Making It Up
- Raymond Williams by Fred Inglis
Routledge, 333 pp, £19.99, October 1995, ISBN 0 415 08960 3
This biography opens with a vivid chapter on Raymond Williams’s funeral. Entitled ‘Prologue, in Memoriam’, it transports the reader to Clodock Church, ‘a plain little building’ in the foothills of the Black Mountains. It is a comfortless day, Fred Inglis tells us. ‘The light fell crooked and the road fell wrong.’ Rooks caw speculatively on the wind, and the weather is appropriately Gothic too, a ‘bitter cold’ February day with ‘vicious showers of sleet and snow’. The mourners make their way along the ‘tatters’ of the old, winding road, passing Harry and Gwen Williams’s cottage, where Raymond grew up. Assembled in the churchyard, ‘Raymond’s young men’ (as his wife, Joy, used to call them) are now middle-aged and showing signs of wear and tear, ‘thinning and unkempt hair ... a bad back here, a heavy paunch there’. Sartorially, they are drabbies, ‘awful old grey suits and worse black ties ... or else the ... uniform of the Left on parade, a dark old coat left open to the weather ... corduroy trousers ... Tuf boots’. Acting as MC for the occasion, Inglis introduces us to the mourners – Terry Eagleton, ‘small, solid, mischievous’; Charles Swann, ‘wheezing with his awful respiration’; Patrick Parrinder, ‘silent, smiling, ironic’, the best-dressed of the party; Tariq Ali with ‘lustrous brown eyes’ but (Inglis claims) ‘a bit out of it all’.
As a narrative device it is brilliant, setting the scene for what is to be a bleak story, introducing some of the leading characters, and insinuating that the author was eyewitness to an intimate gathering. It comes, then, as something of a surprise to learn that this evocative account was written by someone who was not there, was indeed so far ‘out of it’ that no one in the family had dreamed of inviting him. And if, given the absence of footnotes for the passages in question, one were to ask how he came by such detail, one possible answer is that he made it up.
As this episode may suggest, the author of this book is the omniscient narrator personified, a participant-observer in every drama. Thus when the young Raymond, a lad of 11 or 12, rushes out onto the hills, Fred lumbers after him, noting the way the bracken bends and breaks under the thunder of his running. When, in Normandy, in 1944, Raymond is commanding an anti-tank unit, Inglis, a military enthusiast, is sweating in the turret. When Raymond goes to Italy, on a rare foreign visit, Inglis is his invisible companion, helping him to change trains at ‘Milano Centrale’ (‘faster by far and more splendid than Euston or Paddington’), giving him a cheery wave, and then, on the final stages of the journey, ‘watching the pink almond blossom’ as the train speeds south to Naples beside the deep blue sea. Cambridge, when Raymond goes up as an undergraduate, sends Inglis into raptures, and we are treated to location shots of Trinity College’s ‘great quad’ (‘one of the loveliest sights in ... any ... university town’), Dorothy’s Tearooms and King’s Parade. Later, he gives us an inside dopester’s account of the English Faculty Board on which, though exiled to the provinces, he seems to have been sitting for the last thirty years. Inglis seems almost equally besotted with Oxford, and a WEA summer school at Balliol, where Raymond lectured in the Fifties, becomes the occasion for an inspirational (if inaccurate) Baedeker of the Broad.
Likewise, Inglis seems to be on familiar terms with all his chosen players, seldom allowing a name to pass by without offering a thumbnail sketch. Indeed, the book is a sort of stage, on which Inglis’s gods and heroes disport themselves. Thus at the memorial meeting in Conway Hall there is Nick Garnham, ‘elegant, intelligent, disdainful Wykehamist’. Earlier, at the Garden House Hotel riot – a Cambridge protest against the rule of the Greek colonels – there is Bob Rowthorn, ‘then as now the best-looking economist in a not very photogenic class’; in Cambridge, among those who sat at Williams’s feet in the early Sixties, there is Terry Eagleton, ‘as allusively charming as Peter Wimsey’; at New Left Review, when it was embarking on its theoretical turn in 1962, the ‘virtuoso eloquence’ of Perry Anderson was backed by Robin Blackburn, ‘a beautiful, big, shock-headed youngster’ who had read Sartre and de Beauvoir in the French.
