The Life’s Work of Raymond Williams
by Gwydion M. Williams
Raymond Williams was one of the generation that fought World War Two, and tried to build a better world after the downfall of Fascism. It was not a ‘lost generation’ in the same way as those who fought in World War One became. The horror of war was known about and remembered in the 1930s. Indeed, many expected World War Two to be far worse for Britain than it actually was. Moreover, there was at least a clear and definite gain to set against the loss and suffering. The Third Reich was destroyed. Fascism as a world force was destroyed.
Despite that, the post-war world was poor and bleak, and difficult for those who had returned from the war. I was not born until 1950, was not really conscious of the world until things had got quite a bit better. But the family ‘oral history’ was something I grew up with. One story that sticks in my mind, for no particular reason, is how my father used a poker to go hunting a mouse. He recalled that he was slightly worried that the children – my elder brother and sister, quite small at the time – would identify this mouse with ‘Mary Mouse’, a character from one of their story-books. In fact, like most children, they showed a sound grasp of the difference between story and real world. They regarded the hunting of the mouse as pure street theatre, cheering him on as went after the pesky little vermin.
My father had come from the Welsh border country, the son of a railway signalman in a rural area very different from the mining valleys that are the best-known region of Wales. In his book Border Country he describes how the railway workers in this rural community were affected by the General Strike, had to take a stand on a huge struggle that was mainly being fought out elsewhere.
I heard him describe, in a lecture given at a gathering of South Wales miners, how the General Strike seemed almost like a happening on another planet to most of those outside the strong industrial areas. His father and the other railway workers, peripheral to the conflict, had to decide whether it was something they were a part of, or else an alien event that they should simply live through. In the end, they did support the General Strike. But in many other parts of the country, no such connection was made – one reason why the strike failed.
My father once told me that his first ambition, when he had had some success at school, was to become a railway booking clerk. This was part of the pattern of life in that part of the world at the time. If you did well at school, you aimed to become a booking clerk, which meant a better salary and a chance of promotion to stationmaster. Railways worked like that; each trade had its own line of promotion, and stationmasters were recruited from booking clerks.
(Incidentally, I recall that Karl Mark once tried to get a job as a booking clerk, at a time when his chronic shortage of money was particularly bad. They turned him down, because of his bad handwriting!)
In any case, what happened in my father’s case was that academic success eventually won him a place at Cambridge University. It was something he worked very very hard for, following a well-established Welsh pattern of progress through education. It was generally understood among the Welsh that every opportunity must be grasped, and every child able to do well at school must be helped and supported. In Politics and Letters he describes how his father was able to go the local pub and collect money to help him further his education.
The Welsh have a good understanding of the English ruling class. They have had a longer experience of them than anyone except the English labouring classes, and being a distinct nation they had a more independent attitude. They knew that they would not get anything like an equal opportunity; but also that there would be opportunities, and that every possible chance must be followed up.
Anyway, my father was at Cambridge at the time the war was just about starting. Like many others between the World Wars, he had hoped that the League of Nations would keep the peace, and then seen it utterly fail to do so. He joined the army, and in due course ended up in a tank regiment. The war didn’t come much into his writings – mainly because so many people had said so much about it already. He was always breaking new ground, and tended to avoid subjects where he had nothing new to say. There is a bit about the fighting in Normandy in Loyalties — but if the man who ended up terribly burnt was based on a real incident, it didn’t involve anyone I ever came across or heard spoken of.
Had he lived a few years longer, Raymond Williams might have found a sufficiently interesting angle on the matter to justify a complete novel on the matter – probably relating much more directly to his own experience. When he did talk about the war, it was mostly to recount the various comic incidents that happen among all the peril and tragedy, and that are much easier to talk about. There was one time when, during some fairly fierce fighting, a memo arrived from their superiors asking if there were any particular foods that they felt they should be sent. He wrote back saying that they greatly missed supplies of fresh plankton. This answer got all the way up to Divisional Headquarters before someone realised that it was meant ironically. Given the nature of the military mind, I suppose he was lucky not to be sent a supply of fresh plankton.
