Making It Up

Raphael Samuel

  • 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’.

Inglis believes that biography, ‘insofar as it is both truthful and serious, is only a record of what other people can tell you on the life and death in question’. He sticks loyally to this brief. Instead of sources, such as the unpublished writings of his subject (denied to Inglis because the family had already given his papers to the Welsh historian, Dai Smith), or the records of the organisations in which he worked – John McIlroy, in his fine study of Williams in adult education, the basis of Inglis’s Chapters 6 and 7, though he contrives not to mention it in his acknowledgments, draws liberally on the correspondence and papers of the Oxford University Tutorial Classes Committee – Inglis gives us what he proudly lists at the front of the book as dramatis personae. These are some seventy people whom he interviewed. The names are, to use one of Inglis’s favourite terms, a ‘rum lot’, the dramatis personae not of Williams’s life – some of them, like the present writer, scarcely exchanged a word with him – but rather of Inglis’s mental universe. The so-called ‘interviews’ – in my own case, a pleasant Oxford lunch in which Fred and I managed to discuss everything except the supposed occasion for our meeting – were not necessarily about Raymond Williams at all. With the exception of Quentin Skinner, with whom, by his own account, Inglis seems to be in more or less continuous converse, the interviews are almost all one-off affairs, a procedure increasingly unacceptable to the oral historian, and almost guaranteed to provide stereotyped answers (a second interview is usually more revealing than a first, a third than a second; I once spent some five years interviewing an East End villain, and still felt I had not got to the bottom of the story).

Quotations, culled from the interviews, are given great prominence in Inglis’s text. They are printed, apparently, verbatim (though Stephen Heath, Lisa Jardine and others have protested they are garbled), and are treated as though they were primary sources. Yet the quotations are oddly at variance with the interpretation they are supposed to support, and seem often to serve as tokens of authenticity rather than as corroborations or illustrations of an argument. The two pages given up to Lord Carrington’s reminiscences of his wartime experiences as a Guards officer (an ex-Foreign Secretary who in his interview apparently had not a word to say about Williams) can only be explained by the fact that Inglis has rather a thing about the military. (Where others, evoking the Forties or Fifties, might refer to ‘the Army’ or ‘National Service’, Inglis prefers to speak of his ‘regiment’. Unlike Raymond, who could not bear to talk of his time in Normandy, Fred, though too young to have fought in the war, seems to think of himself as a ‘tank man’.)

Like a good gossip, Inglis is ready, indeed eager, to accept scandalous stories without too much regard to whether or not they are true. One disturbing example occurs when, drawing on the Chatto and Windus archive (one of his very few manuscript sources), Inglis comes on a 1953 letter by one Kay Burton accusing Williams of plagiarism and claiming that the section on Ibsen, in his first book, rested on some Cambridge lectures by Muriel Brad-brook. Inglis quotes from Williams’s ‘cross’ denial, claims (without giving chapter or verse) that his letter contained a ‘not very veiled threat of libel action’, and then records the end of the correspondence. For his own part, he leaves the accusation to hang in the air, a nasty suspicion which it is apparently beyond his power, as a biographer, to exorcise, ‘I don’t know; the lectures were so very well known ... And the closeness of treatment is certainly striking ... Williams wrote damn fast and always used his authorities swiftly and silently; he acknowledged rarely; he scanted the scholarly conventions; it’s a bit rum.’ No textual comparison is brought into play, as it might have been by a biographer seriously concerned with a subject’s reputation. No attempt is made to square this passage with Raymond’s lifelong Ibsenism, nor with the glowing accounts of Williams by Miss Bradbrook, quoted elsewhere in the book. It is as though Inglis was too lazy to follow up his own leads, even when – as a result of his own cavalier insinuations – the intellectual integrity of his subject is at stake.

It is instructive to compare the sources for Inglis’s account of Raymond’s childhood with the draft chapters of Dai Smith’s projected biography, a manuscript of which I am fortunate enough to have before me as I write. The first is a bravura piece of atmospherics. It begins with a How Green Was My Valley evocation of the landscape (‘Always there was the mountain’), and goes on to spatchcock pages from Raymond’s last novel, with others taken from his first. There are very few footnotes and the only reference to a primary source (characteristically vague: ‘Pandy School Log, 1925-1932’), seems to have become untethered from the text. Putting on short trousers, Inglis contrives to tag along with a school party to London, noting the ‘garrulous way’ in which the juvenile Raymond explains the railways to his fellow pupils. Otherwise he adds little of substance to the biography, other than a fanciful portrait of the village headmaster. Remembered in the village (and in Raymond’s autobiographical novel Border Country) for the enthusiasm of his canings, he appears here as a lifelong Labour stalwart and a precocious advocate of progressive education.