Chubby, chummy and balding, imperturbably good-humoured and everybody’s pal, Inglis has a distinct resemblance to Bob Hoskins, the interfering busybody and cheer-leader of the current British Telecom ads. He may not, like Hoskins, pop up at the back of the family car, but in his persona as family friend he seems to be on intimate terms with the Williams household, and conversant with every last detail of their domestic routines. He describes Raymond’s baths, ‘in which he would soak for hot, steam-filled hours’; Joy’s alleged nervousness; the children’s way of addressing their parents (‘the Williams family adopted the conventions of Bloomsbury and used first names for all its members’). Inglis also claims to be privy to the secrets of the marriage bed. He tells us (wrongly as it turns out) that in their later years Raymond and Joy kept separate rooms; he offers us the testimony of unnamed female informants, who told him that Raymond was ‘without sexual presence’; and he wonders aloud whether for such a man a love-life was possible.
Raymond’s powers of withdrawal, his lack of close friends, his absence of hilarity or gregariousness ... must have made him a terribly matter-of-fact father and husband; he couldn’t possibly have been a lover. His massive pipe was scarcely [sic] out for a start – the White Cottage carpets reeked of pipe tobacco for twenty years ... he hadn’t that ‘mind’s recoil upon itself’ which makes possible passionate uncertainty, the loss of all gravity which goes with falling in love, the giving-of-oneself, the abandon. He was a sparing giver. He stuck to his timetable.
In another persona, Inglis is a grimacing, capering Quilp, turning up in the most unlikely places with a nod, a wink or a leer. When, for instance, in 1982, Raymond gives an address at the founding conference of the Socialist Society, Inglis is on hand to tell us, à propos of nothing in particular, that his new false teeth were ‘fitting him a dream’. A Welsh Arts Council photograph of Raymond has as its gratuitously spiteful caption a quotation from Dafydd-Ellis Thomas, ‘the best-cut tweeds on the Left’. Still more gratuitous is the sneering caption which Inglis has dreamed up for a photograph of Raymond and Joy, taken in 1940-1 during their courting days – the kind of loving picture which would not look out of place in a Bert Hardy gallery of war-time romance. Inglis’s caption? ‘Raymond had wiped off Joy’s lipstick, of which he disapproved.’
The show of authorial omniscience conceals from the reader (and possibly the author) the fact that this biography is, by conventional standards, spectacularly under-researched. Documented, quite largely, by hearsay; conceived, executed and despatched in a very short space of time, it shows every sign of being written on the hoof. Solecisms, in some cases, it seems, the product of ignorance rather than carelessness, abound. Hastings is not in ‘The Garden of England’ (the title Inglis gives his Chapter 6), but in the Fifties, when Raymond took up a tutorship and residence there, was (as it still is) a run-down seaside resort. The Workers’ Educational Association was not started in 1906 nor the BBC in 1926. The Daily Herald, ‘that much lamented Labour paper’, died in the Sixties (when it transmogrified into the Sun), not in the Forties. The ‘famous Twentieth Party Congress’, at which ‘Krushchev ... had blown the gaffe on Stalin’s unspeakable terror’, took place in 1956, not, as here, 1953 – an odd error for one who, among his many books, seems to give pride of place to a blockbuster history of the Cold War. Dr John Lewis, editor of the Modern Quarterly, so far from being, as Inglis would have it in one of his punchy characterisations, a ‘hard nut’ of the Communist Party, was an ex-Unitarian minister, much given to moral discourse and retaining a distinctly clerical air. The Labour guru in postwar Oxford was David Worswick, the well-known economist, not David Worick, as he appears both in the text and the index. By no stretch of the imagination can the students of T.H. Green be said to have ‘invented’ the Fabian Society (perhaps Inglis was thinking of Toynbee Hall). Broad Street, Oxford, ‘one of the noblest university thoroughfares in the world’, does not lead past Duke Humfrey’s library; nor can a street with the Indian Institute at one end of it plausibly be represented as ‘the Oxford bastion of ... anti-imperialism’.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 18 No. 15 · 1 August 1996
Your heading ‘Making It Up’ for Raphael Samuel’s review of Fred Inglis’s Raymond Williams (LRB, 4 July) is entirely appropriate, since Inglis’s Raymond Williams appears to be at least as fictional as Williams’s Border Country. Inglis’s listing of interviewees, footnotes to chapters etc, seems calculated to give the impression that his book has been carefully researched and carefully written. One reviewer noted an inaccurate reference to Trotsky; other readers will be astonished by Inglis’s assertion that Karl Kautsky, who died in 1938, was murdered along with Rosa Luxemburg in 1919. On page 84 we find a totally fictional account of what my sister Dorothy Wedderburn and I were doing in 1941, or perhaps in 1940. Inglis writes: ‘And in March they’ – i.e. Raymond Williams and Eric Hobsbawm – ‘Dorothy Wedderburn, George Barnard, John Maynard Smith, all Cambridge young Communists with grammar school scholarships, were out leading the campaign to “Stop the War against the USSR”, with the revolutionary weapons of posters, lobbying senior members of the University, and a meeting in the Dorothy Tearooms.’ Two glances at Who’s Who will confirm that in March 1941 my sister was 15 years old and still at school, while I was 25 and working for the Plessey Company. In March 1940 we were doing the same things. A third glance at Who’s Who will reveal that John Maynard Smith went to Eton, not commonly referred to as a grammar school.
