecture, although again this was itself a response to industrialisation. ‘The English Arts & Crafts became a source for European modernism’, Keiller says, ‘the Bauhaus, and the standard of industrial design we associate with European manufacturing’, but in the United Kingdom, as Hermann Muthesius says in his book Das englische Haus, ‘it produced the model’ for the middle-class home. It was also the model for some of the first social housing in the country, the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch, built by the London Country Council in 1897 and designed by Owen Fleming, part of the Housing of the Working Class Brach of the Architect’s Department, a member of the Art Worker’s Guild and a former student at the University Hall Settlement in Russell Square, itself based on Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel. Robinson visits the estate in Keiller’s film London, and as the narrator says, to him in his ‘nostalgia’, it was ‘a fragment of a golden age, a utopia and he contemplated it for hours’.
If New from Nowhere seems nostalgic for the Middle Ages, like the ‘Merrie England’ that Jerome’s clerks imagine – utopia always confirms the prejudices of its author, Morris says, for example his hatred of modern civilization and iron bridges – it is an altogether different nostalgia from that of our own age, although this is itself, at least in part, a response to modernity which, as Patrick Wright says in his book On Living in an Old Country, ‘has seen the dislocation, the devaluation and also the disenchantment of everyday life’ (p. 19).
Everyday life can often be the hardest thing to perceive precisely because it is everyday, and it is often seen as the background to our lives rather than life itself, but during the pandemic it is precisely the everyday to which we have been confined. Wright defines it as follows: ‘Everyday life is the historically conditioned framework in which the imperatives of natural sustenance (eating, sleeping…) come to be socially determined: it is in the intersubjectivity of everyday life that human self-reproduction is welded to the wider process of social reproduction. Thus while everyday life may well be naturalised and taken for granted – indeed, while it may form a kind of second nature in which people orientate themselves without deliberate reflection – it is in reality socially formed and complex. At the heart of every life, therefore, is the interdependency of person and society. The social world always already exists to confront the people who are born into it, and it places demands which must be met if people are to make their way. There are values and norms to be appropriated and internalised, institutions and things to be understood, language and customs with which to come to terms. But if subjectivity is socially determined in this way, society also needs to be lived and put into action: its reproduction is dependent on a constitutive subjectivity, and determination can therefore be said to cut both ways’ (p. 7)
Everyday life is intersubjective, and if subjectivity is socially determined, as Wright says, this determination cuts both ways as society is, in turn, determined by its subjects. In modernity, however, traditional forms of community have been replaced by the nation, which is always, in a sense, imaginary – which is not say, however, that it doesn’t exist, because it is still lived, but subjects no longer integrate themselves in society as a community, but as a nation. ‘The nation is the modern integration par excellence’, Wright says, ‘and it is in the service of the nation that public images and interpretations of the past circulate’ (p. 25). It is these images and interpretations that make the idea of the nation possible, but it is why it also makes the idea of the past political. ‘The national past is above all a modern past’, Wright says, and ‘as the events of recent years have indicated very clearly, it is defined not just in relation to the general disappointment of earlier historical expectation, but also and more pointedly around the leading tensions of the contemporary political situation’ (pp. 2-3). The idea of the nation and the past is political for in order to gain the support of the public, politicians have to somehow connect these ideas to the everyday lives of people, and so it is not simply a matter of ideology.
Wright was writing during the Thatcher era, at the beginning of the current neoliberal period, in which he began to see how the modern past is manifested in British society, or, as he says, ‘the ways in which the past has been secured as a cultural presence in modern Britain’ (p. 3). In many ways we are still living in this era, for as he continues, ‘Margaret Thatcher started to project her governmental mission not in terms of the merely political (and therefore changeable) consensus of liberal democracy but in the transcendent and eternalised measure of an imperial national identity which she alone could secure against the series of indefinite but nonetheless persistent threats which have played that conveniently demonic role in her public rhetoric’ (p. 3). Brexit is, of course, the most obvious manifestation of this in recent years, and which promised nothing less than the transformation of the present through the restoration of British ‘sovereignty’, but also, in many ways, the past, in this imperial and imperilled national identity which is threatened by the increasingly demonized role played by the EU and immigrants.
‘With the rationalisation and bureaucratisation of everyday life’, Wright says, ‘the past – especially in its imperialist dimension – becomes a theatre in which adventures of personal action can still be played out (a development which, while it can certainly testify to imperial and economic decline, also reflects the diminished radius of action available to the specialised subject of so much modern activity)’ (p. 22). The Brexit vote was seen as action, and it that sense it was hopeful – which was, of course, the failure of the Remain campaign – and, as Wright says: ‘In this respect the nation works to re-enchant a disenchanted everyday life’ (p. 25). This also explains the glorification of war, which the Futurists celebrate in their manifesto. ‘Abject and manipulative as it undoubtedly is, the public glorification of war can express the real counterpoint which the experience of war has provided to the routinised, constrained and empty experience of much modern everyday life’ (p. 24). The ‘Blitz spirit’ of the first lockdown did not last, however, and what we were left with during the pandemic was not a counterpoint to modern everyday life, but an experience that was even more ‘routinised, constrained and empty’.