Dai Smith, on the other hand, a man of parts and a wit as well as a scholar – he is the historian of Welsh rugby, and currently Head of English Language Programmes at BBC Wales – has assembled a feast of primary sources. There is the pocket diary of Harry Williams, Raymond’s father, starting in 1919, and also his First World War papers. There are numerous entries from the Pandy School log-book, dated as a matter of course by one who has spent his scholarly life in the archives. There are extensive interviews and correspondence with Pandy people (on a flying visit in November 1993, Inglis seems to have seen just four of them). And there are the different manuscript drafts of Border Country. Smith gives us an illuminating ethnography of Abergavenny, the ‘border country’ town where Raymond went to grammar school. One of his discoveries is that Gwen Williams, Raymond’s mother, who is a mere cipher in Inglis’s book and (it must be admitted) Raymond Williams’s own accounts of his childhood, was a leading member of the Women’s Institute movement in the village ‘and eventually, to her intense pride, the local President’. No less interesting, in throwing light on Border Country, is Smith’s insistence on the local importance of the railways, the storm-centre of the General Strike in 1926, and the lifelong employment of Raymond’s father. In Abergavenny, in the Twenties, the railways employed no fewer than a thousand men, amounting, with their families, to a third of the town’s population. Without resorting to grand guignol, or stooping to pastiche. Smith makes them a vivid presence.

Even those who had no working involvement with the railways found their lives filled with the sights and sound of steam. The railway lines enclosed the town as surely as the walls held in the medieval settlement ... The noise of express trains and shunting engines was constant night and day – and nothing was more emphatic than the shrill whistle and frantic puffing of the banking engines which helped to haul the long trains up the gradient from Monmouth Road station to the Junction and on to Llanvihangel. This was the line the schoolboy would take home every day, up the steep incline to Pandy, on trains passed through on the authority of his father’s signal box.

Iconoclasm is the nether side of what Inglis calls ‘hagiology’. Love can very easily turn murderous, when thwarted of its objects of desire. The devil of the Middle Ages was a fallen angel, ‘very close’ to God in nature (Freud suggested) even though supposedly his antithesis. Icons, hitherto credited with magical powers, quite suddenly, at the Reformation, came to seem malevolent, not images to worship or relics to treasure but superstitions and weaknesses to crush. Reversals like this seem often to be involved in the tutorial relationship, as in intellectual discipleship generally, where the good father is seen to turn into the bad father, a monster of egotism, or Sphinx-like figure, wrapped up in his own preoccupations and apparently indifferent to his followers. This is the gravamen of the charges brought against Raymond Williams by some of his former Cambridge students (they were well represented among the enthusiastic reviewers of Inglis’s biography).

It is possible that Fred Inglis has become involved in a negative dialectic of this kind, and that the Raymond Williams of his biography is the fall guy for the author’s lost illusions. Inglis has a Tory craving for authority figures, and a Leavisite belief in the teacher’s vanguard role. He is on record as a lifelong hero-worshipper. He peoples his world with giants, and one way of charting his trajectory would be to see it as a succession of intellectual crushes (‘The great John Keane’ seems to be his latest pin-up; Clifford Geertz, fulsomely acknowledged in the preface to his 1993 Cultural Studies, a slightly earlier one). Inglis’s Radical Earnestness (1982), a truly dreadful book, is a kind of Boy’s Own guide to English social theory which resolves itself into a portrait gallery of gung-ho gurus. Raymond Williams, ‘the man who has retranslated Marxist concepts into a spoken idiom’, is one of the Bulldog Drummonds of the narrative. Along with ‘his great associate’ Edward Thompson, he is ‘a plausible candidate ... for leading hero of the years in which the forward march of consumer individualist values halted at the cliff edge, and the call for different, new, vastly more mutual, altruistic, and less destructive values-with-practices became paramount’.

Raymond Williams could be seen as a recoil from the extravagance and absurdities of such idealisations. Where previously he would devote page after page to exegesis of Williams’s major books, Inglis can now dismiss them with a parody, an innuendo or a joke. With the wisdom of hindsight he pins the convict’s badge on him for giving support to the Chinese Cultural Revolution (‘Rotovating a few beds of nettles up the hill at the cottage in Craswell wasn’t what the Red Guards had in mind’); for fathering an impossibilist and utopian politics (in the May Day Manifesto movement of 1967); and, as a student journalist, for supporting the Russians in the Finnish war of 1940.

