Sunday, March 22, 2015

GEOFF DYER - Book review: Raymond Williams was one of the left's great thinkers - he deserves to be rediscovered

A hero of the 1968 generation, Raymond Williams was inextricably linked to where he came from and common experience. In an era of diluted politics, it's time to return to his work.

“I come from Pandy . . .” The first words spoken by Raymond Williams in Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review (1979) may not have quite the rolling loquacity of the opening line of Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March – “I am an American, Chicago born . . .” – but in their brisk way they bespeak a similar confidence.
Bellow’s narrator immediately situates his experience in the heart of America; Williams announced one of his main concerns in the title of his first novel,Border Country (1960). Borders – how they are constructed and recognised, how they impede and are crossed – are central to his thought. In contrast to March’s unequivocal belief (“I am an American”), Williams, whose work concentrated on the English literary and cultural tradition, came to identify himself as “a Welsh European”, emphasising what lay either side of a presumed centre, both locally and within an international context.
“It happened that in a predominantly urban and industrial Britain I was born in a remote village, in a very old settled countryside, on the border between England and Wales.” This is the account Williams gives of his origins in The Country and the City (1973), the simple facts of the matter beginning to unfurl and expand in the recognisable style of his analytical writing: an authority that draws power from a suggested hesitancy; the unhurried accumulation of material and argument; a continual elaboration and deepening of meaning. While Williams was proudly conscious of the convolutions of his own method and mode – “all my usual famous qualifying and complicating, my insistence on depths and ambiguities” – a former student, Terry Eagleton, remembers his lecturing style as that of “somebody who was talking in a human voice”.
Eagleton was struck also by the way that although Williams’s background might, by Cambridge standards, have been regarded as humble, it was also sufficiently “privileged” to give him “a sort of stability, a rootedness and self-assurance, and almost magisterial authority”. It gave him the confidence, while still an undergraduate – albeit an undergraduate who had served in the war – to stand up and insist, after a talk in which L C Knights claimed that a corrupt and mechanical civilisation could no longer understand neighbourliness, that he knew “perfectly well, from Wales, what neighbour meant”.
Confidence counts for little unless it is allied with determination. Combining this with an Orwellian sense “of the enormous injustice” of the world, Williams had the resources to develop his early critical and theoretical project – one that stressed the importance of shared experience and common meanings – in comparative isolation. In the process of becoming articulate in the language of a new and expansive kind of cultural history he also, in Raphael Samuel’s words, “constructed a conceptual vocabulary of his own”. The vocabulary was the cerebral expression of a temperament shaped by a particular geography and history. In Border Country Harry Price is “waiting for terms he could feel”. You could almost say he is waiting for the author to coin his most famous term, “structure of feeling”. Where Williams came from was inextricably linked with what he came to say.
If Orwell’s sense of the injustice of the world was fed by a disposition to dwell on its misery, then the “privileged” background of the signalman’s son made the idea of defeat almost entirely alien. It also meant, according to his critics, that the political positions of his later years, with Thatcherism in full swing and the miners having suffered a catastrophic defeat, were nostalgic, even sentimental. Either way, the key thing is that his writing always carried an enormous freight of autobiography. “I learned the saturating power of the structures of feeling of a given society as much from my own mind and my own experience as from observing the lives of others,” Williams wrote.
This double combination – complexity of thought and clarity of expression, with a depth and intensity of personal feeling – made Williams an inspirational figure for the generation of students who came of age in 1968 and looked to him for political and moral as well as intellectual guidance. A representative of the next generation (ten in 1968), I set eyes on him precisely twice.
The first time was when he came to give a lecture at Oxford, where I was an undergraduate, in about 1978. Our tutor encouraged us to go, so we went. I had no idea who Williams was or what he was droning on about. Then, in the mid-1980s, I went to see him in conversation with Michael Ignatieff at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. I’m guessing that the occasion was the publication of his novel Loyalties – though if it was, how come I didn’t get my copy signed? I can only assume I was too intimidated because by then the old bloke who’d waffled on at Oxford had entirely reshaped my sense of life and literature and the way they were related.
The idea of “lived experience” may have been part of the Leavisite vocabulary but whereas I had read the words in Leavis I experienced them in Williams. Before that, I had no understanding of the social process I’d lived through even though it was, by then, a well-documented one: the working-class boy who keeps passing exams – exams that take him first to grammar school, then to an Oxbridge college – and discovers only in retrospect that there was more to all this than exams, or even education.
