R.W. Johnson

  • Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism by Raymond Williams, edited by Robin Gable
    Verso, 334 pp, £29.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 86091 229 9
  • The Alien Mind of Raymond Williams by Jan Gorak
    Missouri, 132 pp, $9.95, December 1988, ISBN 0 8262 0688 3
  • Raymond Williams: Writing, Culture, Politics by Alan O’Connor
    Blackwell, 180 pp, £27.50, June 1989, ISBN 0 631 16589 4
  • Raymond Williams on Television: Selected Writings edited by Alan O’Connor
    Routledge, 223 pp, £7.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 415 02627 X
  • News from Nowhere: No 6. Raymond Williams: Third Generation edited by Tony Pinkney
    Oxford English Limited, 108 pp, £3.50, February 1989
  • Raymond Williams: Critical Perspectives edited by Terry Eagleton
    Polity, 235 pp, £29.50, September 1989, ISBN 0 7456 0384 X

Raymond Williams’s death in January 1988 has been followed by an avalanche of obituarial tribute. To some extent, the tributes were a matter of the Left giving a last, sad cheer for one of its most versatile and prolific heroes. Alan O’Connor’s bibliography of works by and about Williams covers an extraordinary 47 pages and includes 29 critical works, five novels, five short stories and five plays by Williams (which, together, have sold over a million copies in Britain alone), as well as perhaps a thousand articles.

Williams was, indeed, a quite compulsive writer, almost a chronic writer. As a young working-class scholarship boy up at Cambridge, he seems to have decided, like not a few Welshmen before and after him, that the way to storm this alien citadel was to overwhelm it with a tide of wordy socialism. As an undergraduate Communist, he wrote his first pamphlet (with Eric Hobsbawm) – a defence of the Soviet invasion of Finland – and wrote prolifically for university magazines as well as editing the University’s Socialist Club Journal. On being called up, he soon decided that what his regiment (the 21st Anti-Tank) really needed was a weekly newspaper – which he edited. On returning to Cambridge after the war as a postgraduate, he seems to have had none of the normal ex-serviceman’s determination to make up for lost time by sticking narrowly to academic work: he decided to launch and edit not one but two journals, wrote a novel, set up a press and produced a film outline. The failure of these and many other projects never stopped the frenetic flow for long. On his move back to Cambridge to take up a fellowship in 1961, he and his wife immediately became active in the Cambridgeshire Labour Party. Amidst the strains of settling into a new job and teaching a new syllabus – and while maintaining a flow of publications on other subjects – he decided that what his constituency party needed was – yes, you’ve guessed – a monthly journal which, predictably, he and his wife edited (and which, just as predictably, soon got on the wrong side of Transport House).

Jan Gorak, in his excellent little book, notes an obsessive quality in much of Williams’s work: obsession with Orwell, with fighting ‘official culture’, with Ibsen, and, perhaps most of all, with his own immense literary ambition. The great drawback of this sort of headlong productivity is that it doesn’t leave much time to read other people. Gorak, noting Williams’s ‘heady disregard for competing – or even supporting – documentation’, suggests that ‘Williams’s greatest source of intellectual development was probably Williams,’ and points out that great chunks of Williams’s work turn up in later books as ‘an unmoulded foreign presence’. Sometimes the same material is presented as part of separate books printed as little as two years apart, but one also finds, for example, his chapter ‘Britain in the Sixties’, originally printed as part of The Long Revolution (1961), forming part of Towards 2000 (1979). Gorak’s verdict – that ‘these repetitions perhaps represent his bid to reaffirm the integrity of the initial investigation, to underscore the authenticity of his credentials as a writer’ – seems too kind.

Alan O’Connor’s appreciation of Williams, despite its strangely wooden, distant quality, sheds more light on his lengthy (1946-61) involvement with the WEA than does anyone else – though still not enough. In particular, one would like to know more of how Williams saw his own career, which, for all his radical Welsh working-class roots, ended as it began, under the shadow of Oxbridge. For, after Cambridge and the war, Williams was one of a notable band recruited to the Oxford Extra-Mural Delegacy by Thomas Hodgkin. Thomas, who was my dearly beloved tutor and friend, often described to me, not without bitterness, how the Delegacy fell victim to an early form of British McCarthyism. Many of those Thomas employed were, like Williams, socialists or Communists (as Thomas himself had been), and though, under their collective impulsion, adult education in Oxford thrived as never before, the Delegacy was publicly attacked by, among others, Ernie Bevin, as a dangerous nest of Communists intent on the subversion of the Morris Motor works, Oxford University and much else besides. The University, startled at finding itself accused – by a Labour government, at that – of harbouring leftists, cracked down hard, and the Delegacy was ruthlessly purged. Williams must have been near the centre of this purge but what sort of role he played we do not know – neither he nor his biographers ever mention it at all. One cannot but wonder how this display of Establishment ruthlessness changed the regard of the young Raymond Williams for the genteel pretensions of Oxbridge, a world he had found friendly enough till then. The only clue we have as to how he worked his way through this period was the reason he gave for his full-blown commitment to Labour politics in the Sixties: intellectuals, he said, must avoid the sort of self-exile to which they had relegated themselves under the last Labour government.

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