Likewise, there was no transformation of everyday life when Britain did eventually leave the European Union. James Meek in his book Dreams of Leaving and Remaining makes the distinction between the ‘process’ and the ‘event’: the ‘event’ of leaving the European Union, for example, and the ‘process’ of the redistribution of wealth. The myth of the ‘event’ becomes a distraction from the process of politics – even when they are a response to the same thing – and there is often the desire on both sides to escape the present reality into an imaginary, utopian future or a nostalgic past.
It is this bridge between imagination and reality which links art and politics and what interests Keiller, for it is this which he sees as the potential of film. The Surrealists, like the Situationists after them, also imagined a transformation of everyday life, but the transformation that they imagine is often subjective, in the relationship between the individual and the city, and it requires no objective transformation of space. Keiller begins Robinson in Space with a quote from The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem: ‘Reality, as it evolves, sweeps me with it. I am struck by everything and, though not everything strikes me in the same way, I am always struck by the same basic contradiction: although I can always see how beautiful anything could be if only I could change it, in practically every case there is nothing I can really do. Everything is changed into something else in my imagination, then the dead weight of things changes it back into what it was in the first place. A bridge between imagination and reality must be built…’
How are we to build this bridge between imagination and reality? The utopia of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was in the past, in a romanticised medievalism – although this was later rejected by some, again under the influence of Ruskin – and so it could only be built by the imagination, whereas Morris’s utopia, although he is perhaps nostalgic for the same age, is in the future, and the result of struggle, and is therefore not an event but a process. Britain’s ‘decline’ is not inevitable and nor is its transformation. The pandemic, like this ‘speculative’ fiction, had transformed society, but it also revealed society as it already was, which is increasingly dilapidated. There are of course important – and fatal – consequences to this dilapidation, as we have seen during the pandemic, but it also reveals that these are the result of decisions, and that they can be challenged.
If there is to be transformation it is to be in our everyday lives; as Henri Lefebvre says, ‘man must be everyday, or he will not be at all’ (p. 147). As Keiller concludes his investigation into the predicament of the house: ‘There’s no sign it’s becoming easier to rebuild the UK’s worn-out housing, most of the houses of the future will be those we already live in, and struggle to pay for as they crumble around us. The digital economy still offers little to the fabric of the dwelling, instead it drives turbulence in the market, as new money stokes up prices in sought after locations, while elsewhere whole neighbourhoods are abandoned. In the West we’ve become used to seeing benefits in an economic reality defined by markets, but at the moment there’s one product that the market doesn’t produce…’ As the Victorian façade of our politics and our houses crumble, we begin to see into their decaying interior, the dilapidation of our physical environment – like the ‘thoroughgoing deterioration’ of nature – and we begin to realise that it is only here that we can live, that is to say, real space, not virtual space or markets which do so much to displace us within our homes and our selves.
Ewell was spared the worst of the Martian’s destruction, unlike Leatherhead which, as the narrator of The War of the Worlds says, had been swept out of existence. H. G. Wells had lived down the road from here in The Avenue, near where Millais and Hunt had stayed at Worcester Park Farm in the former Keeper’s Lodge of Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace, and where Millais painted ‘The Huguenot’ during the winter in a hut he had built to protect himself from the cold. ‘The inclosure of common fields (707 acres)’, around Ewell, ‘and of waste (495 acres) was carried out in 1801’, but the ‘history of the inclosure’ in Cuddington, as H. E. Malden writes, ‘is summed up […] in the story of Nonsuch Palace’. Henry VIII had demolished the entire village of Cuddington and its church to build his palace and its hunting park –– and it was said to have been without equal, and ‘none such place like it’ in Europe. He never lived to see it completed, however, and it was occupied by numerous residents before it was eventually demolished and the building materials sold to pay off the gambling debts of Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, one of the mistresses of Charles II. Nonsuch Park, Hunt says, ‘still gave a stately grace farther afield, although the quaint palace had long since gone from sight’ (p. 69).