I hold no brief for Fred Inglis and the way in which he has written his biography of Raymond Williams. I also admire Raphael Samuel’s laudable attempt to defend Williams from undocumented and inaccurate attack. Nevertheless, my own research on Williams for a small part of a book published last year (Dons and Workers: Oxford and Adult Education Since 1850) uncovered inconsistencies in Williams’s work and views, and criticisms of him, that would support some of Inglis’s contentions.
In the University Archives in Oxford I certainly found tributes to Williams as a teacher and writer. And in the present Department for Continuing Education in Oxford I had at least one colleague who worked alongside Williams, and who shared his Welsh background, who always spoke reverently of him. But I had another who overlapped with Williams at the end of the Fifties and who also taught English (and whose judgment I trust, having taught extra-mural courses with him myself) who was critical of Williams on several grounds, both educational and political, and whose comments I included in my own account of Williams as an extra-mural tutor. On the subject of alleged Communist infiltration of extra-mural education in Oxford in the late Forties, I found Williams saying very different things to different audiences in a relatively short space of time. Williams also seemed to me to have been unfairly critical of the Oxford extra-mural department in the interviews he gave to the New Left Review, published as Politics and Letters in 1979. In the same source he spoke of his experiences in adult education with a detachment bordering on the clinical – in contrast to other socialists who had taught tutorial classes for Oxford and the Workers’Educational Association, Tawney, Temple and Cole, among many, who continued to express enthusiasm for the work long after moving on to other things.
Samuel writes that Williams had a ‘special gift’ for ‘drawing up new maps of knowledge’. Many of Williams’s admirers have made a similar point over the years. Yet when placed in the tradition of adult education, it seems to me that Williams’s maps were old ones. Culture and Society, the book that deservedly made his reputation, and one of his works that will surely endure, actually presents the old adult education syllabus in a new form. From the 1880s, Oxford University extension lecturers had gone into the communities of the working class to lecture on Carlyle and Ruskin to audiences of workers who eagerly assimilated their anti-industrialism and anti-capitalism. The staple diet of many early literature classes included Dickens, Kingsley and Arnold, as the well-preserved syllabuses in the Oxford University Archive demonstrate. Later, William Morris was added to the pantheon. The tradition of reading authors who were in critical engagement with the dominant values of British society was entrenched in the adult education movement long before Williams remapped it and set it in an accessible form before a fresh audience in the expanding universities of the late Fifties and Sixties. That Williams did not acknowledge his intellectual debts to this tradition as fully as might have been expected seems to me to have been his greatest omission. Perhaps he was not conscious of what he had absorbed as an extra-mural tutor, or of the historical development of the tradition of which he was himself a part. If this was the case, he would not have been the first scholar to have misunderstood or neglected the roots of his own work. But it seems to me to be a surprising omission in a writer so interested in the lineage of ideas and ‘keywords’.
