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’.

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