It’s entirely appropriate that Culture and Society (1958), a new way of considering authors with whom I was familiar, played a crucial part in this discovery. All the expected symptoms of the transformative reading experience were in evidence: the feeling of being addressed personally, of one’s life making a sense that should have been apparent all along yet being conscious, also, that the revelation was happening at just the right time.
Williams’s legacy and influence, which had once seemed assured, have gradually shrunk. If, more than a quarter-century after his death, he is to become a vital rather than remembered or spent force it is necessary to do two things that might appear contradictory: to concede that, with the exception of Border Country, the fiction to which he devoted so much energy was dull; and to free the rest of his work from the once-modish tundra of cultural studies, let alone the pack ice of theory. Perhaps then he will be read with the same passion and adoration that still attends the discovery of John Berger.
A perverse and ironic fate: Williams, the internationalist, is seen as the worthy relic of a vanished, pre-Thatcherite Britain, a socialist writer read by a diminishing audience of Marxists, academics and students. It was the least surprising thing in the world to see, in the Occupy Camp at St Paul’s a few years ago, a much-pierced protester reading Berger’s Hold Everything Dear; it was equally unsurprising that no one was holding Williams’s The Country and the City.
I mention that book partly because of its relevance to the issues raised by Occupy, partly because of the moment in Politics and Letters when the New Left Review interlocutors quote a passage about the great country houses and the landscape that surrounds them:
It is fashionable to admire these extraordinarily numerous houses: the extended manors, the neo-classical mansions, that lie so close in rural Britain . . . But stand at any point and look at that land. Think it through as labour and see how long and systematic the exploitation and seizure must have been, to rear that many houses, on that scale. See by contrast what any ancient isolated farm, in uncounted generations of labour, has managed to become, by the efforts of any single real family, however prolonged. Then turn and look at what these other “families”, these systematic owners, have accumulated and arrogantly declared.
I hadn’t looked at this in years but when I started to reread it here I could not see the page for tears. I went back to my own edition of The Country and the City and saw the same passage heavily underscored, the margins marked by long pencil lines of admiring gratitude. Certain books are held dear because they are also psychic landmarks revealing where and how they helped us come into consciousness. Inevitably, our perception of the world continues to be informed by such texts long after the precise details of their contents have been forgotten.
Williams’s is the only name to appear on the cover and title page of Politics and Letters but the part played by Perry Anderson, Anthony Barnett and Francis Mulhern can hardly be overstated. The book is a far more thoroughgoing collaboration than the subtitle modestly suggests. I can’t help likening these intellectually bruising encounters to an experience shared by myself and two friends in Oxford shortly after we’d graduated. On the street outside a house party, we found ourselves being sucked in by the gravitational threat of a guy – Welsh, as it happens – who was spoiling for a fight. “Come on, all three of you rush me!” he said at one point. That’s how I think of these sessions, with the inquisitors forcing Williams vigorously to defend himself, to reconsider positions and lines of argument. On one occasion he pulls rank rather wonderfully: “You have got to remember that I read my own books too, and that in a competition for critical readers I shall at least be on the final list.” He responds with the expected qualifications, revisions and elaborations but also with off-the-cuff comments quite different in tone from his normal expository style. His reason for stopping taking the Times in the mid-Fifties, for instance – “I will simply not begin the day with those people in the house” – seems sounder than ever in the Murdoch era.
His experiences in the Second World War have been documented extensively in Dai Smith’s biography, Raymond Williams: a Warrior’s Tale, but for a long while Politics and Letters was the only source of information about this part of his life and how deeply it affected his thinking. Discussing the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, he talks about the idea of the tank, “which I was both less frightened of and more immediately emotionally involved in than people who’d never been inside one”. But his wartime experience also gave him a devastating awareness of “what an army which is really not holding back can do to a city”.
More broadly, the undertow of the peculiar “privilege” of Williams’s upbringing is felt throughout the book’s long discussions. In Culture and Society he reminded us that D H Lawrence’s “first social responses were those, not of a man observing the processes of industrialism, but of one caught in them, at an exposed point, and destined, in the normal course, to be enlisted in their regiments”: a vivid instance of how Williams’s critical writings double as vicarious autobiography. Class struggle and the other components of Marxist theory were not just concepts to him; they were in his blood, part of his inheritance, of who he was.
The sympathetic severity of the questioning is crucial in ensuring that Politics and Letters bears little resemblance to a memoir or intellectual autobiography. When he was shown proofs of the book Williams said, “It feels like a quite new form.” This, to put it in the style of his interlocutors, is well said – and not simply because of the book’s formal originality. What is so unusual is that a volume that might be regarded as a postscript or addendum to the main body of the work turns out to be an integral part of it.