It’s four years since my husband, the historian and socialist Raphael Samuel, died of cancer at the age of 61. In the weeks after his death, I wrote about him every day. I filled a boxfile and an A3 ringbinder with anecdotes and observations, physical descriptions and characteristic phrases; I made notes on what he had told me of his childhood, on our marriage, on his work, on what we called his ‘Communist unconscious’; I even listed his shirts. I couldn’t stop writing; I was restless and, at times, euphoric. I accumulated thousands of words. I thought about writing an article. I knew how I wanted it to begin, with a quotation from one of Raphael’s love letters, written when I was coming up to London to visit him, a fortnight after we’d met:
Further to my previous note, for God’s sake, don’t buy any vegetables. I have the two big aubergines we bought on Sunday, the fat cauliflower, the half pound of mushrooms, a giant beetroot, a bag of fresh herbs, two baby marrows, and sundry greens . . .
Raphael’s succulent inventory was meant to woo me – I was a vegetarian at the time – but its seriousness was even more seductive, making me laugh out loud. After he died, I hankered after this sense of urgency more than anything. It was appetite in its purest form, and appetite was the only antidote to the deathly.
Writing was a way of staying close to Raphael; it was something we both did for a living and it shaped the rhythms of our domesticity. Scribbling random notes on the back of used paper (a habit of Raphael’s), I was also impersonating him. Behaving like the lost person, employing their gestures, finding that you use, quite involuntarily, their turns of speech, is a common response to loss. It’s a version of the searching which confirms the absence but also incorporates the presence of the dead, making tangible and visible again what perishes first of all – the body of the beloved. Raphael wasn’t dead for me yet and writing kept him in suspended animation. In the months to come I understood better the myth of Mausoleus, whose widow eats his ashes. What easier way to take in a death and to digest its consequences (what therapists call ‘internalising’)? For me words were necessary to this incorporation; I was looking for ways to feed on my loss.
There was something manic in my writing: perhaps it was a last-ditch attempt at playing God, a compensation for the helplessness I’d felt watching Raphael die. I hadn’t been able to stop that happening but now I felt that I, and I alone, had the key to his life. I was preparing the materials for a vast biography and at the same time imagined producing a succinct, authoritative piece which would allow me to have the last word. I see now that writing kept the grief at bay (though I collapsed periodically, leaning against the house walls for support or lying doubled up on the bathroom floor); that words were insulation and ballast, staving off the sense of weightlessness, the untethering which makes the bereaved kindred to the mad.
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