At the recent Street Music Conference in Norwich, Kirsty Martin presented the story of organising the 2018 Street Choirs Festival with her quire, Hullabaloo in Brighton. Kirsty's account reveals fascinating insights into the various politics involved with organising a Festival for choirs with diverse political and musical outloooks, while at the same time involving local people and taking into account the political issues of the place in which the festival is held. Taking on such an organising task, is it at all possible to keep everyone happy?
Kirsty Martin with Green MP Caroline Lucas at the 2018 Street Choirs Festival in Brighton
As an appetiser for the book launch in Leicester on Wednesday - with a soundtrack from the marvellous Red Leicester - we're posting this first draft of an essay. With it's exploration of assumptions about developing the Campaign Choirs Network, it may have relevance to wider social movements.
Street Choirs: safe spaces or spaces of exclusion?
Between 2014 and 2018 the Campaign Choirs Writing Collective, a small team of activists and para-academics, carried out more than forty oral history interviews with members of street choirs across the length and breadth of Britain. Street choirs in this context signifies radical campaigning or political choirs, predominantly socialist or peace choirs. The sobriquet ‘street’ is traceable to choirs’ involvement or, in some cases, origin in the British street bands movement. Not all of the choirs whom we interviewed actually sang on the street. Many do, however, at demonstrations and rallies as well as more regularly to raise awareness and/or money for campaigns and causes. Ultimately, our participatory action research project sought to address the question of how street choirs might develop their individual and collective potentials in ways that took into account their members’ everyday realities, hopes and dreams.
Spatial tensions So, some of the questions we posed to street choir members were: What world do you want? What does your perfect society look like? To help them get to grips with such daunting utopian questions, we encouraged our interviewees to focus on their choir: What are you singing for? In your utopia, how would the choir change? One fascinating aspect of the research was the tension between a street choir as a safe space and that space being exclusionary. A safe space of shared experience and solidarity implies a simultaneous space disbarring difference and so precluding the development of new political relations, notably intersectional solidarities, typically an agonistic and so disruptive process.
The tension between safe and exclusionary space extends to street choirs when considered together as a social movement. One issue that the evolving Campaign Choirs Network has explicitly recognised as problematic is the relationship between street choirs and community choirs. Community can denote manifold relations but in this case a shared experience of place is the most typical. Street and community choirs share an annual festival, named the Street Choirs Festival but increasingly inhabited by a community choirs majority. Contestation of festival space is quite evident in practice, exemplified by the songs that the massed choirs choose to learn and sing together. Street choirs generally demand explicitly political songs, while for community choirs the drive seems to be more the music than the message. One aspect of our research focussed on how the contestation of festival space might be rendered constructive rather than divisive.
The evolving Campaign Choirs Network of street choirs inhabits a relational space that encompasses contradiction. While the movement actively extends a welcome to women-only and LGBT+ choirs, it is ambiguous about opening this political embrace to choirs as exclusionary spaces of community, youth, ethnicity or maleness. What, for instance, is the Campaign Choirs Network to make of the fairly recent advent of a new generation of men-only choirs such as Chaps Choir and Spooky Men's Chorale? The defining statement of the latter is the light-hearted: 'We can grow beards, if we want to’. Be it sexually straight, gay or otherwise, the identity politics of such safe spaces centres on the shared experience of a physically prescribed maleness.
No room to presume In a recent article for The Conversation, Thomas Breeze proposes that traditional male-voice choirs, specifically those from traditionally working class communities, should admit female singers to counter declining participation[i]. A significant presupposition of our research was that, in order to develop their potentials, street choirs would need to grow and diversify their memberships, in particular via attracting younger and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) people as well as more men. Although ours was not a quantitative survey, the Campaign Choirs Network, and thus our research population, is predominantly female, aged between 50 and 70, and white. As we’ve already mooted, however, diversifying the membership of a street choir is not straight-forward. How can existing spaces of shared experience and solidarity also be made spaces of welcome and safety for people from different life worlds and politics? One of our interviewees, Wendy Lewis of Côr Cochion Caerdydd (Cardiff Reds Choir), was clear that music alone cannot play such a role: “the people who have stuck with us are the people who didn’t think they could sing but were interested politically and then learned to sing. As opposed to the people, in the past, who had lovely voices but… Well, they’re not going to stick around if they don’t agree with the politics.”
