August 30, 2021   7 mins

When he died in January 1988, Raymond Williams was nearing the final stretch of a writing project that had consumed him for five years. This was not another addition to the 20-strong shelf of influential works in cultural history, literary theory and political advocacy that the Welsh writer, thinker and teacher had published since the early Fifties. Rather, he had climbed two-thirds of the way up the hill of a trilogy of historical novels entitled People of the Black Mountains. As a precocious teenager in the Welsh borders of the late 1930s, Williams had written, then binned, a florid medieval romance apparently called Mountain Sunset. The Black Mountains sequence went back further, into the mists of time, as it traced the evolution of human communities on his beloved home turf from the Stone Age to the present day.

Williams was born in the Monmouthshire village of Pandy, north of Abergavenny,  a hundred years ago tomorrow, 31 August 1921. Widely revered at his death (aged just 66) as a leader of radical thought and a pioneer of cultural studies in the education system, he later suffered a partial, but never total, eclipse. Moulded as he was by the seismic, class-driven upheavals of the mid-20th century, Williams adjusted clumsily to the “new social movements” of the Eighties.

Feminism, for instance, hardly features in his best-known work. Fathers and sons dominate his fiction. He tends to speak from, and for, the postwar generations of “upwardly mobile” (a phrase he would have detested) boys left emotionally orphaned amid the chilly, opaque institutions of England. As his 1960 novel, Border Country, laments, “We have, you might say, a personal father but no social father.” A pattern of discipleship, rupture and reconciliation marked his bonds with younger, male devotees. For this, as times and attitudes changed, he paid a posthumous price in waning fame and clout. Terry Eagleton – first a devoted student, briefly a parricidal rebel, then a fervent admirer once again – reports in a centenary tribute that when he offered a piece on Williams to The Guardian not long ago, “the highly literate young journalist on the other end of the phone said ‘Er – remind me’”.

OK: let’s do that. A railway signalman (and market gardener’s) son, Williams won state scholarships and went to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1939. He joined, but soon left, the Communist Party, served as a tank officer in the Guards Armoured Division after D-Day, helped liberate a concentration camp, returned to finish his degree in English, then spent 15 years as an adult-education tutor on the South Coast. After Culture and Society appeared in 1958, and The Long Revolution in 1961, Cambridge appointed him to a lectureship (contrary to myth, they did ask him first). Later literary studies – on drama, the title of his eventual Cambridge professorship, and the English novel – alternated with works that mainstreamed the study of media, gave a cutting social edge to historical linguistics, and sought to elaborate a non-sectarian radical politics, Left of Labour. Meanwhile, three key novels — Border Country, Second Generation (1964) and The Fight for Manod (1979) — showed how history’s transformations feel in the pulse and flow of individual lives. He retired from teaching in 1983, pivoted back to Wales (though living most of the time in Essex), and dipped his pen in a deeper shade of eco-green.

Williams mapped the changing landscapes of class, culture and democracy in Britain with both panoramic, and microscopic, skill and care. Books such as Culture and Society, The Country and the City, Television: Technology and Cultural Form and his historical lexicon of Keywords became teaching staples in many lands. From Argentina via Spain to India, and around the British Isles, conferences and lectures will remind audiences of why Williams matters over the coming weeks. The problem, as their subject knew only too well, is that (save, perhaps, in Wales) these memorial rituals will preach mainly to the choir. As a working-class kid transported, but never alienated, by an elite schooling, Williams both serviced the postwar boom in higher education and the “culture industries”, and lamented its long-term results. Radical dissent marched en masse into the institutions, but those institutions — above all, universities – packaged it into a suite of careerist codes and tricks designed to repel civilians.

For decades he pursued the elusive unicorn of a “common culture” beyond the manipulated splits of consumer-capitalist society (the ideal is sketched in his groundbreaking Culture and Society). He wanted his voice to carry into communities far beyond the common room – or the newsroom. He also cherished a self-image as a writer, not just a critic or theorist. Hence the quixotic farewell fresco of the Black Mountains stories: two volumes appeared after his death. As epic blockbusters, they only sporadically work (in his wise, affectionate but caustic critical biography of Williams, Fred Inglis shakes his head over “characters with names like detergents or computer grammars”). But the sagas’ aeon-spanning sweep and vision does have a craggy awesomeness. These people from the ragged edge of history become the heroic bearers of deep time and epochal change. In the much more successful Border Country, Williams has a clergyman tell his protagonist that “a life lasts longer than the actual body though which it moves”. That goes, supremely, for the author as well.

Williams always taught students and readers to look beyond the flame and froth of transient events and recognise the giant shapes of class, power and history behind them. To this day I find that a dose of his perspective is enough to bestow a degree of serenity about who’s being slaughtered, or sanctified, on social media this week, as the puppet-slaves of Silicon Valley billionaires perform unpaid pirouettes of outrage for extra clicks. Whenever I hear about “culture wars”, I reach mentally for Williams. “Whose culture?”, he would ask, and who declared that war? Who decided to re-frame normal, even profound, democratic disagreements about policy and politics as trump cards of personal identity? Whose interests does that serve? And why should reasoning citizens who want to live well with their neighbours, near and far, sign up for the psychic suicide missions this “war” demands?

