The Raymond Williams Recordings

On the Raymond Williams Society blog for February we have details of a new project by Phil O’Brien on a fascinating collection of recordings of lectures and readings given by Williams in the 1970s and ’80s.

Phil writes

Following a successful funding application to the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust, I’m working on a project to digitise and make available for the first time some previously unpublished Raymond Williams recordings. On loan from Merryn Williams, the daughter of Williams and the society’s honorary president, they capture significant moments in intellectual and cultural history as well as in the career of Williams as a key socialist thinker. His writings offer a transformative kind of critical analysis, one grounded in a concept of culture which positions cultural practice as part of an active, dynamic, historical process. The transcribing, publishing, and digitising of these unique tapes will allow for a greater understanding of Williams’s intellectual processes and reveal how his thinking was often conducted in lectures and public talks; crucially, they are sites of creative, critical, political work that resonate with the concerns and demands of the left in the twenty-first century.


The cassette tapes take five forms: 1) lectures never before transcribed or published; 2) the original recordings of what became essays published in collections such as Culture and Materialism (1980) and Resources of Hope (1989); 3) the reading of published articles; 4) the dictation by Williams of his fictional work; 5) the full version of texts only ever published in abridged form. The last of these refers to one of the fledgling project’s important finds: ‘When Was Modernism?’. First appearing in Politics of Modernism in 1989, the published version was based on a lecture Williams gave in Bristol in 1987 and retrospectively collated by Fred Inglis. In a short introduction to the essay, Inglis writes: ‘[T]his version is reconstructed from my brief notes and [Williams’s] even briefer notes. It is worth adding that while he spoke on that occasion in unhesitating, delicate and sinewy prose – the unmistakable and, where necessary, rousing Williams style – his notes are merely composed of jottings and very broad headings’. Inglis concedes: ‘I cannot hope in my version to have caught his voice accurately, but the trenchancy and relevance of one of the last public lectures he gave are not in doubt’. Additionally, the editor of Politics of Modernism, Tony Pinkney, suggests that the lecture notes used by Inglis were ‘likely to be a draft of the first chapter’ of a planned book on modernism. It turned out to be his last (and sadly unfinished) project; Williams died in January 1988, aged 66.

The copy of ‘When Was Modernism?’ on loan from the Williams family is a recording of the full version; it is markedly different and has never been heard since Williams delivered it on 17 March 1987 as the ‘Lewis Fry Memorial Lecture’ at the University of Bristol. It will be published for the first time in Culture & Politics, a new collection of writing by Williams which I’m currently editing for Verso. The book, published next year to mark the centenary of his birth, will include both previously uncollected as well as unpublished essays. Featuring material spanning the entirety of Williams’s career, Culture & Politics demonstrates the importance and development of his thinking on a range of topics, covering socialism, Marxism, the working-class movement, cultural studies, aesthetics, work, modernism, ecology, and Thatcherism.

Amiel Melburn

Also amongst the tapes is a reading of the essay ‘You’re a Marxist, Aren’t You?’, first published in 1975 in The Concept of Socialism (ed. Bhikhu Parekh) and later in Resources of Hope. Seemingly recorded by Williams alone in a quiet room (his distinctive, resonant tone only momentarily disrupted by shuffling papers and the scrape of a chair), this will be the first of the tapes released via the Raymond Williams Society website in the summer. It is one of many which capture his thinking in the 1970s, what Williams described as an attempt to set his work ‘into a new and conscious relation with Marxism’. So the broader project – titled ‘Raymond Williams, Marxism, Literature’ – will aim to map the formulation of what became the fullest exposition of cultural materialism in the landmark book from 1977, Marxism and Literature.

Another previously unreleased essay, ‘Working Class Writing after 1945’, will also be published for the first time in this year’s Key Words. It’s a lecture Williams gave in 1979 in Denmark and is included alongside new essays by Katie Beswick, Susie Panesar, and Matti Ron and interviews with Lynsey Hanley and John Goodridge in what will be a special issue on working-class writing. To receive a copy of the journal, which I’m co-editing this year with Nicola Wilson, please join the societyKey Words 18 is to be published in the autumn.

Ultimately, there is a bigger project here as I’ve intimated (the tapes also include a separate archive of VHS recordings of work by and about Williams, for example, which the society hopes to screen at a special centenary conference in 2021) but securing this initial funding will allow the working through, cataloguing, transcription, digitisation, and, ultimately, the public availability of these remarkable recordings, giving them the platform and audience they deserve and require.

Many thanks to the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust for making this project possible and to Merryn Williams for her continued support.

Phil O’Brien is the author of The Working Class and Twenty-First-Century British Fiction (Routledge, 2020). He is secretary of the Raymond Williams Society and on the editorial board of Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism.