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.

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