Perhaps the simple moral of this story is that though Williams was a fine scholar and teacher, he was not without flaws in both capacities and should not be immune from fair criticism. As R.W. Johnson has pointed out before (LRB, 4 July), whatever Williams’s merits as a literary and cultural critic, he had his weaknesses as a writer on politics. Since his death he has generally been the object of veneration. Though unable and unwilling to speak for Inglis, my own work on Williams, setting him in a line of educational activism going back a century and more, leads me to conclude that if the Left must have scholar-heroes, there are some equal and possibly better-qualified candidates in the adult education tradition that helped to form him.
St Peter’s College, Oxford
I comprehensively endorse all that Raphael Samuel says in his full and critical review of Inglis’s Raymond Williams. Although I did not undergo the sort of one-off quick ‘interview’ Raphael describes (Inglis told me that one of his key informants was Raphael Samuel!), I did send Inglis a detailed letter or two concerning features of Raymond’s life, work and persona that I feared might not be found in Inglis’s research.
There is little to add to the evidence and argument which Raphael supplies, except I would wish to counter totally (both in its tone and content) the imaginary ‘Raymond Williams’provided by Inglis and endorsed in too many reviews thus far. I knew Raymond Williams from 1975 onwards, having met him at a wonderful Adult Education event in Bristol, where he and E.P. Thompson spoke and discussed and shared with a remarkably non-aloof generosity. Indeed that word – generosity – is the word that most springs to mind in my memories of conversations with Raymond in Cambridge and in London. This generosity, as Raphael indicates, comes from some foundational moments and shared experiences summed up in the crucial 1958 statement: ‘Culture is ordinary … that is where we must start … that is the first fact’. It extended to Raymond’s willingness to speak, precisely not at the stratospheric mega-conferences, but to Centreprise in Hackney. In such gatherings, his warmth, humour, kindness and commitment were evident.
Finally, Raphael is correct in his closing comments. What has been evident to me for years is the remarkable absence of generosity and, in the full sense, acknowledgment in modern academic, intellectual and creative life. In 1979 Michèle Barrett, Annette Kuhn, Janet Woolf and I noted the bewildering erection and demolition of icons (Ideology and Cultural Production); since then a whizzing circulation of individuation and commodification partakes of a more general Permanent Revolution; floating signifiers allow the return (masked, of course) of the floating intellectuals. Until his untimely death, Raymond provided some quiet, caring, critical educational resources. Nowadays, we move from rave-praise, to speedy dumping, rubbishing, ‘in’ and ‘out’ persons and brand-names. Such making of culture extraordinary (stars we crane our necks to look at; filth we find on our boots) fits, of course, with far wider patterns in which not only has generosity been minimised, but that crucial acknowledgment we call history is denied. I am pleased to find Raphael acknowledging the degree to which Raymond was consistently engaged in providing senses of history as enlarging the ways in which we see and show just how complex is ordinary culture.
Ave atque vale to an ordinary man and a great teacher.
Raphael Samuel’s review of Fred Inglis’s biography crosses the line of criticism into abuse. One wonders how may footnotes Mr Inglis needs before he is allowed to express an opinion? Given all that the reviewer suggests about the biographer’s intentions and motivations, one wonders whether Inglis is allowed an opinion at all? Would all intended opinions on Raymond Williams please apply in triplicate stating all previous fads, obsessions and political allegiances?
There are many ways to write histories and biographies. Inglis tried to place himself somewhere between Raymond Williams and his reputation. This was risky. It was riskier still given Inglis’s vivid style. Some of Samuel’s most personal criticisms would apply equally to the whole genre of biography, depending on ‘style’ and what one thinks of it. But whatever Inglis’s degree of success or failure, and it seems to me there was some success, and whatever Inglis’s errors of fact or miscalculations of judgment, he had his own objectives. Grounds for personal abuse exist only where there is evidence of bad faith. With no reasonable evidence of such, Samuel crossed the line. Indeed, he beats Inglis with the same sticks – hint, fantasy, allusion – which he claims Inglis used on Williams.
I do not know Fred Inglis. I did not know Raymond Williams, although I feel I know Williams’s works better for having read the biography in question, and I look forward to more with Dai Smith’s forthcoming volume. However, I have to conclude that Mr Samuel has not written a fair review. He has presented a case for the prosecution which sullies the defendant’s personal integrity as a means of establishing the guilt of his opinions.
