Raymond Williams and I arrived in Cambridge simultaneously in 1961, he from a long stint in adult education to a college Fellowship, I from a year’s teaching in a Northern secondary modern school to an undergraduate place.footnote It was hard to say which of us was more alienated. Williams had made the long trek from a rural working-class community in Wales to a college which seemed to judge people (as I was to find out later to my cost) by how often they dined at High Table. He looked and spoke more like a countryman than a don, and had a warmth and simplicity of manner which contrasted sharply with the suave, off-hand style of the upper middle class establishment. He never got used to the casual malice of the Senior Combination Room, and was to write years later, in a fine obituary of F.R. Leavis, that Cambridge was ‘one of the rudest places on earth . . . shot through with cold, nasty and bloody-minded talk’. I found myself marooned within a student body where everyone seemed to be well over six foot, brayed rather than spoke, stamped their feet in cinemas at the feeblest joke and addressed each other like public meetings in intimate cafes. It was a toss-up which of us was going to make it.

I knew of Williams’s work then only vaguely, mainly through association with Richard Hoggart and the so-called Angry Young Men of the 1950s, now mostly dyspeptic old Tories. Hearing him lecture was an extraordinary personal liberation: it was like seeing someone stand up in the most improbable place, formal and begowned, and articulate with enviable ease and eloquence all the struggling, smouldering political feelings you had yourself, but which were not so to speak official or academic, and which one had simply not expected to hear given voice in such an environment. It was as if a dispirited juvenile offender in a remand home (an experience not far removed from that of an early 1960s Cambridge college) was suddenly to realize to his astonishment that the Governor speaking up there at the front was sending out oblique but unmistakable messages that he was an offender too, a kind of fifth columnist in the prison service. Part of the delight of this, of course, was to hear one’s own values and instincts argued far more subtly and beautifully than one could ever have done oneself—converted to a marvellously intricate intellectual case without any diminution of personal conviction. Williams was a man of remarkable grace and dignity; and through the medium of this authority I felt somehow authorized to speak myself, and through me all those relatives and friends who could never speak properly, who had never been given the means to say what they meant, whom nobody ever bothered to ask what they meant. It was as though one’s most spontaneous gut reactions, which one wouldn’t really have been able to defend, were suddenly out there in the public arena, dignified and justified at the level of tenacious argument. And all this seemed to be less a matter of academic debate than to spring directly from the slow personal ruminations of Williams himself, as though the ideas were just the more public, audible bits of an unusually rich and deep identity. I think everyone who met Williams was struck by what I can only call his deep inward ease of being, the sense of a man somehow centred and rooted and secure in himself at a level far beyond simple egoism. I wondered then where this inner balance and resilience came from, and how I might get hold of a bit. I was to learn as I got to know him that it came essentially from his class background—indeed that the whole of his lifelong political project was secretly nurtured by a formative early experience of working-class solidarity and mutual support which had left him unusually trusting and fearless. But I couldn’t understand this quiet authority at the time, or the way he seemed at once so gentle and so rugged, and put it down, I suppose, to middle age, though in fact he was only forty. I asked myself where this man was coming from, and how he could speak out on behalf of the powerless in this place, with this degree of shrewdness and sureness. I understood about a third of what he said, and resolved to get to understand the rest.