As I arrived in Ewell, I passed one of the few surviving mills, although it was no longer in use, which had been put to somewhat less volatile uses in the past: it began its life as a flour mill – and was said to have produced the flour for Queen Victoria’s bread – and was later converted into a paper mill before ending its life grinding corn. Like the several other mills along the river – including the eponymous Hogg’s, a metal polishing works – it had been powered by the river when it was higher, wider and faster-flowing. Middle Mill in Kingston crushed coconuts to obtain their fibres and extract their oil, and the ‘coconut shy’ is said to have originated from the annual pleasure fair in Kingston where they used the discarded husks for sport. Hunt remembers the ‘pulsing wheel’ and the ‘whitened men bearing sacks of flour’ from the Ewell mill, but by 1925 the water level had dropped – again through abstraction – and they could only work during the day. The Lower Mill burnt down in 1938 and the Upper Mill, which had been the site of a mill since the Domesday Book, continued on a small scale until 1953, and it has since been turned into offices.
Bourne Hall was built on the site of Garbrand Hall, which was bought in 1795 by Thomas Hercey Barritt, who had ‘significant estates’ in Jamaica which were given to his family by Charles II, and who was responsible for the imposing ‘Dog Gate’ at the entrance to the park, with the Talbot hound whose tail is said to have been replaced by a cow’s horn from the local butcher. The house also had numerous occupants after Barritt’s death; it was at one time famous for its gardens, and later became the home of a film studio that never made any films, and a school for ‘the daughters of professional men’ which closed in 1953; and the house, which by that time had fallen into disuse and disrepair, was demolished in 1962.
The Library and Social Centre was opened to the public in 1970, and looks like a flying saucer that has landed in the middle of the park, and indeed in its listing it is praised for its ‘striking design, notable for its space-age flair and the generous, top-lit principal interior space’. There is a fountain in the middle of the lake which is fed by the spring and, as Hunt says, gave the ‘public appearance of the newly-born stream, the true fons being on the left side of the road hidden by a garden wall’. The Hogsmill in fact rises from several springs in the North Downs which filter through the chalk until it reaches London clay at Ewell where it is forced to the surface. There are estimated to be around 210 chalk streams in the world and 160 of them are in Britain. They percolate through the chalk downs of southern England, the Chilterns, and the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Wolds; permeable ‘aquifers’, which produce streams of ‘gin-clear’, alkaline, mineral-rich water of stable, constant flow and temperature, and provide a rare and unique habitat for a variety of animal, plant and insect species, including the trout and salmon which make them popular among anglers and fly fishermen, three of which grace the Kingston coat of arms that represent three fisheries in the Domesday Book. Few of them are protected, however, and most of them, like all of England’s rivers, have failed to meet their required ecological standards, and struggle to meet the demands of a growing population.
I sat for a drink to finally satisfy my thirst at the Spring Tavern, at the site where William the Conqueror is said to have watered his horse. I had arrived at my destination, although I had walked in the wrong direction and so it was easy to think that this was the end of the river rather than its beginning, and that it disappeared below ground here to flow back up the hills through which it had passed on its journey to the Thames.
At the end of The Machine Stops Vashti learns that humans had begun to live on the surface of the Earth again, and that breathing the outer air did not, in fact, mean death, and Kuno tells her, before they both expire underground as the machine finally grinds to a halt, ‘I have seen them, spoken to them, loved them. They are hiding in the mist and the ferns until our civilization stops. To-day they are the Homeless – to-morrow –’. At the end of News from Nowhere, Guest wakes up in his bed in Hammersmith in his present, but he does not despair as he seems to have known all along that it was a dream, or perhaps, in fact, a vision. ‘No, it will not do’, Ellen, his idealised love interest, tells him, ‘you cannot be of us; you belong so entirely to the unhappiness of the past that our happiness even would weary you. Go back again, now you have seen us, and your outward eyes have learned that in spite of all the infallible maxims of your day there is yet a time of rest in store for the world, when mastery has changed into fellowship – but not before. Go back again, then, and while you live you will see all around you people engaged in making others live lives which are not their own, while they themselves care nothing for their own real lives – men who hate life though they fear death. Go back and be the happier for having seen us, for having added a little hope to your struggle.’ (p. 228).
I caught the bus back from Ewell to Kingston, and as I sat on the top deck I watched as we crossed the Hogsmill, along which I had recently walked, but which was almost invisible, especially to those who passed in their cars, and I wondered if it had not also been a dream, or a vision, and that I might return home to a time before the plague, or perhaps after it, at the beginning of an epoch of struggle, and that it might not have been without its ultimate benefit to the commonwealth of mankind. I thought of Ellen’s last words at the end of Morris’s utopian romance: ‘Go on living while you may, striving with whatsoever pain and labour needs must be, to build up little by little the new day of fellowship, and rest, and happiness’ (p. 228).
Photography by Patrick Bernard and Karen Lacey-Holder: https://londonbelletrist.com/.
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