Raymond Williams

From Wales to the World | Raymond Williams Centenary

Raymond Williams is remembered as one of the most influential Welsh figures of the twentieth century. Working as a socialist writer, novelist, historian, cultural theorist and academic, Williams fought to reclaim culture from the grips of elitism. Today marks one hundred years since his birth in Pandy, a small hamlet near Abergavenny. To mark the centenary, Wales Arts Review is delighted to present an extract from Parthian’s essay collection, Raymond Williams: From Wales to the World, edited by Stephen Woodhams, and with an introduction from Dai Smith.  

This year marks the centenary of the birth of the most important socialist intellectual in twentieth-century Britain. Raymond Williams was born into the family of a railway signalman on 31 August, 1921. He famously characterised himself as a writer and thinker who defined his life as that of a “Welsh European”. Just as famously, he began to explore those conjoined identities more closely from the late 1960s onwards; scrutinising the complexity of his personal upbringing in modern Wales. It seems appropriate, then, that this new volume of essays about Williams’ work  – which I commissioned as its Series Editor for Parthian’s Modern Wales collection – is subtitled “From Wales to the World”. A concept which encapsulates the precise trajectory of Williams’ own development, and of the worldwide paths his work has found. 

Stephen Woodhams, editor of Raymond Williams: From Wales to the World, also contributes four of the nine essays. He retails the historical emergence of the Wales into which Williams was born and dissects the subsequent culture in which, as an analyst and activist, suffocated by the orthodoxies of academicist English cultural modes, he found he “could breathe”. Further lucid and insightful essays by Elizabeth Allen, Derek Tatton and Hywel Dix, variously deliver close readings of Williams’ fictive articulation of those worlds, of his profound belief in the efficacy of liberal adult education as the bedrock of democracy, and of his significance as a political and cultural thinker within a European tradition.

The origins of the whole of Raymond Williams’ work – both his critical writings and his fiction – are held within that trinity of words and concepts which he singled out to examine in his first, great publication in 1958, Culture and Society, and they were: Industry, Culture, Democracy. Their roots, for him, lay in that process of industrialisation which had wrought Wales into a species of modernity, and had thereby created a working-class culture of collective institutions. And – most importantly of all – he argued that only the working class collectivity, through its democratic practice, could work consciously for a potential socialist society, especially in South Wales. So near, so far. All his taken roads had that as a starting point, and they all led out to the multiplicity of the world as well as back to and from the specificity of place. He speaks to us as a continuing resource of hope at these times of crisis precisely because he spoke for and to that wider world, for without that universalist sense of the world there can be no worthwhile Wales as it once promised to become, or might yet be again.

Dai Smith’s acclaimed biography Raymond Williams: A Warrior’s Tale (2008) is now reprinted by Parthian for the 2021 Centenary of Raymond Williams in the Modern Wales Series.

John Elwyn, Farm Entrance, 1955
John Elwyn, Farm Entrance, 1955, a part of Ffiniau: Four painters in Raymond Williams’ Border Country, © Gill Butterworth


‘A culture where I can breathe’

Stephen Woodhams

Adult education had long been a place of experimentation and new departures. It provided a means of learning for those shut out by a small elite university education, too often concerned with keeping its doors guarded against unwanted intrusions. The crossovers of innovative teaching and learning from an external adult education to inside the academy in the post-war decades has been traced elsewhere, but we might note that this moment of change was probably more noticeable in England than in Wales, where the division was always less. What Tom Steele suggests is that the movement of holistic practice into the institution took with it a fluidity for which traditional disciplinary boundaries of internal teaching were less relevant. In a talk entitled ‘Adult Education and Social Change’, Raymond Williams looked back with some amusement at this moment when he, Richard Hoggart and others moved to internal university teaching, taking with them this more complex form of thinking, and how the authorities, unaware of work done in adult classes, claimed the birth of a new subject. ‘Cultural Studies’ as it came to be called, took hold across polytechnics and some of the newer universities, challenging the imposed artificial separations into sociology, literature, anthropology, history etc., which can in reality be administrative conveniences, given academic justification by the term ‘subjects’.

