Books: Washington's literary gent loses his place

A Week in Books

IT WAS one of those rare moments when Christopher Hitchens sounded like, not the most elegantly ruthless journalist of his time, but a supercilious Beltway snob who wouldn't recognise a fresh idea unless it reached him armed with a letter of introduction from Tina Brown. Washington's pet Diogenes was delivering the Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture at the Hay festival. He had just given Williams - the Welsh Border-born critic, novelist, academic and all-purpose cultural guru who died in 1988 - a pasting for his refusal to show sufficient respect towards George Orwell. A young questioner inquired about the relevance of Raymond Williams today. Fag in fingertips, Hitchens drawled: "I really, really wish you hadn't asked me that."

As it happens, I can still consult fine novels such as Border Country, and path-breaking studies like Culture and Society or The Country and the City, and return enlightened. When, 20 years on, browsers chance upon tatty copies of Hitchens's assault on Mother Teresa, will they feel anything other than slightly shop-soiled?

Raymond Williams also played a pivotal role in the shifts that have transformed higher education in the humanities over the past quarter-century. Of course, salon leftists of the Hitchens variety enjoy a good giggle (sometimes justifiably) over the rise of courses in media studies and the like. Why can't everyone read PPE at Balliol? Yet one wonders who will be having the last laugh.

For their new Director General, many BBC insiders really wanted the impressive Channel 4 chief executive Michael Jackson, who prudently decided not to run this time. Jackson graduated in media studies from the former Polytechnic of Central London - a notably high-quality degree course set up by disciples of Williams. The best-run programmes of this kind demand not less, but rather more, intellectual rigour than most traditional syllabi. Colin MacCabe's rich new collection of essays, The Eloquence of the Vulgar (BFI Publishing, pounds 14.99), shows how pervasive, and positive, is Williams's influence on the brightest efforts to build new academic disciplines.

One other aspect of his fruitful legacy merits a cheer or three. The Arts Council funds the Raymond Williams Community Publishing Prize: a pounds 3,000 award (with pounds 2,000 to the runner-up) for the year's best non-profit publishing initiatives. This week, the 1999 first prize went to a Bristol community group's anthology of migration memoirs, Origins (Origins Literature Development Project). In second place came primary schoolchildren from Waltham Forest with a collection of their poetry, Forest Whispers (Waltham Forest Education Authority), which includes writing about "animals, space, worries, colours, friends and custard".

I somehow doubt if Tina Brown's Miramax franchise will be offering a fat cheque to these Essex 10-year-olds. So Hitchens and his ilk may never hear of them. Yet projects of this kind will certainly do more to nurture the rising generation of readers and writers than the haughty punditry of a dozen languid mid-Atlantic flaneurs ever could. Sometimes, even Diogenes deserves egg (or, perhaps, custard) on his face.

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