Raymond Williams: A Warrior's Tale by Dai Smith

Daniel G. Williams
9 June 2008

Daniel G. Williams reviews Raymond Williams: A Warrior’s Tale by Dai Smith.

(Williams, Parthian Books, 2008, 514pp)

Theodor Adorno’s statement that ‘the past life of the émigré is, as we know, annulled’ once seemed particularly apt when considering Raymond Williams (1921-1988). Williams, the most influential socialist writer and thinker in post-war Britain, an innovator in adult education, a pre-eminent member of the English Faculty at Cambridge, and doyen of the New Left, will be of primary relevance to readers of Our Kingdom for two reasons. First, his careful attachment to issues of democracy and to socialism as a means of emancipation that had to be cultural as well economic and political. Second, for his engagement with the national question from the 1970s onwards and his reiterated argument that ‘we cannot live very much longer under the confusion of the existing “international economy” and the existing “nation state”…These are political forms that now limit, subordinate and destroy people. We have to begin again with people and build new political forms’. In this review of an important biography, I want to look at the second aspect, for Dai Smith’s study reveals the deep consequences of Williams’s national formation as a Welshman, born in the border village of Pandy.

Fred Inglis, in his biography of 1995, was typical of many in finding it difficult to take what he saw as Williams’s “late-come Welshness” seriously, dismissing it as “a fit of the kind of fervour which overcame Williams several times in later life”. Stefan Collini admired the way Inglis “made no pretence at writing like a visiting anthropologist” for biographer and subject were members of the same “tribe” of intellectuals on the English Left. The view from Wales itself was rather different. Ned Thomas, amongst others, asked rhetorically whether it mattered that Inglis’s biography “often seems to get things wrong when it talks about Wales”. The errors, argued Thomas, were not due to a ‘moral shortcoming’ but an “objective one”.

"Colonials often know more about the metropolis than metropolitans themselves. Metropolitans perceive the colonials (if at all) in single and stereotyped terms…If and when Dai Smith’s biography appears, we shall expect a more comprehensive treatment, because the Welsh world and the world of the English Left will equally be open to him."

Twelve years later, Dai Smith has indeed produced a seminal biography. And the success of the work is partly due to the fact that the Rhondda born, Balliol educated, Professor at Swansea University, is able to analyse, sympathise, and engage, simultaneously, with the very different networks of loyalty to which Williams belonged. In A Warrior’s Tale, Williams’s formative experiences on the Welsh border become the crucial viewfinder for bringing the later life into focus.

Dai Smith sheds new and revealing light on the people, events and commitments of Williams’s life up to the publication of The Long Revolution in 1961. All that we’d expect from a biography of this kind is here: explorations of the central relationships between father, mother and son (it is particularly fascinating that William’s father, a railway signalman, kept a brief diary); the development of Joy Dalling’s relationship with Raymond from courtship to marriage and onwards; an account of his Second World War experiences as a front-line officer in an anti-tank regiment in Normandy; detailed accounts of Williams’s friendships with Michael Orrom, Wolf Mankowitz and others as he wrestled uncomfortably with the metropolitan world of film and theatre; and so on. But A Warrior’s Tale is also a striking, somewhat unusual, book, both in relation to Dai Smith’s other works and in relation to biographical writing more generally.

Smith tells us in his introduction that he has “tried to tell this story, where possible, so that the voice of Raymond Williams, in his own words, can be heard”. There are quoted letters and diary entries as we might expect, but more unusual are the extensive quotations from the unpublished, and often intensely autobiographical, creative writings to which Williams dedicated most of his time from the mid 1940s to 1960. Readers familiar with the later fictional writings will be struck by the extent to which familiar scenes from the ‘Welsh Trilogy’ (Border Country (1960), Second Generation (1964), The Fight for Manod (1979)) had in fact been composed during the 1950s. The revealing conversation between Peter Owen and two representatives of the ‘West African Federation’ in Second Generation, for example, finds its precursor in the unpublished Map of Treason where a conversation concludes with the observation: “Owen? Owen is a Marxist in Africa and Asia, and a liberal in Europe. It is a common enough condition.” Indeed, what is most striking about these early fictional works are the ways in which the Welsh location is used to explore the wider complex nexus between class and national identity.

