Raymond Williams, aspiration and work – a note

The term “aspirational” has many meanings and uses, and it will be discussed at the forthcoming Raymond Williams Weekend on 21-23rd August. Raymond Williams provides the initial inspiration for discussions, but the important use of his legacy is to develop his work – in this case, a keyword that he did not consider. It is instructive to consider what Williams own life suggests about “aspiration” (if not yet “aspirational”) and work, so this short slight piece considers some of his son Gwydion’s memories of his father’s life.

Gwydion Williams (b.1950) maintains a website Long Revolution, and his memories are contained in the following link: http://gwydionwilliams.com/history-and-philosophy/10-2-further-ideas/my-memories-of-raymond-williams/. He reveals that Raymond Williams, from a rural background, told Gwydion that his early ambition was to become a booking clerk on the railway for which his own father Harry was a signal worker. Gwydion demonstrates that this aspiration could then be realistic:

“If you did well at school, you aimed to become a booking clerk, which meant a better salary and a chance of promotion to stationmaster. Railways worked like that; each trade had its own line of promotion, and stationmasters were recruited from booking clerks.”

Instead, Raymond’s route to study and (eventually) an academic post at Cambridge was through academic work, “something he worked very very hard for”. Gwydion asserts that this was a characteristic Welsh approach to education, grasping every opportunity that was presented, helping every child who could do well at school; there was no question that there was anything like equal opportunity, but every chance had to be taken.

Further memories provide insights. One was Williams’ insistence that the country was a place of work rather than leisure, and that city visitors should respect this. Gwydion recalls how difficult Raymond found it to relax, and how hard he worked. This chimes with his brother’s recollections that the family was like a work-unit, within which work was dominant. Gwydion’s memories are of his father’s work, because that was “what was interesting and unique about him”; and he stresses the value of Raymond’s writings for future generations, saying “things that had not been said before”. He records his anger at the Guardian article about Raymond produced by David Hare (now “Sir”) in June 1989, with accusations about his teaching, and the insinuations that Raymond neglected the personal tuition of his students. In fact, it was not a requirement of his job that Williams should give personal tuition, and he provided this as an “extra”.

My brief sketches suggest (to me at least) some insights into “aspiration” and “work”. The first is that these were linked, at any rate in Raymond Williams’ life. He aspired to a better life, of sorts, and work was one way to that. It was a way that, as he felt it, met with the support of the border Welsh community from which he came, and to which he so often returned. The dominant form of work in that community was farming-related, and it was seen as a place of work, despite its scenic and recreational qualities. Cambridge (and his earlier adult education work) was seen as providing both formal paid work and duties, and a place and structure of work from which he could carry out his own work, in the home that was outside that city. The work was seen as hard, and the reward for hard work was enlightenment, for himself and for others.

“Aspiration” here was not for personal gain, but for the contribution, however imperfect, that could be made towards a better world. And yet, work was also about an employment relation, one with specified (or informally understood) duties, over which he would be accused of dereliction. It is unfortunate that his widow Joy, carrying out further work on Raymond’s unfinished writings, should have had to spend part of her last two years refuting these accusations about his duties. Gwydion’s memoirs centre around much of that work, and provide insights into its meaning, which provoke questions about the keyword “work”.

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