Yet challenge was not limited to education in a formal sense, rather ways of thinking from adult learning to the new institutions of higher education met with felt responses on the street. Rallies in Trafalgar Square became an image with which the moment has become associated. Events and initiatives followed in rapid succession as the Suez War of 1956 revealed European empire an anachronism, impotent under pressure from an emerging Third World and Cold War relations. Allegation has long been made that the events of Suez were used by the Soviet Union as cover for brutality that crushed the Budapest uprising which, following hard on the heels of revelations from within the Soviet Union, led many to leave western communist parties. If sporadic rallies against seemingly arbitrary events in Suez and Hungary were frustrations, the Easter marches and rallies of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament or CND, could seem a positive exertion of long-term effort for reason and humanity.

One specific lead taken in respect of the Hungarian invasion was by a group of historians. Connections between the group and Raymond Williams were discussed in the interviews Politics and Letters, published in 1979, where he recalls a school held in 1954 at Netherwood near Hastings to which he was invited as a speaker. The school needs to be placed in the context of developments in adult education and historiography. In the former Williams was to the fore in bringing together literary critics and historians, as had occurred in a course for tutors he convened in Oxford in July 1950. The course, in Williams’ view, showed up the seemingly limited thinking of historians in their narrowly defined means of working where hard facts were the only evidential goal.

The school at Netherwood took place in the same period as the foundation of the Past and Present Society in 1952, the year when it also launched its journal. Perhaps more than any other single organ Past and Present took responsibility for addressing alternative approaches to history, with the compass of the journal being: ‘social, economic and cultural changes their causes and consequences’. From 1960 came a second inspiration, the Society for the Study of Labour History. In previous decades, Labour History had flourished in adult-education circles and produced significant writers such as Barbara and John Hammond, but the field suffered in the post-war decades as the number of classes declined relative to increases in literary studies. The Society was formed in part to establish a presence for the field within the academy, and among the first persons in the venture, Asa Briggs offered the stature of an establishment figure coupled with the progressive thinking of someone keen to cross boundaries. One stronghold was among Leeds extra-mural teachers with whom Briggs became connected on moving from the Oxford Delegacy in 1955. However, it was at Oxford that he met Raymond Williams, and participated in the ‘Literature in Relation to History’ course which the latter co-ordinated in 1950. By 1960, Raymond Williams was a respected tutor within the Delegacy. More than this, he gained acknowledgement beyond its circles with his long development of the idea of culture, moving to the complex sociological history that became a feature from The Long Revolution onward.

The third initiative ran back to Our History and forward to a more unruly child, the History Workshop. Our History, though primarily an internal Communist Party publication, made a significant contribution to historical work with its emphasis on local history from below. The Historians Group, though known for the generation of eminent figures that came through it, was also a network, with local groups carrying out their own research. Raphael Samuel retained this idea of local groups in cultivating the History Workshop, the early annual gatherings of which witnessed a coming together of people with many interests out of which lively exchanges ensued. The failure was the speed with which the History Workshop Journal rejected the egalitarian philosophy of the workshops, to become a very elitist publication that merely recycled arcane theories – increasingly beginning with the word ‘post’. Yet the ethos of ‘dig where you stand’ and ‘back to the sources’, was inspirational and local history groups have thereby flourished since.

The historical societies, amid new political forms of the fifties and sixties also created an intellectual culture that fed a generation who brought forth a transformed historiography of Wales. The fulcrum for the new work was to be Llafur, and in his 2002 autobiography Glanmor Williams, A Life the renowned historian discussed the new generation he helped nurture at Swansea. The ranks included both Hywel Francis and Dai Smith, two prominent names associated with the Coalfield’s History Project and the new work that emanated from it in the later sixties. Among others was Merfyn Jones, who came through Sussex University where Asa Briggs, moving from Leeds in 1967, was building up a progressive approach to history. Merfyn Jones would have brought some of that influence, together with that gained at Warwick, with him when he arrived at Swansea in 1971 to join the coalfield’s research team.

Raymond Williams: From Wales to the World

The broad sweep of historiography in Germany, France and England has been chronicled by, among others, Richard Evans in his In Defence of History. The story is one of how in the first two countries, by the mid-twentieth century, the social sciences were already influential in thinking historically. In Germany, the influences of Karl Marx, Max Weber and cultural science associated with names like Wilhelm Dilthey and Ferdinand Tönnies, all served to advance the sense of totality that is perhaps characteristic in Germanic writing. In France, the Annales began as a collective of talents led by the radical historians Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch. They had been concerned with developing means to carry out more adequate enquiry and explanation of change and continuity over longer periods of time. The citadel they were protesting at was political history. The Annales offered to break from the grip of a history of high politics, using new tools as with Durkheimian insights positing structures such as a ‘collective conscious’ that by inducing shared beliefs, made society realisable. The Annales offered for investigation layers of history, each subject to its own rhythm of continuance and change, but making these insights ones for historical investigation.

