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.

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