Before that, still in England before the Normandy landings, he was entrusted with taking some tanks form one army base to another. Except that some of the bridges to be crossed were not meant to take anything as heavy as a tank. His superior officer told him to ‘use his initiative’ – that it, do it but take the blame if something goes wrong. Thankfully, all the bridges survived the experience – most are still standing to this day. But he’d remark to us how he felt a twinge of conscience every time he went over them in his car.
Another interesting matter was that at one time he was scheduled to do a course learning Japanese, in preparation for a part in the war in Pacific War. In the end it didn’t happen, he was put on something else. But he sometimes wondered just what he’d have done if he had gone on it and learned Japanese. His career might have followed a very different course.
The most interesting thing that I recall was his description of how the allied troops reacted to the partisans rushing out to great them. As he put it, armies are self-contained and suspicious of outsiders. A lot of soldiers levelled their guns at the partisans when they came rushing out, because they didn’t know who the hell these people were or why they were carrying guns.
While I’m on the subject of things he didn’t write about, I’ve heard people ask why he didn’t write about life in Cambridge University. Actually he did – one short story called The Writing on the Wall, which says more in a few pages than most full-length books get to grips with. Again, if he was going to write more he’d have had to have found his own way of expressing it.
I’m not going to try to do any potted biography. Of the years when he was writing Culture and Society, The Long Revolution, Border Country etc, I have only hazy childhood memories. I do vaguely remember him discussing the crisis in France that brought De Gaulle to power. For a number of years we would go for camping holidays each summer, usually in the cheap non-posh parts of the French Mediterranean coast. In those days the French were notably poorer than the British. It was also notable – and this has changed far less – that officials in Britain are vastly friendlier and more helpful than any you’d meet abroad. In France, even the traffic policemen carried guns, and looked quite capable of using them on misbehaving motorists. They also used a set of rather puzzling signals to direct the traffic. These varied widely from one region to another.
Camping was fun. I picked up from my father the attitude that he was later to express and justify in The Country and the City – that cities and countryside were both parts of human life, and that each had its merits. Also the understanding that the countryside was somewhere were people worked, and that visitors who made their living in the cities should respect that work. He had grown up among the children of farmers, and knew that their lives were hard despite the high nominal value of their property.
My first definite political memory was of the deep disappointment when it became clear that the Wilson government of the 1960s was not going to do anything coherent. He had never expected that it would usher in any socialist utopia. But he and many others had expected another period of strong reform, like the 1945 Labour government. He’d disapproved of a lot of the things that that government had done – yet Attlee, Bevin and the rest had also carried through many of the measures that socialists had been wanting for a long time. Wilson wasn’t carrying through anything significant. Moreover, he showed no signs of realising that he was doing anything wrong. Wilson’s later autobiographies show clearly how little he understood of what was needed from a Labour Prime Minister.
It was this situation that led to the Mayday Manifesto of 1968. This set out a viewpoint that is taken for granted today, but seemed rather new then – that Britain was so tied into the world capitalist order that Wilsonian schemes for ‘building a new Britain’ were never likely to get anywhere. (Wilson used up most of his energies trying to keep up the value of the pound, trying to maintain a part of the world capitalist order that the capitalists were in the process of discarding.)
During my late teens and early twenties, I went through a Maoist phase. At that time, the slogans of the Little Red Book seemed much more meaningful than anything my father was saying. For a long time, I thought that the world was going to got the way that Peking said it was going, a Third World revolution transforming the world. It was only gradually that I saw how false this whole view was, and how my father had actually understood the world situation much better than I had.
One thing we always did agree on, contrary to most people on the left, was that Britain’s membership of the EEC was a good thing. To both of us, it seemed an automatic extension of basic socialist principles. I must say, I have never understood why left wingers thought – often still think – that maintaining British capitalism would be good for British socialism. Even those who insist that ‘socialism in one country’ was a disaster for Russia regarded it as the only possible thing for Britain. The bulk of the working class did not think this – they showed that in the EEC referendum. And Labour’s general hostility to the EEC helped to give Mrs Thatcher her three General Election victories.
My father’s death brought many commentaries, most sympathetic, a few hostile. The Daily Telegraph obituary was decidedly nasty. But for a socialist to be insulted by the Daily Telegraph has to be seen as a sort of honour.