In England, however, history largely remained in the grasp of an empirical political approach. From the fifties, however, influences from across the channel in mainland Europe could begin to be detected. Founding of the Past and Present Society and its journal afforded a vehicle for an Annales perspective in particular, and during the sixties, social history began to be more of a telling presence. In Wales, the turn toward social history was facilitated by the efforts of Glanmor Williams, as much as anyone, after he became Chair of history at Swansea in the mid-1950s. In his autobiography, Glanmor Williams records how he was asked

to draft a paper on what might be done in the field of recent Welsh history, so I outlined a scheme for the study of Welsh society and politics between c.1846 and 1950. It seemed to me for some time that this area was being ignored and serious examination was long overdue.

To appreciate the scope of this proposed field of study we need to remember something of the history of Welsh society. The rapidity of industrialisation had meant that iron, coal and steel towns had grown perhaps too fast to allow for effective control by a progressive middle class. A consequence of this was a preponderantly working-class society which became, by 1920, politically as well as socially the defining factor in local communities. It was arguably this that helped shape the second and third generations of academics in Welsh institutions, growing up as they did in the years between 1914 and the fifties.

The wider historical picture then helps in our understanding of those who followed the template for historiography set out by Glanmor Williams. In his Inaugural Lecture in 1959, his plea for the study of modern history stressed two features; first, a deliberate emphasis on social history, and second, moving the point at which the modern history of Wales should be dated. Previously, the emphasis in Welsh history had been pre-modern, indeed a great deal of it moved no further than the 1536 Act of Union with England when so-called modern history was deemed to begin. Glanmor Williams moves the break point forward to around 1760, arguing that for a large part of the Welsh population it was the industrial revolution that really figured as the period when a modern society could meaningfully be understood to be experienced. To argue for such a recasting of history displays his profound understanding of various periods and this is amply demonstrated in a late collection of essays published in 1979 as Religion, Language and Nationality. However, it was not only the periodisation of Welsh history that Glanmor Williams was challenging. Traditionalists had taken the Victorian concern with the nation-state as the prism through which to view Wales. By contrast, Glanmor Williams argued that Wales was better understood if studied as a social history.

At the risk of overbrief simplicity, the contrast might be set out thus. England is perhaps an ideal type for the application of a political and constitutional history, with the sixteenth-century Tudor Reformation offering itself as prime reference point. Wales, by contrast, had a less obvious existence as a political nation, its unity, even before 1282, being less than secure. Studied as social history, however, Wales, its people and their experience made for a different kind of coherent explication.

Glanmor Williams’ inaugural lecture would have been heard by his adult student and friend, Ieuan Gwynedd Jones, one of the earliest yields of the initiatives undertaken at Swansea. Later Ieuan Gwynedd Jones would sum up the approach to Welsh history in a phrase, ‘As a social historian – and the historian of Wales can be no other…’ Later still, the point was reiterated by another Swansea-educated historian Neil Evans, in a review of the historiography of Wales and the Welsh for the journal Social History. Elsewhere Neil Evans traced a longer historiography, from the Victorians through to the seventies. The earlier concern with state formation and the actions of nation-states may be seen as distinctive of Victorian historiography, in contrast, the seventies were marked by the turn to a social and cultural history which placed people at its centre. Wales was well-placed to take advantage of the shift in perception.

