Raymond Williams: a century-old bus tour

Centennial celebrations since his birth on August 31, 1921, cemented renewed interest in Raymond Williams (1921-1988), one of the leading left-wing thinkers of the 20th century. On October 15, in partnership with the Raymond Williams Foundation, I’m hosting an immersive tour of places related to Williams’ life and work that will explore the importance of place in his ideas and how people’s attachment to place can be used, not to divide and divide, but to forge new solidarities and common cultures, especially in Wales. Prominent writers, activists and political figures will moderate the tour by explaining their own connections to Williams.

The tour will start in Abergavenny and travel through Williams’ home village of Pandy in the leeward side of the Black Mountains, before venturing through the valley heads of South Wales to Merthyr and Aberdare, before returning in Abergavenny.

Otherwise Welsh?

Although he recalls Pandy, so often a point of reference in his fictional and academic writings, as having a “characteristic Welsh rural structure” of small family farms, Williams spoke of the “curious sense in which we could speak both Welsh and English as foreigners, as ‘not us’”.

So if Pandy wasn’t Welsh or English, maybe he was British?

“Nope, [that] term was not used much, except by people who were suspicious. ‘British’ was almost never used without following ‘Empire’ and for that nobody had any use.

Williams recalls his Pandy elders speaking of identity and for whom “the feeling of a specific local identity was much stronger”. It was the ‘border’, rather than Welsh language or non-conformism, that was the overriding specificity that shaped identity at Pandy.

A lazy trope persists among some that Pandy’s tastes are “less Welsh” due to their proximity to the border with England. Rather than seeing borders as dividing lines, we can reinterpret them as blurry, messy and contested intersections of forces, movements and transactions, and the concept of border helps us recognize that Pandy is not less Welsh is differently Welsh.

In this sense, co-editor of Welsh [Plural]: Essays on the future of Wales, Darren Chetty will end the visit to Aberdare at the head of the Cynon Valley talking about different understandings of ‘Welsh’. As Williams pointed out in his 1975 essay “Welsh Culture”, there are dangers in constructing an identity out of tropes, myths and illusions. It was at Aberdare that Williams’ father Harry – stationed after the First World War – encountered, in Williams’ words, a “very politicized [and] fairly advanced socialist culture”. For a former farmhand, Harry’s exposure to radical, class-influenced politics as a young railroad worker in Cynon did not result in a political conversion in Damascene, as his farmworker father had been expelled from the land and family home by a landed liberal engendering family distrust of privilege, whose material experience was only galvanized in Aberdare.

Lost landscapes

Long before reaching Aberdare we will be invited to try to drown out the busy A465 which passes through Pandy today, and pause to consider the winding ‘old road’ to Hereford, still partially visible. This old road was once a new road, usurping a tramway linking Gofilon Quay, and eventually the iron and coal communities of the eastern valleys, to Hereford. The status of the road was in turn diminished by the railway arriving at Pandy. The demands of industry, capital extraction, travel and consumerism have changed Pandy dramatically since 1921.

This border – not in the national or cultural sense – but in terms of industry and work, is at the center of the writer Merlin Gable’s contribution. Hailing from Grosmont, a short walk from Pandy to the east, Merlin will use the largely defunct tram that ran behind Williams’ childhood home in Llwyn Derw to illustrate how less pastoral this border country was suppose so. So neither Welsh nor English, but not rural or urban, pastoral or industrial either.

Roots and Returns

As much as Border country is rooted in a sense of place – a semi-fictional representation of Pandy and Abergavenny – it’s also about stepping away from one’s roots and the effects of those roots when one returns. Jude Rogers, one of the UK’s leading cultural writers, left his childhood home in Swansea for university in England before returning to Wales and will invite us when we are in Pandy to explore the ideas of social mobility in Williams’s work and how the themes of travel illuminated that experience for him, as readers still do today.

A new socialism

We leave Pandy for Merthyr Tydfil’s Redhouse, and the same room where Michael Sheen delivered his incendiary 2017 Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture, Here we will listen to Cwmni Bro Ffestiniog’s Sel Williams explain how his ‘Pontio’r Cenedl | The Bridging the Nation project draws on its years of community building in slate communities in North West Wales that shaped a radical practice of what Williams called “new forms of co-operative work and socialism. community… educational and cultural collectives”.

In a 1984 interview, Williams pointed out that new moves, like that of Cwmni Bro:

“…out of new ideas being specified in particular locations – then there can be a pattern…that is adaptable to the interests of other locations and scales of operation [but] ideas must come together.

Pontio’r Cenedl explores alternatives beyond what partisan politics offers, and Sel will invite us to “federate” their ideas with those of Cwmni Bro’s.

Like Blaenau Ffestiniog, Merthyr is a town built on industry, seemingly quite distinct from little Pandy and her family farms. However, Williams would recall seeing in the night sky above Pandy the glow of the industrial crucible furnaces of the Heads of the Valleys, a reminder that the toil and toil of industrial communities was not abstracted from the lives of the people of Pandy.

Also speaking to The Redhouse, former Plaid Cymru frontman, Leanne Wood, will invite us to reflect on how we might unite and align – rather than remaining abstract – green forces, minority nationalists, communitarians and socialists in the way Raymond Williams imagined. Leanne will invite people to consider the May Day Manifesto of 1968 as a model for a new socialism.

The bus tour is supported by the Raymond Williams Foundation whose mission is to continue the “long revolution” towards an educated and participatory democracy by supporting self-organized adult education and collective community learning. The tour will be educational and informative, yet relaxed and friendly and is aimed at those involved in adult education, community organizing, trade unionism, and arts and cultural activities.

The tour starts in Abergavenny before traveling by coach to Pandy, Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenavon and costs £25 per person (including buffet lunch), with a special offer (£9.50) for full-time students, young people aged from 16 to 18 and those unpaid or on Universal Credit. Tickets and more details can be found here.

Everyone who signs up for the Raymond Williams Centennial Tour will receive a free copy of Red Pepper with other offers also available.

Russell Todd is the founder of Valleys Ale Trails

Centennial Bus Tour Poster

About Norma Wade

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