Raymond Williams. Who speaks for Wales? Nation, Culture, Identity
In the third of our articles on the occasion of Raymond Williams ‘centenary, Aled Singleton reviews a re-edition of Williams’ writings and thoughts on Wales.
This deep and complex book collects, organizes and performs Wales-centered interviews with Raymond Williams as well as material published in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, such as book reviews and magazine articles. From this curation, we understand how Raymond Williams developed his thinking, his politics and deepened his emotional connection to his country of birth during his 66 years. The resulting volume, weighing 400 pages, is divided into four consecutive sections, dealing in turn: culture; the story; Literature; and politics.
Raymond Williams was born in August 1921 and raised in the border village of Pandy, north of Abergavenny. He left Wales to study at Cambridge and spent his professional life in England. Throughout this book, and supported by analysis by Daniel G. Williams, there are three recurring concepts that are important for understanding Who speaks for Wales.
The first important idea of ââthis triad concerns being both an initiate and a stranger in matters of identity, as he comes from a place on the border between Wales and the ‘England. Daniel G. Williams describes the position as “… detachment trained”. These ideas were also put forward by Raymond Williams in The Country and the City (1973), where he pays particular attention to Thomas Hardy and his writings on Wessex.
The second theme concerns a different border; this time between the role of commentator or social theorist and that of an artist who represents Wales and the working class in literature. He ponders the task of preparing a novel in Wales for Arcade (1981) and wrote that:
It gives us the freedom: we can do it our way. But this kind of freedom is often, in practice, a crippling lack of confidence. It is one of the paradoxes of artistic freedom that it often thrives best when there is some agreement on goals and methods.
Raymond Williams is self-critical here because he saw the twentieth century as the literary picture of new novels about Wales and community life. In particular, he was keen to avoid the “pseudo-historical” or romantic nature of most of the earlier writings. To that end, his own work meets these high standards and taken from his Welsh trilogy – Border country (1960), The volunteers (1978) and The fight for Manod (1979) – are presented and discussed in this volume. There is a particularly valuable opportunity to gain insight into the process of writing literature on Wales, such as a 1979 interview with the New review on the left in which he honestly reflects on the reasons why he wrote certain texts.
Relying on the first two concepts is perhaps the most difficult notion: Raymond Williams’ desire to understand the identity and politics of Wales. Much of his thinking on Wales relates to the relationship with England and the English. Daniel G. Williams directs us to the foundations of Raymond Williams’ political thought, considering, for example, Wales as: a post-colonial state; an “appendix” of England; and a place of large-scale immigration in the 19th century and mass emigration at the beginning of the 20th century. However, in the late 1960s, Raymond Williams felt that Wales had the potential to be more confident and to sidestep English values, such as the latter’s aspiration to maintain a âbourgeoisâ privacy. In short, he felt the allure of a Welsh European identity, especially since the UK joined the European Common Market in the 1970s. Indeed, from a 1987 interview with the New statesman – one of his last – it seems the young Welsh people were delighted that he returned to Wales and asked questions about ‘who are we and what are we? “
Beyond these three main points, this volume also deals with how Daniel G. Williams edits and performs such a variety of material. In the contemporary afterword, Daniel G Williams revisits his preface to the 2003 edition. He notably defends Raymond Williams for his arguments on universalism, the formal position of the nation and what this means for social identity. The debate may be too nuanced to be described in this review, but it reveals the challenge of identifying what it means to be Welsh, to be England’s neighbor, perhaps to be a colony of England, to be British, to be European, or a cross-section of all these factors. Daniel G. Williams asks if the standard liberal approach to being British is:
â¦ Made empty and without content so that it can function as a universal neutral space where difference can be made irrelevant and cultural participation transcended.
This last line stings, but perhaps sums up the complexity of the whole volume. To fully absorb and digest Who speaks for Wales is perhaps an impossible task, or rather one that requires more time and space than a century allows. The Welsh world of industry and socialism that Raymond Williams analyzed, including the testimonies inherited from previous generations which are evident in works such as Border country, have moved away since his death in 1988. Indeed, Wales sided with England in 2016 by choosing to leave the European Union.
In conclusion, this book provides an understanding of how Raymond Williams dealt with his own experience, how he made the most of being both an insider and an outsider, and perhaps how he lived at a crucial time in it. history of Wales. We are also indebted to Daniel G. Williams for his own work, just as we can be sure that this material will be revisited in the future when it is reviewed again.
Raymond Williams. Who speaks for Wales? Nation, Culture, Identity is published by University of Wales Press. A copy can be purchased here…