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.

Its guiding assumption is that most people’s conceptions of the past owe less to the work of conventional scholarship than to a host of other, more ubiquitous influences, Samuel is not very sympathetic to academic historians. For most of his life, he has operated on the fringe of the academy, which he regards as stuffy, unimaginative and limited in its preoccupations. He believes that university-based historians rely exclusively on documents and are indifferent to visual sources or to the material remains of the past. They see their subject as a professional discipline, not as a source of enjoyment; and their writings are esoteric and inaccessible. As an indictment of today’s academic historians, many of whom write for a wide readership, always want illustrations in their books and often make great use of archaeology and fieldwork, this is rather off-target. But Samuel has a point about academics’ implicit repudiation of pleasure as their motive for doing what they do. In a world of research assessment and job insecurity, much contemporary academic writing inevitably carries a flavour of grim duty, conscientiously discharged. Productivity is required for productivity’s sake; the monographs pour out, but who has the time to read them?

Turning his back on this, for him, unrewarding scene, Samuel examines other areas of contemporary life which shape our views of the past and reveal what we really think of it. He groups his essays around five particular themes: taste and interior decoration, especially the cult of ‘retrochic’ and the incorporation of ‘period’ features into modern houses; the deliberate resurrection of a disappearing world, whether by the holiday industry, as in the Jorvik Viking Museum at York, or by voluntary groups like the Sealed Knot, who enact Civil War battles; the preservation of the built and natural ‘heritage’; the interest in old photographs; and costume drama on stage and screen. On all these subjects Samuel has a torrent of vivid detail and penetrating, if not always well co-ordinated insights. Above all, he irrefutably demonstrates the ineffectiveness of academic writing as an influence on popular views of the past, by comparison with the pictorial and emotional immediacy of such diverse phenomena as the National Trust, Crabtree and Evelyn, Past Times, The World of Interiors, Merchant-Ivory films, The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady or the trade in architectural antiques.

What distinguishes Samuel from other, more censorious critics of contemporary culture is his relative indulgence towards such frivolities. He has inflamed some of his socialist colleagues by justifying the popular fascination with ‘heritage’, even in its more meretricious forms. Most self-consciously ‘progressive’ writers have tended to denounce the heritage business as an unacceptable opiate: not only does it enable aristocrats to go on living in their country houses; it also presents a sanitised and sentimental version of the past in which poverty and class oppression are concealed by a nostalgic, forelock-tugging haze. How, they ask, can the visitors turning over the tea-towels and potpourris in a National Trust gift shop learn anything about the real living conditions of workers and domestics on an 18th-century landed estate? For Tom Paulin, ‘the British heritage industry is a loathsome collection of theme parks and dead values.’ For Patrick Wright, it is ‘part of the self-fulfilling culture of national decline’. As their country’s importance in the world diminishes, the British turn to their past for emotional compensation. How long, asks Robert Hewison, will it be before the whole country is turned into one vast museum?

Samuel conducts a lively polemic against the anti-heritage critics, hitting them where it hurts most. In their hostility to theme parks, gift shops and popular entertainments, he detects snobbery, misogyny and metropolitan condescension. In their dislike of heritage centres and ‘living history’, he sees the puritanical influence of the old document-based academics, visually insensitive and indifferent to material culture. Instead, he welcomes the new populist re-creation of the past as a means, not just of awakening public enthusiasm for history, but of enlarging the notion of the historical and extending the subject-matter of history. Moving away from politics and the constitution, heritage history tends to be about houses, workplaces and lifestyles. It raises new questions which professional historians, often woefully ignorant about the daily living arrangements of the past, are frequently unable to answer. Samuel defends ‘living history’ of the kind represented by restored medieval houses or gothic torture dungeons as praiseworthy attempts at the historian’s primary objective: what Sir Geoffrey Elton called the ‘controlled reconstruction of the past’ and Michelet ‘resurrectionism’.

Samuel also seeks to restore the political credentials of heritage. The cult of the past, he points out, usually stems from dissatisfaction with the present. The creator of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was a socialist, William Morris. The National Trust began as a Liberal movement and its three founders were all influenced by Christian Socialism. Cecil Sharp, the collector of folk song, was a Fabian. Even Edith Holden, author of The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, was a Birmingham socialist who taught in an elementary school and is not known ever to have entered a country house. Between the wars, ruralism and preservationism were modernist, progressive causes. Only in the Fifties, when Labour had become associated with the drive to tax the rich and rehouse the poor, did the conservation of heritage take on a Tory hue. In the absorbing diaries of James Lees-Milne, the preservation of country houses is revealingly linked with opposition to all the levelling tendencies of modern life. Lees-Milne, however, is not a typical voice of modern conservatism. The Thatcherism of the Eighties was hostile to the conservationist cause; and there was no greater enemy of heritage than Nicholas Ridley at the Department of the Environment. On the Continent, the outstanding model of how to preserve an ancient city in modern conditions remained Communist-run Bologna; and when it came to the meticulous conservation of aristocratic buildings there were few places to beat Leningrad.

