Retrochic

Keith Thomas

  • Theatres of Memory. Vol. I: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture by Raphael Samuel
    Verso, 479 pp, £18.95, February 1995, ISBN 0 86091 209 4

Raphael Samuel and I were undergraduates together at Balliol in the early Fifties. Bibliographically omnivorous, buried under piles of notes and unfinished essays, inkstained and dishevelled, he exuded intellectual intensity and passionate left-wing commitment. I remember his appearing at breakfast one morning, tearful and wearing a black tie. Asked what the matter was, he burst out, weeping: ‘Uncle Joe is dead!’ In his new book he tells us that he was brought up in a ‘bookish, religiously Communist family’ and that there was a bust of J.V. Stalin on the kitchen mantelpiece. He was certainly bookish, for I remember browsing on the shelves of his college room and picking up a copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, a set book for our History prelims, only to find in it the daunting inscription: ‘To Raphael on his eighth birthday.’

Since those days, Samuel has earned a distinctive place in the annals of British historiography as a founder and moving spirit of History Workshop, originally a sort of democratic teach-in at Ruskin College, to which workers and students came with their sleeping-bags, later institutionalised as History Workshop: A Journal of Socialist and Feminist Historians; nowadays it bears the respectable imprint of the Oxford University Press and has just dropped its subtitle. As a tutor at Ruskin, Samuel has been an inspiration to generations of amateur historians and autodidacts, staging crowded conferences, holding seminars in London pubs and editing volumes of essays which seek to incorporate into history the everyday lives of women, the poor, ethnic minorities and other once-neglected groups. Sentimental and antiquarian though History Workshop can be, it has fostered a real interest in the past and greatly widened the scope of historical enquiry.

The tantalising mixture of inspirational leadership and mild organisational chaos which has always been Samuel’s hallmark is well displayed in this new collection of his writings, the first volume of a promised trilogy. It seems to be made up entirely of previously published essays from the Guardian, New Society and elsewhere, though, infuriatingly, neither the place nor the date of original publication is ever given. There is an excessive amount of repetition and the effect of many excellent passages is much diminished by their appearing, almost verbatim, in a subsequent chapter. There are also many minor errors of the kind made by an author in whose head an infinity of names and places are buzzing around: the 17th-century antiquarian was William Dugdale, not Thomas; the early Victorian author of The Mansions of England in the Olden Time was the artist Joseph Nash, not the architect John; the authority on Hadrian’s Wall is Robin Birley, not Robert; William III’s historiographer was Thomas Rymer, not Edward; it was in the ruins of the Capitol, not the Colosseum, that Gibbon conceived the idea of the Decline and Fall; and Rothesay is not an island.

It would be wrong, however, to allow pedantic irritation to mar one’s enjoyment of this wonderful compendium of enthusiasms, insights and recondite detail, a sort of literary counterpart to the barrows of antique bric-à-brac in London street markets which Samuel regards as so revealing of contemporary sensibilities. For all its apparent miscellaneousness, this is a book with real points to make about history and popular culture.

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