A Picnic In The Elysian Fields

William Morris (1834-96): ‘Hey Bute, pass over that platter of roast crackling, there’s a good fellow.’

John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, third Marquis of Bute (1847-1900): ‘As you wish, Morris. Your appetite for pig fat is inexhaustible. But I must tell you that, after 116 years, I find I tire of the smell of applesauce wafting on our gentle Elysian breezes.’

Morris: ‘You never appreciated the Past Life’s simple pleasures, Bute. What was the point of being the richest man in Europe if you didn’t indulge yourself as often as possible with roast pork and apple sauce? Give me that chestnut stuffing before it gets cold. The simple pleasures, Bute, don’t turn to sawdust in the mouth just because you own Cardiff docks.’

Bute: ‘Here you are, though it seems pretty tepid, old chap; do try and keep it out of your beard this time. As for extolling the simple pleasures, I’m afraid I find your Plain-Bluff-Man-of-the-People imposture a tad lacking: I know all about those Morris family Devon Consols dividends. Did those Devon copper miners of yours dine exclusively on roast pork?’

Morris (setting the stuffing regretfully aside): ‘No, it was mostly Devon pasties delivered to the mine-head by their long-suffering wives, I believe. But I take your point, Bute: you and I were both swaddled from birth in debentures and share certificates, but at least I kicked free of my swaddlings. You’re a good fellow, Bute, and I’ve enjoyed our occasional picnics, but I wonder that you never thought to use your mine royalties and your dock dues to topple a squalid, vicious, iniquitous, economic system that I know you despised as much as I did.’

Bute: ‘Mmm. This nectar’s not bad (can’t believe you really prefer that pint of mild). I too pursue a wandering, wondering thought. I wonder why a man who knew more than any other man of his day about the masters of medieval art, the tales of the troubadours, the great illuminated manuscripts, and the hymns in stone that are our gothic cathedrals… I wonder why that man would turn his back on such ineffable beauty to preach socialism from an old coal wagon beside the Manchester Ship Canal.’

Morris: ‘You left out the gritty Manchester March gale. But I believe my wonderment takes precedence over yours.’

Bute (after a pause and a sigh): ‘Very well. I will try to explain, as far as I’m able, and on the understanding that your own following explanation is more than a quip and a wave of the hand.

‘You will recall that I was an orphan, succeeding to the Marquessate when only six months old. My guardians were neglectful: I lacked warm human contact in my formative years. At Harrow and Oxford, I retreated into scholarship and religion: they are my staff and comfort still. I recognised that there were duties associated with my position and privileges; I tried to discharge them with care – I even served a term as Provost of Cardiff. But they were mere duties: I found no satisfaction in them, no relief in discharging them. My houses, my paintings, my religious observances – they were the balm for my soul. I knew the times were out of joint, I saw the vileness and the cruelty, but I lacked the strength and single-mindedness to scrub the world clean. My wealth did not bring me joy, but it bought me a retreat.’

Morris: ‘I understand, old fella. You looked up at Capitalism’s mighty keep and ramparts and felt unequal to the struggle – many a man has felt the same. No blame can attach to that. And no-one who has seen the luminous beauty of the chapel you created at Mount Stuart could say that your life lacked achievement.’

Bute: ‘Such generous judgements are typical of you, Morris. Perhaps you are too generous. Was it your generosity of spirit that led you to turn aside from poetry in favour of political speeches on street-corners?’

Morris: ‘You over-state my case, Bute. (Shall we start on the apple tart now?) I never gave up writing: indeed, I remember I started writing The Roots of the Mountains on a train journey to speak at a socialist meeting in Aberdeen.’

Bute: ‘True, you never gave up writing, but you could have written more, old friend. I did enjoy ‘The Roots of the Mountains’. Look at that chappie, Tolkien, he wrote huge tomes about elves and got some adolescents all excited, but really the best you could say about him was that he might have nudged a few readers to go on to your Roots of the Mountains, or your House of the Wolfings.’