Samuel points out that much of the heritage industry is not concerned with country houses and the aristocracy, but seeks to re-create the lives of women, farmers, miners or ironworkers. Many of its current enthusiasms – morris dancing, Nonconformist chapels, folk museums, oral history, photographs of Victorian labourers – are democratic and populist in their implications. Radicals may fear that resurrectionism domesticates the past and robs it of its horrors, but to conservatives living history can appear worryingly subversive. Samuel quotes a poignant letter to the Daily Telegraph from a visitor to HMS Victory at Portsmouth who found that the guide said nothing about Nelson as a naval hero, but descanted at length on the dreadful conditions suffered by the men below deck and the punishments inflicted on them by their officers, who lived in comfort above.

As Samuel remarks, each generation finds it necessary to make its own imaginative reconstruction of the past. Inevitably, it incorporates its current preoccupations into that reconstruction. This is as true of academic history, currently obsessed with gender and ethnicity, as it is of heritage history, which, according to the tastes of those involved, is as likely to frighten children with medieval dungeons and Victorian schoolrooms as it is to portray the past as Brideshead or as rural idyll. The object of academic history, however, is to set some limits to this historical free-for-all; and to prevent the circulation of representations of the past which are demonstrably misleading. In this it is seldom successful. So-called museums of witchcraft, for example, perpetuate absurd fictions about the subject which thirty years of academic writing have totally failed to obliterate. Samuel is right to welcome activities which help to lengthen people’s temporal perspective and make them less present-minded. But he is much too indulgent towards those forms of popular entertainment which uncritically reinforce historical illusions. He offers a perceptive critique of the sanitised version of 19th-century England offered in Christine Edzard’s film of Little Dorrit (1987), but he could have been equally scathing about some of the theme parks and ventures into ‘living history’ which he looks on so tolerantly. When most people derive their knowledge of the past from unofficial sources rather than academic studies, it matters all the more that those sources should be tolerably reliable.

Undiscriminatingly uncritical of the theme parks though Samuel may be, he is unsurpassed as a chronicler of the ephemeral tastes of his own time. He has a wonderful essay which contrasts the formica, chromium and metal-framed windows of the modernising Fifties with the festoon blinds, neo-Georgian doors and Laura Ashley fabrics of subsequent decades. Back came the glazing bars, cast-iron fireplaces and sash windows which the post-war generation had so scornfully ejected. Estate agents made a point of drawing attention to ‘original features’ and an architectural salvage trade grew up to supply them when they were missing. Carriage lamps, hanging baskets and cartwheels were introduced to gentrify former council estates. Samuel links these retrogressive tastes to the spread of owner-occupancy and of modern technology. Central heating and microwave cooking accompanied the vogue for open fireplaces and country-style kitchens, but the essence of retrochic was the concealment of this modernity under the veneer of a more eclectic style derived from the past, real or imagined.

Samuel argues that a profound shift of taste has taken place in his lifetime. It has drawn on a much greater awareness of the visual, assisted, no doubt, by new techniques of colour reproduction and reflected in television, the Sunday supplements, adverts, record sleeves and book jackets. More fundamentally, it has involved a mounting interest in the visible and palpable aspects of the historical past. The retrochic which helped to generate greater feeling for the historical nature of the built environment was accompanied by scores of comparable enthusiasms: steam railway societies, druids, rare-breed farms, family historians, ‘rescue’ archaeology, local history societies, the Campaign for Real Ale, conservation areas and (a typical discovery of Samuel’s) the Jousting Federation of Great Britain, which is affiliated to the Sports Council. Taken together, they constitute, he thinks, a sea-change in British life, ‘a historicist turn’ which occurred in the Sixties and has made an indelible mark on popular sensibilities.

Obviously, there is nothing intrinsically new about revivalism and eclecticism of this kind. Indeed, it is the modernism of the 20th century, with its rejection of the past, which now appears as the historical oddity. But the very scale of post-1960 nostalgia calls for some explanation. Since Samuel lumps together so many different organisations and activities without drawing the necessary distinctions between them, no single explanation would be possible. What, for in stance, do the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Glastonbury Festival and Wigan Pier have to do with each other?

Perhaps Samuel has not so much identified the rise of a new historically-oriented taste as shown what happens when people have the leisure and money with which to gratify it. There has never not been an interest in the past, but it is much easier nowadays for us to indulge it. It is no longer only aristocrats who study their family histories. Samuel himself cites the rise of home ownership and the growth of female spending power (82 per cent of the customers of Past Times are women). He also has some thing to say about new technologies, like facsimile printing and central heating. But, in company with the anti-heritage critics, he ultimately relates the change to a decline in national confidence. He points out that in the Forties the English heritage was less a collection of buildings and memorabilia than the national character itself, whose essence was complacently thought to lie in a sense of fair play, a willingness to compromise and a sense of humour. It is only with the subsequent national decline that the heritage has become something wholly distinct, a vanished and utterly different age to be nostalgically imagined, rather than the prelude to a living present.

Of course, heritage is not entirely a matter of nostalgia. Sometimes a local museum which celebrates the working lives of the ancestors of the present-day inhabitants, miners perhaps or steelworkers, can strengthen their sense of identity, give them self-respect and renew their confidence in the dignity of their own lives. Yet only too often the discontinuity is too great. For where now are the mines and steelworks? Things have changed and the past is indeed a foreign country. Who cannot feel the poignancy of those faces looking out from the old photographs, so tangibly immediate and yet so utterly irrecoverable? Samuel is right to argue that interest in heritage stems from dissatisfaction with the present. He is wrong to imply that it is necessarily linked to hope for the future.