Diary

Alison Light

In his basement kitchen Raphael Samuel had a cabinet of curiosities, a glass-fronted corner cupboard filled with dusty objects. Among them, a lump of coal from the Durham coalfields and a plastic National Coal Board mug; a yellow and black theatre programme for a 1956 performance of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, with Mack the Knife sketched on the cover as a predatory city gent, with bowler and cane, about to fleece the poor; a misshapen pottery animal, half-cow, half-crocodile, made by one of the children Raphael had helped to bring up; and some relics as old as the house itself, stems and bowls from 18th-century workmen’s clay pipes with a tuft or two of the horsehair they had used to pack the plaster. I didn’t make much of the coin from the London Corresponding Society, apparently discovered, like the pipes, when the floorboards were taken up. Dated 1795, it 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 a name on a book spine – People’s History and Socialist Theory, as I recall – but I had read English as an undergraduate, not history, so it meant little to me. Romance, though, was much on my mind. Literally. I had been thinking about it hard and wrote my first article, off my own bat, about Rebecca. It was fuelled by an old-fashioned indignation. I was furious at the Marxist critics I was reading who called romance readers ‘dupes’ and saw their longings as false consciousness. Romance, I argued, not quite pontificating, was always a sign of restlessness and discontent; of wanting more than was on offer. All those ‘True Love’ stories I had devoured as a girl, doctors and nurses gazing into each other’s eyes, all those mass-market romances, might be, like religion, ‘the opiate of the people’. But they were also, as Marx also wrote of religion, ‘the heart of a heartless world’.

A History Workshop meeting on ‘Popular Romance from Robin Hood to Mills and Boon’ was right up my street. Raphael was there, sitting on the floor in the packed main hall of Ruskin College where he taught adult students, amid dozens of historians from both inside and outside the university. He looked like the eternal student himself in jeans and bomber jacket, long hair flopping over his eyes as he smoked a roll-up. ‘A bit of an old hippie’, I thought, mistaking him for the generation of 1968. In the reading group I joined after the workshop, I soon realised he was far from laid-back. Face to face he was a fierce, intense talker, leaning into the argument, his speech accelerating, spreading his palms wide as he raised his hands and shrugged – his gestures, like his unashamed appetite for intellectual debate, were wonderfully un-English. After a few months he rang me up. He was writing about Victoriana, and in particular ‘retrofitting’, the periodising of houses that was part of the new DIY fad (it developed into a chapter in Theatres of Memory). Had I ever been to home improvement superstores like B&Q? (I had.) Did they sell new cornices and dado rails or fake wrought iron? (They did.) Could we meet to talk about it? We talked, we courted and were married within a year.

Meeting Raphael’s family, I was once more swept off my feet. I felt I was encountering ‘History’, with a capital ‘H’. My own plebeian background seemed humdrum by comparison. His relatives had come from Poland and Russia, fleeing the pogroms of the late 19th century. Raphael lived in Spitalfields, not far from Whitechapel, where his mother’s parents had arrived. In the 1930s, his mother, Minna, her sisters and their husbands, joined the British Communist Party: it was their social life, their church. He had grown up, he said, ‘a religious Communist’, trying to convert his schoolfellows and turn them against God at the school gates. He was proud of Minna who in her sixties had returned to her first love, music. She was working hard on a symphony (I heard it played at the BBC Proms in 1989 when she was eighty). An artist, an atheist and internationalist in her almost Maoist blue trouser suit, Minna was a modern, forward-facing, unlike her historian son. My own grandmother had been a servant and had ten children; she seemed Victorian by comparison while Minna hardly seemed ‘old’ at all. I fell in love with her too, or with the idea of her, and with my new Jewish family.