Just imagine that Asking our interviewees to imagine a utopian future served to illuminate the tensions and ambiguities of safe spaces and exclusion. Sean Maddison Brown of Sheffield choir Out Aloud recalls homophobia being rife in his city: “I can remember being in a gay pub only few hundred yard from here and them having to put shutters down because it was being pelted by yobs. That’s not very long ago.” Out Aloud became a safe space for the LGBT people in Sheffield and Sean recognizes the benefits of a diversity that arose from a politically necessitated solidarity: ‘What I’ve gained from it [being in Out Aloud] is meeting a lot of fabulous women, actually… who I would not have come across socially.” Noting an initial reluctance from both men and women to join, Sean told us that: “we feel it’s our strength now to have that mixed choir.” Imagining a utopian future raised some confusing political questions and Sean said: “A gay choir might not exist in the future. The need for it would disappear… The issue of gay should disappear, like the issue of women should disappear. The issue around women and women needing to come together, to be separate, to have support, to fight for their rights and so forth. In an ideal world we wouldn’t have any of that because we would be [equal].”
Sean’s story illuminates that whether a street choir is a space of exclusion can be a matter of power relations shifting over time. In this regard, Thomas Breeze’s suggestion that male voice choirs could open up to female singers may hold good. As with Out Aloud, people of all genders (and none) could gain from the interaction; diversity could become their new choir’s political strength. On the other hand, in our current moment many BAME people may need any choir that they join to be an exclusionary space so that it is a safe space. The research findings we shared with the Campaign Choirs Network problematize the presupposition of developing street choirs by a seeking a blanket increase in their diversity. Some men, young people and BAME people will join existing street choirs, but others may need the support of the Campaign Choirs Network to form their own choirs. In some cases, exclusion can be a progressive politics. At least for the time being.
"Singing for Our Lives’ draws on more than 40 oral histories gathered from members of the UK’s many street choirs (campaigning choirs). Their stories explore the politics, music and relationships that sustain street choirs, as well as the futures they imagine when they sing. The Campaign Choirs Writing Collective are members of street choirs, carrying our participatory action research with the national network."
We'll be concluding the session with a sing-a-long rendition of the Citizen's Shanty. The fairly recent advent of Commoners Choir from Leeds, who are musically led by Boff Whalley formerly of Chumbawamba, has had an invigorating impact on the street choirs movement. Their Citizen’s Shanty was sung by the massed choir of over 300 people at this year’s Street Choirs Festival in Brighton. The song challenges the geography expounded by Theresa May, who infamously said: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.”
These programmes are worth looking out for next week. I think they'll discuss protest music. They may well even have a view on Mozart as a radical dissenter - the discussion that came up here after the publication of Singing For Our Lives! There's an exhibition at the British museum that the Radio 4 programmes are based on. It starts 6th September.
Ian Hislop curated the exhibition and will host the Radio 4 programmes
Marge Piercy's novel remains the most influential feminist Utopia/Dystopia, I think. It certainly underpinned our care-full utopian analysis in Singing For Our Lives
Despite being written back in 1976, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time surely contains the most fully developed and influential feminist utopia written to date (29). It also contains an uncompromising account of the modern USA from the point of view of a poor, Mexican-American woman with mental health issues, Connie Ramos, whose life is defined by systemic injustice. This misogynistic and racist dystopia, set in New York circa 1976, is the counterpoint to Piercy’s future society, itself set in 2137 in the village of Mattapoisett[i]. Care is the essence of Woman on the Edge of Time, both in accounts of a ghastly, uncaring present and a future society in which care is taken to a profoundly starling ‘extreme’. To negate male oppression, care-giving is shared equally by men even to act of breast-feeding the babies produced in the ‘brooder’, wherein the community grows its asexually produced, genetically engineered embryos. Connie’s guide, Luciente, explains:
‘It was part of women’s long revolution. When we were breaking all the old hierarchies. Finally there was that one thing we had to give up too, the only power we ever had, in return for no more power for anyone. The original production: the power to give birth. Cause as long as we were biologically enchained, we’d never be equal. And males would never be humanised to be loving and tender. So we all became mothers’ (29, p. 105).
