Reflections on Raymond Williams – Part One

Welcome to the first of two collected reflections on Raymond Williams to mark 30 years since his death on 26 January 1988. To begin, Patrick Parrinder offers an edited version of a longer diary piece he wrote for the London Review of Books in February 1988. He is the first of six contributors who knew Williams. There are also four contributions from those who didn’t but whose work continues to be shaped and informed by Williams’ modes of critique. Taken together, these reflections offer personal insights into the life of Raymond Williams as an intellectual and teacher as well as marking a point at which, to paraphrase Towards 2000, we can reflect, look forward, and try to see where we are.

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Patrick Parrinder writes…

When I visited Raymond Williams in Saffron Walden in late December 1987, he had been laid up for several months with a painful but curable illness (not the one from which he died). His talk, however, was vigorous and forward-looking. We spoke of the research that he and his ever-supportive wife Joy had done for a major historical novel, People of the Black Mountains. Then we laughed over the paperback reissue of his first novel, Border Country, with the old signalman, Harry Price, on its front cover: the artist had endowed Price with Williams’ own unmistakable features. That now seems painfully close to the mark. In the novel, Price was shown dying from a series of strokes. On 26 January 1988, Williams suffered a fatal heart attack.

Williams was first and foremost an innovative thinker. He is at his most rigorous and subtle in a work of intellectual history such as Culture and Society, but the same habits of analysis are there in his journalism and political pamphlets, as well as in books he produced when, rather late in his career, he set out to re-equip and re-train himself as a Marxist theorist. There were complaints of the fog of abstraction in some of his writings, but at their heart there was always the same fund of experience, the same passion and the same anger (‘I must show you, sometime, the code for anger,’ he once wrote to me). ‘The central socialist case, in matters of culture,’ he declared in a 1985 Guardian Lecture, ‘is that the lives of the great majority of people have been, and still are, almost wholly disregarded by almost all arts.’ Here we are close to the roots of his anger, but it was rarely expressed directly. His characteristic tone is almost fastidiously level and reasonable.

What we invariably come back to in Williams – whether he is debating the issues of literary theory, or advocating a new structure for broadcasting, or writing a pamphlet on nuclear weapons – is his commitment to the political and cultural struggle for extending democracy. That was the point of his arguments for a ‘common culture’ in Culture and Society and its sequel, The Long Revolution. What was it like to be taught by him? At the time I was most struck by his gentle encouragement and dry humour. Later, I recognised his inner determination and formidable strength of will-power. He became an intellectual father-figure to thousands. Since he died, people who barely met him have told me that their own work had been done with Williams as an ideal audience somewhere in mind, to earn his approval. When, as an undergraduate supervisor, he was there as your actual audience he would settle in his deep college armchair and begin by fiddling energetically with his pipe. Once this was going to his satisfaction, he would listen to you with an air of calm so profound that you began to wonder if he had dropped off to sleep. When you came to the end of your essay the pipe would be refilled, and he would spell out with marvellous clarity just where your argument was going, how it could be deepened, and how extended. He didn’t miss a thing, and the essence of his teaching was to convey the impression that, however much you were learning, he was learning something too.

  • Patrick Parrinder’s PhD on H. G. Wells was supervised by Raymond Williams in the late 1960s. He is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Reading, and his latest book is Utopian Literature and Science (Palgrave, 2015).

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Elinor Taylor writes…

It took me longer than it should have done to read Williams. When I did, though, it was initially a personal revelation. I came from a Welsh village in a valley near the English border, historically a farming community, then a quarrying community; never really industrialised; never fully modernised. I come (unlike Williams) from a Welsh-speaking family in which it was ordinary to read, write, play music, sing, draw. Elderly relatives, who spoke only Welsh as late as the 1980s, lived as subsistence farmers; yet many of them wrote and some published. When I got to university, I was surprised (and, variously, confused and angry) to discover that these things were unusual, and were read in class terms I didn’t recognise, both by students I met and in the left-wing political circles I joined. My background seemed politically irrelevant, out of time somehow; embarrassing.

‘Culture is Ordinary’ made sense of why it made sense – of why it wasn’t an anomaly or a symptom of something, but a lived reality. The force of that stays with me. The community I come from is gone, really, and the history often feels, walking from the West End where I now work to Bloomsbury, for instance, like something from another world. But my life has been and is criss-crossed by those – ordinary, difficult – patterns and movements of prestige and cultural value. In the British Museum, where I often go when I have time, I can look at the Mold Gold Cape, dug up by quarrymen in 1833 a few miles from where I grew up; and I’m inclined to think about the coincidence of looking at it here, a long way from home. We don’t know what meaning this extraordinary object held for the Bronze-Age culture that created it; but then again, we don’t know what the quarrymen thought either – and that’s a silence that Williams provokes you to hear. Not that London demands much thoughtful movement between senses of culture; its masses of symbolic power literally are shadowed by unmistakeable marks of classed and racialized violence; it was only by luck that none of my students were directly affected by the Grenfell Tower disaster. Had it happened a few miles east, in Tower Hamlets, where I live, this story might be different.

