Lever-Arch Inquisitor

John Barrell

  • Theatres of Memory. Vol. II. Island Stories: Unravelling Britain by Raphael Samuel, edited by Alison Light
    Verso, 391 pp, £20.00, June 1998, ISBN 1 85984 965 2

When Raphael Samuel died, the second volume of his projected trilogy Theatres of Memory was left unfinished. Some of the longer essays it was intended to contain were unwritten or unannotated or barely begun. The list of contents was still provisional, and the editors have assembled this book mainly by reconstructing Samuel’s shifting intentions, partly by guessing at them. There is a section of his short articles on history in the National Curriculum, one of which suggests 1066 and All That as the appropriate textbook for a John MacGregor version of the history syllabus; another (mainly) on visiting heritage sites, which seems to belong to the first volume; another (mainly) on the politics of Britain in the Eighties, including two pleasingly irritable essays from 1982 on the emergence of the SDP which (I am writing during the New Labour Party Conference) have lost nothing of their bite after 16 years.

Samuel left no introduction, and inevitably its absence gives the book a sometimes miscellaneous feel. The first volume began with a brief preface and a long introduction opposing the decencies of professional history with memory as a form of unofficial knowledge, but there is little explicit reference to the concept of memory in the second volume to explain its relation to the first. Island 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’, Alison Light, 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 cutting and pasting, the shifting of papers from one to another of the lever-arch files which covered the walls and threatened the floors of the house they shared while most of this book was written. Her account of this vast archive seems to compound rather than explain the problem of how Samuel could remember so much: how did he remember what he had once remembered? How did he know where to look? Researching his own archives must have been as risky as chipping fossils from a crumbling cliff.

The subtitle, ‘Unravelling Britain’, though it describes well the general direction of all this collection, is most useful as a guide to the four essays, three of them unfinished, which the editors have grouped together in its opening section, ‘Nations, States and Empires’. The phrase describes the continuing disintegration of ‘Britain’ as a supposedly single nation, and attempts by recent historians to rewrite the history of the four nations of the ‘British Isles’, or the ‘Anglo-Celtic Archipelago’ – and within them their own, different regions – from a less unitary, less Anglocentric perspective; to reconceive Britain, Samuel suggests, as it appears on Matthew Paris’s 13th-century map, where Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde appears as an island, and Wales, Cornwall, and Devon and Dorset are almost sundered from England by rivers wider than the Mississippi. The essays throw up example after example of the new ways of looking at the past, the new objects of attention, the new periodisations, that this unravelling has developed and will continue to develop.

At the same time, however, they argue something different: the more we insist on the divisions within the archipelago, the more porous these divisions will once again appear to be; the model discipline here might be archaeology, which, ‘supremely indifferent to political frontiers ... has been delighted to extract Roman and Celtic objects from Anglo-Saxon graves’. The more the word ‘British’ is coming to seem redundant to describe the citizens of a unitary state and nation, the more useful it is turning out to be, because its failure ever to become naturalised in the language of patriotic emotion has left it a relatively empty space; one which can be filled only with plural identities, multi-faith and multicultural, yet still a collective notion in search of a collective principle.

There’s a way of writing cultural history which, if not quite automatic itself, certainly encourages automatic reading. You sort a hundred or so file-cards into roughly equal piles – say, five in each – according to a notion of the different topics they exemplify, and you have the material for 20 consecutive paragraphs, each with a topic sentence and five sentences of illustration: ‘In Norwich in 1586 ... Forty years later in Bristol ... By 1673 in Nottingham ...’ The tributary sentences and paragraphs will flow down the page, each picking up the momentum of those that precede it, and picking up readers too, who, if you write well, will be too exhilarated by the ride, and, if you write badly, too desperate to finish the chapter, to wonder about the differences between what are represented as mutually corroborating stories. The point, it sometimes seems, of this meltwater method is to half-drown your readers with examples until, heaving and gasping, they assent to the truth of the story you claim they exemplify. It doesn’t usually work like that, but it works anyway: the reader is too amused or too bored to disagree.