Martin Delveaux senses the dystopian in Piercy’s future, pointing out the perils of eugenics (30). Confronting criticisms on reproductive rights, Piercy admits that, if she were to re-write the novel, she would include the choice for women to give birth naturally (31). We note that the inhabitants of the fictional Mattapoisett are aware of and debate their power over population make-up in terms of race, gender and dis/ability. After they are ‘born’ children are raised by three ‘mothers’, consigning the nuclear family to the dustbin of history. Moreover, mothers can be women or men and they are not related ‘by blood’ to the child. ‘Mothering (caring work), then, must be incorporated as a human experience and located at the center of culture, rather than remaining at the margins of culture as women’s work, undervalued and/or senitmentalized’ (32, p. 251). Caring is regarded not as a natural virtue of women but as a social human practice that is learned. Moreover, the community makes the connection between caring for the self and the welfare of society as a whole: ‘Interpersonal relations are valued as a form of community activity’ (32, p. 251).
Regardless of their race, the citizens of Piercy’s future live in communities based on ethnic cultures. One character, Bee, says: ‘We want diversity, for strangeness breeds richness.’ Connie asks: ‘Are there black Irishmen and black Jews and black Italians and black Chinese?’ To which Bee answers: ‘Fasure[ii], how not? When you grow up, you can stick to the culture you were raised with or you can fuse into another’ (29, p.104). Homosexuality, lesbianism and bisexuality are norms in future Mattapoisett. And, as people inhabit a more androgynous environment, gender is much less of a cultural and somewhat less of a physical binary. Although physical disability is not explored as a social issue, O’Byrne notes that in Mattapoisett ‘the stigma around mental illness no longer exists… they do not use ‘sick’ and ‘mad’ interchangeably’ (33, p.3).
Politically, Mattapoisett is organised as a libertarian, voluntarist community. If a high proportion of a village population opts out of decision-making meetings, ‘the neighbouring villages send for a team of involvers’ (29, p.154)[iii]. Economically, Piercy’s utopia is ‘a world in which gender socialization and the concurrent division of labour is abolished’ (32, p251). Where possible, the routine work of production is highly automated. Onerous tasks that demand physical labour are shared. People who do not do their share of the work may be asked to leave a community, if ‘healing’ doesn’t work. There is no private property. Then: ‘Piercy’s novel is an early example of ecofeminism, as the exploitation of women, as in the prostitution of Dolly[iv], is paralleled by mistreatment of the earth. The book seems prescient too in its championing of sustainable farming, composting, natural fertiliser and recycling’ (33, p.4). Each region attempts to be self-sufficient in food production and every settlement has its own Earth Advocate, who speaks for the rights of the environment, resonating with J Baird Callicott’s concept of environmental stewardship (34). At one point in the novel ‘the pastoral clutter’ of Mattapoisett infuriates New York resident Connie, and her guide, Luciente, tells her: ‘We don’t have big cities – they didn’t work’ (29, p.68).
Surprisingly perhaps, Piercy chooses not to liberate her future society from violence. Although each individual can refuse military service, as indeed they can every societal duty, their civilisation is at war against the remnants of the previous one. In the main, the people of Mattapoisett seem accepting of, if not enthusiastic about, the social duty to fight. On the home-front, meanwhile, when healing has failed and a person commits a second act of violence, they are executed. Not only do the community refuse to tolerate violence within, they regard imprisoning someone to be less humane than execution, not least for the people who would be compelled to be warders. Even though animal consciousness is accepted in this future society and, indeed, people have learned to communicate with animals, they still eat meat. Mattapoisett’s culture is that of Native Americans, ‘Wamponaug Indians’[v], and the villagers respect the animals that they eat on (many) feast days. Luciente implies that knowledge of animal consciousness has reduced meat consumption. Moreover, although the village still practices hunting, Luciente relates that a number of residents do vote against the tradition.
