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Why you might like to read Raymond Williams


When I studied literature at Wits University in South Africa, I loved reading the drama critic called Raymond Williams, who I had come across by accident. He was witty, had a broad historical sweep to his ideas on literature, was committed-to-real-life more than the other critics I had been “forced” to read, and clearly did not defend the literary status quo of the rulers of the world, but got to the heart of the play or to the essence of the playwright’s work – in historical context. He changed my way of seeing literature from seeing it as by and about people, who were definitely not me, to having the writers talk to me.

A few years later, after pivoting to social sciences at the LSE in England, I found another Raymond Williams who had this absolutely riveting, socialist vision. His theoretical ideas were grounded in his Welsh working class background in a family of railway workers and farm labourers in a mining town, and linked also to his living cramped in a tank with four or five other soldiers during the War for literally years, and then on to Cambridge, where he found he and other ex-servicemen students were in a totally different “generation” from their other young classmates, who had been living molly-coddled lives at high school in the English countryside away from the front, and even from the bombing of industrial towns and even London. So, though they were all similar ages (17-23) those who had been on the front for, say, three or four years, and the others had been in a secluded boarding school for the same three or four years, found that they had between them “a generation gap”.

It was only much later, when I began to read all his work (though I have still not read most of his novels) that I realized that the great socialist thinker and writer, Raymond Williams, was one and the same man as the wonderful literary critic I had liked as an under-graduate. I was thrilled at this re-unification. (He lived, FYI, from 1921 – 1988.)

Anyway, he has a curious way of writing about socialist ideas that bewitches me. His essays often begin with a narrative, and it’s as if you are reading the arresting opening of a novel. Take, “Culture is Ordinary” (a 1958 must-read), it begins: “The bus stop was outside the cathedral. I had been looking at the Mappa Mundi, with its rivers out of Paradise, and at the chained library, where a party of clergymen had got in easily, but where I had waited an hour and cajoled a verger before I even saw the chains. Now, across the street, a cinema advertised the Six-Five Special and a cartoon version of Gulliver’s Travels. The bus arrived, with a driver and a conductress deeply absorbed in each other. We went out of the city ....” And this will turn into his famous analysis of the proximity, the unity, of supposed high culture of cities, popular cinema and daily life of everyone ordinary, from the Mappa Mundi through cartoons and to the driver and conductor “absorbed in each other”. By the end of the essay, I found, when I first read it, and I confirm this as I reread it today: it changed my way of seeing culture altogether.

Another wonderful essay of his (that shows us a curious way to critique bourgeois ideology via what he called “key words” that take on ideologically loaded meanings, a method he developed to an art) begins, “In the cutting of coal there is noise and dust and unwanted stone. Similarly, in the coal strike, there are central issues of great importance to the society, but around them, and often obscuring them, the noise and dust and stone of confused, short-term or malignant argument.” The essay, like all his essays, has a wonderful name: “Mining the Meaning: Key Words in the Miners’ Strike” (1985) and is an appeal for support for the miners’ strike. Ever since reading this essay, I have found myself awake to the shocking way words are used. A few weeks ago, on an Al Jazeera program, when the film director Ken Loach – who cuts through the crap – was using the word “security” in its original form, for example, and not as a way of justifying war and repression, the young French writer Edouard Louison on the program with him, was flabbergasted. Having read Raymond Williams I was not. I had already been aware of the fraud in this ruination of words. That you have a “defense” department that is a “war” department to look after your “security” when it actually detonates your insecurity. His essay is part of a kind of training to see this kind of ideological trap, encoded in the words we use. His most famous work on this is his gem of a book titled Key Words: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society

And four years  before the American economist Fukuyama’s statement about “the end of history”, meaning capitalism had supposedly won for good, Raymond Williams began his essay, “Hesitations before Socialism” (1986)  as if in response to the 1992 Fukuyama quote, with the words: “Every few years some people announce that socialism, finally, is dead. They then read the will and discover, unsurprisingly, that they are its sole lawful heirs. Socialists meanwhile carry on.”

At these times of the manipulation done through the combined efforts of capitalists running “Facebook” and the defunct “Cambridge Analytica”, it is timely to read and re-read the seminal Raymond Williams article on “Advertising: The Magic System”, which is essential reading to understand the profound violence perpetrated by the powerful against the powerless (including children) that advertising represents. Anyway, it opens with this back-hand clout: “It is customary to begin even the shortest account of the history of advertising by recalling the three thousand year old papyrus from Thebes, offering a reward for a runaway slave, and to go on to such recollections as the crier in the streets of Athens, the paintings of gladiators, with sentences urging attendance at their combats, in ruined Pompeii, and the fly-bills on the pillars of the Forum in Rome. This pleasant little ritual can be quickly performed, and as quickly forgotten: it is, of course, altogether too modest. If by advertising we mean what was meant by Shakespeare and the translators of the Authorized Version [of the Bible] – the processes of taking or giving notice of something – it is as old as human society, and some pleasant recollections from the Stone Age could be quite easily devised.

“The real business of the historian of advertising is more difficult: to trace the development from processes of specific attention and information to an institutionalized system of commercial information and persuasion: to relate this to changes in society and in the economy and to trace changes in method in the context of changing organizations and intention.” Read on, and you will find the history of advertising exposed naked before your eyes. You will never look at an ad in the same way again. 

How sarcastically he dismisses the romantic inventions that pose as history, as he begins his painstaking, but lightly-written, task of really studying the history of advertising, thus exposing its cruelly manipulative nature.

Quite a lot of Raymond Williams’ essays can be downloaded free on internet, and his books can be ordered from bookshops. You could also suggest librarians order them.

And Raymond Williams is always relevant to things we are involved in right now. In LALIT, we are working towards uniting the difficult issues of “why thousands of families are still living in dangerous asbestos housing sold to them by Government” and “why arable land is being sold off to millionaires by the sugar estates who ‘own’ the land.” Here, to end this short article is a link to an 8-minit talk by Raymond Williams (Thames TV), He is analyzing the play The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht, and he comes to this question that is the burning question today. (For Kreol adaptations of some Bertolt Brecht poems, see the Art and Literature section of this web site, and scroll down to “Ledikasyon enn Gran Zafer”, “Travayer Get Listwar” and “Pu Bann ki Vinn Apre Nu”.)

Lindsey Collen