Samuel was a past-master at this kind of writing, and, because he wrote so extraordinarily well, and found his examples in such unexpected places, you can sometimes find yourself gobbling away without being quite sure, afterwards, just what it is you’ve swallowed. There’s a delightful essay, reprinted in Island Stories, on the discovery of puritanism between 1820 and 1914, which, taking Carlyle’s rehabilitation of Cromwell as its main starting-point, sweeps together every entertaining fad and crotchet of ‘advanced’ thought and behaviour of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as examples of a reinvented puritanism so loosely defined that it can stretch effortlessly to include them all. Most of the stories and examples, I thought at the end, could equally have been used, especially by a writer as inventive as Samuel, to illustrate several different accounts of the relation between religious and secular nonconformity.

A tick in the margin here, I hope, from Samuel’s shade. For what above all these essays teach us (and teach is what they do) is to be suspicious of this fluminous style, to learn to see the river flowing uphill, a pattern not of confluences but of branches. In the most characteristic of these essays the paragraphs don’t unite but divide, don’t corroborate but confront each other, the most typical link between one paragraph and the next is the quaintly expressed invitation to see things ‘in another optic’. One essay after another shows how different selections of examples will produce quite different accounts of what happened, how much a vision of the past depends on which eye we open or what arrangement of lenses we peer through. That the provisionality of history may not be its problem and might be its point is a truth so widely acknowledged that (you might imagine) it can hardly stand telling again. But it’s the way he tells it: not as a theoretical piety or as a preamble to ignoring it, but by sketching counter-history after counter-history, each so plausibly supported and illustrated that we might never have noticed the absence of the others.

Of all these essays the most characteristic is an apparently slightish piece, ‘The Voice of Britain’, an expanded version of a review, published in March 1996, of the fifth volume of Asa Briggs’s History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom. The first section begins by reflecting on the obligation imposed on institutional histories, especially those written by insiders, to inflate the importance of the institutions they describe, treating founders and managers as heroes and visionaries, moves into new premises as epochal moments, periods of reorganisation as great revolutions; turning men us for celebration-dinners into Homeric lists, recording the huge contribution made by everyone, ‘from the tea-boy to the President’, to what is always a story of triumphant success. The examples come from everywhere: from histories of trade societies and of co-ops, a bank and a bus service, an independent boarding school, a day school, a Sunday school, books you would expect Samuel to have read, others which you cannot imagine anyone but him still reading, each read with genial affection and leaving its sedimentary trace in the cliffs of files. These opening paragraphs issue a confidential invitation to professional historians of institutions to compare such amateur chronicles with their own work – critical, comprehensive, contextual, concerned with policies and processes of decision-making rather than with personalities. It is an invitation which, if they know Samuel’s work, they will have warily refused long before they come to the last laconic sentence of this section, on Namier’s History of Parliament: ‘The people had a look-in, too, if only as bystanders at the hustings.’

The essay continues by reflecting on the fundamental importance of the BBC to national life, especially in the years from the Twenties to the Fifties. Samuel reminds us of the entanglement of the BBC with every defining moment of modern history, the impossibility of thinking about the nation in the period without thinking of the BBC, the degree to which it strengthened the position of London as metropolis and, for it was nothing if not paternal, the patropolis of Britain and the Empire, its projection at once of Great Britain and Little England, its modernising influence, how it transformed domestic life, domestic space, the lives of women, the language, the opportunities for participation, at a remove, in the cultural and sporting and ceremonial life of the nation. All this is stuck with footnotes about when Romany’s cocker-spaniel learned to speak English and competing fretwork designs on radio cabinets, and exemplified with anecdotes and sketches drawn partly from broadcasting histories and memoirs, but as much it seems from Samuel’s own historical imagination: ‘The tennis-club blade, preparing for the annual ball, could practise his steps to the strains of top-notch dance bands, broadcast live from a grand hotel.’ And drawn also of course from his own memories of this programme and that, Out with Romany and In Town Tonight and the Radio Doctor and ‘the defiantly non-combative aerodrome’ of Much Binding-in-the-Marsh. Samuel delights in offering the objects of his own nostalgia as the data of history (and encourages others, I’m afraid, to do the same: I remember the Radio Doctor ordering the nation to eat more grease, and to this day I have obeyed him).