Woman on the Edge of Time is hopeful of creating a more egalitarian world. ‘Piercy simply imagines a possible world given the intentionality of people receptive to change’ (32, p.19, our emphasis). The author judges her own feminist, ecologically sound future and most women’s utopias to be ‘profoundly anarchist and aimed at integrating people back into the natural world and eliminating power relationships’ (31). Maciunas suggests that central to this becoming is an openness to subjugated and marginalised knowledges: ‘feminist epistemologies indicate revolutionary changes in knowers, ways of knowing, and to the worlds to be known. They ought to and do show us “the conditions necessary to transfer control from the ‘haves’ to the ‘have-nots’” (32, p.19). Quoting Connie’s musings in Woman on the Edge of Time, ‘Probabilities clash and wink out forever’ (29, p.177), O’Byrne states that: ‘This is the basic message of the novel, that we need to actively make positive choices’ (33, p.8).
Piercy’s account is clear about the intersectionality of Connie’s oppression on the basis of her gender, race, class and poverty. O’Byrne concludes: ‘The novel puts the onus on us as readers to enable women like Connie to grow ‘up through the concrete’, to contemplate a different way of being, a society with shorter work hours, a chance to choose to work at interesting tasks, and life-long learning’ (33, p.10). Marge Piercy herself said of the novel: ‘it’s very intentionally not a utopia because it’s not strikingly new. The ideas are the ideas basically of the women’s movement’ (35, p. 102). We observe that a work of art with its origins in a social movement continues to inspire social movements, and that it is in itself an act of resistance. O’Byrne notes that resistance is indeed a theme of the novel and that the people of the future advise Connie that: ‘There’s always something you can deny your oppressor, even if it’s only your allegiance. Your belief. Your co-oping. Often even with vastly unequal power, you can find or force an opening to fight back’ (29, p. 328). Piercy also reminds us that the struggle is never over, not even in - relative to Connie’s ‘real world’ – utopia. Luciente holds onto a utopian dream, however:
‘Someday the gross repair will be done. The oceans will be balanced, the rivers flow clean, the wetlands and the forests flourish. There’ll be no more enemies. No Them and Us. We can quarrel joyously with each other about important matters of idea and art. The vestiges of the old ways will fade. I can’t know that time – anymore than you can ultimately know us[vi]. We can only know what we can truly imagine. Finally what we see comes from ourselves’ (29, p.328).
29. Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time. London: The Women’s Press, 1979.
30. Maciunas, Billie. “Feminist Epistemology in Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time.” Women's Studies 20, 3-4 (1992): 249-258.
31. O'Byrne, D. M. “Marge Piercy's Non-Utopia in Woman on the Edge of Time.” In Utopia edited by R. Bradshaw, 75-84. Nottingham: Five Leaves, 2012.
32. Piercy, Marge. Parti-Coloured Blocks for a Quilt. Michigan. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982.
33. Callenbach, Ernest. Ecotopia. Berkeley: Banyan Tree Books, 1975/2004.
34. Starhawk. The Fifth Sacred Thing. London: Bantam, 1993.
35. Held, V. The Ethics of Care: personal, political, and global. Oxford: OUP, 2006.
36. Delveaux, Martin. “The Biologisation of Ecofeminism? On Science and Power Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time.” Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism 5, 1 (2013): 23-29.
