All sorts of people had come to the Welsh countryside to spend the day talking about the history of labor radicalism: miners, organizers, researchers, politicians. But the star attraction was missing. Raymond Williams, the Cambridge scholar and socialist beacon, had agreed by letter to speak; rumor was that he would be arriving in a big car. Then, as a runner returned from the parking area to report the distressing news that no big car had arrived, a tall, craggy-featured man rose from the audience and made his way to the stage. He had been there all day, listening, watching, content among his people, not making a point of himself. There was no need to make a point; everyone in that world knew his name. It was not a merely local fame. Zadie Smith recalls that when she was an undergraduate at Cambridge in the 1990s, Williams sat beside Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes in the pantheon of social and literary theorists. He was Stuart Hall’s friend and collaborator, E.P. Thompson’s ally and sparring partner, Terry Eagleton’s teacher, and often worked side by side with Perry Anderson. When he died in 1988, Robin Blackburn wrote in the New Left Review that Williams was the “most authoritative, consistent, and radical voice” of the British left.
Asked to give an account of himself, Williams would begin, “I come from Pandy.” The Welsh village of Pandy sits a short walk across fields from the English border, at the edge of the Black Mountains. The peaks near Pandy rise more than 1,000 feet above the farmland of the valleys. A person can always walk to higher ground for a long and encompassing view. When Williams was young there, in the 1920s and ’30s, the view from the ridges included smoke coming from ironworks and coal pits less than twenty miles to the south and west. At night, the flames of the industrial valleys edged the black horizon with red.
In contrast with landlord-ridden England, Pandy was inhabited mostly by small farmers, who were cash-poor but owned their land. Williams, though, came from a family of landless agricultural laborers, those who did grinding work for short pay on the bigger farms. His father, Harry, after going south for a stint of railway work in the coalfields, took a job as a signalman at the rail station near Pandy. He married Williams’s mother, Gwen, also from a family of farm laborers, and settled in a dark, damp Pandy cottage. Harry joined the railway union and brought to it a set of radical ideas he had learned from the socialists and communists who were organizing the coalpits and ironworks. From then on, the Williamses were not laborers but workers, part of an organized class fighting for a share of power in British life.
Williams was a classic twentieth-century “scholarship boy.” The brightest student in the village school, he read v...
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