Friday, 7 September 2012

Memory across a place: Time and Place in Raymond Williams Later Fiction

This unpublished essay was written as a paper to give at a conference in Wales, and followed up several others of mine on Williams’ fiction which have been printed. I always found this interesting and was the only person to speak on the fiction at a memorial seminar to him we held at Footscray Tech in Melbourne in 1988. While in the 1960s to 1980s his socially oriented criticism was of importance in Britain and to some degree in Australia – and I examined a PhD written on him in South Africa --  and his influence as a British leftist who was very much open to European radical thought in the 1960s was of  great importance, especially in New Left Review, it seemed to me that the essays and books that dealt with those themes from Culture and Society on would steadily become less interesting and relevant, while his fiction I thought would retain the power to re-realise the world and the issues which were central to him. His turn back to Wales and its themes as a writer was very interesting, and quite influential in Wales, though I still very much regret he never wrote anything about Cambridge. However, I have a feeling now that the novels have faded from public attention as much as the sociocultural critique. But they still work.

Tributes to Raymond Williams remembered him as the Lukacs or Goldmann of Britain - or England in many cases. That certainly recognised his international standing, his intense seriousness and the domain of his critical work, but it completely ignored his determined effort to be a creative writer as well as a critic. He wrote four plays and six novels - seven if you count People of the Black Mountains as two, and set against his output of eleven critical books, that suggests something of a divided effort. We might easily think of him as the British Eco, or Edmund Wilson, or perhaps even, as I shall argue for the lasting and focal importance of his fiction, the Borges of British thought and letters.

The fiction, and even more so the drama, tends to be overlooked: few of the essays and books about his work that have appeared since his death in 1988 have had much to say about the creative work, though as far as the fiction is concerned Welsh commentators have had much more to say relatively speaking: there is a clear Welsh focus in his novels (though not, curiously, in his few short stories). Just to remind you, there is the trilogy of Border Country (1960), focusing on a modern academic's memories of his father's and friends' activities in the general strike; Second Generation (1964) dealing with a Welsh working class family in strike-ridden 1960s Oxford, with academic work involving the son and beckoning the mother; The Fight for Manod  (1979)  coupling the academic of the first novel and the son of the second as inquirers into a plan to establish a Eurotechnologically new town in eastern mid-Wales, Williams' own area of origin. The three novels deal with, as Williams noted, past, present and future, as well as different modes of industry and mobility.

The odd novel out is The Volunteers (1978),  dealing with anarchic violence and sleeper radical spies in a near-future dystopia where international business, media and political compliance form something close to a totalitarian world. Williams could be very perceptive. Both the opening act of political murder and the defining labour activism occur in Wales, and the central figure seems to validate such radicalism against the ineffective entryism of the past left-leaning generation. In Loyalties (1985) Williams wrote what is effectively a modern historical novel, tracing events and personalities form the mid thirties to the build-up to the miners' strike of 1984, and setting Welsh proletarian values against the complex liberal positioning, and treacheries, of the English upper-middle classes, centering on a figure called de Braose - the name of a major Norman thug of the early middle ages in Wales.

After Williams’ death there appeared two parts of the unfinished People of the Black Mountains trilogy, on which I want to focus especially in this talk. I will describe its structure in detail later, but for now it is sufficient to say that this tells the story of Williams' own Black Mountain hinterland from the first human occupation in about 4000BC until, in plan at least, the present. The second volume, `The Eggs of the Eagle' takes the story up to the early fifteenth century and Lollardy, and as Joy Williams comments in an afterword there was at least a schematic plan for the final volume.

So all the books deal with Wales -- Second Generation the least, being set in an Oxford which duplicates some  of Williams' own concerns at Cambridge, but the values of the Owen families are still affectively tied to Welsh experience.