In the second review essay previewing Chapter 5 of Singing For Our Lives we look at Ursula K. Le Guin's anarchist utopia
In The Dispossessed Ursula K. Le Guin portrays an ‘ambiguous utopia’[i] that is anarchist or, more accurately, anarchist communist (22). A degree of centralisation and so a proto-state is seemingly made inevitable by the hostile geography of Anarres, the fictional moon on which Le Guin situated her utopia. Anarres is a participatory democracy, acutely aware of the potential threat of centralisation to that politics. Anarres is contrasted with Urras, another moon which is a fairly straight-forward projection into the future of the capitalism pertaining on the Earth that Le Guin actually inhabited as she wrote. According to Avery Plaws, Le Guin’s novel ‘persistently portrays private property and political power as interfering with human self-realisation by disrupting genuine community, undermining equality, and constraining freedom’ (23, p. 299). Davis suggests that the novel’s view is that markets and governments are antithetic to the sort communicative human relations necessary for self-realisation (24). The value Le Guin’s comparative societies invest in material objects is diametrically different. On Anarres objects and their possession are alienating; and identity and sociability are the product of their absence. Private ownership, money, markets and profit are antithetic to Anarresti well-being and happiness, and economic distribution is based on need. Meanwhile, material objects on Urras are sources of identity and sociability (24, p. xiii). Echoing William Morris, Le Guin moots the possibility of reconceptualising material objects as art thereby changing the basis of their evaluation (25). Indeed, Davis considers that Le Guin’s paramount contribution to the radical utopian project is to propose a view of art that is democratised but not reduced to a solely social function (20, p.241).
Anarresti society features communal child rearing, public housing, public transport, communal meals, and public service days, the latter at least resonating with the civic republican tradition of citizenship. The Dispossessed also includes an ecoptopian imagining, all be that limited to resource use and waste recycling in conditions of scarcity. Although Anarres is certainly no rural idyll, its philosophical founder, Odo, had proposed a ‘natural limit’ to the size of urban settlements, dictated by bioregionalism[ii]. On Anarres, marriage and the nuclear family have been rejected as part of the project to encourage more egalitarian social relations. Laurence Davis notes that the gender and sexual politics of The Dispossessed is worthy of more analysis (24). Leadership and other roles within local and vocational organisations are rotated, and Anarres thoroughly embraces technology with, as a prime instance, computers being employed to allocate resources and match people’s skills to job vacancies.
Without naming care, Dan Sabia records that: ‘Individuals are on the account of the anarcho-communist radically social. They need one another not only when they are in pain…. True in all societies, the need for others as a condition of self-development and well-being is especially true in anarcho-communist society, because there the absence of a state, or of a centralized authority, entails the viability of all social institutions and practices depends entirely on voluntary cooperation and sharing’ (27, p.114). ‘Trusting others is the basis of mutual aid – of reciprocity and collective action’ (27, p.115). An ethic of mutual aid and solidarity, Sabia contends, would stress a few basic values: the particularity and autonomy of the individual; individual freedom; understanding all persons as moral equals, deserving of equal respect and concern; helping those in need; not intentionally doing harm or taking advantage; contributing to society by doing the work that you’re best at; and cooperating when cooperation is mutually beneficial. Sabia writes that ‘Communal living does not only embody communal practices, norms and values, it normalises and promotes them’ (27, p.117). We note that this only perpetuates utopia’s chicken and egg problem: caring society creates caring people but caring people construct caring society… Sabia’s point is, though, that: ‘The ethic of solidarity and mutual aid must be practiced to be efficacious’ (27, p.117, our emphasis).
The central drama of The Dispossessed as a novel stems from the tension between individuality and community. Countering a deterministic view of history, Le Guin ‘reminds us of the indispensable part played in historical change by individual choice and personal creativity’ (24, p.x). So, this tension around personal freedom is also the novel’s most compelling political theme: ‘Put another way, the problem is how to reconcile individual autonomy and agency with the inevitable rules and demands of social units, and inevitable duties and responsibilities that individuals incur as social beings’ (27, p.113). A view of humans as subjects and not objects determines that inter-relations are ethical rather than political. This reciprocity underpins the mutual aid and egalitarianism of Anarres’ society. We might also say that it constitutes Anarres as a society premised primarily on care rather than justice. The values that individual freedom demands from a society include the exercise of free will, diversity and dissent. Sabia observes that the anarcho-communism of Anarres does not depend on altruism but on enlightened self-interest, which may have the potential to reconcile the individual and community. Paradoxically, the utopian weakness of The Dispossessed, in relating how personal autonomy and social solidarity can never be fully reconciled, is also the novel’s ultimate strength when read as political theory. Although Le Guin keeps alive the possibility of such a reconciliation, she is wise enough not to foreclose her utopia but to leave it ambiguous, defined by always being a work in progress.
