Diary

Alison Light

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:

Dear love,

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.

Raphael was diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 1995. I wrote a convoluted, poetic account of what it felt like to live with the illness (I called it ‘The Fifth Season’, since by the time I finished it we were into our second spring). It was never published and he never read it, but it was in part a response to Susan Sontag’s attack on the idea of illness as a metaphor. Metaphors seemed to both of us then a possible defence, protective colouring – provided there were plenty of them, proliferating like vines. For instance, instead of the militarist notions of ‘invasion’ and ‘bombardment’ which Sontag had shown to be so insidious in medical thinking, we played with the idea of cancer as dissident or anarchist, a disease of the diaspora. Cancer was a precarious state, and metaphors offered a temporary hold, even a saving grace; the capacity to interpret and reinterpret was a knowing refusal of diagnosis as a death sentence; metaphor, a species of reprieve.

Formlessness, however, is a condition of mourning. I went to see a Howard Hodgkin exhibition at the Hayward Gallery shortly after Raphael died. I stood before an oil painting called Lovers in an ecstasy, dazed by the red and green swathes of bright, primal colour swooping like a rainbow and running right off the canvas, spilling over the black frame. A dialectical union of opposites, it figured that dissolution of boundaries, the falling in love which mourning restages. Like love, grief stops history in its tracks; it has duration without narrative. (For the lover time concertinas into unbearably fleeting moments: for the mourner each minute is monumental.)

Like other fledgling mourners I was not conscious of trying to ‘master loss’, as Freud puts it in Beyond the Pleasure Principle; all my efforts went into projection, into being with the deceased: wanting, in fact, to die. The sobbing, the dry heaving and violent racking of the body, the ‘dissolving’ into tears, all make the physical separation between the living and the dead seem less hard and fast. Those early months of mourning were, as we say, a blur. But mourning works against the will, by compulsive repetition. Eventually the repeated repetitions (all those anniversaries counted in days, then weeks, then months and years) force one to register that the absence feels different, if only by being, like the pain, more familiar. However stymied the mourner feels inside, however inert, outside changes remorselessly. So for example, the general election that May was a terrible wrench; an assault on my inwardness.

Of course I had to abandon the ‘article’ – editing, cutting or finishing anything about Raphael’s life seemed psychologically impossible. As well as being grateful, I was shocked at how swiftly Raphael’s closest male friends could write about him, how readily they occupied the public space. Perhaps mistakenly, I linked their capacity to find that authority with a different relation to grief, one in which anger was more allowable (and triumphal feelings, too). Getting something out of your system – and that includes writing about it – requires aggression; writing alienates. I found myself wondering whether, compared with their male peers, women have always written less about the death of people they loved.

Raphael wasn’t ‘famous’ in the sense that film-stars are famous, but he was a public figure: a political activist who had been a member of the Marxist Historians Group and the old New Left; a teacher who had been at the same college, Ruskin, for thirty-odd years and had helped to shape the culture of adult education; a historian whose work had been part of a collective effort to change the practice of social history, and a writer and critic who had debated and engaged with these questions on radio and TV and in the press. Raphael’s life was intensely peopled: he worked by constant consultation, and friendship – comradeship – was a principle of life for him.

He was 51 when I married him, twenty years older than me. He had had other love affairs and long companionships, had brought up children and made alternative households in the house in Spitalfields which he had first rented in 1962, and where I now live alone. He had not only kept in touch with ex-lovers but continued to work with them. That I would have to share the process of mourning and memorialisation was obvious from the beginning – about three hundred people came to the funeral at Highgate Cemetery, which sensibly was microphoned (this immediately made it a more public occasion, as did the presence of a press photographer, which I found unbearable). I received a mass of condolence letters, many from strangers who, like the hundreds at the memorial held the following April at the Conway Hall, talked affectionately and possessively about ‘Raph’. None of this made me less territorial, even though I knew it was pointless to try to monopolise the dead. Rivalry among the grieving feels shameful and is usually hushed up in families. It may be more exposed in a public death where there are fewer shared rituals (especially on the secular Left). We had no politics of memorialisation; we had to make it up as we went along.

I remember some colleagues coming to the house from the University of East London to examine Raphael’s books with a view to a donation. He had set up a centre for London history there in the last months of his life. I thrust photographs of him under their noses: here he is on holiday in his swimming trunks; basking in the sun; drinking Spanish brandy! I wanted to insist on ‘the private man’ I felt constantly in danger of losing as that other chimera, the public figure, loomed ever larger. But I knew the division was illusory, especially in Raphael’s case. In the introduction to Village Life and Labour (1975), the first volume of the History Workshop Series of books, he wrote:

We need to know about the inner life of the household – the competition for authority and love, the allocation of domestic roles – if we are to give a convincing account of the way it is shaped by external forces . . . the same is true of moral discipline and social control: they are generated from within as well as imposed from without.

