Why the work ethic remains

A Family Affair; this week, a husband and wife talk about the difficulties of trying to retire
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Writer and broadcaster Claire Rayner, 67, has been married to writer and painter Des Rayner for 41 years. They have three children and live in Middlesex.


I think in some ways the only way to give up work is to both do it together - otherwise I know it would be so hard for Des. I think Des could retire if he didn't have quite so many ideas. If I said, "That's it", and shut up shop, I think he would as well.

We've got a comfortable income so we could easily settle down and stop working so hard, but the trouble is, we can't. It's an issue we think about far more these days - it's more meaningful now because we've got less time to live.

Yet we still get up every morning at six forty-five. I keep thinking, "Why on earth am I still getting up so early? Wouldn't it be nice to sit on the terrace and relax?" Instead my desk's piled up and there's lots of work to get through every day.

One bit of me has this golden vision of taking it easy and going to the opera; the other bit thinks we'd just lie around feeling bored. I think our relationship has survived on us both having to work. I'm a restless, striving, pushy old bag. Des gets bored easily, too. What first attracted me to Des was what he did for a living; the fact that he worked in the arts, and the energy that came from that. Undoubtedly, our ideas marched together.

I do honestly think if we just had to occupy ourselves with each other all day, we'd be at each other's throats before the month was out. Part of me agrees with that old saying, "you marry him for better for worse but not for bloody lunch". I really don't think it would be healthy for us to do nothing. I honestly thought the time would come when I'd be happy to sit back and be a grandmother, but it didn't work out that way.

I'm the one who thinks about taking life easy and giving up writing here, there and everywhere. But it's a fantasy really. When I gave up a medical column, I thought "life's going to be lovely; I can go shopping". Somehow I haven't let that happen.

The trouble is that, in journalism, you either work your butt off or you're worried sick that there isn't enough coming in. Here we are at 67 and 69, and still working flat out and do you know, I'll be doing it for the next 20 years. Sometimes I do think, all our lives we've been working so hard, and somewhere along the line did I let life go by without noticing?

But we've both got this puritan work ethic and treat it very seriously. We don't work to live, we live to work, but we're very lucky to be writing and painting. It's been hugely enjoyable. I really don't like the thought of twiddling my thumbs.

I used to think ambition would dwindle - if anything the drive gets stronger. Like sex, it's something that hangs around longer than you think.


I think when you both work at home, it's vital that you function autonomously. It's important that you have your own space. We don't stop together for lunch. I've got my own studio and I may not see or speak to Claire all day.

Work has been invaluable to both of us; we have such a productive working relationship. I'm Claire's manager and agent; as I've said before, I'm an agent with one client and what's more, I sleep with her.

I don't think either of us could give up the work and navel gaze all day. We'd have to take up something else instead. I certainly can't imagine Claire giving it all up. She'd get edgy, irritable and would feel she should be doing something more worthwhile after helping other people for so many years. We've always had so much to talk about because of our work; constantly discussing ideas and asking each other what we think of this or that.

I've always respected everything she does. I've also felt that other people can push her into doing more than she should. I've sometimes thought she works too hard - she's often been branded a workaholic. I always tell Claire she looks after the nation's health.

Doing nothing may appeal to me for a month or two but it's a fantasy. The essence of day-dreams is not quite attaining them. It's no surprise to me that ambition doesn't die as you get older - it's part of nature. Even if you do sit around doing nothing, the ideas still continue to come and you want to follow them up. I don't feel that either of us could cut off from aspects of the arts - arts with a small `a'. If that's what has been going on for the past 60 years in your life, you can't just suddenly leave it all behind.

If you're the sort of person who rises to a challenge, the thought of retirement will always be difficult. I think I'd get terribly restless and irritable - if not like Victor Meldrew, then certainly his cousin.

Interviews By Emma Cook