The potential of Anarres is as ‘a dynamic and revolutionary utopia premised on acceptance of the enduring reality of social conflict and historical change’ (24, p. x). ‘Anarres is no Pollyanna picture of unblemished perfection. It is a recognisably human world with famine, violence and suffering. What makes it utopian (and so a potential spur to radical change in the unwritten world of present Earth) is the efforts of its inhabitants to uphold the principle that one cannot justify the happiness of some by the degradation of others’ (24, p. xxi). Dan Sabia notes that the survival of both community and the individual depends on a willingness to value and practice change, to continually adapt, not least to each other. ‘The commitment to individual autonomy and liberty which defines anarchist communism as much as the commitment to solidarity and cooperation does, guarantees the proliferation of difference – of different characters and personalities, values and attitudes, beliefs and perspectives, interests and ambitions’ (27, p.123). The novel’s protagonist, Shevek, is actually struggling for the anarcho-communist goals that more conservative elements in his Anarresti society believe will risk all they have attained. These goals include not only personal freedom but also openness to the continual change in their own society and spreading revolution to other societies via communicating ideas. Such an ambiguous utopia, Sabia observes, will inevitably and perpetually involve a degree of conflict and instability. As a counterpart, though it is antithetic to freedom, harmony nevertheless persists as an ideal for society to strive for. Claire Curtis views The Dispossessed as philosophical foundation for a different sort of utopia, one premised on scepticism rather than perfection (28).
20. Davis, Laurence. “Morris, Wilde, and Le Guin on Art, Work, and Utopia. Utopian Studies 20, 2 (2009): 213-248.
22. Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. London: Millennium, 1999.
23. Plaws, Avery. “Empty Hands: Communication, Pluralism,and Community in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.” In The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, edited by Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman, 283-305. Oxford: Lexington Books, 2005.
24. Davis, Laurence and Peter Stillman (Eds). The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Oxford: Lexington Books, 2005.
27. Sabia, Dan. “individual and Community in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.” In The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, edited by Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman, 111-128. Oxford: Lexington Books, 2005.
28. Curtis, Claire P. “Ambiguous Choices: Skepticism as a Grounding for Utopia. In The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, edited by Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman, 265-282 . Oxford: Lexington Books, 2005.
Footnotes [i] The subtitle of The Dispossessed, which does not feature on some editions of the novel
[ii] Bioregionalism is the belief that, by and large, human activity should be determined by ecological or geographical factors rather than political ones.
For Chapter 5 of Singing For Our Lives, we looked to some utopias with which to compare interviewees' imaginings of the future. In the process, we wrote reviews of some utopias that were necessarily edited down for the published book. These longer reads might be of interest, so here goes with the first of three 'considerable utopias': William Morris' News From Nowhere.
Notable utopian socialists include Claude-Henri de Saint Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. We concentrate, though, on the literary utopia of William Morris, News from Nowhere (17). Literary utopias tend to emerge from politically turbulent and optimistic times. News from Nowhere was published in the midst of a revolutionary century in Europe that gave rise to a tradition of ‘utopian socialism’, first labelled thus and subsequently lambasted by Karl Marx. Though we must perforce give it short shrift, we’ll try to do Morris’ novel justice, at least in the context in which we are reading it herein.