The better sort of Tory would of course not have been rude about someone who had just died. But I was not greatly surprised to find that The Daily Telegraph was no longer run by the better sort of Tory. And their rudeness exposed their fear – at a time when Thatcherism still seemed invincible – that Raymond Williams’s sort of socialism was entirely capable of recovering and overturning all that the New Right had done. Had people listened more to what he had to say, there might never have been a successful New Right in the first place.
The position of The Guardian is another matter. It had been my father’s daily paper. He had written for them over a great many years. I was surprised that they chose to print the article by David Hare that appeared in the Weekend Guardian on June 3-4 1989. I would have thought it more suitable for the Daily Telegraph.
I dare say you’d expect me to be offended – I’m hardly impartial. My mother has already dealt in detail with the specific false claim that Raymond Williams neglected the students he was responsible for, not giving them enough personal tuition. In point of fact, his job did not require him to give any personal tuition to any students, he did it simply as an extra. And I won’t go into most of the other matters that Mr Hare raised – I recall how dull and confusing I find it when other people polemicise about matters of who said what to whom, when and why. Instead I will concentrate on one matter, where objective proof is readily to hand.
Hare says that during one conversation my father:
“Started hesitantly, drawing on a passage from The Long Revolution to detail the W.H.Smith best-seller list of 1848. Of the books listed not a single one was remembered, except for one by Jane Austen, who managed to come in at number eight”. (Ibid, Page 5, top of 2nd column.)
Thus speaks the man who thinks that he merited more personal tuition from Raymond Williams. So look the passage up in The Long Revolution. Conveniently, it is in the index under ‘Jane Austen’. Two lists are given, of 10 and 15 names, with some names on both lists. Jane Austen is not 8th on either list, she is 10th on the first and 14th on the second. Of the others, three – Mrs Gaskell, Lytton and Marryat – are described in the same paragraph as authors remembered as typical of the period. (Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompei is certainly not forgotten, though perhaps it deserves to be.) Another writer on the list has recovered some popularity since The Long Revolution was written – Mrs Trollope always had a place as the mother of Anthony Trollope, but quite a few of her own works have been republished in the 1970s and 1980s. Of the remaining 14, only 5 seem to be wholly forgotten (being in neither the Oxford Companion to English Literature (5th edition) or The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English.)
Forget Hare. Consider the larger matter of how my father spent his time. I recall how hard he worked, and how difficult he found it to relax. Also the large number of people who kept making demands of his time, for a variety of causes. As well as a vast number of articles and reviews, the best of which are now being republished, he managed to write a number of books that said things that had not been said before, and that needed saying. Readers all round the world will be able to benefit and learn things from them, for decades to come.
Raymond Williams had a gift for saying complex things in simple ways. Most of his books can be picked up and read by people with no specialised knowledge of English Literature, though it takes persistence to grasp and understand the complex ideas and historical formations that he brings to light. This does not apply to three of his books, Problems of Materialism and Culture, Marxism and Literature and The Politics of Modernism – these three are written as part of the debate on cultural theory, and are hard to understand in isolation.
Certain types of work need their own language. My own field of computers is full of jargon, some of it silly but much of it unavoidable. You can’t talk seriously about computer memory without introducing terms like RAM, ROM, EPROM etc. Ordinary day-to-day tasks can throw up phrases like “abort job”, “corrupt software” and “allow global conflict” – none of which are actually as bizarre as they sound. So I was quite prepared to accept that discussing cultural theory needed its own specialised language. It can also be the case that jargons or specialised languages are used to disguise either platitudes or muddled thinking. Proof of quality is to be able to talk meaningfully both in the jargon and in ordinary language.
The Politics of Modernism might have ended up much simpler had my father lived longer and completed it. The central concept should be of interest to many who have no intention of trying to master the whole complex and continuing debate on what culture is and where it might be going. Basically, he says that modernism was developed by people who would come to a metropolis from somewhere quite different, and found it hard to work out who they were or where they belonged in the new social context. Once you consider modernism in that light, it makes a lot more sense. You understand it as the work of baffled artists who never the less sometimes have deep and real insights into the complexities of modern life.