The force of ‘Culture is Ordinary’ isn’t often felt by my students, though. At one level that’s probably because the tension between those two senses of ‘culture’ isn’t felt as acutely. It isn’t resolved, more that a compromise between them has been effectively institutionalised. And what about those institutions? When I turn back to Williams now, it’s for his thinking on institutions, education and democracy, as I try to imagine what living and thinking and feeling (and working and teaching) in a democracy might be like. That democracy is in crisis is repeatedly stated, but ‘democracy’ often only means the defence of a certain kind of civil public discourse against far-right incursions. What’s excluded – nervously passed over or not even imagined – is the experience of democracy, of having a shaping influence over your own life. And surely many of us feel we live between and not within structures of democracy. I have set some of Williams’ writings on these problems on a module on literature and institutions. I’m pleased to be allowed to open certain truisms – about education as an individual good, for one – for critical discussion; but worried, too, about devaluing a hard-won and expensively acquired opportunity. Which is to say I worry about discussing democracy, provoking democratic desires, in institutions that can’t welcome those feelings. It can seem like an empty gesture. But difficulty is ordinary, and even as I suppose it might reduce him to a merely ‘ethical’ figure, it’s Williams’ work that reminds me it’s not good enough to do otherwise.

  • Elinor Taylor is a lecturer in English at the University of Westminster and a member of the executive committee of the Raymond Williams Society. She is the author of The Popular Front Novel in Britain (Brill, 2017).

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Tony Crowley writes…

My earliest encounter with Williams’ writing was reading Culture and Society as a first-year undergraduate beginning an English degree at Oxford in 1978. It was an odd time to engage with the work of one of Britain’s foremost socialist intellectuals, since May 1979 saw the election of Thatcher and the beginning of the long hard defeat of the Left. None of us at that point foresaw the scale of the political and intellectual losses, although, typically, Williams quickly understood the dangers and articulated them in Towards 2000. In any case, Culture and Society allowed me to make some sense of what I was studying, but more importantly, it enabled me to see the possibility of an alternative, critical, sceptical, radical viewpoint in a context that felt deeply hostile in many different ways. But if Culture and Society was my introduction, it was the chance reading of The Long Revolution and, soon after, Keywords that led to a serious engagement with William’s thought. Keywords in turn brought me to Marxism and Literature, perhaps the most complex but most important text that Williams produced. After my PhD viva, for which Williams was the external supervisor, I told him that I’d found the language chapter in Marxism and Literature enormously difficult but very helpful; he laughed and said ‘same here’.

I’d thought that being viva-ed by Williams would be a daunting experience; it wasn’t helped by the fact that the viva itself was held in ‘Resuscitation Room No.1’ in the old Schools building in Oxford (the place had been kitted out as a military hospital in World War Two). The viva began with Williams taking off the gown and white bow tie that Oxford insisted on as part of the ridiculous ‘sub-fusc’ clown’s outfit that examiners and examinees wear. When I started to do the same, the Oxford internal examiner said ‘I don’t think you can…’, before being silenced by a quizzical look from Williams. At which point, he winked at me and began summarising the thesis, evaluating its strengths and weaknesses, where it needed to go… After a while, he invited the internal examiner to chip in; he pulled out a list of typos and began going through them, before stopping at another look from Williams. ‘I think we can deal with that later’, Williams said, ‘let’s take the opportunity to have a serious discussion, there isn’t much time’. We talked for a long time about a series of issues – ‘Standard Language’ (the topic of the thesis), the politics of language, literature and the representation of language, the meanings of words and their cultural and political significance.

Williams was right, there wasn’t much time; he died a couple of years later. But during that viva, and in correspondence afterwards, I was lucky enough to engage with a serious intellectual who was deeply committed to radical politics and who was generous enough to take my own work seriously. My abiding memory of the man is not his authority (which he wore lightly), nor his seriousness (which he leavened with humour), but his easy confidence in his political position. Would he have been as confident if he had been aware of the political set-backs that were to follow from the destructive onslaught of neo-liberalism that began in the late 70s? I’ve no doubt that he would have sustained the same mode of patient, measured, complex, and – yes – confident political critique that can be found in all his work. Perhaps that is his most important legacy.

  • Tony Crowley is Professor of English at the University of Leeds; he has taught at a number of universities in the UK and the US; his latest publication is The Liverpool English Dictionary (Liverpool University Press 2017).

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David Wilkinson writes:

Sixty years on from its publication, I teach ‘Culture Is Ordinary’ in a post-’92 university with a predominantly working class intake. Students often respond powerfully to Williams’ humanistic interrogation of class, culture and education. Some feel so sharply the distance that an institutionalised education in the humanities has put between them and their background that more than once I’ve had to work out how to manage deeply personal soliloquies in seminars. Pedagogically this is all to the good. It’s an opportunity to bridge the ideological gap between personal experience and social determination that avoids the individualising moralism of much contemporary identity politics.