Williams, in my view, ceded too much ground to the salon theorists who tried to outflank him from the Left as they sneered at his “socialist humanism” in the canting jargon of the Seventies and Eighties. Indeed, he sat down for weeks to be grilled by the junior Robespierres of New Left Review in the book-length conversations of Politics and Letters (1979). About a work such as the indigestible Marxism and Literature (1977), you have to sigh that — in the deepest sense — his heart wasn’t in it. But his early challenges both to mind-bending commercial media (purely capitalist, not “mass”) and to the ruling-class capture of “high” culture as the cloak of privilege have kept all their moral, and political, bite. “We lack a genuinely common experience,” he thundered in Culture and Society, “save in certain rare and dangerous moments of crisis.” Say that again, in pandemic times. “What we are paying for this lack, in every kind of currency, is now sufficiently evident. We need a common culture, not for the sake of an abstraction, but because we shall not survive without it.” Well, we might survive, huddled in our tribal silos and daily maddened by twittering rage. But will we thrive?

The paradox, as many followers attest, is that this apostle of long views and deep structures won his renown thanks to a strictly personal authority. That owed everything to character, and nothing to the abstract forces of cultural theory. Once Terry Eagleton had got over his Marxier-than-thou phase, he saluted his teacher’s “deep inward ease of being, the sense of a man somehow centred and rooted and secure in himself at a level far beyond simple egoism”. What strikes me as remarkable about Williams’s twin descents on Cambridge — as a working-class teenager laden with grammar-school plaudits in 1939, and a star extra-mural tutor summoned to High Table in 1961 — is not any sense of marginality, but the serene confidence he carried with him at both stages.

I can recall him dismissing George Steiner’s argument that the lowly human ants of modern society could never attain truly tragic status, so what did it matter if you or I were run down by a bus tomorrow? “Speak for yourself” came the riposte. Exactly. Kindly, but granitic and reserved, he seemed as solid as the bulk of Ysgyryd Fawr looming above Pandy. At a time before folk on the Left found themselves vilified as “nowhere” people whose flighty cosmopolitanism humiliated rooted “somewheres”, here was a thoroughly radical writer-thinker who not only came from somewhere very specific — indeed, peculiar — but built his sense of being around it.

The mountain-shadowed village communities of the Welsh borders gave Williams his lifelong template for an authentic existence planted in shared values. Nowhere in his writing does this heartland glow in such a golden light as in the highly autobiographical Border Country. It still serves, for non-academic readers, as the best first stop on a journey through his work. “The real life, for these people, is each other,” says the lonely Anglican priest to Border Country’s hero Matthew Price, who later returns home – as Williams did – for his father Harry’s final days.

Yet Williams, like his left-wing peers, could never quite devise the formula to scale up the blend of solidarity and individuality he cherished in Pandy onto a larger social map. Hence the sad aridity of his efforts to model a practical politics of national, and supra-national, renewal when he had achieved his guru status by the Seventies. His big-picture blueprints and manifestoes lay stillborn on the page. The signal-box and smallholding still cast their semi-pastoral spell. Yes, he always warned against nostalgia – The Country and the City sounds its withering blast against golden-age fantasies in poetry and society alike – but the lost idyll of those hazy borderlands pulls him back as much as forward. As Fred Inglis shrewdly put it, Williams’s “version of socialism” stumbled when it tried, and failed, to turn “losers’ values into winners’ values”. So have many others since.

Pandy made for an odd sort of Utopia, and hardly a standard working-class childhood. Harry Williams, Raymond’s father, not only sharpened his political awareness with comrades in the Great Western signal-boxes up and down the line. He kept bees and grew vegetables as a serious sideline. Green strands mingled with the red in this paradisal place (but not an “organic community” – another fraudulent notion Williams liked to attack). Half-proletarians, half-peasants, these railway children enjoyed a large degree of self-sufficient freedom.

In Border Country, the General Strike of 1926 ends in the failure that exposes the fragility of their way of life and ushers in “a slow and shocking cancellation of the future”. Harry Price’s comrade Morgan Rosser sticks with his Labour ideals but starts to market local produce to the towns. He becomes “a kind of capitalist”. The novel does not condemn him. Matthew follows his creator’s path through scholarships into middle-class academia (though as an economic historian). “You’re asking what change does to people, change from outside them, the big movements,” Morgan says when he and Matthew meet for Harry’s leave-taking. In fiction and criticism, Williams never ceased to ask that question himself. Always, he shows us how to connect inside and outside, experience and history. The “structures of feeling” that shape minds and communities shift slowly: not like inert strata of rock under the hills but in response to the public action that, if we don’t undertake it, those with more money and fewer scruples will.

Perhaps Williams never found the means to make the levers of power work in a fully human way not just at signal-box level but for the metropolitan — and multi-national — junctions where most of us now live. As for so many others, it enriched my understanding hugely that he tried. “I can’t just come back, as if the change was water,” says Matthew to his dying father in Border Country. The change, rather, is history. Neither could anyone revive the special configurations of class, culture and education that made Williams not just an agenda-setter but a bestseller five decades ago. Our social geology has shifted, and our “structures of feeling” with it. Who can map those mountains now?

Boyd Tonkin was awarded the Royal Society of Literature’s Benson Medal in 2020 for outstanding service to literature

Boyd Tonkin is a journalist, editor, and literary and music critic, and author recently of The 100 Best Novels in Translation.