Charles Burton, Untitled
Charles Burton, Untitled, a part of Ffiniau: Four painters in Raymond Williams’ Border Country, © Charles Burton

Gauged by literary and poetic work, industrial working-class Wales had been viewed as something of a downward slide from the culture of nineteenth-century liberal rural Wales. The view rested upon a number of assumptions. For some the key feature was language – there was a Cymru, where Cymraeg was the first language and defined the population as Cymreig. Poetry and prose were then assumed as the fullest expression of the language and were rated higher than anything that might be produced by an anglicised hand. Industrial working-class South Wales therefore self-excluded itself from this purer Cymru, because of a shift, magnified in the first half of the twentieth century, toward English as the first language. For others the fault lay in industrialisation itself, which seemed a decline in a way of life as compared with that of an idealised rural Gwerin or folk. The view was perhaps typical of romantic nostalgia, where a pre-industrial world served as vessel for an organic culture in which people lived closer with nature and kept to a simpler, purer life. Not unrelated was the religious version, where increasing secularisation led to weaker moral standards than had been lived in a Cymru of chapel observing people, and for whom the Word provided sure judgement by which to live. 

Alternatively, the perception might be that anglicised industrial workers were the by-product of a colonial invasion that threatened the existence of Cymru. If couched in the language of moral culture, these condemnatory views could be augmented by a political strand in which a left-leaning movement, of miners in particular, was a descent into socialism that could be defined as ungodly, alien and poisonous. Separately, and together, these grounds meant that any written expression from industrial South Wales could only be corrupted when compared with the finer poetry and prose of nineteenth-century Cymru – be that rural, liberal or religious. In such antagonistic circumstances, the ‘Welsh industrial novel’ must be seen as a significant literary output from the interwar years onward. What the work of Lewis Jones, Jack Jones, and of course Gwyn Thomas, taught, was the paucity of recorded experience of industrialisation in Wales. It was this lack which Glanmor Williams addressed in his call for greater resources devoted to the study of modern Wales, as defined by the rupture of the industrial revolution. In turn, it was first to the filling of that void in the history of Wales, and second to alter the priorities by which that past was assembled, that the efforts emanating from Swansea, were directed.

Glanmor Williams and Ieuan Gwynedd Jones were coincidentally born in 1920 and Gwyn Alf Williams 1925, so that each of them had direct experience of the desperate economic and social devastation that dealt the coalfield from the 1920s on. Their entry into university life was, like that of Raymond Williams (born 1921), around the time of the Second World War, and during the immense changes brought about by the 1945 Labour Government. Their life experience then encompassed the tragedy of economic dislocation, but also drew on the response of common action made in community and neighbourly ties through workplace, chapel and union. War reinforced both the sense of tragedy and of common sharing but also created an aspiration of building a new and different future. The real gains to people’s lives in health, housing and education after 1945 confirmed the sense of collective effort learnt in childhood and youth.

In 1954, Ieuan Gwynedd Jones was encouraged at Swansea by Glanmor Williams to begin the work later identified in the latter’s 1959 inaugural lecture. Jones rapidly established his position at Swansea, contributing to research and teaching and beyond that to local history societies. A bibliography of his work up to 1987 offers an interesting insight into his generation and background, with many articles appearing not in the semi-official organs of academic history, but as local publications written for readerships connected with a particular place and always inclusive in their accessibility. Ieuan Gwynedd Jones went on to become Professor of History at Aberystwyth, affording support for the start of Llafur, and playing a significant part in establishing the modern history of Wales. It is difficult to generalise too far, but we are dealing with a question of generations, the experience of moving from working-class environments, and on to an expansion of higher education which pulled in people who in other contexts might have worked in adult education or related fields. In Wales this process, then, occurred differently from England, and it meant that the transition from manual labouring to university teaching might take two generations or less.

This then was the background against which the project to recover the history of the South Wales Coalfield was conceived by Hywel Francis and Dai Smith as PhD students together at Swansea from 1968 and subsequently developed under the auspices of Glanmor Williams. In brief, a group was pulled together at Swansea, supported through a Social Science Research Council award in 1971 for an initial year. Their aim was to recover a record of the coalfield which otherwise was becoming fragmented, with much lost through inevitable natural and human wear and tear. The group, led by Merfyn Jones, consisted of a small number of prime researchers, whose industry Glanmor Williams highlighted in his autobiography. The aims of the project were to find and retrieve lodge records, minutes, accounts, letters and memorabilia from the miners’ halls and institutes, and where possible, some of the collections from the libraries. The holdings of libraries varied widely as did the number of miners contributing to a particular Welfare Hall. In all, there were over a hundred miners’ institutes and libraries with examples of the largest in the Rhondda where some, such as Clydach Vale, held over 15,000 volumes.