It will be far more difficult to follow Inglis in dismissing Williams’s Welshness as a “late-come” fabrication having read scenes such as the extended description of the village eisteddfod in Border Village (an earlier draft of the novel Border Country). A description of the singing of the Welsh anthem conveys the strength of national belonging, coupled with the author’s sense of confused amazement at the phenomenon being observed:

"For what was final was the response, the simple collective intentness…Then, within this, it seemed no longer a matter of ordinary senses, but of direct impact on the body – on the skin, on the hair, on the hands. What would anyone make of this, Will wondered, anyone looking down on it amused, if such a one could be found?"

The earlier unpublished novel Brynllwyd is characterised by its references to Welshness and the Welsh language. In a revealing scene the central character Martin concludes a conversation with his more nationalistically inclined friend, Gwilym, by declaring that “If I am made to choose between the European tradition and the Welsh, no Celtic tourism will bring me here. The Welsh is a major part of the English tradition, not a cut-price privacy behind a string of castles”. The later self-defined ‘Welsh-European’ Williams would see this as a false choice, and one intriguing way of thinking about his critical writings on Welshness and the national question from the 1970s onwards is as an ongoing attempt at reconciling the strands of his formative experiences and writings: Pandy and Normandy; Gwilym and Martin.

If Smith allows Raymond Williams to speak in his own range of voices, the biographer’s own voice is deliberately kept in the background. Williams himself reviewed Dai Smith’s Wales! Wales? in 1985. He noted the irony of the fact that while Wales was viewed by outsiders in “unusually singular terms”, cultural debates regarding language, class and identity within Wales itself were often “harsh and bitter quarrels”. Among the more glaring howlers in Inglis’s earlier biography was his description of Williams’s move “towards that little group of self-mocking Welsh historians led by Gwyn Williams and Dai Smith, and their sometimes comic, always serious politics in Plaid Cymru”. Putting the inappropriate adjectives to one side, Dai Smith’s historical work has in fact been dedicated to rejecting the teleological narratives and myths that, in his view, underpin the nationalist politics of Plaid Cymru. Recently, he has categorically rejected the use of post-colonial models in Welsh historiography, and aligns himself with Eric Hobsbawm’s dismissive views on ‘ethno-linguistic nationalisms’. The challenging, confrontational voice - familiar to those who have read Smith’s key works of history and cultural criticism - is largely absent from this text. This is a measure of Dai Smith’s achievement, for the voice that stays in the mind having finished A Warrior’s Tale is indeed that of Raymond Williams.

The decision to end in 1961 may seem curious, even perverse to many. Why conclude a biography at the moment when the subject starts to become influential? But this is a juncture that Williams recognised himself, in his introduction to The Long Revolution (1961) where he noted that ‘this book and Culture and Society, and my novel Border Country’ complete ‘a body of work which I set myself to do ten years ago’. Smith tells us that The Long Revolution took final form ‘over the autumn and winter of 1959’, and argues that Williams’s ‘ten years’ take us back beyond the 1950 essay on ‘Ideas of Culture’, to the 1949 opening exploration of his border upbringing in ‘Brynllwyd’. It is appropriate that this time line also makes the novel Border Country the final completed work discussed in Smith’s biography, for the importance of Williams’s fictional writings - both as a way of organising personal experience, and of relating the self to broader social and cultural movements - is the key reiterated insight of A Warrior’s Tale.

This largely fictional focus does occasionally result in less detailed and less convincing accounts of the more well known critical writings. Culture and Society (1958) remains widely available, making the lengthy quotations from its conclusion seem unnecessary. Williams’s views of that book’s purpose and intent are largely allowed to speak for themselves and there’s little engagement with the, by now, considerable secondary literature that questions the excessively functionalist, compensatory terms of the ‘culture and society’ dualism in Williams’s career-making study.

But it is understandable, and part of this biography’s revisionist thrust, that Smith should see the “unifying again of the overlapping fluidity of a life and mind” as being manifested primarily in the novels, both published and unpublished. Williams noted that “while we may…separate out particular aspects of life and treat them as if they were self contained it is obvious that this is only how they may be studied not how they were experienced”. Through his attentive and sensitive use of the family’s papers, his understanding of the social and cultural world of the growing boy, and his essential, but not uncritical, humility in the face of the grown man’s actual achievements, Dai Smith has deftly managed to move beyond the particulars, to communicate a profound sense of how the first half of his subject’s life was experienced.

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