Radical with pipe and armchair

RAYMOND WILLIAMS by Fred Inglis, Routledge pounds 19.99
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The Independent Culture
"YOU mean you've not read Culture and Society?" In those circumstances, the put-down hurt. Still a schoolboy, I was with another Cambridge entrance candidate, walking around the courts of Jesus College. Next day we were to meet our putative Supervisor in English and it was a bit late for me to discover he was a Great Man whose famous book signposted the future of my subject. I revised my chances of entering this ancient and agreeable college down to zero.

Yet I was, after all, taken under Raymond Williams's decent academic wing. It was typical of the man's fairness. I was an arrogant, ignorant and ill-prepared middle-England public schoolboy. He was a working-class socialist from the Anglo-Welsh border country, the son of a railwayman and a farm girl. By the lights of his own ideology, he should have been hard set against me.

Williams the teacher has been described by David Hare, another old pupil, as elusive, reluctant, uninspiring, even deadening. A couple of years behind Hare, my own recollections are similar. Two or three times a term we would sit - initially awed, later bored - in rooms once occupied by Coleridge, watching our maddeningly passive, rarely seen Director of Studies fiddle with his pipe, his eyelids drooping. We'd try to get a row going about Keats or Yeats, Cobbett or Cobden, but were rarely more successful in setting him alight than he was in firing up that damn pipe. In the end he'd suddenly throw his head back and click into fluent, inflection- free monologue, a fragmentary lecture of a type he always kept ready for instant re-use.

You could blame the stodginess of the Tripos for this, but, as Fred Inglis tells it, Williams's Workers' Education Association classes in the '40s and '50s had been hardly less stultifying. Cambridge let Williams delegate most of his teaching to his postgraduate students - very fruitfully I might add - and gain time for other activities. These, in my time, had become increasingly political.

Williams had been a fervent undergraduate communist in 1939 to 1941 but lapsed after joining the Guards Armoured Division and becoming a tank commander. He was in later years evasive about his abandonment of the party, but his socialism remained essentially communistic, while maintaining a lack of definition that placed him well, in the anti-authoritarian late '60s, to be promoted as the tank commander of the New Left.

As Vietnam sparked new intensities of revolt, he made a supreme effort to rise to the occasion and anoint the coming revolution with a May Day Manifesto. It was classic Williams, a combination of the unarguable and the unfeasible (Williams was a klutz in practical things, a tank captain who couldn't change a plug). The style of the piece is no easier, its words fighting a long, bruising bout with ineffability and losing on points. Good sense marred by obscurity is the mark of all Williams's theoretical books; his painfully sincere novels groan with effort but are no better written. One, The Fight For Manod, begins: "The telephone rang, with conventional urgency", a sentence more inert than the average plank. And he had a weird way with dialogue, of which Inglis prints a very funny parody by Terry Eagleton: "My body, Peter? That cold growth of conscription?" "Some conscript. Some enlist." "But now? Enlist now?"

"Enlistment breaks the conscription. So we're equal." "As between friends?" She paused. "Conscripted friends, Peter?"

The awkwardness of his own prose made Williams an eccentric choice for editor of the 1969 Pelican Book of English Prose, but his Introduction remains a nutshell Williams text. Having pointed out that the ruling class, like the Devil, has the best lines and smoothest delivery, he turns to his beloved radicals and their "prose often tortured, uncertain, obscure - its lucidities dependant on new ways of seeing and feeling being learned; its strengths on unexpected connections; its flow on inarticulate and still struggling emotions." This sentence completely reveals Raymond Williams' own difficulties with words.

Inglis's biography is by no means uncritical, but in its heart this is a homage, very decently and sometimes transcendently managed. There are lacunae. It is hinted that Williams's "sexism" has to do with the nature of his relationship with his mother, but Inglis seems too shy to enter this interesting tunnel. Gwen Williams, we read, "before marrying Harry ... had a child christened Herbert, brought up by her own parents as their own belated child; nobody spoke of the father." This extraordinary fact "barely affected" Raymond, if you can believe it, though it contributed to his interest in "legitimacy", which he translated into a lifelong concern about "loyalty". Most biographers would seize on this detail like a starving dog on a leg of mutton, but Inglis barely tastes it. The brief pages on Williams as a Guards officer are also disappointing. He fought all the way from Juno Beach to the Kiel Canal: where are Inglis's interviews with his comrades? And the letters he must have written home?

Yet Inglis is very good indeed on Cambridge, on Williams's politics, on his intellectual peculiarities - the blind spot about Orwell, for instance - and the tension between his enjoyment of public roles (he was an outstanding committee man) and his pathological privacy.

For those who read English in the '60s, it was common to revere Williams as both a rock of integrity and a pathfinder for new ways of seeing culture, communication, class and democracy. Over time his originality has slightly eroded, but I was very surprised to find this book casting a few doubts on the integrity as well. Inglis points to instances of Williams mending his ideas to suit the preconceptions of his audience, the 1979 book-length interview with New Left Review being the most prominent. These hints of trimming - even once of plagiarism - will be furiously rejected by Williams's surviving disciples, but they do show that Inglis can bite as well as wag his tail.

I remember Raymond Williams in the late '60s affecting a cap that was part Great Western signalman like his father, part Dylan and part Lenin. This grave, bloodless man's bob towards Dylan was patently ludicrous, but I can't see him as Lenin either. He would have been there at the station all right. Accidentally-on-purpose, I feel, he would have missed that train.