In this context, I was interested to learn that the late Andy Warhol was the child of immigrant Ruthenes. Ruthenes are a small Slavonic people whose language is “the closest living relative to the Old Slavonic of the Byzantine liturgy”. (The Independent, May 9th 1990.) Ruthenes never had a state of their own, and were shared out between various East European empires and nation-states. There was a tendency to lump them in with the Ukrainians, even though they differed at least as strongly as Slovaks from Czechs. It is only with the upheavals in Eastern Europe that their existence is being officially recognised and publicly expressed.
It seems to me that coming from a people who officially don’t even exist must have some connection with the strange, glossy and essentially empty art that Warhol produced. Something not totally dissimilar may apply to Günter Grass, who comes from another small and almost obliterated people, the Kaszubians, as was explained by Carl Tighe in Planet 75.
The Black Mountains are a small range in South Wales, not unlike what the mining valleys would once have been, but kept rural by an accident of geology. My father grew up within sight of the southern end, close to the detached peak of the Skyrrid. For most of his life he worked in England, but still viewed the land where he grew up as his true home.
I remember him discussing the idea of a whole series of stories about the ordinary people of this part of the world, going back to the very early hunters and gradually working up to the present day. I recall one time when we were sitting on the side of the Skyrrid, and he pointed out the various ancient and modern lines of communication that were in view. Ancient roads, modern roads and a disused railway track followed very much the same path, a route imposed by the shape of the land itself.
I read quite a few of the episodes as he was writing them, including the very last that he typed out himself. I was usually the second person to read what he was writing – my mother did a lot of the factual research for the episodes and was the first to read and comment on them
The original form of the book is worth mentioning. When I first saw it, it began with Gwyn going to look for his grandfather, just as it does in the published version. Then you had an episode involving early stone-age hunters and the crippled boy. (This is based, incidentally, on an actual burial of a crippled boy, whose bone-pattern shows that he survived for several years unable to walk – proof that people in that distant era were already in the habit of looking after each other.) It went on to the next set of hunters, and so on, much as it does in the published form – except that Gwyn was not mentioned again. What are now the ‘Gwyn to Ellis’ episodes were then the abstract voice of a narrator. In this form, the tale got as far as the breakdown of the megalithic culture – ascribed to anthrax, which is as good a guess as any.
At this point, I raised the objection that the narrator’s passages included material that surely belonged in the episodes instead. The episodes put flesh on the bare bones of known historic facts, giving the ancient peoples customs and songs when archaeology gives us only that small part of their material culture that has survived over the ages. What is said about pre-Celtic religion is only a guess – a well-informed guess, but qualitatively different from the details of geography, climate and vegetation that formed the greater part of the narrator’s descriptions. There is solid factual knowledge about what plants grew in that particular region at that particular time, and where the rocks originally came from. But what went on in the heads of the people can only be guessed at.
As I recall it, we talked about several ways in which the matter might be handled. The thought that he might merge Gwyn’s viewpoint with that of the narrator never occurred to me. It didn’t occur to him at once. It may seem very obvious to someone now reading the finished book. But lots of things look obvious after someone clever has painstakingly worked them out and evolved a simple form for expressing them.
The work derives is strength from careful writing and rewriting, as much as from the original idea. Some of the earlier episodes were rewritten several times, sometimes with considerable changes. In these cases, the original had seemed fine to me – but when he rewrote, it became visibly better. That was the way he worked – most of the episodes went through several redrafts, and he would undoubtedly have done more.
The work proceed slowly, and not without interruption. He in fact both began and finished another complete book, Loyalties, while he was working on People of the Black Mountains. Loyalties is interesting for the alternative angle he found on the whole matter of spies and traitors. Deliberately, he avoided writing about the known circles of spies who got caught – the Philby circle in the British spy services, and the atom spies among scientists working in the United States. He created an imaginary pair of spies with characteristics from both groups. They may also owe something to computer pioneer Alan Turing. Turing was a homosexual, though not involved in politics and very unlikely to have been a spy. There had been a couple of long articles about Turing in the magazine New Scientist, which my father regularly read.
The problem with real-life spy stories is that our only sources of information are clever and unscrupulous liars. What we think we know about Philby & Co. may be no more than a fiction that suits the various rival security services. A novel is perhaps a much better way to put the whole thing in context. And computers were at least as important as atomic power, probably more so in the long run than radar, the other big wartime technical breakthrough.
