Culture

Review: Raymond Williams. Who Speaks for Wales? Nation, Culture, Identity

22 Aug 2021 5 minutes Read
Who Speaks for Wales

In the third of our articles to mark Raymond Williams’ centenary Aled Singleton reviews a reissue of Williams’ writing and thinking about Wales.

This deep and complex book collects, curates and interprets Wales-centric interviews with Raymond Williams as well as published materials from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s such as book reviews and magazine articles. From this curation we gain an understanding of how Raymond Williams developed his thinking, politics, and deepened his emotional connection to his country of birth over the course of his 66 years. The resulting tome, weighing in at 400 pages, is divided into four consecutive sections, concerning in turn: culture; history; literature; and politics.

Raymond Williams was born in August 1921 and brought up in the border country village of Pandy to the north of Abergavenny. He left Wales to study in Cambridge and spent his professional life in England. Throughout this book, and supported by Daniel G. Williams’s analysis, there are three recurring concepts which are important to understanding Who Speaks for Wales.

The first important idea in this triad concerns being both an insider and an outsider with respect to identity, by virtue of coming from a place on the border between Wales and England. Daniel G. Williams refers to the position as being “…trained to detachment”. These ideas were also put forward by Raymond Williams in The Country and the City (1973), where he gives particular attention to Thomas Hardy and his writing about Wessex.

Artist

The second theme relates to a different border; this time that between the role of commentator or social theorist and that of an artist who represents Wales and the working class in literature. He reflected on the task of setting a novel in Wales for Arcade (1981) and wrote that:

It gives us freedom: we can do it our own ways. But this kind of freedom is often, in practice, a disabling lack of confidence. It is one of paradoxes of artistic freedom that it often flourishes best when there is some agreement about purposes and methods.

Raymond Williams is self-critical here because he saw the twentieth century as the literary tableau for new novels about Wales and community life. In particular, he was keen to avoid the “pseudo-historical” or romantic nature of much previous writing. To that end, his own work does meet these high standards and excerpts of his Welsh trilogy – Border Country (1960), The Volunteers (1978) and The Fight for Manod (1979) – are presented and discussed through this volume. There is a particularly valuable opportunity to gain insights into the process of writing literature about Wales, such as a 1979 interview from the New Left Review in which he reflects honestly on the reasons why he wrote certain texts.

The cover of Border Country

Building on the two first concepts is perhaps the most difficult notion: Raymond Williams’s desire to understand the identity and politics of Wales. Much of his thinking about Wales relates to the relationship with England and the English. Daniel G. Williams points us towards the foundations of Raymond Williams’s political thinking, for example seeing Wales as: a post-colonial state; an “appendage” to England; and a location for large scale immigration in the nineteenth century and mass emigration in the early part of the twentieth century. However, by the late 1960s Raymond Williams felt Wales had the potential to be more confident and to by-pass English values, such as the latter’s aspiration towards maintaining a “bourgeois” private life. In brief, he felt the draw of a Welsh European identity, especially as the United Kingdom joined the European Common Market in the 1970s. Indeed, from a 1987 interview with the New Statesman – one of his last – it seems young Welsh people had been pleased for him to come back to Wales and ask questions about “who are we, and what are we?”

Beyond these three main points, this volume is also about how Daniel G. Williams edits and interprets such a wide variety of material. In the contemporary afterword Daniel G Williams revisits his foreword to the 2003 edition. In particular he defends Raymond Williams for his arguments about universalism, the formal position of the nation and what this means for social identity. The debate is perhaps too nuanced to outline in this review, but it does reveal the challenge of identifying what it means to be Welsh, to neighbour England, perhaps to be a colony of England, to be British, to be European, or a cross section of all these factors. Daniel G. Williams asks if the standard liberal approach to being British is:

… rendered empty and contentless in order that it may function as the universal-neutral space where difference may be rendered irrelevant and cultural participation transcended.

This latter line stings, but perhaps sums up the complexity of the whole volume. To fully absorb and digest Who Speaks for Wales is perhaps an impossible task, or rather one which requires more time and space than even a century allows. The Welsh world of industry and socialism that Raymond Williams analysed, including the inherited testimonies of previous generations that are evident in works such as Border Country, have slipped further away since he died in 1988. Indeed, Wales sided with England in 2016 in choosing to leave the European Union.

To conclude, this book helps to understand the way that Raymond Williams processed his own experience, how he made the most of being both insider and outsider, and perhaps how he lived at a crucial time in the history of Wales. We are also indebted to Daniel G. Williams for his own work, just as we can be sure this material will be revisited in the future when it will once again be viewed afresh.

Raymond Williams. Who Speaks for Wales? Nation, Culture, Identity is published by the University of Wales Press. A copy can be bought here

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