An exile through his education and employment, Williams never lost touch with his family and home context, and from at least the early seventies on he had increasing contacts with the newly developing self-consciousness of Welsh radical and intellectual life. He had a clear idea that Welsh novelists had a stance different from English ones: he spoke of them in his lecture The Welsh Industrial Novel as `less willing that those English to restrict or cancel their sense of community' (1979, 16) and went further in his Introduction to Gwyn Thomas's All Things Betray Thee:

                        Welsh writers cannot accept the English pressure towards a fiction of private lives: not because they do not know privacy, or fail to value the flow of life at those levels that are called individual, but because they know these individuals in what is always the real level: a matter of inevitable human involvement. (1986, vi-vii)

William thought of himself, at least in his later years, as one of these writers; in a remarkable essay entitled `Working Class, proletarian, socialist: some problems in some Welsh novels' that he wrote for the German Marxist H. Gustav Klaus, an essay rich in colloquial and assertive language, he uses the first person plural we ambiguously to imply both the Welsh as a people and also Welsh writers, including himself: `We had to write the life of a people... Regional: yes, we were admitted as that. New exotics for the English to read about. Funny people the Welsh.' (1982, 112)

Both the Welshness and the communality are central to the fiction: the ideas recurrent in his criticism, variously expressed and explained, of `knowable community'  and `structure of feeling' are basic to the novels, and it is clear that Williams felt that fiction was a way of apprehending and recording these sociocultural formations that official documentation and traditional high literature would exclude, forget, deny. He even forgave Lawrence his sins, some of which he at least noticed, on those grounds, and he celebrated Jack Jones, surely the most undernoticed of the major Welsh writers, for his sense, or fabrication, of community.

In the fiction both time and place operate as major forces and as major foci of understanding that is also true of some of the best criticism like The Country and the City and Culture and Society. Border Country operates in both the late 1950s present and the time of the general strike and its aftermath, in both the London of Matthew Price's professional life and the eastern valley town of his family, much like Pandy, Williams’ own point of origin. Second Generation, in this as in other respects stylistic and thematic, is a more conventional novel, but the forces of the past operate through some of the characters, a future is almost on-stage and the implicit conflict of petty bourgeois Oxford and still essentially gwerin Wales is implicit. The past has less of a role to play in The Fight for Manod except as nostalgia and memorial practices, but the future looms very heavily; that is also the case in The Volunteers, but both books contain a very strong sense of the differentiality of places and the power that runs through them. The last novels are rather different, and in order to look at them it will I think be helpful to resume and follow up Williams' own words on the structure and ordonnance of novels. He discusses this in detail in the highly personal essay in Klaus's collection.

He first talks about the ways in which a novel can expresses `the very intensity of the community' (1982, 116). The he describes  four ways of going about this, and I will synopsise these.

First is `the descriptive novel, not now by the sympathetic outside observer, but from within the class community'. (1982, 116) He gives as an example Gwyn Jones's Times Like These, though is doubtful about its limited focus on a family, and seems to prefer J. Rowland Hughes's Chwalfa as an example.

Second, where `The wider system is not realised in the novel' but `there is then internal struggle ... between different version of the nature of the system, as they affect and run through this intense local life' (1982, 117). He gives Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and We Live as examples.

The third possibility is `historical formation' which combines the `advantages of locality', `new perspectives' across time and generations, `a working class being made and changing, rather than simply, descriptively and substantially, present' (1982, 117) and he gives Jack Jones's Black Parade as the example, rather than Jones's Rhondda Roundabout, which is only interested in `internal variety', `rather than the class uniformity or the political  diversity of the people of the valley' (1982, 117).

Most interesting is the fourth `possibility: the process of composition itself.' (1982, 118). He sees some novels as offering `The composition of a history, and the composition of a writing of that history.' (1982, 118). The example is Gwyn Thomas's All Things Betray Thee, and this is worth dwelling on.