If this sounds like cultural history in suspension, saturated by meltwater, it turns out to be much more when Samuel finally turns to consider Briggs’s History itself. For all Briggs’s scholarly virtues, his ‘modernising spirit’, his determination to write a ‘total’ history of the BBC, the vision, courage and ambition which led him to embark on his massive work, it ended up, Samuel tells us, as ‘a top-down history of a very old-fashioned sort’. Briggs, in this account, is preoccupied to the point of fascination by administrative reports and by hierarchy, who at any time were climbing the ladders, who were sliding down the snakes; who got knighthoods and who were the troublemakers out of tune with the BBC’s ‘corporate harmony’. The result is a history of policy-making, not of broadcasting, and in this light – not an altogether fair light, I think, after a flick through Briggs’s volume – the earlier flood of anecdotes, memories and reflections on the BBC’s influence on national life functions as a series of suggestions of what more unofficial, less intramural histories of the BBC might be about. The programme-makers, the stars, the secretaries, the scriptwriters, above all the listeners, eddy round the castle walls, searching out the cracks and chinks that might give them more of a look-in.

The unstated implication, once again characteristic, is that these alternative histories would somehow belong on the amateur side of the division with which the essay began. I am never sure what this move amounts to in Samuel’s writing. The distinction between a top-down history and a history from below is frequently superimposed on the distinction between professional and amateur, academic and other, as if all historians who think of history as a profession spend their lives reverently fingering the mouldy parchments of the ruling class, or (in another version) as if attending conferences and publishing in learned journals automatically turns those who attempt to write history from below into mandarins and autarchs. Much of what made Samuel unique among professional historians can be traced to this act of superimposition; it might also help explain why, in terms of a definition whose narrowness would appal him, he could sometimes be regarded (as I’ve heard him described several times in America) as not a historian at all.

Of course, he was one by almost every definition. He was by every account a superb teacher of history, and his writings are teacherly beyond those of any other contemporary British historian I read. He was probably the most energetic proselytiser, perhaps the most persuasive contemporary advocate in Britain for the study of history, as the essays on the proposals for the National Curriculum remind us. About the history of England he was, if not the most learned person I have ever met, the most generous with his learning, which comes to the same thing. He was voraciously inquisitive: so much so that I was amazed to discover from this book that, with the exception of his boarding-school, he had never been inside any of the big houses of England, those great schools of history from below (the awestruck admiration, the envy, the boredom soon induced by unrelieved magnificence, the relief in the kitchen and laundry when we find things our own ancestors must have used). For these reasons and others he became for many historians on the left, long before his death, and without apparently being aware of it, the tutelary saint of their discipline, the more so perhaps as his tolerance and his sympathies stretched to embrace signs of the times and versions of history, the heritage industry in particular, that the Left was expected to disdain. But saint or not, he certainly functioned as a tutelary presence: watching the discipline, continually questioning its methods, spying out the land ahead of it, and watching over it too, quick to defend it, and with an absolute faith in its importance.

The suggestion, when I’ve heard it made, that he was not ‘really’ a historian was not apparently about what he worked on, where he published or spoke: it translated into the question ‘where are the monographs?’ Where are the book-length consecutive studies of period and topic? And if the question can be asked without the suggestion of a failure, or of ingratitude for what has seemed to me, as I’ve attempted in the last weeks to reconstruct it from the resources of my library, an astonishingly energetic and, in its objects and principles, an impressively coherent body of writing, it’s certainly worth asking. It finds one answer in Samuel’s distrust of monographs as the totems of professional acceptance. It finds another in Alison Light’s account of Samuel’s working methods, his ‘constant, even obsessive’ revisions and re-creations, his work in a ‘continual state of fission’, as essay after essay seemed about to split, or did split, into smaller parts which would grow and might divide again. In another introduction, by all three editors, this quality of Samuel’s work, and of the work he admired and advocated, is described by almost every appropriate adjective one could imagine: ‘experimental’, ‘fluid’, ‘provisional’, ‘continuous’, ‘evolving’, ‘inchoate’, ‘protean’.

If we oppose these words, as the editors do, to the aspiration to write ‘definitive’ histories, they seem to describe everything that is so creative about Samuel’s writings. In another optic, however, they suggest a creativity of a very particular kind, apparently characterised by an unwillingness to suspend his disbelief for long enough to write the longer and more inclusive narratives that are the result of following a thread as far as it can be pretended to lead, of making those continual decisions, however tentative, about what should be gathered into the story and what may be left outside. By the end of Island Stories I was sometimes wondering if the wonderful dash of his writing wasn’t sometimes too dashing, too busy bounding from each half-begun story to another. The exhilarating openness of Samuel’s writing, and the open history he advocates, must have something to open; it depends for its success on the willingness of other historians to risk attempting provisional gestures of closure.