In any case, computers were a natural subject to write about. I work as a computer analyst, and both my brother and brother-in-law have a lot to do with computers in their work – none of it secret, of course. Nor is there any connection with a certain Raymond Wilson Williams, a Senior Engineer at English Electrical Aviation Ltd, who wrote a book called Analogue Computation in 1961. (I found this gentleman in the British Library’s index of authors, as well a 19th century Dissenting Minister called William Pitt Scargill. Also an Australian called Victor Frankenstein, who wrote about Post Office hand-stamps.)
I did read Loyalties in typescript, but there is little of interest that I can say, beyond what I’ve already said. Its strength is the way in which it puts the false glamour of the spy world in its actual context – betrayals of human values.
Enough of Loyalties. I want to expand on the matter of the historical and archaeological basis of People of the Black Mountains. The episodes were often built around some actual material remains – a grave where a man and woman are buried, the man clearly killed violently, or a broken broach in an ancient shelter that people nowadays call King Arthur’s Cave. My mother actually did a lot of the research – reading the books to find out just what people in each era would have had, what they would not have had, and what the dominant vegetation was at the time. My father would then write an episode that was a human drama with the historic situation as background. Archaeology has proved that there was a time when the land became much more wooded, forcing the people to change their pattern of hunting. We do not know if they ever actually said that ‘the trees are eating the people’: this is just a reasonable speculation, based on the fact that trees did indeed spread a great deal during the era in question.
Another thing I want to get straight is the final state of the manuscript. My father would type from his own brief notes, and the more general background material my mother had provided. He would type with a carbon copy, and then set to work altering and adjusting the top copy. Most of the top copies were covered with small corrections and adjustments. Sometimes the revisions would be so extensive that he would retype that section – but the retyped version would also be written on.
What we had after his death was various carbon copies and a working copy that included a lot of hard-to-read handwriting. To have used the tidy carbon copies would have been to lose all the small adjustments and improvements. But the working copy was not readable enough to be sent to the publishers. Large parts of the working copy were therefore retyped into a neat form. My mother did most of the critical bits – she was best at reading his handwriting, although some words even she had trouble with. My sister did quite a bit as well, and some of the easier parts were given to professional typists.
My own main contribution was to help reconcile the dates. There were a few small anomalies – the gap between two episodes might be referred to as 2000 years, when all other references indicated that it was only 1800 years. The most serious problem was in episode of Bibra – the dates given by the working copy had Bibra dying as an old woman less than ten years after her birth. This one was also the hardest to resolve, since some of the dates were given by the Roman calender. (The Roman system of numbering years can not be directly turned into the modern one by adding or subtracting so many years, there are complications.)
A few people have asked why we didn’t try to get People of the Black Mountains finished. The trouble was, no other author could have carried through the book as he had planned it. Any competent writer could have written a set of short stories from the notes for the last section, but that’s another matter. Moreover, there were no loose ends for readers to puzzle about. Anyone who so wishes can visit the Black Mountains and see how the story ended – or rather, see the stage it has reached in our time, and where Raymond Williams would have left it.
A further problem is that the matters covered are controversial. I’m sure that his depiction of the Romans and Normans will upset one sort of person, and that his depiction of the Welsh princes will seem wrong to another sort of person. But that was his view – neither identifying with the outside conquering power, nor idealising the home-grown tyrants that those conquerors replaced. Later episodes would have followed the same pattern — but how could anyone be sure that they had struck the balance as he would have wished? Far better to leave it at the point he reached. Anyone who wants to can do something similar, but under their own name and on their own authority.
There have of course been quite a few previous books that told a series of historical tales in a single physical setting. The earliest one I know of is Kipling’s Puck of Pook Hill. But it’s written on a very different principle, quite apart from being a children’s book. Kipling’s book is all about outsiders and the privileged classes. The ordinary people, the people whose work made all the rest possible, are treated as part of the scenery.
People of the Black Mountains is just that – a book about the people in one small region that in due course became border country between England and Wales. Outsiders of one sort or another come into the tales – but the tale is told from the viewpoint of local people seeing a stranger arrive, not a narrator coming in and commenting on various quaint or unpleasant rural characters.