William Morris was an energetic polymath: a textile designer who contributed much to the field of architecture, he also found time to be a translator of ancient Norse literature, an acclaimed poet, and, obviously, a novelist. Morris was also a prominent Socialist activist. Ironically for such a busy life, the subtitle of Morris’ News from Nowhere is An Epoch of Rest. First published in 1890 when Morris was 56, News from Nowhere is set in his home city of London transported into a far-flung socialist future. Morris was writing in a period of history marked by the collapse of empires, the revolutions of 1848, and social change across Europe. Not complete coincidence, then, that Marx and Engels published the avowedly anti-utopian Communist Manifesto in the same year (18). The protagonist in News from Nowhere, satirically named Guest, is transported to utopia via the simple expedient of falling asleep in his - and indeed Morris’ – own time and waking in a future of undetermined date. News from Nowhere has been subjected to harsh criticism by some reviewers who accuse it of falling into the traps of romanticism, unreality, nostalgia and pastoralism that we outlined. Merlin Coverley, for instance, concludes his vitriolic review thus: ‘Morris’ pre-industrial utopia is truly a return to the Middle Ages, an Arcadian fantasy of material abundance and wish fulfilment, that has little in common with the pragmatism of Owen and Marx.”(19)[i]
For our purposes, however, a very different reading of News from Nowhere is possible. As well as being grounded in his familiar London geography, Morris situated his utopia in history, having his characters discuss how the transformed society of utopia had been fought for in past reality by Socialists. He does not, though, speculate upon events in the time between documented history and his utopia. Antipathetic towards the ‘modern civilisation’ of his own day, community and equality were central to Morris’ thinking. He expressed the wish for rich and poor to become words without definition, terms so archaic and alien that historians would try and fail to explain them to students. Common ownership and mutuality are the economic basis for Morris’ utopia in which money plays no part and coins are artefacts consigned to museums. News from Nowhere expounds a work ethic very different to that serving the accumulation of capital or the valorisation of hard work for its own moral sake, as in Christian Protestantism. While creative work is placed joyfully at the core of the good life and self-realisation, irksome work is done by machines or shared. Morris is an unapologetic Luddite in the sense of insisting that technology be evaluated in terms of its benefit or otherwise to the community. In his utopia the products of creative work have two defining normative qualities: they should benefit the community and they should be beautiful. In News from Nowhere the boundaries between work, craft and art are significantly eroded. Craftsmanship is certainly a virtue in Morris’ utopia and, to ensure work remained attractive, the working day was short. Laurence Davis writes that: ‘Morris the socialist craftsman believed that art should be radically democratised, and that is ought to serve the function of making common labour a source of pleasure and joy’ (20, p.240).
In News from Nowhere society has moved beyond the centralized state and a localised participatory democracy holds sway. This society was not, in Morris’ thinking, to be confused with anarchism, which he understood as radically individualistic libertarianism, and which ran counter to his commitment to collective authority. Morris emerges from News from Nowhere as very much a proto environmentalist wherein air and noise pollution have been eradicated from a London of many green spaces. Moreover, architectural conservation is a prominent feature of his account of his city in the future. Thus, News from Nowhere has been hailed as an early Ecotopia[ii]. Contradicting Coverley’s critique, Morris is not anti-urban or wedded to a rural idyll. Rather, in his utopia he seems intent on narrowing the distinction between city and country, celebrating the best of both. By contrast to his prescient environmentalism, though, Morris is apparently blind to the politics of gender. Household work in his utopia remains the province of women and is not elevated to the level of craft, nor mechanised, nor yet shared with men. Morris does, however, choose to replace the institution of marriage with looser and more permissive social relations based on affection. Morris’s attitudes to art, architecture and fashion indicates that his utopia would not be frozen in the past. Moreover, he consciously refused to entirely prescribe its social, political and especially economic space, reacting against the dominance of economy in constructions of socialism in his own time, notably The Communist Manifesto. David Leopold writes: ‘News from Nowhere is no comprehensive and static portrait of perfection’ (21, p. xxv). To his despair, Guest is returned to his own time, but his experience of the utopian future acts a spur and he realises he must work to help bring about the social transformation he has experienced (or dreamed): ‘the new day of fellowship, and rest, and happiness’ (17, p.182).
Laurence Davis nicely summarises News from Nowhere in a way that, we believe, has clear implications for street choir singing:
‘Unlike so many utopian writers, Morris did not attempt to prescribe in law-like detail how people ought to live their lives. Rather, he developed a new chastened and anti-perfectionist style of utopian writing that was neither prescriptive nor prophetic but heuristic. It was a style, in other words, meant to help awaken ordinary people’s latent hopes and desires for a radically egalitarian, co-operative, and creative form of life; provoke them to reflect on, and discuss and debate collectively, the rationality of hopes and desires; and so give them the courage and confidence necessary to strive for the studied convictions that emerged from the process of constructive imagination, reflection, and democratic dialogue’ (20, p.221).