Interiors – the inner life of the home, but also of the self – are not outside history but places where history is made. This was literally brought home to me, as it usually is to the bereaved, when so many of my household habits no longer made any sense. It seemed as if the whole house had to be reincarnated, lived in differently, if I was not to feel redundant. By the first anniversary of Raphael’s death all the work for his second volume of Theatres of Memory had been decanted into Island Stories and his study made into a sitting-room with a fitted carpet (the height of corruption). I had a party to mark the new room; no one found it heartless, I think.

Thom Gunn has a poem in The Man with Night Sweats in which he imagines the dead watching the living on TV, until, after a few episodes, they get bored and feel excluded and begin, at last, ‘weaned from memory’, to join the snowy battalions of the truly dead. After four years I can begin to let Raphael cross the Styx. He hasn’t haunted me much, which is a shame. He has hardly appeared in my dreams after those frantic nightmares of the first year, fugues in which I sought and found him in madhouses and cancer wards, tormented, sick and abandoned. There have been one or two signs, however, from the underworld. Around the third anniversary I dreamt that Raphael was in the US (the place, given his residual anti-American feeling, that he was least likely to be). We talked on the telephone and it was good to hear from him (Raphael spent half his life on the phone, cradling the receiver lovingly under his chin). A connection had been made at least.

Then, in the run-up to the last anniversary, I had another dream which I take to be a psychic advance of sorts. Raphael was back. He had been away for some mysterious reason but now he had returned to Britain and I rushed round to where I knew I’d find him, slightly puzzled that he had not got in touch, but excited at the prospect of seeing him again. I dashed upstairs and knocked and there he was: wedged between teetering columns of books and almost invisible beneath a cliff of files (the setting suggested the North Gallery at the old British Library, where I used to unearth him at closing time). He was courteous and perfectly friendly but somewhat embarrassed. Clearly he was eager to get on with his work. I immediately woke up with a sad but satisfying sense that he had left me (how clever the unconscious is): he didn’t need me anymore so it was fine for me to be living my own life. This time I didn’t need the Atlantic to let me off the hook.

Proust says that grief decays more even than beauty, crumbles into dust, leaving fewer and fewer traces of itself. Certainly I can no longer taste the ashes in my mouth. But mourning – and Proust observed the anniversaries of his mother’s death (even the monthly ones) devotedly – is the kind of remembering that leavens or deadens a life. In the first volume of Theatres of Memory, Raphael described memory as an activity, a dramatic process in which the relation to the past is constantly improvised, re-enacted and thereby made new. A theatre is the opposite of a mausoleum. As a historian Raphael had more past in his life than most. Not least, what weighed on me personally, the vast tranche of papers, the body of his work, which filled the entire house over five floors. Throughout my mourning I have wanted two opposite, impossible things: to hold on tightly and belligerently to absolutely everything; to be free of it all at one stroke. Coming across some tatty scripts with their edges scorched from being against a hot waterpipe, I longed for the whole lot to go up in smoke and our house, which was as Dickensian as Krook’s, to combust spontaneously.

But the fear of being overwhelmed by the past is matched by the fear that there will be nothing left to show for a life; mourning lurches between the compulsion to remember and the desire – at times far more frightening – to forget utterly. More frightening because, perhaps, it heralds our own mortality, our disappearance eventually into history. In the last four years I’ve returned over and over to what one of my closest friends said when I lamented that I was ‘just a chapter in Raphael’s life’. Instead of reassuring me as I wanted, she said gently but boldly: ‘Perhaps you don’t like the idea of him becoming a chapter in yours.’

In a sense, all the writing that is produced in the wake of a death is hopeful – from the brief announcement in the paper to the fullest biography. Writing is a form of resurrectionism: a faith in the life to come. Perhaps inevitably the recent literature of mourning emphasises the survivor’s story: it has been one of the central ways of plotting the 20th century. But what seems as compelling to me now is to find space in the writing of history or biography for those times when the story seizes up, when there is no progress, only stasis or repetition; the times out of time when we are helpless or sick, wounded or crazy. Poetry has always stolen a march on prose when it comes to picturing loss. I think of Tennyson’s weaving together of sporadic moods, arrested moments and broken states in In Memoriam; how he winnowed down the years into those three Christmases which grant the reader the consolation of a narrative; how determined he was to ring out ‘wild bells’ at the New Year, over and over again, to celebrate and renounce the mourner’s glimpse of eternity.