In the lecture on The Welsh Industrial Novel Williams leads up to this novel as the most sophisticated and impressive of the genre, as `a remarkable creative achievement' (1979, 18). He is interested in the way it is distanced from its `evident historical origins, not too far from the crises of nineteenth century Merthyr' (1979, 18) but is also `deliberately distanced... to an effectively legendary distance.' (1979, 18) He sums up:

                        There is then at once a wariness about the literary and ideological small change of the history, and yet the passion of discovery of what really lies beyond this and is more profoundly general. The deep structure of the novel is indeed very general: that awareness of light, of song, of human liberty, which are there close enough to grasp, yet seemingly always just out of reach, in the harsh close-up world of deprivation and struggle. (1979, 18-19)

He concludes that:

                        ... the accents of a fidelity at once visionary and historical are precisely achieved. It is a novel of voices and of a voice, and that voice is not only the history, it is the contemporary consciousness of the history. (1979, 19)

I stress this critique because it seems to me that in his later work Williams is trying to match what he sees Gwyn Thomas as having achieved. I do not know whether he had read Thomas before: I suspect that the job of talking on the Welsh industrial novel had made him look closely at it for the first time, and he had some revealing surprises in the process. He pursued the topic in his introduction to the Lawrence and Wishart reprint of All Things Betray Thee in 1986. There he identifies again the unusual power of the novel to go beyond specifics, to write `the inner experience of that historical moment which was always more than depression and protest' (1986, vi) in the firmly expressed sense of the communal commitment of Welsh writers. With a thorough technical analysis of how Thomas does this, as well as with substantial praise of the novel as `an exceptionally authentic work' (1986, ix), I believe Williams is signalling a major influence on his last novels.

He had already produced Loyalties, which uses an inner plot of secrets not unlike The Volunteers across a range of time and place both broader and more detailed than Border Country. But as striking is the fact that this is now a `discontinuous narrative'. Some, like Tony Pinkney feel this is the key to Williams' status as a modernist, but rather it seems to me it is his technical way of breaking the mould of the traditional novels that could provide the first three `possibilities' discussed above and give him the capacity to realise a history that combines the linear scope with the affectively communal. This is not how Gwyn Thomas does it at all, and I suspect Dos Passos is somewhere in the back of Williams' mind, and in this case the issue of composition is hardly ventured, but the structural fragmentation of Loyalties is a major move, and in my view creates a much more substantial novel.

I do not think it is always very successful in detailed terms, notably those of fluency and conviction of writing. Loyalties differs from Williams' earlier work in moving quickly from the start of writing to publication. As a novelist and as a scholar he was a great rewriter, and I suspect Loyalties  has roughness that a less busy and a less famous - so more editable - writer might not have let stand. On this dissenting note, can I also say that powerful as Williams' case for All Things Betray Thee is, I do not agree with it. In my view the novel does not succeed because here Gwyn Thomas was trying for a big market success and trying to imitate the grand overwritten historical form, but the radicalism and communality which Williams rightly observes gets in the way: I could see this being a great success if edited down to the tragic love of John and     as seen by their friend the harper and banged out in a Georgette Heyer format. I believe that the much more non-linear and ironical forms which Thomas then turned to, like The World Cannot Hear You (1951) are much more important novels of hybridised Welsh resistance.

But since Williams derived a lot from the novel, and wrote what I think are his most interesting novels as a result, who am I to complain. To return to the post-All Things Betray Thee novels, there are two things in particular about Loyalties  that are interesting. One is the use of the name De Braose, as mentioned above. It suggest that Williams is already thinking across time. The other is the contents page. You will notice it has the title First, then the dates of the sequences, then Last. I ask you to glance at the title page of People of the Black Mountains where you will see a temporally much more extended version of the same pattern.

What I think happened was that his reading of Thomas's work motivated Williams to write a different sort of story, one of epic moments as experienced by ordinary people - a Brechtian rather than Lukacsian historical novel; Loyalties was a try out for it in the world he knew personally, and then, with an enormous scholarly commitment, he launched on nothing less than a total affective discontinuous history of the Black Mountains.

This was not published until after Williams’ death, but in 1987 in an interview with John Barnie in Planet he made it clear he had been thinking for some time about this move and Loyalties was a trial run. But polymath and workaholic as he obviously was -- the extraordinary list in his bibliography of reviews and columns, in addition to the published work indicate that -- even Williams must have been aware of needing to work long and hard on the material for the planned book, The People of the Black Mountains. He knew the area well of course, both as a child and as an adult returning to walk the mountains, but the book shows close and accurate knowledge of histories and archaeologies going back as long as there had been people in the area - I assume Williams had been reading this material since young, had probably assembled a massive library, so in some sense it was his own time, place and memory he now was to represent, but as myself something of a medievalist I can comment on the accuracy of the data he had gathered, in the areas where I have the expertise to comment.