Our marriage, Raphael suggested affectionately, would be, in Marxist terms, ‘a dialectical unity of opposites’: from two very different people, something new, a third entity – ‘the marriage’ – would evolve. Raphael’s priorities were work and an unflagging commitment to collective projects: political activism, teaching and writing history, editing a journal and an unending series of books. Finishing an article, he would curl up on the wooden floor of his study in a sleeping bag; set his alarm clock for two a.m.; work again; sleep again; get up again to prepare his classes and leave at six for the train to Oxford and his job at Ruskin. ‘Raphael never has sex,’ one of his women friends felt obliged to tell me, ‘he works all night.’ The very idea of a private life, or even of a ‘self’, with its tendency towards a possessive individualism, was alien to him. He was used to keeping open house to innumerable comrades from across the world who would turn up at short notice, expecting a bed or a floor, a meal and a conversation that went on half the night. ‘Another twelve Althusserians for breakfast!’ I would joke, or half-joke.

I, on the other hand, had been living alone, relishing the idea of independence, beginning to write and to take my ‘self’ seriously. With a romantic flourish, I sold my airy Brighton flat with its garden and distant view of the sea and moved into Raphael’s dark, narrow house, its tiny courtyard overlooking a car park. Along with my books, I brought my creature comforts, namely, my sofa and my cat. The sofa, a cumbersome Edwardian three-seater decked out in Sanderson chintz, became my island of retreat. I took the sunniest room in the house for my study and since Raphael had no television, I rented one from Rediffusion on the Bethnal Green Road. It came on a stand and could be wheeled discreetly to one side. Draped with a dark red velvet curtain, it lent a theatrical air to viewings. At first I’d sit alone in the late evenings watching TV while Raphael was working at his desk or on the phone (the two often went together). Gradually, like a nervous animal approaching water, he came to join me. He was amazed by the verisimilitude of detective series, how they got the detail right in Inspector Wexford’s lounge, for instance, as if it were – and indeed it was – another kind of historical document. Unable or unwilling to follow plots, he interrupted excitedly with constant questions – ‘Why is he doing that, darling?’ or ‘Is that what people have in their kitchens now in Surrey?’ Part innocent, part anthropologist, he was thrilled by this brave new world but was never going to be seduced by it.

Spitalfields in the mid-1980s was a shabby, little-known corner of London, dominated by the all-night fruit and veg market whose lorries rumbled over the cobbles at dawn. Our immediate neighbours were Tory dropouts escaping their professions, jazz fiends, squatters and gentrifiers who had saved their 18th-century houses from destruction, and old East Enders. Retired ‘villains’, whose stories Raphael recorded, called regularly (the champagne for our wedding breakfast came via a local ‘fence’). Hard-faced, amiable men, they were protective of him – an ‘egghead’ – convinced he was being taken for a ride by a gold-digger. Given his surname they imagined he was connected to the chain of jewellers found on every British high street and that he must have money stashed away.

Our lives were saturated with the past. The house, built in the 1720s for a silk-weaving community of Huguenot refugees, with its window seats, panelled walls and shutters, was full of ghosts. Innumerable feet had hollowed out the treads of the winding wooden staircase. As if it were a palimpsest, it bore the signs of occupation through the centuries: the cast-iron range in the kitchen was a Victorian addition; the mezuzahs on the lintels belonged to the 1900s when Jewish families had lived there; tiny washbasins tucked away in the cupboards harked back to its being a lodging house fifty years later. Raphael had made the house a species of historical archive. Scurrilous satirical cartoons, coloured facsimiles of French Revolution playing cards, trade union posters, the theatre bill for Shaw’s Arms and the Man, a newspaper graphic in ochre and yellow of square-jawed Bolshevik peasants fighting imperialism, the black and white flyer for the 1967 congress on the ‘Dialectics of Liberation’ with R.D. Laing and Stokely Carmichael, which Raphael attended – our walls offered a mini history of radicalism. For him the coin from the London Corresponding Society was part of a living currency. Through his eyes I began to imagine that a shopkeeper or a printer, protesting for his rights against a viciously repressive government, had actually smoked his pipe in the basement, a Jacobin in our kitchen.