If ever a book had a subtext, it is this one. Inglis tells us that it was conceived as an act of homage, a ‘cheerful encomium’ on a great spirit, and that it is offered in a spirit of ‘reverence’. The author is profuse in his expressions of admiration and even love for his subject. His reviewers may have been truer to the book’s unconscious representation of its subject. ‘A puzzling polemical cold fish,’ wrote Roy Hattersley, in the Independent: ‘Few of the personal testaments with which Inglis enlivens Williams’s biography portray an affable or sympathetic character.’ ‘The tank commander of the New Left, but dull in college,’ according to Robin Blake, a former student of Raymond’s who remembered him as ‘elusive, reluctant, uninspiring, even deadening’ in tutorial. ‘We ... were rarely more successful in setting him alight than he was in firing up that damn pipe.’ ‘Consistently melancholy’, wrote the reviewer in the Guardian, praising the ‘sadness and honesty’ of Inglis’s book. ‘He ruefully chronicles the self-delusions, and above all the foolish self-righteousness of socialist intellectuals in Britain.’

A charitable interpretation of this book is that Inglis is a fantasist, and that just as he could palm himself off to his dramatis personae as ‘Raymond Williams’s official biographer’, even though the personal and family papers had already been assigned to someone else, so he may have persuaded himself that what he has portrayed is ‘a character of remarkable grace and poise’. Yet Inglis’s asides are systematically belittling, while the quotations are artfully selected to suggest a monster of egoism, a bad teacher, who never prepared his work, a muddled thinker, a philistine who was deaf to music and indifferent to the arts. Carmen Callil, Raymond’s publisher, is wheeled on to say that he was no novelist; Eric Bellchambers, WEA organiser in his Sussex days, remembers him as a prima donna; Jim Fyrth, an extra-mural tutor who prides himself on using ‘simple but lively language’, rebukes Raymond for being ‘convoluted’, ‘dense’ and ‘impenetrable’ (‘I often could not understand what he was talking about’); his Cambridge colleagues charge him with lack of interest in his job, his students with ducking tutorials.

It is possible that Inglis began this book in good faith and then came across things he did not like. Or that he was waylaid by his informants, the Cambridge ones in particular, who seem to have used the occasion to settle old scores. Perhaps he grew envious of his subject, and of that ‘terrific self-assurance’ to which he returns obsessively, and which he himself so conspicuously lacks. What does seem possible is that, like many biographers before him, he grew to dislike or even hate his subject, despising on a close view what he had admired from afar. Not content with denigrating Williams, he also kills him off, charting, in morbid detail, the progress of his fatal illness, and then playing the part of the coroner to offer us a post-mortem. Where modern biography is typically reticent about death, Inglis wallows in it, describing Raymond’s physical collapse as though vicariously enjoying the man’s final loss of his virility.

At a quarter to nine, pain hit him like a punch. In the great aorta, the artery which carries the blood away from the top of the heart to the upper organs and the brain, a veinous purple membrane which had been bulging and depressing under the systole and diastole of his heart ... bulged again like the inner tube of a tyre, and split wide. The blood pumped copiously into his chest cavity. He fought gaspingly for breath, aware of nothing except the need for air. Then brain and vision darkened together, he stumbled a pace or two, and toppled face forward into a chair. There is a seal around the aorta which, in one case out of five, contains the blood long enough for emergency surgery. But not in this case ... A second, sudden rupture tore open flesh and muscle once again, and damaged the heart and brain ... beyond repair. Raymond Williams was dead.

A Freudian might speculate on the castration anxieties which such a passage both carries and conceals. The lay reader might wonder how on earth Inglis persuaded himself that he was eyewitness to the scene.

Whereas Inglis’s 15 previous publications sank without a trace, despite his best efforts to boost them (in Cultural Studies he recommends his Cruel Peace as an ur-text for students, bracketing it, ‘at the risk of immodesty’, with Paul Fussell’s Great War and Modern Memory), this one has been a great success. It has been widely and sympathetically reviewed in the national press without anyone questioning either its scholarly credentials or its ethical legitimacy. It also seems to have succeeded in placating or silencing Williams’s numerous followers; among the endorsements on the back cover is one from Tony Benn, while even New Left Review, to whose survival and prosperity Raymond made so signal a contribution, found it possible not only to print a friendly appreciation of the book, but also to couple it with a Vicar of Bray piece by Fred, celebrating ‘the magnificent achievement of the British New Left’ and aligning it with the ‘great tradition’.