17. Morris, William. News From Nowhere (or An Epoch of Rest). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 18. Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin Classics, 2015. 19. Coverley, Merlin. Utopia. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2010. 20. Davis, Laurence. “Morris, Wilde, and Le Guin on Art, Work, and Utopia. Utopian Studies 20, 2 (2009): 213-248. 21. Leopold, David. “Socialism and (the rejection of) utopia.” Journal of Political Ideologies, 12, 3 (2007): 219 -237.
[i] Referring to Robert Owen and Karl Marx and their, arguably non-utopian, future imaginings in, respectively, A New View of Society and The Communist Manifest.
[ii] Ernst Callenbach conception of an ecological utopia, which we discuss briefly in a subsequent passage.
We're just back from the 'Rencontres de Chorales Revolutionnaires' (Meeting of Revolutionary Choirs) which was held near Royere de Vassivierefrom the 21st to 28th July. Choirs from France, Italy, England, Wales and Belgium participated in the event. In all, more then twelve choirs were represented - some by only a few or even one member. In a busy week, participants learned 12 new songs in 5 languages, stretching some musical memories, singing voices and pronunciation skills to their limits! At the final concert in the town square of Eymoutiers, the massed choirs brought in some established favourites to sing a programme of 20 songs - plus an encore of the wonderful L'age d'Or (The Golden Age).
The new songs that choirs learned embraced a complex spectrum of issues: slavery, comradeship, solidarity with Palestinians, resistance to fascism, martyrdom, environmentalism, gross exploitation of labour, prejudice, the defence of culture and language, the forced repatriation of refugees... There was even a feminist take on gender pedagogy, a explanatory song about the clitoris, which engendered (sic) quite a debate. In a parallel vein, the tune of one French song was historically associated with both left and right-wing political groups and so, while some participants cherished it, others were reluctant to sing it.
All in all, it was a packed programme with much eating and drinking between singing, dancing, cabaret, film-shows and multi-lingual discussions. Vive la les chorales revolutionaires!
Here are a very few photos from the Street Choirs Festival in Brighton. We meant to do a longer post on a wonderful weekend, but we simply ran out of time. We have already posted a video of Commoners Choir in action, singing Hope. And we have some nice footage of the rehearsal and performance of Nasty (watch this space). Some street choirs may be bemoaning a few too many 'pop songs' and even the odd religious song in the choirs concert? In terms of the recommendations for the Campaign Choirs Network that emerged from our research, however, we suggest that politically as well as musically, the Brighton festival may have been pitch perfect?
Here's three of our recommendations that seem pertinent:
Exploring uncommon ground with community choirs [i.e. developing relationships where the politics of the parties present is not in play, and acting together on something that is not the usual concern of any of them];
Providing support to emerging street and ‘community’ choirs;
Rethinking participation in the annual Street Choirs Festival, specifically how Campaign Choirs Network members interact with other choirs and their members (and how the festival format facilitates or impedes such interaction);
-Next, this week in fact, we're off to the Revolutionary Choirs Reunion in Royere-de-Vassiviere (that's in post World Cup winning France, which is also the France that oppresses the ZAD at Notre Dam-des-Landes!)
We're thrilled to note that Singing For Our Lives is a best-seller for our supportive independent publisher Hammer-on Press. We're getting lots of lovely feedback from academics, activists and altos everywhere (other voices too, but I do love alliteration). And already we're getting informative feedback too, other stories and new insights (which we'll share here).
In Singing For Our Lives, we noted that: "The idea of Mozart as a political figure whose work was infused with radical sentiment is an enduring one in some quarters, though it is largely dismissed as ‘myth’ among scholars." (p.131)
Jane Scott of Birmingham Clarion Singers got back to us with some authors arguments for the maestro's revolutionary credentials: "Jane Glover 'Mozart's Women' 2005 isbn 978-0-330-4 1858-4 makes it clear that, for example p. 250 in "Marriage of Figaro".... "a damning indictment of their own society..... touched on wider, universal issues....told by Mozart and Da Ponte with the greatest sympathy for the plight of women".