Geoff Dyer on 'one of the left's great thinkers'
“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. [Read More]