High-level gossip makes compulsive reading, especially when it is laced with spite, while puritan-baiting is an ancient national sport. (One of the most frequent charges in this book, especially by Williams’s Cambridge critics, is that he was a very domestic man, ‘pathologically’ private, who led an unadventurous social life, shunned the international conference circuit and preferred the company of his wife and children to that of College students.) Moreover, whatever the criticisms that can be levelled against it, the scandalous history has long served as a counterpoint to the pieties of the public memoir. The literature of disenchantment, written more in sorrow than in anger, and exalting common sense at the expense of dogma, also has a venerable ancestry, though in the present instance it involves some rewriting of the author’s own past. (A footnote to Chapter 8 – characteristically self-inflating – credits his Radical Earnestness with ‘trying to repair the thoughtless damage done to Fabianism by Williams.’)

Theoretically, Williams’s work came from nowhere, unless it be from that strain of Ibsenite individualism, by turns stoic and heroic, which was the obsession of his later student years. It is perhaps a sign of his instinctive refusal to bow the knee to orthodoxy or to follow intellectual fashion, that, at the risk of baffling the reader, he constructed a conceptual vocabulary of his own. Never, so far as I know, engaging consciously with Freud, he constructs Border Country as an Oedipal drama, in which the father represents a principle of authority rather than a real-life character – ‘more than a person, he’s in fact a society, the thing you grow up into.’ He is moreover, in good Freudian fashion, split in two: the ‘bad’ father, Morgan Prosser – a great friend and an attractive figure to the young Raymond – goes off to start a haulage business after the failure of the General Strike, while the ‘good’ father, Harry, remains loyal to the union. In the Seventies, when Williams adopted a notional Marxism, he seemed unable to bring himself to talk of the master, let alone to quote from him. ‘Cultural materialism’, though it sounds Marxist, was a term of his own coinage and insofar as it has a lineage it is one which could be traced back to the biological and technological determinism of those ‘proletarian philosophers’ about whom Jonathan Rée and Stuart MacIntyre have written so illuminatingly, the writers and lecturers of the Plebs League (one of the many possible feeders of Williams’s thought, as of the adult education movement, who are absent from Inglis’s text).

Raymond Williams’s special gift was that of drawing up new maps of knowledge. Indifferent to academically-defined boundaries, starting his enquiry, quite often, from personal experience, he would alight on a subject whose importance was so obvious, once he had targeted it, that it seemed to have always been there. The Country and the City (1973) has none of the magic of Empson’s book on the pastoral; it relies on a measured tread where Empson goes in for startling arabesques; yet it reaches out for one of the grand permanences of European thought, highlighting a central dialectic both in relation to memory-work, and to the opposition between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. Despite the bleakness and difficulty of his style, both as a writer and a lecturer, Raymond Williams was one of the most influential educators of the Sixties and the Seventies. His books are remarkable for their teacherly qualities: open texts which positively invite classes to re-work the argument, and make it their own.

As a chronicler of working-class community, Williams cannot begin to compete with Richard Hoggart, though, as an article in the current issue of Radical Philosophy reminds us, the two names continue to be bracketed. He has no ear for working-class speech, no taste for title-tattle, of the kind which gives such vernacular strength to Hoggart’s memorable opposition between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. He does not try to write in dialect (Hoggart is a past master at it, indeed incomparable in catching the cadences of Forties’ speech). He has no feel for the ‘full rich life’ of the working-class interior, no eye for what Hoggart calls ‘working-class baroque’, that mixture of seaside tat, holiday souvenirs, family photographs and furry animals which can make the mantelpiece or the sideboard into a miniature shrine. As a boy, in his autobiographical writings, he does not nip out to the corner shop, peer into the public library, or run errands for uncles and aunts. Rather he communes, as a solitary, with the mountains, or listens gravely to his father’s talk.

The nether side of this impersonality, Terry Eagleton interestingly suggests, was a profound ‘historic’ sense. The ‘solidarity’ which he sought and championed, was, in his mind’s eye, ‘very local, even physical’, and it had its unspoken points of reference in the General Strike. Likewise, his notions of ‘culture’ and ‘community’ are not sociological but have reference, in the first place, to the little commonwealths of the Welsh valleys, while his notions of class dissolved into the wider notion of the gwerin (people). What some people complain of as the intrusive self in his writings – the autobiographical reference never seems far away – was also ‘historic’, having about it nothing of the confessional. Williams conceived of himself as a representative type, following in the footsteps of generations of writers, bards and teachers, an ambassador of Wales to the outside world.