The latter method is the one favoured by another book, On the Black Hill, which has now been made into a film. It too is set on the English-Welsh border, and the film certainly shows the physical setting very well. But the way it depicts the social situation is ludicrous. As in other parts of the world, bad quarrels between neighbours can occur – but they are rare, and should be set against a general attitude of neighbourliness and social concern. When travelling from London to Wales, I am always struck by the way people get less tense and more friendly as one goes westwards. Mind you, even in London you find plenty of helpful friendly people. But in a big city, everyone learns to be on guard for the unpleasant and sometimes highly deceptive characters that a big city also breeds. And a selective reporting of all the bad bits can give a very false view. Some of the reports of the riots in London left visitors from New York so alarmed that they felt unsafe walking down ordinary London streets. (And I’ve been told that New York, despite much higher rates of crime than even the worst parts of London, is nothing like as dangerous as British visitors tend to expect.)
One of the useful things that people can learn from People of the Black Mountains is just how much rougher life was for our ancestors. And a lot of the trouble was caused by rival elites, fighting each other for the wealth that was being squeezed out of the common people. Norman barons were more ruthless exploiters than Welsh princes, but they were not different in kind. And I’m glad the book gets as far as Oldcastle, a pioneer of a new sort of thinking that would in due course help ordinary people fight back and recover some of the lost ground. Had he lived longer, my father would have developed this theme further.
Gwyn Thomas’s All Things Betray Thee does give an indication of how he might have bridged the gap between medieval times and the modern world that he described in Border Country. As Raymond Williams says in introduction to the 1986 edition, All Things Betray Thee is quite unlike Gwyn Thomas’s better-known writings. Set in 1835, it describes how the people of one of the new towns created by the iron industry fight against being made docile victims of the new industrial order. They lose the battle – but the fact that they will not quietly accept they place that the ruling class lays down for them is more important. “The immediate location is 1835 but the connection is beyond it: to 1986 if we can hear it.”
The connections are there too in People of the Black Mountains. A depressingly large number of left-wing writers automatically identify with the rulers when they set stories in the historic past. But there are other ways to look at the matter, and this book is a fine example of one such alternative method.
People of the Black Mountains is likely to be one of those that grow in importance over the years. It tells people things they need to know about life, about people, about landscape. It shows how greedy and brutal feudal lords and medieval knights really were. And naturally the literary establishment don’t want to know. Immediate success has gone to writers who say well-known, widely believed but often quite false things in mildly original and entertaining ways. Kingsley Amis, after winning the Brooker Prize, has recently got a Knighthood. The man and the title pretty much deserve each other!
More serious things are going on elsewhere. People need to form new and more integrated views of who and where that are, and the Black Mountains book should help with that. As well as entertaining, I hope that it will give people who may be of quite different origins an idea of how to come to terms with their own backgrounds and roots.
Raymond Williams lies buried in the churchyard of Clodock Church. People have asked, and it’s a fair question, why a man who was not religious had an Anglican burial. The answer, basically, is that it preserved a connection with both place and people. He was buried in an old but still-active burial site for the dwellers in the Black Mountains. A place that is actually mentioned in one of the episodes of the Black Mountains book. And the advantage of the Church of England is that anyone born in England or Wales is deemed to be a member of it, even if they disbelieve every one of its 39 Articles. Moreover, there are few easy or simple alternative. There are Humanist funeral services, but not with access to a burial site in the Black Mountains. Besides, Humanism implies an active hostility to religion, which was never his attitude, and which would have upset some of our relatives who are religious. And Clodock churchyard is a nice site, unspoiled by intrusions like the major road that now runs through his home village of Pandy, that runs through many such places without concern for them except as a route between places that the planners regard as much more important. Clodock is fortunate enough to be relatively separate from the things that those sort of minds value.
I’ll leave it at that. A full scale biography is in preparation. I’ve talked mostly about my father’s work, because that was what was central to him, and what was interesting and unique about him. As far as home life went, a pet dog that got run over by a motorcyclist is the largest incident that I recall, and I can’t see that it would be of much interest to anyone who didn’t know that dog. The same for other stray childhood memories. Some time I may try something more connected, but for now I’ve said what I set out to say.
I wrote this some time before 2000, probably in the early 1990s. It has never been published anywhere. There is now an excellent biography covering the first half of his life.