During my own undergraduate years, I was fascinated by the legacy of movements like dada, surrealism and futurism. A sympathetic lecturer nudged me in the direction of Williams’ essay ‘The Politics of the Avant-Garde’ and I read it with interest. But at the time, I was more taken with the esoteric aphorisms of a Debord or the high-mindedness of a Marcuse. By contrast, the calm analysis of the scholarship boy from the border country did not immediately grab me.

As my research developed, this would change. Especially as I turned my attention to British post-punk, I found the theoretical tools of Williams’ later work indispensible. Cultural materialism may not seem the most obvious method for such a topic. But I’ve found no other approach that combines political commitment so effectively with the possibility of mediating between cultural form, production/reception and historical conjuncture.

It wasn’t only Williams’ theoretical work of the 1970s and 1980s that proved useful. Towards 2000, his critique of early Thatcherism, fits the post-punk period like a glove. In it, Williams offers an alternative emphasis to Stuart Hall’s more pessimistic take on the same moment, continuing to insist on the possibility of political alternatives rather than counselling adaptation to a new hegemony set by the right.

I drew on this argument to point out that post-punk was not purely ‘crisis music’. Before its incorporation into a neoliberal structure of feeling, post-punk’s DIY challenge to the music industry demonstrated the possibility of a democratically managed, egalitarian economy. Its countercultural attempts to live life differently offered up an alternative vision to the alienating, unsustainable consumerism of late capitalism. Both features are what Williams would call ‘resources of hope’.

This emphasis is especially valuable and relevant for the present. Beneath its deceptively moderate surface, Williams’ work is just as transformative as other cultural theory in the Marxist tradition. Our current conjuncture requires exactly this combination of patient realpolitik combined with a utopian belief in the possibility of a world transformed.

  • David Wilkinson is Lecturer in English at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is the author of Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

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Derek Tatton writes…

I chaired a packed Cambridge Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) meeting in the big Mill Lane Lecture Theatre in 1963 on Nuclear War – the panel of speakers included George Steiner, lawyer Bill Wedderburn, economist Charles Feinstein and Raymond Williams. Undergraduates Stephen Hawking, Terence Eagleton and Merryn Williams were in the audience.

My CND activism may have helped but it was more, I think, earlier work experience on British Railways when I left school aged 15 (I spent several years in the Control Office at Crewe Station) and my Welsh connections (I gained a Cambridge ‘mature student’ bursary from Coleg Harlech) that led Raymond to agree to supervise my final English Tripos exam in 1964/5. This gave me privileged teaching in weekly hour-long sessions usually on my own, adding to his work load because I was from another college. He was an exceptionally good teacher and, aware of my exam phobia and weaknesses, he paid attention to Tripos requirements giving me timed essay exercises. We spent most of the hour each week, though, discussing everything from Greek Tragedy to the latest TV play by Pinter. Lively and exhilarating debate! This meant I got to know Raymond well especially a decade later when I was Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) tutor-organiser working full-time in Bedfordshire and he agreed to supervise my Open University (OU) PhD. We kept in touch, with direct contact renewed from 1979 when I was Warden/Principal at Wedgwood Memorial College (WMC) organising residential weekends on Williams themes such as The Long Revolution, gaining adult student participants from all over Britain. Raymond knew WMC well from his early Oxford WEA teaching days and he continued to give support to the WEA and the Adult Colleges through his working life and into retirement. A week before he died in 1988 I received a note from him apologising for not being able to meet our deadline with an article for the WEA’s struggling journal Workers’ Education (circulation: 300 copies). Tiny, but typical.

Immediately following his death, a Mary Joannou Cambridge initiative established the Memorial Fund helping adult students attend WMC and WEA courses. In May, Joy Williams planted a Welsh Oak tree in his memory within the College arboretum and, on the same weekend, the OU’s Graham Martin discussed plans for Raymond Williams Society (RWS) collaborations. Raymond’s wife, Joy, attended several RW weekends before she died. A little later, his daughter Merryn and Graham taught on an Abergavenny Raymond Williams Foundation/RWS People of the Black Mountains residential, with Merryn guiding the group, following the protagonist’s grandfather Elis’ mountain track route … and Graham gave a key-note lecture on Welsh-European history and cultural themes from the novels.

The Raymond Williams Memorial Fund gained a bequest of £200,000 from WMC/WEA student Dudley Pretty in 2003, the year of my retirement, augmenting the tiny RWMF to establish the Raymond Williams Foundation (RWF) from 2008. Since then we have been able to organise and fund the many events and organisations as reported in detail on the RWF website (http://www.raymondwilliamsfoundation.org.uk/), underlining and extending the enduring relevance of Raymond’s life and work.

  • Derek Tatton is a former RWMF and RWF Administrator, a former Chair of the RWS and now a RWF Trustee and Adviser as well as a RWS Committee Member and Trustee.

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