The first thing that struck me about this book when I read it as an undergraduate was the personable charm of the narrator. Embarking on a topic which could hardly be broader or grander: the study of how literature has described the world; he starts with his own country, with his own city. His emotion about his birthplace his sense of belonging, is so powerful, that the book reads at times like an autobiography, like a love-letter to the country of his childhood.
Williams is not sentimental about the countryside, most of the book is an examination of the sentimental tradition; but his introduction speaks of his home in the Black Mountains on the Welsh border and is consciously lyrical:
"where the meadows are bright green against the red earth of the ploughland, and the first trees beyond the window, are oak and holly."
One of the lessons he teaches is how to analyse a passage like this and see it for what it is: nostalgia for a remembered past, use of language to make that past more lovely and vivid: ‘ploughland’, and an awareness of the narrator’s place both in the description: he’s looking out of a window; and of his place in the social world: he is a spectator of this landscape, not a worker.
Williams’ sharp analysis and his radicalism shines through his critique of writers who believe in a golden age of the countryside, those who lament the loss of an imagined Eden, and those who like to pretend that the rural areas are a sort of retirement corner, an R&R venue for hardworking townies. He’s cheerfully open about how his teeth grit on the modern poets who consciously erase the labour and the labourer from the land, just as the agricultural revolution was clearing workers from the country into the factories. He celebrates the city also, the vibrancy, the cultural mix, the communications. His analysis of the language about town and country and the history of this is central to the book but it is very much a book about the future too.
He quotes Trotsky’s claim that the history of capitalism is the history of the victory of town over country – and then goes on to show that this is not so. Williams writes in the tradition of the English Marxists – a humane, thoughtful and sometimes uptopian vision. We should hope for a closer relationship between country and city: we will have to reverse the depopulation and the loss of resources from the country, we will have to change the overcrowding of towns. It’s an inspiring idealistic proposal from a worker of both hand and brain, arguing against division and for unity. I wrote this looking into my green garden in Yorkshire and know that these fields and these ways must be here in the future.
Philippa Gregory's new novel is 'The Taming of the Queen' (Simon & Schuster, £20). She is appearing at the National Theatre on 13th August. Visit nationaltheatre.org.uk/platformsReuse content