The Research Council supported project was expanded to include oral history and was completed between 1971 and 1974, but the essential work continued. Dai Smith joined the history Department in 1971 and Hywel Francis complemented the Project team. Institutionally, perhaps the major outcome has been the remarkable South Wales Miners Library. Established in October 1973, the Miners’ Library was the inheritor of the past generations of miners’ libraries and institutes. Hywel Francis joined the Extra-Mural Department at Swansea and became the Tutor Librarian of the Miners’ Library as it functioned as a centre for both Research and Adult Education. One major published outcome of the Coalfield History Project was The Fed: A History of the South Wales Miners in the Twentieth Century. First published in 1980, the book received support from the South Wales Region of the National Union of Mineworkers, but its subject matter held an appeal far beyond the coalfield. Written by Hywel Francis and Dai Smith the book keeps to the history of the Union but places it in the context of the coalfield and the society people made for themselves. Links to the research work of the Coalfield History Project are clear, with notes containing numerous references to recorded interviews, while the photo-plates included several housed in the archive. A new edition of The Fed, with a Centenary Foreword appeared in 1998.

Alongside the Coalfield History Project came the inspiration for Llafur, the Society for the Study of Welsh Labour History. Founded in Swansea by a small group of historians in 1970, it rapidly became the focal point for wider Welsh involvement. The full commencement of Llafur as an organisation in 1971 included a symposium at which spoke substantial figures connected with Welsh labour history. Months later Gwyn Alf Williams was to give the Society’s first lecture. From the fifties, his own town of Merthyr and the events surrounding the popular uprising of 1831 had been a spine to his thinking, and this was his topic at the inaugural meeting. The lecture appeared as the first article of the journal’s first number, signifying to a wider readership perhaps that Llafur was to be a forum for sharing histories, underpinned by intellectual credibility.

The success of the Llafur Society was immediate and apparent in the growth in numbers. Deian Hopkins, in his account of the formation of Llafur, records that, ‘From thirty-eight in its first year, the Society membership increased to 450 in two years.’ Even allowing for block membership of 200 underwritten by the National Union of Mineworkers, the increase was remarkable. An indication of the Society’s popularity was at an event in 1973 to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the South Wales Miners’ Federation; 350 attended to hear Michael Foot talk on his forthcoming biography of Aneurin Bevan. An early achievement was to bring together people to share their many experiences of coal, metals or similar work in Wales. Commencement of the journal, the first issue of which appeared in 1972, offered a means of reaching a much wider audience and eliciting contributions and support. Early issues of Llafur contained articles on the coalfield and significant moments of conflict, notably the 1926 General Strike, remembered in the issue for 1976. Yet writers also looked beyond these high points to explore religious practice, health, culture and sport, in order to offer a rounded picture of industrial Wales. Absent in that account, however, was rural Wales, the poverty left behind and worsened by the loss of the most economically active part of a population. Beyond that, rural Wales was missing for its contribution to the making of modern Wales, in not only people but also the necessary food stuff and other raw materials for the urbanised life of the steel and coal towns. Raymond Williams would pick up on these interconnections at different points; critically in The Country and the City, where familial and economic relations could be found to have a longer history and where lines of produce and money might flow parallel with migration and new settlement.

Interconnections can be found too in imaginative form as in Border Country, the rail line running southwest to the coalfield and east to the midlands of England, and then Morgan’s initiative to collect and deliver food stuffs from around Pandy to the striking miners. Again, in Second Generation, where the car-works’ dependent families in Oxford are pulled back to their connections across the border, as in Peter’s running away from the scene of his parent’s conflict. Then in The Fight for Manod we again meet Matthew, now caught between the formal investigation he is commissioned to complete for authorities back in London, and the obvious needs of local people which were being overridden by economic and political powers both state and commercial. Written during the oil crisis of 1973–74 Manod is perhaps the place where Williams might have best imagined connections of country and city, if the novel had been of adequate length to describe the new technologies cited for the proposed experiment in forms of living.

An appropriately personal note begins an address entitled ‘The Social Significance of 1926’ given to a joint Llafur and National Union of Mineworkers commemorative conference marking the strike’s fiftieth anniversary. Raymond starts not with an historical outline of the strike and lockout but his own journey that day:

I came down this morning from a village above Abergavenny: travelling the quite short distance to this centre of the mining valleys, and travelling also, in memories, the connections and the distance between one kind of country and another. In 1926, in that village, my father was one of three signalmen in the old Great Western Railway box…

Consider first that specific situation. These men at that country station were industrial workers, trade unionists, in a small group within a primarily rural and agricultural economy. All of them, like my father, still had close connections with that agricultural life… At the same time, by the very fact of the railway, with trains passing through, from the cities, from the factories, from the ports, from the collieries, … they were part of a modern industrial working class.

