The Guardian view on Raymond Williams at 100
H e was born 100 years ago this week in the Welsh village of Pandy, just outside the market town of Abergavenny, and smack on the border with England. And borders were to become one of Raymond Williams’s key subjects. In all kinds of senses: borders of space and time and class and in personal relationships. Yet what made Williams one of 20th century Britain’s most important cultural critics was his refusal to take any of these boundaries as unchanging and fixed. The son of a railway signalman got a scholarship to Cambridge, was sent to fight in the invasion of Normandy in 1944, before ending his days in the 1980s writing novels about the Black Mountains as often as not from his home in Essex. He moved about politically, too, starting in the Communist party and ending in Plaid Cymru. Often ranked, rightly, among Wales’s greatest writers, he had a lot to say about place without ever being narrowly parochial or dogmatic.
His early masterpiece The Country and the City opens by observing that the “contrast between country and city, as fundamental ways of life, reaches back into classical times” – before swiftly tearing down that divide by taking the reader through 400 years of English literature and showing how these two supposed archetypes changed meaning and association again and again. In the wake of the Brexit vote, politicians and scholars have paid attention to place like rarely before, jawing on about the “Red Wall”, “left-behind places”, “Cambridge versus Clacton” and any number of other brittle stereotypes that are crying out for a Williams-style demolition.
The other great political obsession of our moment is culture, which the right often choose to treat as a heavily curated collection of statues and symbols, historical dates and stories of our island nation. As one of the founders of the British school of cultural studies, Williams treated culture as about our everyday lives as well as about opening up so-called high culture to everybody. In his landmark essay, Culture is Ordinary, he writes of how Cambridge’s grand colleges and do-not-touch quadrangles never felt oppressive, “for I had come from a country with twenty centuries of history written visibly into the earth”. In his respect for the ordinary and his passion for democracy, he found common cause with Richard Hoggart, EP Thompson and Stuart Hall. Needless to say, this is the opposite of the kind of culture the flag-wavers and statue-worshippers would have the rest of us pay deference to.
Although he passed away in 1988, much about Williams’s work feels contemporary. He was interested in environmentalism early and he was much more open to developments in political and cultural theory than many other Britons of his generation.
In his first published novel, Border Country, railway signalman Harry Price suffers a stroke and his son, Matthew, breaks away from his academic work to go back to his border village. He meets friends who ask how his research is going. “It needs doing,” they urge him. Matthew agrees, but admits the project is sprawling too far. “Don’t worry about that, mun,” comes the reply. “Say your say.”
What Williams did needed doing and he said his say. Few better things can be said about any life.