University of Leicester
An interesting point of scholarly ethics arises in Raphael Samuel’s review. Samuel compares Inglis’s handling of Williams’s childhood with that of another writer, Dai Smith, ‘a man of parts’, according to Samuel, ‘as well as a scholar’. But actually no book by Smith exists with which to compare Inglis’s. All Samuel has seen are ‘draft chapters’of a ‘projected biography, a manuscript of which I am fortunate enough to have before me as I write’. These chapters are not in the public domain: they do not exist in a work which can be compared to a published book. Of course Samuel is entitled to say that someone has some useful material. But a comparison between a published book and a part of an unpublished draft is not quite the right thing to do – it is really only a slur because it cannot be corroborated. It is true that this procedure gives good value to readers of the LRB. We get plenty of Inglis (which I thought sounded better than Samuel says) and some Smith. But, strictly speaking, like should be compared with like, book with book, even leaving aside the fact that Inglis’s book and Smith’s work, so it seems, are different in conception.
In 1992 I had the task of reviewing Fred Inglis’s history of the Cold War, The Cruel Peace. In his Preface, Inglis expressed admiration for Edward Thompson (a sentiment I entirely share), then compared his own writing with Thompson’s – a curious comparison, to say the least, given Inglis’s fervent and often-expressed belief in the righteousness of US foreign policy. The book itself was quite the worst work of history I have ever read: a catalogue of half-remembered facts written in a style veering between sentimentality and flippant cynicism, with some really startling malapropisms and misspellings.
Subsequently, I read that Inglis was writing a biography of Raymond Williams and was in search of information from those who had known him. I considered letting Inglis know about my contacts with Williams (very limited) and his impact on my life (huge). However, I could hardly have done so without also telling Inglis what I thought of his earlier book, and by extension his credentials for writing about Williams. In the event I did nothing; a choice which I don’t now regret. As Raphael Samuel notes, initial reviews of Inglis’s biography were broadly positive. At the time I wondered if my fears had been unjustified. Samuel’s review has, sadly, reassured me on that point. One of the most important writers Britain has produced this century still awaits an adequate biography.
The real issue at stake is whether what Williams wrote now remains important. Here Samuel has more in common with Inglis than he may find comfortable. He argues in conclusion that as the ‘light of socialism fades’ there may be more attacks on previously venerable figures of the Left. Well, attacks on the Left are nothing new, and it might be argued that Inglis is merely updating the ‘god that failed’ genre for the Nineties. But is it actually the case that the light of socialism is fading? Judging by most measures of opinion there would seem to be a good deal of support for a politics which places human need and desire above profit and the market. And if this is the case then Williams’s writings will continue to be read, whatever Fred Inglis thinks about them.
Praise Raphael and pass the – literary – ammunition. We read, with considerable interest, Mr Samuel’s thoughtful essay on the biography of Raymond Williams. We too had been disheartened by the capacity of reviewers in the TLS and Guardian, among others, to swallow the Inglis line of revisionism. On a recent visit to our native land we were again reminded how a sweep of landscape, from Blaenaron, over the Blorenge, through Abergavenny to Pandy and Pontrilas, was a crucible that helped forge the notion of ‘cultural materialism’. We propose a memorial walk and gathering, on some appropriate summer weekend next year, to celebrate Williams’s life and locale. Responses to this address.
5 Gardner Road
Vol. 18 No. 16 · 22 August 1996
When Fred Inglis approached me for information about my father, Raymond Williams, he told me that he was planning to write ‘a novel of the Left’, and perhaps that is how his book should be read (LRB, 4 July). I can confirm that Dai Smith is the authorised biographer, and my family has every confidence in him.
As the publisher of Fred Inglis’s Raymond Williams, I feel I must correct several inaccuracies in Raphael Samuel’s review. 1. At no point in the book does Fred Inglis claim to be the ‘official biographer’ of Raymond Williams, nor did he ever claim to be so to the publishers. 2. Raphael Samuel suggests that some of those interviewed for the biography now feel that they have been misquoted. All of those interviewed were sent copies of what they had said; they were asked to edit or correct these transcripts, and in those cases where they were unhappy with the general impression created by a longer passage, then that passage was deleted. 3. Fred Inglis’s researches in a variety of archives connected with various periods of Williams’s life included extensive use of the records and reminiscences relating to the history of adult education in England compiled by Dr John McIlroy of the University of Manchester. Your reviewer states that Professor Inglis ‘contrives not to mention it in his acknowledgments’. His eye appears to have wandered here. If he looks on p. viii, he will find that the value of the archive and the personal help given by Dr McIlroy is paid full and generous tribute.