Raymond Williams was not a historian, and except for his riveting little book on William Cobbett, never wrote a line of conventional historical narrative. But his intelligence was preeminently a historicising one, and it is perhaps symptomatic of this that Matthew, the fictional self he created in his trilogy, is a university lecturer ‘working on population movements into the Welsh mining valleys in the middle decades of the 19th century’. Whereas the ‘close reading’ of a limited number of texts was the basis of his extra-mural teaching – excellently described in John McIlroy’s book – it was a method he progressively abandoned. On the other hand, the contextual and historical is a leitmotiv, even the leading inspiration in all his published work, the books on mass communications no less than those on the prehistory of the people of the Black Mountains. His work has page after page of dense historical analysis. There are some seven chapters of it in The Long Revolution, among them a pioneering account of the growth of standard English and an ambitious attempt to relate the ‘structures of feeling’ in 1840s England to the social order as a whole. Keywords is not a contribution to the linguistic ‘turn’ but a sustained demonstration of the utility of a historical semantics. The Country and the City, perhaps his most original work, anticipated, by almost a decade, the deconstructive turn in historical thought represented by Hobsbawm and Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition. Television doubles back on itself to show the play of cause and effect in earlier forms of social drama. His little book on Culture, though travelling under the flag of sociology, takes us back to the ‘characteristic case’ of the Celtic bards (‘a remarkable poem’ by the sixth-century Welsh poet Aneirin figures in his argument) and makes detours to ‘English renaissance drama’, ‘soliloquy’ and the ‘comedy of manners’, before returning to more contemporary matters such as the rise of market professionalism and the mechanical reproduction of art (the contrast to the impoverished frame of literary reference in Inglis’s Cultural Studies is striking in the light of his innuendoes about Williams’s supposed philistinism).

Gareth Stedman Jones, one of Inglis’s interviewees, is quoted in the book as complaining of Williams’s ‘sentimentalising’ of the General Strike. I would argue, to the contrary, that in making it the central drama of his own earlier life, and a defining moment for 20th-century Britain, he showed a remarkable historic sense. It made him in some sort the voice of a prior generation, upholding a working-class and vernacular socialism which, by the later Thirties, with the advent of war, Fascism and the Popular Front, and of a Labour Party hell-bent on ‘planning’, was all but extinct. (Perhaps it was a memory of the non-denominationally ‘Red’ Twenties which allowed him to wear his Communist Party membership so lightly: he abandoned it in 1940 or 1941, when comrades complained of his falling in love with a Labour girl.)

Williams’s General Strike was in some sense his own. In Border Country he conceived of it not as a mass action in which millions were engaged, but rather as a crucible in which individual character was tried and tested – an Ibsenite drama rather than a Brechtian one. It may be, though, that he stumbled on truths hidden to a more conventional historian. Throughout his childhood, he told a meeting of Llafur, the Welsh labour history society, the pros and cons of what had happened in 1926 were batted to and fro by his father and his cronies. He thought of Pandy as being – by contrast to the Welsh mining valleys – ‘marginal’ to the strike, and the three men in the signal box, faced with an agonising choice of whether or not they would come out (the stationmaster, ‘who was subsequently victimised’, and the platelayers), as a little cadre of industrial workers marooned in a rural village. I think they were figures as representative as one could find, ex-servicemen who put their jobs on the line not expecting victory but rather, in the spirit of Passchendaele and the Somme, trying to hold their corner. The General Strike, though fought on behalf of the miners, was to an extraordinary extent a railwaymen’s affair and it was their unexpected show of solidarity and discipline – the railway clerks not less than the footplatemen – which gave the appearance of total stoppage (railways in 1926 seem to have occupied the symbolic space of power stations in the miners’ strike of 1972 as an industrial equivalent of the nation’s heartbeat).

Inglis’s biography is so thoroughly in tune with the Zeitgeist that it is perhaps pointless to sound a note of dissent. As the light of socialism fades, we can expect others of its ilk. Hegel famously remarked that Clio, like Minerva’s owl, took wing at dusk. He might have added that this was also a time when all kinds of other creatures crawled out of hiding.