Books: A Week in Books

BOYD TONKIN Mr Motion joins Morris & Co
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The Independent Culture
SOME COMMENTATORS have found it a surprise that the Poet Laureate should pen a 30-line ode on freedom and solidarity for this year's TUC delegates in Brighton. True, lyric verse and trade-union organisation may look, at first glance, like strange bedfellows. In Britain, however, this odd couple goes back a long way.

Trade-union pioneers took as their anthems pieces such as Blake's "Jerusalem" and Shelley's "Song to the Men of England" ("The seed you grow, another reaps;/ The wealth you find, another keeps"). Byron, another huge favourite of the early comrades, only ever spoke once in the Lords - to defend protesting land workers against the threat of capital punishment.

The partnership may have had its ups and downs (although former TUC general secretary Norman Willis is a serious amateur poet), but Andrew Motion's "In a Perfect World" takes us back to the roots of this relationship. The Laureate's poetic stroll along the Thames reminds us that the union movement owes more than it may think to the High Victorian visions of William Morris, John Ruskin and their fellow idealists.

Morris, whose titanic energy led to fat volumes of romantic verse as well as to his transformation of British design and his pioneering role in socialist politics and conservation, lived beside the river at Hammersmith - halfway along Motion's route from Richmond to Westminster. His famous evocation of a Utopian "perfect world" in News from Nowhere (1891) also begins with a Thames-side wander, which leads into a dream of peace and plenty in a green London.

Motion's poem presents a very Morris-like contrast between the ugliness of industrial production - behind the "smoke-scarred walls" of an old warehouse - and the bounty of nature which lavishes its wealth "on everything equally". Honest labour shapes raw material into things of use over the ages (as dust falls "on flints, on cobbles, on squared-off slab-stones"), whereas modern business leaves only eyesores - the decaying warehouse, or else "skinny-ribbed office blocks". Yet the only "perfect world" on offer in Motion's poem lies in the mind's ability to "fathom what liberty means", and then to "catch the echo of others" in a sort of ghostly gesture of solidarity.

It's an idealised, almost metaphysical version of fraternity - a world away from the nitty-gritty of working-hours directives. But Motion grasps that the labour movement has always carried romantic dreams in its knapsack of ideas. Morris, meanwhile, would be delighted to see his distinctive stock of images still at work on something other than a roll of pricey wallpaper.