Routledge, London EC4
Yes, Fred Inglis’s biography of Raymond Williams is a bad book, marred by inaccuracies, obtuse and obtrusive opinionation, and inept attempts at ‘imaginative’ writing. But to focus on these flaws, as Raphael Samuel does in his review, or to seek to restore the hagiolatry, as some of your subsequent correspondents have done, is to obfuscate the larger issues which the biography undoubtedly – and uncomfortably – raises.
For example, insofar as Inglis, according to Samuel, resembles Bob Hoskins in the BT advertisements in his account of Williams’s marriage and family life, he is a Brechtian Bob who breaks through the illusion of naturalness to pose a key question of sexual, and socialist, politics: that of gender inequality. Inglis quotes a number of observations, not merely his own, of Joy Williams’s apparent subordination – almost, at times, to the point of self-immolation – to her husband. These observations are necessarily partial, and may be inaccurately and selectively transcribed; but simply to ignore the issues they raise, as Samuel does, is to show contempt for that important strand in modern feminism which argues that a consideration of the way men treat women – in their ‘personal’ as much as their ‘political’ lives – is vital to any genuine ‘long revolution’. Such contempt is hardly surprising in a reviewer who turns a dynamic female ex-publisher into the passive occupant of a bathchair when he states that Carmen Callil is ‘wheeled on’ by Inglis to say that Williams is no novelist.
Perhaps most tellingly for socialists of Samuel’s ilk, there is the matter of Williams’s support, hedged round with qualifications and reservations as it was, for revolutionary violence. Philip Corrigan (Letters, 1 August) should re-read the interviews with Williams collected in Politics and Letters (1979) to remind himself that this man of ‘warmth, humour, kindness’ was ready in certain circumstances – because of that very ‘commitment’ which Corrigan also praises – to endorse and encourage violence against the state of a kind which historically has led, and in the foreseeable future is likely to lead, to death and suffering on a large scale. Inglis’s remark about Red Guards and rotovators, which Samuel quotes, is a vigorous and justified riposte to Williams’s approval of the way in which, in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, people were bullied into undertaking physical work on the land. The riposte is one of a number of occasions in the biography when Inglis raises the crucial question of Williams’s relationship to the kind of revolutionary violence which it is difficult at the end of the 20th century – and specially after 1989 – to see as leading, even in the long term, to a benign outcome.
To say this is, of course, to indulge in what Samuel disapprovingly calls in his review ‘the wisdom of hindsight’. That’s certainly no temptation for Samuel; he seems to have learnt nothing from history. From the credulous Communist who, according to Keith Thomas (LRB, 20 April 1995), wept at the death of Uncle Joe to the gawping consumer of the gewgaws of the heritage industry in the first volume of his Theatres of Memory (1994), Samuel has remained a sentimental gull, sloshing around happily in the lukewarm bath of political irresponsibility. Raymond Williams was not such a child; but we do no justice to his memory or his politics to seek to repress discussion of the possible contradictions, failings and evasions of his life and work.
Seaford, East Sussex
Now that LRB readers have debated the importance of Raymond Williams may I suggest that it is his statue that fills the vacant plinth in Trafalgar Square?
Vol. 18 No. 17 · 5 September 1996
Of the three points raised by the publisher of Raymond Williams in her letter (Letters, 22 August), two are wrong and one is doubtful. 1. Raymond Williams’s official biographer? I have a letter from Fred Inglis, dated 18 October 1993, saying, inter alia, that he was now Raymond Williams’s official biographer, due to deliver his manuscript to Routledge by the end of 1994, and interested in talking to me. I understand that other people received a letter couched in similar terms. 2. John McIlroy. Inglis does indeed, in his prefatory acknowledgments, give fulsome thanks to Dr McIlroy for the loan of materials on Raymond Williams’s years in adult education, and salutes his ‘comradeship’. What he does not have the grace to acknowledge is that McIlroy has published a very substantial book on the subject – much more fully researched than Inglis’s treatment in two chapters. Elsewhere there are just three footnote references to McIlroy’s book: none of them expresses either appreciation or gratitude for a book which sets a new high standard of writing and research on adult education. 3. Oral History. To send interviewees transcripts of what they have said does not exhaust the writer’s responsibilities. Selective quotation can give a quite different twist to any extract. According to one who had to resort to it, there were two instances in which it was only the threat of legal action that persuaded Inglis to withdraw from the use he was making of the interview.
