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Alison Light: Wiltshire Baptists

8 April 2010
... The village of Shrewton lies in the valley of the River Till, overshadowed by chalk escarpments, about four miles from Stonehenge. One of my ancestors, Charles Light, was the pastor of the Zion Chapel, a Baptist church there, in the second half of the 19th century. Charles’s younger brother, Henry, was also a Baptist minister, preaching in Chitterne, the next ...


Alison Light: The death of Raphael Samuel

22 February 2001
... 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 ...


Alison Light: Raphael Samuel

2 February 2017
... read: ‘United for a Reform of Parliament’. When I moved in, I began ruthlessly to thin the collection, shuffling off items into Raphael’s study, replacing them with wine glasses to reflect the light. The coin stayed where it was. I met Raphael in 1985 when I was thirty and he was fifty. I was in my first academic job as a polytechnic lecturer and working on a doctorate. ‘Raphael Samuel’ was ...


Alison Light: In Portsmouth

7 February 2008
... Fortitude Cottage in Old Portsmouth, so the publicity tells me, is named after HMS Fortitude, a 74-gun ‘ship of the line’ that was part of the fleet which took on the French in the Napoleonic Wars. A tall bow-fronted house, it’s a bed and breakfast done out ‘boutique-style’, with white duvets, chocolate suede furnishings and modern ceramics. It was built on the site of a 16th-century cottage ...
11 November 1999
by Virginia Woolf, edited by Elizabeth Steele.
Blackwell, 123 pp., £50, December 1998, 0 631 17729 9
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by Paul Auster.
Faber, 186 pp., £12.99, June 1999, 0 571 19197 5
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... According to Baudelaire, fervent lovers and austere scholars have one thing in common, especially in their riper years. They share a love of household cats, who, like them, are ‘sédentaires’ and ‘frileux’ – sensitive to draughts. Baudelaire wrote many hymns to the friend of sensuality and learning, but it was another hundred years before cats reached their current popularity as pets. They ...

Unruly Sweet Peas

Alison Light: Working-Class Gardens

18 December 2014
The Gardens of the British Working Class 
by Margaret Willes.
Yale, 413 pp., £25, March 2014, 978 0 300 18784 7
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... Lampy​ , just a couple of inches tall, is the last of his tribe, and is now immured in a glass cabinet a long way from his German homeland. He was one of the porcelain Gnomen-Figuren brought to Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire in the 1840s to populate the huge rockery, fissured with crevices and ravines, which Sir Charles Isham created in front of his bedroom window. The rockery reflected Isham’s ...

Lady Talky

Alison Light: Lydia Lopokova

18 December 2008
Bloomsbury Ballerina: Lydia Lopokova, Imperial Dancer and Mrs John Maynard Keynes 
by Judith Mackrell.
Weidenfeld, 476 pp., £25, April 2008, 978 0 297 84908 7
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... the Polovtsian folk dances. She even took the lead in Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de feu (though one journalist thought her less a flaming phoenix than a delicate hummingbird). Tiny, fast and feather light, with a leap almost as high as Nijinsky’s, at 18 she was the latest sensation of the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev knocked a year off her age and promoted her as a child star. Mackrell is astute about ...

Oh those Lotharios

Alison Light: Jean Lucey Pratt

17 March 2016
A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt 
edited by Simon Garfield.
Canongate, 736 pp., £12.99, April 2016, 978 1 78211 572 4
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... I sway men’s hearts to a danger mark, and women’s too for that matter.’ In search of her ‘Ideal He’ – ‘someone slightly overpowering who dances divinely’ – she wishes she were ‘light and amusing and attractive’ (she is podgy, shy and often tongue-tied). Pratt writes her journal in the holidays from boarding school, ‘that strangely bittersweet prison’. She begins by ...

Harnessed to a Shark

Alison Light: Who was Virginia Woolf afraid of?

21 March 2002
Three Guineas 
by Virginia Woolf, edited by Naomi Black.
Blackwell, 253 pp., £60, October 2001, 0 631 17724 8
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... In the 1960s we used to sing a music-hall song in the pub whose rousing refrain began, ‘Two lovely black eyes – Oh, what a surprise!’ and went on: ‘Only for tellin’ a man he was wrong – two lovely black eyes!’ It took me a while to realise that the singer was a woman who’d been beaten up by her bloke because the song made me laugh so much, especially when we all whooped in chorus on ...

Regular Terrors

Alison Light: Window-Smashing Suffragettes

25 January 2007
Rebel Girls: Their Fight for the Vote 
by Jill Liddington.
Virago, 402 pp., £14.99, May 2006, 1 84408 168 0
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... In November 1913, ‘the Headingly two’, a dark-haired woman of about twenty-five and ‘a girlish figure in green cap and sports jacket’, stood trial for attempting to set fire to a football stand in Leeds. Among the evidence produced against them were some postcards, one declaring ‘No Vote, No Sport, No Peace – Fire, Destruction, Devastation’ and another addressed to Asquith: ‘We are ...

The Iron Way

Dinah Birch: Family History

19 February 2015
Common People: The History of an English Family 
by Alison Light.
Penguin, 322 pp., £20, October 2014, 978 1 905490 38 7
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... food. The two breeds are more or less prepared to tolerate each other, but there isn’t much traffic between them. In choosing to write the history of an English family – her own family – AlisonLight makes a determined if somewhat uneasy effort to bridge this gap. Painfully aware of the hazards, she tries repeatedly to disarm the criticism, or self-criticism, that is an inevitable ...
29 October 1998
Theatres of Memory. Vol. II. Island Stories: Unravelling Britain 
by Raphael Samuel, edited by Alison Light.
Verso, 391 pp., £20, June 1998, 1 85984 965 2
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... Stories is, however, a stage for the display of Samuel’s own extraordinary memory and of his equally extraordinary range of reading. In what she describes as ‘a biographical note on the text’, AlisonLight, Samuel’s widow and one of not many contemporary scholars who can write as gracefully and entertainingly as he did, tells us among other things about his elaborate methods of annotation, the ...

Why we have them I can’t think

Rosemary Hill: ‘Mrs Woolf and the Servants’

16 August 2007
Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service 
by Alison Light.
Fig Tree, 376 pp., £20, August 2007, 978 0 670 86717 2
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... if I wasn’t too frightened of the cook to go into the kitchen.’ The uneasy balance of power between domestic servants and their masters and mistresses, especially mistresses, is the theme of AlisonLight’s study of the home life of Virginia Woolf, whose complicated relationship with her own cook, Nellie Boxall, involved a degree of intimidation on both sides. The sight of Virginia and Leonard ...

‘Come, my friend,’ said Smirnoff

Joanna Kavenna: The radical twenties

1 April 1999
The Radical Twenties: Aspects of Writing, Politics and Culture 
by John Lucas.
Five Leaves, 263 pp., £11.99, January 1997, 0 907123 17 1
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... what ‘was actually a mess of immediacy into a narrative’, giving us ‘the illusion of ... knowing a culture first hand while actually shaping it into a form, a generality’ (in the words of AlisonLight, quoted in the book). To avoid a charge of shaping and labelling, he offers ‘radical’ as an anti-term: ‘not’ the jazz age, ‘not’ the metropolis, ‘not’ the Wall Street Crash ...


Alison​ Brackenbury

20 November 1986
... sighed, then only half Censured flight from heavy preaching. Grace was her name. Town roars; I tread Pavement as bare, as smooth as palms. Her dark eyes close. Where traffic ebbs She leaves her light weight in my arms ...

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