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William Morris
William Morris' house in Walthamstow

You know those English costume dramas that always open with a close-up of galloping hooves and then pull back to show a black carriage hurtling towards some manor house where petticoats, handwringing and a minor emotional outburst await?

I was thinking about those when I visited William Morris' old gaff in Walthamstow the other day. 

Not the emotional outbursts, you understand, but the carriage and the manor house. When he lived there as a child, it must have been hours away from central London. Now it was a few minutes' walk from the Tube, where I had been gnashing my teeth because it was packed solid and I had to stand for a few minutes. Imagine living in a time when you had to travel by carriage, pressed together with strangers, shaking, jumping and thudding along on unpaved roads with not as much as an underwired bra for support.

For days! And that's if you could even afford it! 

William-Morris-chair Artists, gratitude and Cantonese -
William Morris chair and wallpaper

Instead of complaining about cars and planes, we should be super thankful that we can get around so easily and in relative comfort. This is all thanks to oil, by the way, so we shouldn't be so eager to get rid of it. A world powered solely by electricity will soon put us back in costume drama discomfort or worse. 

Another thing I thought about was how these people, the artists in the olden days, all seemed to know each other despite how difficult it must have been to get around. Like the master of light, Sorolla - how did he get to know painters from the northern tip of Denmark and be influenced by them? OK, trains had been invented by this time, and of course they all went to Paris, but it must have taken ages and been uncomfortable, hot and with lots of soot. 

The Skagen painters in their turn were involved with or certainly influenced by people like Morris, who even as a young man managed to look ancient with hugely unbecoming facial hair. It started with a moustache in his late teens,

William-Morris-2 Artists, gratitude and Cantonese -

and by his early 30s the game was already up. 

William-Morris-1 Artists, gratitude and Cantonese -

But despite the facial thicket he managed to work non stop. Not only did he revolutionise design, he was also a writer and champion of great architecture before that even became a thing. He was a socialist while it was still counter cultural and in favour of the common man, before it became all about controlling and killing others. He wanted most of all that the ordinary people should be able to enjoy art just as much as the elite. And he thought even the humblest of tools and utensils should be beautiful as well as useful. 

William-Morris-quote Artists, gratitude and Cantonese -

After London I hopped over to Dublin where I ended up in its National Library to see an exhibition of one of Ireland's greatest sons, WB Yeats (whom I discovered through one of my top five bands, the Waterboys) and bugger me if the first thing I saw on a wall showing some of Yeats' associates and friends wasn't a huge picture of William Morris! I'm telling you, they all knew each other. 

William-Morris-cup Artists, gratitude and Cantonese -
Beauty and utility, oh yeah baby

Another artistic and intellectual elite who all know each other is the non-Chinese who carry on the legacy of Cantonese. You don't have to live in Hong Kong or be surrounded by Cantonese speakers to enjoy and appreciate the logic and wild fun of the Cantonese language. And how about the beautiful characters - wouldn't you want to be able to read and write just a few? It's easier than you think. I'm sure William Morris, already influenced by Chinese design, would have loved being able to write Chinese characters all over the walls. 

Oh, and I was introduced to William Morris by one of my ex Cantonese students from Hong Kong who now lives in Walthamstow! You see, we all know each other. 

Learn Cantonese the Natural Way - from a Norwegian! 

Today's Cantonese 設計  Jit gai - design