The methodology of the book is a projection of the Loyalties  pattern in the generalised mode of All Things Betray Three over this enormous range of time. The amount of material makes this a three-volume book -- a curious and ironical link with Eagleton's notorious comment that Raymond Williams' fiction was dominated by the form of the nineteenth-century novel. But it exploits the double time frame of, especially, Border Country by using a frame narrative. In this Glyn, a university student in Cardiff -- presumably at what was the still known as `the College', and so not accidentally a student of Gwyn Alf Williams and Dai Smith - brings home to the Black Mountains his mother from hospital, but her father is not at home: he has gone for a long walk in the mountains and not returned. Experienced walker that he is he has left details and, late as it is, Glyn sets off to look for him.

Glyn's father was a formal professional historian, but he is multiply absent: gone to America, divorced from Glyn’s mother and then dead in a plane crash, all the paternal passages of modern professional life having occurred. The grandfather, Elis -- spelt in the Welsh way, with one l -- has been a telephone engineer, but has preferred a less technological form of  communication, being a great collector of artefacts and lore about the whole Black Mountains area: there seems to be some sort of projection of a self-construction of Williams himself in this figure. Short sequences entitled `Glyn to Elis' recur, charting, between the historical action, Glyn's journey in search of his grandfather; increasingly these sequences take note of the traditions and implications of the places Glyn is passing, and there are even some semi-mystical moments when Glyn senses, even hears, events occurring in the historical narratives within the frame. It is noticeable that the `Glyn to Elis' frame is a good deal more elaborate in the second volume, and Glyn's thoughts become increasingly a mouthpiece for authorial opinion. You could argue that this is an organic development in the book as past and present come together, or you could argue that Williams would have edited this development for consistency - incompletion, interpretation is part of the project's nature, and indeed part of its intimate resemblance to the materials it handles.

Within the frame the main action of the novel takes place. This is a set of fairly short sequences: 5000 words is the average, so these are curiously like the short stories that Williams very rarely wrote, giving an account of major events in the developing human history of the Black Mountain region -- which do not always occur there, but always involve people from the area, as when they are made Roman slave or, indeed, slaves to the equally invading Celts of an earlier period. As you would expect of Williams, he is concerned with the changes in social and communal culture -- the way in which the first inhabitants, in small extended families, nervously meet each other; then in a great leap meet people of another language and kin and learn about the use of implements. In the sequence titled, with Williams’ characteristic anti-rhetorical bluntness `With Antlers to the Seariver' (1989, 133-50) a group of hunters are encouraged by new acquaintances to travel with them and sell their antlers: travel and trade bring social and personal change, and a distant glimpse of the Salisbury Plain culture, anxious for good digging implements.

A more personally felt history, it seems, is behind the lengthy and persuasive sequence about `The Coming of the Measurer' (1989, 151-187): Dal Mered has been trained by the Salisbury Plain people to measure and plan, and here too there are some elements of projection, a sense of a Cambridge intellectual revisiting his simple people.

There are clear occasional links to modern Wales -- the festal ritual of catching the wren in midwinter, and the arduous servitude in the Roman lead mines connect in different ways with modern cultural experience in Wales, but Williams is by no means projecting a Celtic nationalism. In fact the Celts come across as brutal invaders, less socialised than the Romans, and in many ways communally repressive. This is an idea that lurks behind Gwyn Alf Williams’ book on Arthur, in which he tries to locate the mysterious king beyond the Celtic period, and Williams too treats Arthur at something of a distance, sceptical (rightly in my view) about the idea of him as a local freedom fighter. Behind this treatment of the Celts there is a historical and political sophistication a good deal greater than, for example, Rhys Davies's simple idea of brave Celtic heroes fighting the colonising Romans and Saxons, and there is a connection with the very interesting essay on `Wales and England' reprinted in What I came To Say in which Williams speaks of Wales -- and also England -- as historically multicultural into antiquity, and so resisting the elements of racism that can sometimes creep into narratives of national liberty.