Sometimes I felt I was living in a time machine; sometimes in a time warp, especially when Spitalfields became a focus for conservationists, doing up the houses according to their often elevated version of a neo-Georgian past, their ‘period residences’ far grander and smarter than the humble weavers’ houses would have been. But the late 1980s and 1990s were gung-ho years for the City of London and a maelstrom of demolition and construction surged on our doorstep. The whole of the area north and east of Liverpool Street Station was slowly engulfed as Broadgate, a Leviathan even among London’s new mega-developments, advanced nearer and nearer. I would wake to find that there was nowhere to buy dinner that day; the local butcher’s and a row of shops had been razed overnight; or the pavement outside our house was being ploughed up. In my diary I complained of living in what felt like a state of permanent revolution, without domestic routines, regular hours or predictable meals. That inner turmoil found its objective correlative in the constant chaos outside the house, the sense of meltdown, as our neighbourhood became dedicated to the gods of global finance. It no longer surprises me that a couple of years after our marriage I became depressed, then agoraphobic. For a while I found it hard to function.

It’s twenty years since Raphael died. In that time I have done a fair bit of what I call ‘widowing about’. I edited two volumes of his essays, spent several years establishing an archive of his papers, and have been part of the research centre set up in his name. So why do I want to write about him now? I feel old enough, would be one way of putting it, or equal to it. Though perhaps I mean, and the thought surprises me, that I feel equal to him. I was no ingénue or neophyte when we met but I got used to being seen as young, even precocious. However much we shared, the age difference meant that we could never be peers. Now I am the same age – 61 – as Raphael was when he died; another generation has grown up, and my second marriage has already lasted longer than the first. I’ve written my own books and can more easily acknowledge Raphael as a mentor, though as a strict egalitarian, he would doubtless have said that I was his. Looking back, our marriage flashes by at breakneck speed, but that is an illusion, an effect of its premature ending and of my longer life. I want memory to be a slowcoach. I want its shambling waywardness to sidestep time.

Back in 2001, writing a Diary for this paper (22 February), I tracked the progress of my mourning in dreams, a dimension that refuses to be bullied by chronology. I am still occasionally haunted by Elder Street, where Raphael lived for thirty odd years, and I for fifteen. It crops up as part of a noir-ish mise en scène where I wander a poorly lit Spitalfields, looking for our old house. In one recurring version I find it glamorously done up with lots of extra room, and Raphael buried in his books, puzzled by my concern. Once I dreamed that I met him in the street and thought, ‘Oh Lord, he’s been here all the time and I’ve gone and married again, what will he think?’ When I too was diagnosed with cancer a few years back I dreamed he was standing at the end of the bed, his face forbidding like that of an Old Testament prophet or the Grim Reaper himself. It was a more ghastly version of the mourner’s dilemma: wanting to separate from the beloved dead, wanting to die with them. I have seen the coincidence of our ages coming towards me for a while like a beacon or a milestone in my own survival. Will I outlive him, get to 62?

Every marriage is a cabinet of curiosities. In the biographies or obituaries of public men especially, so much is kept offstage or revealed sensationally, salaciously; memoirs are still rarely written by the wives. The widowed often write of lost love in the immediate aftermath but mourning works like a leaven in a life, and it never stops working. It is formative, or it was for me, that love and that death when I was in the middle of life’s wood. At 41, childless, I was out of sync with friends and family. But I am old enough now to recognise this condition as a theme or pattern, a way of thinking about myself, familiar from childhood, both lonely and freeing. Since I began to write about him people have asked me, ‘But won’t it be very painful?’ as if putting Raphael’s dying in words could be more tormenting than watching it happen. ‘Is it harder to write now that you are married again?’ was another question put to me. I have translated this as ‘Might John [my second husband] mind?’ The romantic fantasy that we can only love one person in the world – a soulmate, ‘Mr Right’ – is alive and well.

A couple of years into married life, as part of my campaign for more time off, Raphael and I took a package holiday to Minorca and a boat trip round the coast. As we sailed into the bay where we were to have paella on the beach, we were invited to dive into the sparkling water and swim to the shore, or wait till we had anchored and wade over. I am a strong swimmer but I have never liked to dive. I watched the more confident climb onto the bows. Suddenly there was Raphael teetering on the edge, then just as suddenly – gone. I knew he could not swim. So I followed. Thanks to a mixture of doggy paddle and getting soon into his depth, he made it, breathless and unharmed, to the sand. What on earth had prompted him to take that leap – sheer joie de vivre, self-belief, impatience or the desire to join in? Or something else entirely? He could not say. He had acted on impulse and I too hadn’t thought twice.