Raymond Williams: A Warrior's Tale, by Dai Smith

A railway child signals change
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The Independent Culture

It is 20 years since Raymond Williams died suddenly at only 66 and deprived the intellectual Left in Britain of one of its steadiest, most cutting and restorative voices. His name burst like a beacon across a far more than academic sky when, alongside Richard Hoggart's classic The Uses of Literacy, Williams's splendid study of the value and meaning of "culture" came out in 1958 under the title Culture and Society. He taught us not only of the explosive power locked up in the concept, but also the richness and dignity it bestowed upon our ordinary lives.

Williams became the calm and courageous embodiment of disorganised dissent: author of a heap of books, grounded at once in the rhythms of his border state of Monmouthshire, and in the massive reassurances of the English novel from Dickens to Lawrence, as well as his own dogged but unignorable contributions to that great tradition.

Dai Smith's biography was begun all of those 20 years ago. The vicissitudes of publishing have shifted it from London to Cardigan, and in the process contracted its horizons. For over those years, identity has replaced class as the central political allegiance. This book, as a result, becomes a celebration of that ambiguous Welshness that Williams himself confirmed when, at the end of his life, he styled himself a "Welsh European".

Smith is well equipped for his task, as a Welsh broadcaster-academic, alumnus of Barry Grammar School and Old Labour, and profound admirer of his subject. Williams's widow, Joy, guardian of her husband's work and name, invited Smith and handed over a vast trove of papers, manuscripts, diaries, student essays, scraps of notes for the books, discarded epilogues.

It is a Herculean business turning such an unsorted mountain of paper into a narrative, close, coherent, gripping. The story of a thinker is the story of the thought, but the thought is made out of the stuff of life, paid for at the going price of experience. The resulting biography must be a work of art: it is not a model life for imitation, rather, in Perry Anderson's rousing words, it should transmit "a line of force for transformation".

The alternative, an invitation to failure, is to write scissors-and-paste biography, cutting up the relics and remnants into intelligible passages, and filling in the gaps with commentary and commonplaces. It is to be feared that Dai Smith steers unevenly between the two: between longueurs in which he quotes at needless length unexceptionable passages of Williams's early attempts at novels, and lively sequences of imaginative reconstruction of (for instance) the spirited life of Cambridge Communists in 1940, and the familiar pages that describe Williams as a Guards officer, his squadron of tanks edging their way to Brussels after D-Day.

Smith comes to praise his subject, not to bury him. But far too much of Williams's energy and originality is buried here in the 500-plus pages it takes the biographer to bring his hero to the age of 40 and back to Cambridge, where he returned to teach, in 1961. It is dismaying to have to reproach Smith for wasting time on a silly letter to his officer from Williams's batman, or to report how much of this portly book one can simply skip.

Like all serious biographers, Smith is burdened by his admiration for his subject. Too much in these pages is mere endorsement of what he presents as the heart and significance of the work; these terrific terms are shrunk down to the naive declaration that culture takes in "a whole way of life". The best life Williams knew was that of the working class along the railway line north from Abergavenny, dividing their productive lives, as his signalman father did, between the long connections of the shining rails, the beehives, the fruit crops, and the utter fidelity to workmates and their emblematic union. It is a beautiful but decidedly miniature picture of the good society.

Smith can't quite bring himself to say how this life caused in the only child of his parents' silent marriage the "clenched withdrawal" (Terry Eagleton's phrase) of so much of Williams's later life. Nor can he provide a suitably defensive account (any more than Williams could) of the extreme privileges of his academic life - leisure, sufficient pay and nice houses, ample opportunity to write, private education for the children, his wife's self-sacrificing devotion.

Williams died in January of the year in which "actually existing socialism" died as well. It was a fatality he had barely begun to contemplate. In estimating the legacy of the Left to our future, taking account of all Williams contributed to it – the idealism, the courtesy, the solid weighing up of the best that has been known, thought and lived on its terms – we can well do with his life story. But it would need to be sterner, briefer, more imaginative and more ambitious, than this decent, earnest act of veneration.

Fred Inglis's biography of RG Collingwood will be published in 2009

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