With regard to Nicolas Tredell’s letter in the same issue, I cannot see what is Brechtian about a biography which, so far from dispelling the illusion of immediacy, contrives to suggest that the author was an eye-witness to every incident, a participant-observer in every drama. The sexual politics of the book also seem to me murkier than Tredell suggests. I cannot see what is feminist about claiming – on the evidence of unknown women informants – that Williams had no ‘sexual presence’, or that a man who smoked a pipe was unimaginable as a lover. The belittling references to Raymond’s uxoriousness, and the sneering caption attached to the photograph of Raymond and Joy, suggest that Inglis, in common with many others on the left, finds the idea of a loving marriage difficult to contemplate. But whether he approves of its terms or not, he might have considered the possibility that this was one of the elements at stake in Raymond and Joy’s particularly close relationship. What struck me most in Inglis’s fumbling attempts to deal with the private man was that he could conceive of no independent being for Joy at all, and that far from emerging as the champion of feminist understandings of female subordination within the private sphere (which would require him, at the least, to have read the feminist work on Williams by Jardine and Swindells, Shiach, Kaplan et al, which he clearly hasn’t), he seems quite unconsciously compelled by his own masculine, even Oedipal relations to his appointed authority figures, not least Raymond Williams himself.
Among more thoughtful responses to my piece, Lawrence Goldman (Letters, 1 August) makes the very interesting suggestion that Culture and Society, so far from breaking new ground, actually presented the old adult education syllabus in new form, setting it out accessibly before a fresh audience in the expanding universities of the late Fifties and Sixties. This may be true, as Goldman suggests, of the pantheon of anti-industrial critics (Carlyle, Ruskin, Morris), but the centrality which Williams gives to Pugin’s Contrasts as a way of conceptualising the opposition between past and present in early 19th-century thought seems to come from somewhere else. More surprising is the fact that Williams chooses to start his narrative, and frame the problematic of his book, in terms taken from that age-old whipping boy of British radicalism, Edmund Burke. No less remarkable in a writer from the left is the absence of any reference to Burke’s great adversary, Tom Paine.
Nicolas Tredell denounces Williams’s support for the Russian, Chinese and Cuban Revolutions, on the grounds that ‘violence against the state’ leads only to ‘death and suffering on a large scale’ – a point which, for some reason, became even more unarguable ‘after 1989’. This is a curious charge; I had thought that it was generally believed, and not only on the left, that revolutionary uprisings could be justified against some regimes, under some conditions. What those conditions might be, of course, is another question, and one to which my answer might well differ from Williams’s. Tredell’s criticism, however, could only have been preempted by Williams adopting either absolute pacifism or the defence of any and every status quo. In any case, Williams was far from being any sort of evangelist of revolution: keenly aware of the correlation between political liberation and immediate human suffering, in Modern Tragedy he went so far as to characterise revolution as tragedy. His judgment of the Chinese Cultural Revolution was complex and critical. But it wasn’t entirely negative – and that suffices for Inglis to render him a figure of fun, an armchair Maoist with no idea of the real implications of what he was saying (‘Rotovating a few beds of nettles … wasn’t what the Red Guards had in mind’). This shaft of derision – for Tredell a ‘vigorous and justified riposte’ – raises a few questions. Assume that Inglis had given Williams’s views on the Cultural Revolution the consideration they deserve and constructed a case against them. Could the line quoted above form part of such an argument? To ask the question is to answer it. Whatever arguments Inglis might be able to make – in his mind, perhaps – his method on paper is alien to debate: he proceeds by way of condescension, sneer and lampoon. (An approach which Tredell endorses, to judge from his own petulant swipe at Raphael Samuel.)