Raymond Williams: A Warrior's Tale by Dai Smith
"We have lost our best man," wrote the historian E.P. Thompson, on hearing of the sudden death of Raymond Williams in 1988. Thompson, like many others, believed that only Williams had the range of experience and necessary grit to inspire a new generation of political activists and thinkers on the left to respond to the dramatic social and cultural changes inherent in a post-scarcity, consumer society.
Dai Smith’s biography does a terrific job on exploring Williams’ early life, from being the grammar school son of a railway signalman, to becoming a Cambridge student, and later a Cambridge don. In between he was a tank commander in the Second World War, a socialist thinker and writer, and, for Williams himself most importantly, a novelist exploring the unfashionable themes of class, community, landscape and culture. Smith’s biography focuses on Williams’ many attempts to become a published novelist. Of the five novels eventually published – though many more were envisaged and even drafted - only one, Border Country, is regarded as entirely successful.
A Warrior’s Tale is however unexpectedly truncated, ending in 1961 with Williams having just published The Long Revolution. That great book, along with Border Country and Culture and Society, represented ‘a body of work’ according to Williams that was conceived of and completed as part of a ten year writing project, and which took up the most formative years of his life. There is no mention by Smith of a second volume to follow detailing the rest of Williams’ life, which is truly a great pity. Perhaps there is something in Schopenhaur’s remark that, ‘The first forty years of life is text, the rest is commentary.’
While everything about Williams is of interest and historical value, much of the story told here is well known, though it is useful to have it told again. Anybody who met Williams soon realised that behind that courteous, detached manner was an enormously complex man who did not take easily to everyday social relations. He was admirably perverse in his pedagogic priorities, preferring to speak for free to a small conference of adult education tutors or secondary school English teachers, rather than flying half way round the world for a large fee to lecture to other academics. He retained an abiding loyalty to the foot soldiers of education and political activism rather than to the officer class of academic theory.
Williams was also deeply puritanical, as is evident from one of the stories recounted by Dai Smith, in which Williams admitted that he disliked going to London because the advertisements everywhere made him physically sick. On several occasions he referred to his admiration for ‘the liberal seriousness of the North’, one element of which one assumes included the culture of municipal non-conformism whose ethos was captured in a novel he particularly esteemed, Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. Equally, at the end of the war he had been stationed briefly in Copenhagen, where the social democratic temper of the inhabitants impressed him. He was by his own admission, obsessed with the plays of Henrik Ibsen, as well as the early films of Ingmar Bergman. Interestingly there is little reference to music in any of Williams’ writings as far as I recall, and Smith makes no mention of any musical tastes or interests either.
It was this stubborn, granite-like resolve that there had to be a better way, that made him so attractive to those working in the academic hinterland of basic education, film and media studies, trade union education and local history and writing projects. He famously lost his temper as a Cambridge student when his tutor, L.C. Knights, claimed that it was impossible to understand the meaning of the word ‘neighbour’, as used in Shakespeare’s plays, because such organic societies no longer existed. Williams angrily asserted that he had grown up in such a society, and built a whole edifice of cultural theory around such complex words as ‘neighbour’ and ‘community’, as we know from Keywords, and from his admiration for the work of I.A. Richards and William Empson (both of whom dealt in the moral economies of different class vocabularies). All his life he returned again and again to the difficulties in reconciling customary and educated experience.
In the end, Williams believed that so much of history and class relations came down to speech. ‘In all modern and foreseeable societies,’ he once wrote, ‘physical speech and physical non-verbal speech (“body language”) remain as the central and decisive communicative means.’ Dai Smith does not cite this remark, though he does write well of Williams own, rather mesmeric, speaking voice, which, once heard, was not easily forgotten. It was heard again recently in a Radio 4 programme made by Dai Smith, using archive recordings of Williams being interviewed for various television programmes he featured in – somewhat reluctantly one suspects. Alas, all the other voices were of now-famous academics taught by Williams. This highlights the major weakness of this book (duplicated in Stefan Collini’s long, recapitulative review recently in the London Review of Books). For, having described the unexpectedly enthusiastic reception of Culture and Society and The Long Revolution (both selling in their hundreds of thousands and being translated into many languages), Smith says nothing at all as to why this enormous response was forthcoming, and what it meant culturally then, and today.
The fact is that all these books, once in paperback, were picked up and read well beyond the academic world, and touched the concerns of tens of thousands of people working across a wide range of cultural fields, often at a relatively low level, and not only in the UK. Few other political thinkers and writers of the left have since achieved this. As long as Williams continued to write, the notion of the common reader was still active. There was until very recently an annual Raymond Williams Prize for community publishing, sponsored by the Arts Council which regrettably abandoned it in 2006. I was a judge one year, and at a ceremony at the London Welsh Centre in Gray’s Inn Road, the then General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, Norman Willis, announced the winners. Willis spoke on that occasion how much the work of Williams had meant to him, though today voices like those of Willis have been silenced in the re-writing of cultural history.
As we know Edward Thompson admired Williams enormously. In turn Williams spoke warmly of Thompson, though he once noted that whereas Thompson was attracted to periods of working class militancy, he (Williams) was interested in periods when movement got stifled or blocked. There’s plenty of stifled and thwarted political aspirations around today, and the Williams’ approach to issues of political renewal remain instructive and prescient. I was sorry to come to an end of Smith’s engaging and deeply felt biography, principally because there is still so much about the life and work of Raymond Williams that remains to be acknowledged and celebrated.