Border Country by Raymond Williams

Acknowledgement of these memories is fitting. Elsewhere Williams has referred to his having from the mid-1950s to relearn the history of Wales. The timing may be significant since, working on Border Country in those years, he talked over events that contributed to the chapter on the General Strike with his father. There is here a question of Williams’ life which is, as yet, not clear, since to relearn in the mid-fifties a history appropriate to his father’s account of 1926 would have meant reading against the grain of much existing work, where the tendency was to look to the tradition of a national, political framework. Yet by drawing on scattered comments we can identify at least one suggestive influence though it is likely not to have been the only source. In writing Border Country we know Williams was responding to problems in the Welsh novel. Of course Dylan Thomas’ verbal excess created difficulties that needed to be avoided. However, there were others who offered accounts deeply marked by an experience of South Wales and 1926. Williams has spoken of being ‘aware of the Welsh writers about the working class of the interwar period’; Lewis Jones’ Cwmardy and We Live being among the most likely volumes Williams read. It is of course not the whole story and at least Aberystwyth’s David Williams, earlier inspirer of Welsh historiography, may have been a figure of who Williams was aware. It is, however, conceivable that when Williams speaks of having in the 1950s to learn the history of Wales, in place of the social history then largely unwritten, it was those historian writers of fiction that were for him the most immediate references.

By 1976, Raymond had developed an explicit holding together in his mind of country and city. Yet to present the connection so directly to a new generation of more industrial-minded historians with their roots in the coalfield was still, perhaps a brave step. For many of the young of the seventies there was too easy an assumption that the urban was the site of progressive action, the rural a bastion of conservatism. In the context of Wales, that picture could take the form of a landlord, Anglican clergy, dissenting zealot and quiescent agricultural labourer. Yet that picture would be a distortion, hiding conflicts as between Anglican landlord and dissenting worker, their struggle over the use of land and the dispossession of its population. Wales was a place where country and city co-existed closely and where economy and culture were reproduced through a way of life.

A collection of essays commissioned and edited by Dai Smith and published in 1980 as A People and a Proletariat, was, as its introduction suggests, a further challenge, indeed a deliberate provocation:

… we cannot be confident about the social history of modern Wales since, at each and every point that seems to matter…, the simplistic view should be, and now is, open to challenge. A few bold conquistadores of the historical profession over the last quarter century, from David Williams to Kenneth O. Morgan, have carved out and lucidly structured imposing narratives of the recent history of Wales. That was the first step out of the dark. The editors and contributors to this book would like to think, … that this collection will encourage the taking of the next step.

The content of the book covered a range of subjects but with the stress on industrial Wales from the mid-nineteenth century on. However, in Raymond Williams’ review, it is two offerings that stand apart from this emphasis that receive particular attention:

This is industrial South Wales recovering its actual history, beyond the simplifying images, but there may be just as much effect in, for example, the essay by Merfyn Jones on ‘Class and society in 19th Century Gwynedd’, in which the image of a backward but proud, organic and unified culture dissolves, or in David Jenkins’s ‘Rural Society Inside Outside’, which in its fine evidence of language and practice explores what was and was not a ‘natural community’ and an ‘organic folk’.

