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Review: From Wales to the World is a timely analysis of the prescient thinking of Raymond Williams

10 Oct 2021 5 minute read
Raymond Williams at home in Oxford in 1953. Photo Parthian Books

Jon Gower

The Welsh writer and thinker Raymond Williams, whose centenary is being enthusiastically marked by a plethora of books and academic discussing could be extraordinarily prescient about the future, be that of communication, or democracy, or the country which had nurtured him. It’s timely therefore that his thinking should be re-presented now, not least in a week when the Conservative Party Conference included the publication of Strength in Union

Something Williams wrote fifty years ago seems uncannily apt:

The central point about Scottish and Welsh nationalism is perhaps this: that in Scotland and Wales we are beginning to find ways of expressing two kinds of impulse that are in fact very widely represented throughout British society.  First, we are trying to declare an identity, to discover in fact what we really have in common, in a world which is full of false identities…And second, but related to this, we are trying to discover political processes by which people can really govern themselves – that is to determine the use of their own energy and resources – as distinct from being governed by an increasingly centralised, increasingly remote and also increasingly penetrating system: the system that those who run it, for their own interests, have decided to call ‘Unity.’

Raymond Williams represented the antithesis of asinine thinking and sloganeering analysis and this new book of essays charts his evolution from a working class upbringing in Pandy on the Wales-England border, through his academic tenure at Cambridge to his productive final years when he returned to his beloved Black Mountains. They attempt to work their way through the thicket of labels that have been applied to him – ‘Cambridge literary critic,’ ‘founder of cultural studies’ and ‘European intellectual’ to the ‘Welsh European’: he simply described himself as ‘Writer.’

Black Mountains

The essays, edited by Stephen Woodham, properly recognise that the fulcrum of this activity was a memory of the Black Mountains and locate Wales as pivotal to Williams’ output, whose life and work were an integral whole.  Woodham’s opening essay outlines the great convulsions which created south Wales, the huge in-migrations and rapid-fire industrial expansion, including the General Strike of 1926, which ruptured society when Williams was five. It was a history Williams tried to understand in the 1950s but when he started doing so it was without the benefit of the great flowering of historiography which gave us John Davies, Dai Smith and Gwyn Alf Williams to name just a few, and so he had to depend in part on historian writers of fiction such as Lewis Jones.

Black Mountains’ memory, or memories fuel Raymond Williams’ first published novel, Border Country which turns on the axle of the relationship between Matthew Price, a Cambridge-educated academic returning home to see his railwayman father. As I am myself a railwayman’s son who left Wales, went to Cambridge and studied drama as an undergraduate with Raymond Williams I appreciate ‘how movement out caused anxiety’ as Woodham puts it. Elizabeth Allen’s essay ‘Crossing the Border’ pays close attention to Williams’ fiction, underlining his regard for realism and showing how he was suspicious of a Welsh style which functioned, in Williams’ opinion as ‘a form of cultural subordination, the only – slightly degraded if subtle – way the Welsh could present themselves to an English audience.’

Allen also elegantly explores the axis between Cambridge and Wales in Williams’ work, recognising ‘the simple binary of hostility and loyalty which marks the relation.’  Some of the essays illuminate some aspects of his life which have been little explored. David Tatton in ‘The Purposes of Adult Education’ describes a somewhat forgotten aspect of Williams’ life.

Trinity College

When Williams gained a first-class degree he was promptly offered a scholarship by Trinity college but he chose, rather a contrarian path, starting a job with the Oxford Extra-Mural Delegacy in conjunction with the Workers Educational Association, a decision made by other well-known contemporaries such as Richard Hoggart and Edward Thompson. It was a career route that was not without its pitfalls and indeed the adult education movement was itself riven by dissent at one stage, so it’s a fascinating subject, especially when considers the deep and nurturing roots of the WEA in Wales.

Hywel Dix, meanwhile, supplies two essays in the collection, locating Williams on the map of European intellectual life and gainfully charting the ‘double movement between individual innovation and critical engagement that precisely describes Williams the Welsh European and participant in an exchange of critical theory.’ Dix also explores what he sees as two key elements in the genesis of Williams’ critical thinking, being his Welsh nationality and ‘his constant concern for bringing sociological and political insights to questions of culture’ and does so by setting Williams’ writing side-by-side with his fellow European thinker Rudolf Bahro. It includes another of those oneiric or prophetic quotes from Williams, who warned, back in 1982, that a system of devolved government (both in the minority nations and in the regions) ‘could go easily in the direction of a command-bureaucratic government as in the direction of a socialist democracy.’

The quartet of essayists who have written Raymond Williams: From Wales to the World have clearly done out a proselytising spirit, wanting people to know and appreciate his work more fully and more widely, and the final chapter, ‘Resources for a journey of hope’ is a compendious account of the resources available for further study and exploration. The Raymond Williams Society has helped hugely in this regard, of course, so if you’d like to start you own hope-filled journey you might usefully start with this lovely film, The Country and the City by Mike Dibbs, rescued from Williams’ own VHS copy, which explores the terrain of the 1973 book of the same name.

From Wales to the World is published by Parthian and you can buy a copy here. 

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Kerry Davies
Kerry Davies
2 years ago

Thanks for the link to the film, I shall enjoy watching it. Williams wrote something fascinating about identity and the difficulty which the English have with it. He said that the Celtic people have been oppressed by the English establishment for seven centuries but that the English people have been oppressed by that establishment for even longer. I would add that the English are unaware of this due to a denial which has permeated their culture. The Celtic Fringe has an identity if only one of “Us not Them”. The English can never be certain which of those they belong… Read more »

Last edited 2 years ago by Kerry Davies

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