Thursday, 2 May 2013

39 years of News from Nowhere

I was pleased to be part of the Liverpool radical bookshop News from Nowhere's 39th birthday party, where we had an evening session based on the Five Leaves' book Utopia. The book featured a long history of the bookshop by Mandy Vere, who has been at NfN for 37 of those years. I worked in a radical bookshop for seventeen years, indicating some lack of commitment issues compared to Mandy. Indeed, the other four paid staff at the bookshop look like they'll eventually get a gold watch too. Gillian Darley also spoke, on the utopian Moravian community (from her chapter in the book) and other self-organised utopian communities and the local philanthropically-built Port Sunlight. We were interested to hear, from the audience, about some local housing schemes in Liverpool that are being self-organised, particularly in areas of high Irish-background occupancy, as a counter to the desperate economic situation people are in.
The event was also supposed to have Alun Parry singing utopian songs, but a family illness kept him away, with the wonderful Tayo Aluko (from Call Mr Robeson) depping at the last moment.
My own contribution - aside from talking about the contents of the book - was to draw out some strands from major utopian novels. Attitudes to decision-making and money, for example, in Thomas More's Utopia (actually, if NfN is really utopian the workers would scorn gold watches when the time arrives, as in Utopia gold was considered worthless metal and used only for cheap jewelry and chamber pots). News from Nowhere itself was written in response to Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward - if socialism comes. Re-reading Bellamy I was impressed how many of his ideas came about. He predicted the credit card, that could be used internationally, and he called it "a credit card". His vision of retail was based on the model that Argos and, to some extent, Amazon use. He suggested a personal economic system which looked like the citizen's income idea popular in the Green Party, and some of the centralised services that did come about in the Soviet bloc.
News from Nowhere was, of course, more libertarian, more rural, more feminist, more child-centred... but re-reading the book I was aware it was written just a few years before William Morris died, after an exhausting political, artistic and personal life. The book opens with "William Guest" after an evening "Up at the [Socialist] League" wanting to know what would happen "on the Morrow of the Revolution". Guest remarks "If I could be see a day of it... If I could but see it". The book is Morris's attempt to envisage such a future, but re-reading it the repeated call of "If I could but see it" felt like a cry of pain from someone who knew he would not see the socialism he so worked for.
I mentioned in passing Marge Piercy's utopian novel Woman on the Edge of Time, but Mandy remembered Piercy's Body of Glass where she wrote about something very close to the internet. Utopian novels have a habit of predicting the future.
What of course few would have predicted 39 years ago was that News from Nowhere would still be around, in a building owned by the workers-cooperative, a bit chaotic but buzzing with activity from groups as diverse as the Woodcraft Folk (meeting elsewhere in the building) and those running a vegan cafe on Saturdays.
Happy birthday, News from Nowhere

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