The solicited review appeared in the fortnightly magazine Arcade, for which Dai Smith served as Literary Editor, at the end of 1980. It is reprinted in Daniel Williams’ edited collection Who Speaks for Wales? and provides a point from which to explore links between the development of a social history of Wales and Raymond Williams’ own evolving thinking of Wales in terms of nation and nationalism. Published in 1971, the first essay in the collection is ‘Who Speaks For Wales?’ being a review of Ned Thomas’ The Welsh Extremist. The date’s significance is that it follows shortly on from when Raymond Williams suggests his greater contact with thinkers in Wales commenced. Ned Thomas too had had to work through his relation to a people and a country, and the book was an extension of that process. More than an individual referent point, The Welsh Extremist followed on the heels of a genuine widespread campaign to assert the rights of people, nation and language. For the campaigns of civil disobedience, Thomas felt a ready assent, placing himself as one of the ‘followers’ who wanted the direct action to succeed. True, Thomas is uneasy about the acceptance by a minority of violence in their tactics, but he is sympathetic to the reasons behind this so-called ‘extremism’. The Welsh Extremist comes from a different place than say Llafur, or A People and a Proletariat. The latter pair focused first on an industrial working class and, in South Wales, principally this meant English speakers. The Welsh Extremist sought in part to reach across the divisions with which Ned Thomas, as himself a returning migrant, was needing to come to terms with. The book addresses a fractured present informed by a fragmented past, and its discussion ranges over ‘the language issue’, whether there was one Wales, two, or even three, the place of political parties and Plaid Cymru’s function as a nationalist focus. Ned Thomas contended that an elected assembly should exist and that it should represent the broadest opinion possible in Wales. With this and more Raymond Williams at the time concurred, going on to locate our ‘extremist’s’ cause in other progressive movements:

Black power in the United States, civil rights in Ulster, the language in Wales, are experiences comparable in this respect to the student movement and to women’s liberation.

The comparisons demonstrate his growing sense of the complexity of what was a new situation. Through his review of The Welsh Extremist, and from a talk entitled ‘Are We Becoming More Divided?’ prepared a few years later for Granada Television, we can appreciate Raymond Williams’ recognition of problems posed by tensions between populations and regions, and the histories in Wales that produced them. Something of this awareness may be recognised in two examples. In the first, Raymond Williams answers a question about his relationship to Wales, in the second, the question is answered by Matthew Price:

Yes, a big change started to happen from the late sixties. There was a continuity in a quite overwhelming feeling about the land of Wales; as feeling and writing that stays through. But then I began to have more contacts… and I found this curious effect. Suddenly England, bourgeois England, wasn’t my point of reference anymore. I was a Welsh European, and at both levels felt different.

Tom Meurig smiled, looking across at Peter as if resuming a discussion.

‘Yes,’ he said, noticing Matthew’s interception of the look, ‘we’ve been arguing about you.’

‘Why not?’ Matthew said.

‘But don’t get it the wrong way round. Peter was defending you. It was I who was asking what you meant by coming here.’

‘With what possibilities?’

Meurig laughed.

‘Well, Matthew Price,’ he said smiling, ‘you’re an exile. Perhaps, I don’t know, a voluntary exile. So that none of us yet knows your commitment to Wales.’

Matthew leaned forward.

‘Enough of a commitment to know the divisions,’ he said, sharply.

When, then, Raymond Williams’ wrote reviews of the new history of Wales, it was part of a coming together of paths. Growing up, Welsh Wales and England had both seemed at variance to his border experience. Yet the late sixties and into the seventies were a different time and context to the thirties. Different too from when, away in south-east England, Raymond had worked through drafts of Border Country. The change was the quest for an intellectually more complex history, adequate for a modern Wales. Attempts to delineate a ‘Wales’ by means of political unity, in the manner of Victorian English historiography, were of limited reach. A ‘Union’ from the 1530s was hardly a date to which people could readily relate any more than that of 1282. Glanmor Williams called for the moving forward of the dividing line marking the start of modern Wales to around 1760. More than that, he had called for fifty per cent of scholarly resources to be put to the exploration of the period after that date. Here focus has been on the coalfield project and Llafur, elsewhere Neil Evans has cited how histories shifted their weight of pages so that a greater proportion of a book was given to the modern period as defined in the Glanmor Williams 1959 lecture. Likewise, in the series of monographs offered by the Board of Celtic Studies the great majority now address modern history. When, however, Raymond Williams recalls in Politics and Letters that, after his childhood experience, he had had to learn Welsh history again in the later 1950s, he was typically ahead of others. The moment referred to by him coincided with writing that eventually became Border Country, and when a call for modern history was still something uttered by lone voices. As such Williams had to read from the margins since that alternative historical record did not yet exist. This must have been difficult, reading back against a history only a tip of which had informed his schooling. That Williams recognised in the eventual new history a common ground, may then have been cause for relief after his earlier struggles to make sense of Wales out of historical writing that, as in his childhood, simply did not meet with his lived experience.


Raymond Williams: From Wales to the World is available via Parthian Books.