Social and intellectual developments are nourished in the first volume; the second, now operating in recorded time, tends rather to leap from major event to major event, from Romans coming and Silurian resistance, to Romans going and Saxons coming. There is some sense here of a banal history book a bit like the green and red-jacketed Flame Bearers of Welsh History that I remember reading in primary school in Caerphilly. This sequence seems historically more schematic than others: personalisation of the sociocultural character of the dark ages seems more difficult for Williams than it was in pre-recorded antiquity or even the multiply recorded medieval period, where monk, serving woman and townsman are created as credibly knowable elements of communities.

There is still a local focus: the sequence `The Abergavenny Murders' (1989, 200-26), set in the town where Williams went to secondary school, outlines Norman treachery against the Welsh, in the hands of William de Braose, that Williamsesque other, while `The Abergavenny Rising (1989, 291-95) briefly tells of a moment of resistance that is read as contributing to the major resistance led by Owain Glynd┼Ár.

This is close to the end of the completed draft; Joy Williams provides an afterword about the plans for the final volume, tracing moments of political and social crisis -- civil war, Monmouth rebellion, Rebecca Riots as well as new social experiences -- relocation of farms, emigration, religious change, and also increasing moments of identification: Elis would turn out to have a military career like that of Raymond Williams. But there were also to be cyclical features to this history: a dead American airman would be a descendant of an earlier emigrant, and most strikingly of all Glyn would finally find his grandfather, resting with an injured foot, inside the stone circle which the Celts had treated as a nemeton, sacred place and which the measurer had taught the bronze age people to build.

So the land itself is the connecting element, the place is the text in which the memories can be read. It is like Loyalties a history, not, like The Fight for Manod or The Volunteers, a future. But just as Williams consistently speaks of praxis at the end of his books and essays, so the end of this long novel, according to Joy Williams was to involve a discussion between Elis and some `neolithic hippies' which would no doubt have advised of the danger of self-absorption in the past rather than reading the lessons of the past for the present and future: lessons which are I think already stated in the `Wales and England' essay, and can be summarised as:

                        ... the authentically differential communalisation of the Welsh, product of a specific history rather than of some racial or cultural essence, could become residual if it does not grow beyond its current elements of false consciousness.... Radical and communal Wales, that is to say, will be real to the extent that it develops, in plan and practice, new forms of co-operative work and communal socialism, new kinds of educational and cultural collectives, rather than by what happens to the Labour or even the Nationalist vote. (1989, 73-4)

If that can be taken as the theme of this massive, and massively learned, venture into communal history, and in my view its most valuable outcome, there are some other things that need to be considered, including possible negatives.

One concern is the emphasis on place. Much locational writing is a form of possession which fetishes the land in place of recognising the rights and interests  of those who populate it -- Australian admiration of the outback elides Aborigines for example, and the same is true of romantic interests in Scotland, the Lake District and Wales. There are writers of fiction about Wales who use place as a displacing focus for their own concerns, like Brenda Chamberlain and Margiad Evans, but not only women and incomers do this -- it is characteristic of the city dwellers who write faux-gwerin stories like Gwyn Jones and Dylan Thomas. There is a remarkable lack of landscape in writers like Kate Roberts or Gwyn Thomas (except, revealingly, in All Things Betray Thee), who are deeply identified with the local world.

Williams would I think reply that his landscape is always populated, and I think that is true, but I do think that the physicality of his Welsh writing -- very clear from the start in Border Country, but not evident in the Oxford in which he felt more at home in Second Generation -- is in itself a symptom of his own displacement from the place, a separation he worked hard to recover.

Then there is the question of whether vignettes can ever tell a valid story. This concern may rest on a false premise about the value of a linear account. Williams in his discussion of the form of the Welsh industrial novel notes that they abandon both the emphasis on private lives and the linear plotting of the English novel, and he clearly has a strong sense in those comments of the way in which the machine of the classic novel is deeply implicated with subjectivity. This includes the Tolstoy style of `epic history' which the Welsh writers avoid, except for Richard Llewellyn in what Williams bitingly called the `export version' of the Welsh industrial novel in his lecture/essay on that topic. But that does not mean that a discontinuous narrative may not have its own limits, or that vignettes cannot be lifeless in a way that confirms only the vitality of the subjective observer. The issue has already been considered by Williams, in the notable sequence in The Volunteers where Lewis Redfern, a little uncharacteristically for a journalist turned detective, reflects on structural ideology in a museum.