Morris: ‘You’re over-stating again. But it’s true that my political activities left me less time for writing and pattern-making. And it’s also true that the doctrinal disputes and political chicanery that characterised the new socialist movement left me heart-sick. Like you, I felt I was born out of my due time and would have been happier in a century where artists were craftsmen and craftsmen were artists, and where all creative life was an unselfconscious hymn to Heaven. But there came a time in my life when I felt that a creative life was a sham which ignored the viciousness of the society surrounding me; when I felt that in order for there to be any creative life in the future, I would have to sometimes lay my own creative life to one side and give of my best for the chance of a decent tomorrow.’

Bute: ‘The Chance of Change, eh Morris? But your gamble was lost: the change you sought never came to pass. New horrors now stalk the world. Men pile up bricks and call it Art, other men shatter bricks into dust and call it Peace. So you spent your strength in vain: isn’t that a thing to regret?’

Morris: ‘Regret? No, no. Do you know the story of Njal? [Bute: ‘Oh Lor’, not the sagas again.’] Njal was a far-seeing man: he knew his fate, he knew things would end badly. But right to the last, he struggled against that fate. Only when his sons were slain and he was trapped by his enemies in his burning house, only when there was nothing further he could do, only then did he surrender to his fate and compose himself for death. Those sagamen taught us the way to live. Choosing the right course should not be a matter of calculating the chances of success. Mmm, this apple pie…’

Bute: ‘It is pretty good, isn’t it? Better than I’d expected. Reminds me of something else, perhaps it’s the cloves…’

Morris: ‘Not the meal you had with the Bishop of Antioch. Not that again. I’ve heard you speak of that meal so many times that I assure you I have the menu by heart. But there’s something else I want to say about The Struggle: one man may struggle and find his own gamble lost. Very well. But others struggle also, in the past, in the present, and in the future. Other men may yet win their gamble. If that be the case, then I have not spent my strength in vain.’

Bute: ‘Well said, Morris (excepting your uncalled-for remarks about my meeting with the Bishop). But surely your own unsuccessful struggles made you merely an instigator, not a creator. Is that enough? Is that enough for the artist who wrought The Defence of Guinevere?’

Morris: ‘My hearing must be failing. Do you know, I thought I heard the third Marquis of Bute, the man who lavished his years and his treasure on building the perfect fairy-tale fortress, Castel Coch, in the beech woods of the Taff Valley, the man who – when his fabulous pile was complete – barely deigned to visit it, I thought I heard that man deprecate the instigation of the beautiful. Man, your whole life was a succession of instigations. You lost all interest in completions.’

Bute: ‘You don’t understand: Castel Coch was lovely, but there was no guest accommodation. Yet I concede you the point that there is much satisfaction to be had in taking part in the process, as much perhaps as in reaching the end.’

Morris: ‘That’s it, Bute, old man. That’s it. The cathedral of Chartres has burned to the ground. From all points of the compass, they come – princes, poets, and peasants – to rebuild the cathedral. We don’t know their names, we don’t know a single name of the builders of the greatest gothic building in all the wide world. And you and I, we just wish to be among their number, to be one of the anonymous builders of the great cathedral.

Bute: ‘I say, Morris. I do believe you lifted that business about Chartes cathedral from the Swedish Johnnie over there, Ingmar Bergman.’

Morris: ‘I say, Bute, I do believe you’re right. Good job there’s no copyright up here, eh? What do you say to some more pie? There’s quite enough left for second-helpings…’

About Michael Bloor

Michael Bloor is a retired sociologist living in Dunblane, Scotland. A published poet and essayist, he has recently discovered the exhilarations of short fiction, with pieces published in Breve New Stories, Ink Sweat & Tears, Fictive Dream, Platform for Prose, the Flash Fiction Press, Flash Fiction Magazine and Scribble.

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