Leavis was still lecturing across the road, just on the point of retirement. ‘Queenie did it all in the Thirties’ was his comment on Williams’s work, conveyed to me by Williams himself with his customary dry amusement. George Steiner was at Churchill College, telling his students that the trouble with Williams was that he didn’t appreciate the chastening power of human tragedy. Most of the rest of the English Faculty seemed to see him as some kind of sociologist who had strayed through the wrong departmental door and got inadvertently caught up in the Metaphysical poets. They, of course, dealt with the essentially human; Williams was distracting himself with historical red herrings, with class and industry and politics and all of that, and even worse with film and advertising and the popular press. I think this was probably the deepest irony of all, because the most evident difference between Williams and most of his colleagues was indeed a matter of humanity, but as it happened the other way round. Williams’s discourse rose straight from a human depth which seemed to put almost everyone else, oneself included, in the shade; it was the level at which he spoke, not just what he said, that marked the real distinction. You couldn’t separate what he said from the sense of a whole rich hinterland of experience informing his words. Long before the slogan ‘the personal is political’ became fashionable, Williams was living it, in the complex, intimate relations between his life and work. He never seemed to credit anything he hadn’t personally assimilated, absorbed gradually into his own being; and he lived in a kind of slow, steady, meditative way, again very like a certain kind of countryman, taking the whole of his experience with an intense, unwavering seriousness quite removed from the portentous. This seemed quaint, amusingly archaic, to some of the hard-boiled cynics around him, to the young men on the take and on the make whose depth of experience seemed from the outside about that of a Disney cartoon. There were the predictable friendly–malicious comments about the flat cap and the farmer’s boots, the kind of talk which Williams himself always rightly saw as a kind of sickness. Even one of the obituaries, tenacious to the last, managed to drag out the word ‘nostalgia’ to characterize a man who wrote a major work entitled Towards 2000. Quite unwittingly—for he was the kind of man you had to work very hard on to make him feel negatively about someone—Williams made people feel uneasy about their own glibness and stylish political scepticism, and they were sometimes not slow to strike back in their anxiety.

Williams’s own Cambridge experience had not been primarily one of stamping, braying six-footers. It had been the experience of war: the interrupted English course, the armed struggle in Europe (he was a tank commander in France), then the young servicemen, those who had survived, back on King’s Parade to take up their studies again, as a Labour government moved into power. It had also been for Williams the experience of the Communist Party, of which he was briefly a member. When he returned to Cambridge in 1961, after years of teaching adults in village halls around the south of England, he found it hard to get used to the supervision system, to teaching the children of the privileged, and kept a wary distance from the system. Yet it was the outsider, in a familiar paradox, who upheld the most creative traditions of the place. I mean the best traditions of the Cambridge English Faculty, which Williams personally incarnated for years, among Faculty colleagues who often hardly knew what he was talking about. Williams brought together in a new conjuncture the two distinctive currents of Cambridge English: close textual analysis on the one hand, ‘life and thought’ on the other. But what they called ‘close reading’ or ‘attention to language’ he called historical linguistics, and what they called ‘life and thought’ he called ‘society’ or ‘cultural history’.

If this was a fertile conjuncture, it was not without severe tensions. The close analysis, he well knew, was by no means ideologically innocent: it was the learnt habit of a specialized, separated intelligence, deeply dependent on unconscious ideological consensus and radically dissociated from how most people actually had to live. To bring that to bear on so-called ‘life and thought’, on a whole social and cultural formation, was thus to risk becoming caught in an immediate political contradiction. How do you analyse your own people from the outside? Doesn’t the very form of that cognition run somehow counter to the content, as Matthew Price of Border Country suspects, and Peter Owen of Second Generation fears? It is a duality which crops up in Williams’s work in all kinds of guises, and one I dismissed with the brisk impatience of relative youth in Criticism and Ideology. It is there in the running battle between ‘common’ and ‘educated’, between the ‘knowable community’ and the harsh world of capitalist production, between country and city, Milton and Donne, isolated civilized subtlety and a general common humanity. Williams picks up just this conflict in the work of Leavis, in his obituary—Leavis who ‘committed himself heavily to . . . one form of the discontinuities, the detachments, the cold wit of Eliot, yet was seized, always, with especially strong feelings of continuity, of commitment, of the everyday substance of English provincial life’. Williams is surely here speaking obliquely about himself as well; he had a lifelong fascination with modernism, despite the ‘realist’ label I and some others too facilely stuck on him, and saw just how modernism’s radical estrangement of the ordinary was at once a creative political experiment and a disabling deracination. Unlike some others, he wasn’t going to come down too quickly on either side of that particular fence. If he came in effect to abandon the lineage of ‘close analysis’ in his later work, it was not because he was not good at it (he was very good at it) but because the political price came to seem to him too high. Culture and Society is a courageous, breathtakingly original attempt to bring that current of trained textual analysis to bear on a common social history; but it is therefore an acute instance of the conflict in question, and for all the acclaim it received as a radical text it was written in political isolation in the Cold War years, the book of one still having to negotiate the tension between Leavisism and socialism. ‘First-stage radicalism’ was how Williams would later characterize this most seminal work, in a calculated self-distancing.