He notes that the Folk Museum at St Fagans `offers to show the history of a people in its material objects'. In the main building `these are shown in the conventional way, by a labelled display of each category' but, better, in the grounds these are displayed in context as `an active material history of the people of Wales" (1985, 28). But that is not enough: the last quotation is followed with the words `up to a point'. The limitations observed are that this is `an active history only of rural Wales' and that it is `an old Wales'. He sums up:

                        ... modern realities left outside in the car park,. or brought inside only in the toilets which have replaced the privies. That is why it is called a  folk museum. Folk is the past: an alternative to People.' (1985,[1978] 28)

However, Redfern - or rather Williams -lets the museum off somewhat, because of its power to prompt creative involvement, of the kind that will become People of the Black Mountains and is the central value that Williams found in Al Things Betray Thee.

                        You can also hear voices from behind you: the voices that you do not hear in the scrubbed and polished empty rooms of the farms and cottages: voices speaking of tribute and of taxes and of rents; voices speaking in different languages, Norman-French and English but in the farms and cottages the native language, the language of the comrades, the Cymry... (1985 [1979], 30)

And the characteristic Williamsesque final connection with the present and politicised action is made:

                        In the tidied farms, among the casks and the presses, you could forget this history, on an ordinary day. But today was not ordinary. Today made those other connections: the connections to Pontyrhiw. (1985 [1979], 30)

So the analysis ends with the possibility of a humanly invigorated history itself informing the modern -- Pontyrhiw is the site of the coal-dispute that frames the assassination at St Fagans and will dominate the Welsh concerns of the novel.

In People of the Black Mountains Williams' effort is to activate those voices and also, in the questing frame, link analytic history with an affective relationship with place through time. Its scope is wider and much more socioculturally specific than the vaguely Celtic liberationism of Rhys Davies, or the limited communalism of Jack Jones, the communism of Lewis Jones, the family-based analysis of Gwyn Jones. The only kinds of texts that operate in parallel ways as accounts of people, time and place in Wales, other than All Things Betray Thee are I think the equally vignette-based power of Kate Roberts' Traed Mewn Cyffion, Emyr Humphreys' Outside the House of Baal and Christopher Meredith's Shifts, all texts concerned with marking changes in time and how they are marked in and through people set in places.

It is part of the tragedy of Raymond Williams' early death that the massively adventurous People of the Black Mountains was left unfinished, and unrevised. But in a way that is appropriate to Williams’ often stated sense that the work of politics does not end -- and he has left us in many places enough guidance for us to be able to complete the texts for ourselves, ourselves write, and hopefully live, the combined analytic and affective thoughts of Elis and Glyn who finally meet outside the text, in our own imaginations, and, as Williams would always finally insist, in our own actions. 


Border Country (Chatto and Windus, London, 1960)

Second Generation (Chatto and Windus, London, 1964)

The Fight for Manod (Chatto and Windus, London, 1979)

The Volunteers (Eyre Methuen, London, 1978)

Loyalties  (Chatto and Windus, London, 1985)

People of the Black Mountains, 1 The Beginning (Chatto and Windus, London, 1989)

People of the Black Mountains, 2 The Eggs of the Eagle (Chatto and Windus, London, 1990)

The Welsh Industrial Novel, The Inaugural Gwyn Jones Lecture (University College Cardiff Press, Cardiff, 1979)

`Introduction' to Gwyn Thomas, All Things Betray Thee [1949], reprint, ed. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1986)

`Working-class, proletarian, socialist: problems in some  Welsh novels,' in The Socialist Novel in Britain, ed. H. Gustav Klaus (Harvester, London, 1982)

`The People of the Black Mountains: Interview with John Barnie,' Planet, 65 (1987),

`Wales and England,' New Wales, 1 (1983), 34-8; reprinted in What I Came to Say (Hutchinson Radius, London, 1989)              

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