Fine memorial to a magpie mind
Island Stories: Unravelling Britain by Raphael Samuel. Edited by Alison Light with Sally Alexander and Gareth Stedman Jones. Verso, 1998. 391pp. £22
This is the second part of an intended trilogy which, alas, will never be complete. Raphael Samuel died in December 1996, and Island Stories has been compiled by a team of editors headed by his wife, Alison Light. As with the first volume - Theatres of Memory - this book makes inspirational use of history to explain the present and is, as Samuel put it, 'about the wildly different versions of the national past on offer at any given point of time'.
Island Stories comprises 21 essays, grouped into five sections, and its scope is wide. One essay deals with the 'idea of nation', another goes into fascinating detail about the way in which the Tower of London has been treated by different generations of writers and historians, while others deal with the way in which history is taught and how it is used (and usually abused) by politicians. The chapters are packed with fascinating information and bubble over with original, stimulating and provocative ideas - all the fruit of Samuel's remarkable intellectual curiosity and wide-reaching, erudite research.
The book was not complete when Samuel died, so it is, in part, a product of its editors. Consequently its structure is not necessarily as Samuel intended, and some of the essays were not finally revised by him or lack conclusions. But this is by no means a disaster and certainly does not give the impression that the volume is a mere shadow of what was intended. Far from it - but it does mean that a number of the essays are unrevised vintage works. The introduction does not make it clear if their insertion was intended by Samuel or if they were included as substitutes for essays not written before his death.
Some are over 15 years old and - elegant and perceptive though they are - now read more as historic texts than as commentaries upon history. However, this is not a problem since these aged essays are, without exception, a pleasure - and an education - to reread. Particularly perceptive - devastatingly so, in fact - is the 1982 essay on the political theory of the Social Democratic Party. This may seem irrelevant to most contemporary readers but the piece is beautifully written and offers a concise study of the cynicism and opportunism of contemporary politics.
Samuel was particularly provoked by the way the sdp suggested that it had inherited the legacy of the Christian Socialist R H Tawney. Now, Tawney was one of Samuel's heroes: as Samuel puts it, 'his life-work, both as a socialist and a scholar, was to bring the past and present into dialogue'. The essence of Tawney's use of history was truth and sincerity and his politics were visionary - the Labour party of Tawney was, writes Samuel, 'a cause or it was nothing'. What Samuel wrote of the sdp leadership 16 years ago applies equally to the new breed of politicians wielding power in Britain: they 'conceive politics in temporal rather than in spiritual terms, as a pursuit of the arts of government rather than as a struggle between darkness and light'.
Samuel also displays amazing prescience. In an essay entitled 'History's Battle for a New Past' (1989), dealing with the then Tory government's approach to teaching history in schools, he observed, 'History has had a better deal from the present Conservative administration than it would from any imaginable Labour one.' Coming from a socialist historian, this is harsh criticism indeed and, sadly, is confirmed by the current Labour government, which has shown little real interest in history - at least as regards the arts and architecture.
The final essay, 'Reading the Runes', was incomplete at the author's death but, for architects and architectural historians, is particularly interesting. It looks at the importance of history in architecture, discusses the ways in which a landscape or townscape can be read to understand its past, and ponders upon the degree to which architecture should have to do with mnemonics, or the art of memory. Typically of Samuel, this discourse becomes wonderfully rich and diverse in its references, with connections being made between conservation area legislation, Dickens, follies, the Olde English style of Norman Shaw, holiday architecture, Coney Island and Walt Disney. This chapter is provoking, entertaining, and deeply rewarding to read.
Like the book as a whole, it is a fine memorial to Samuel's astonishing magpie mind, humane politics, deep knowledge of the subjects tackled, and original approach to the discussion of familiar topics. Raphael Samuel made a unique contribution to debate on architecture, the environment and history, and this book is a reminder of how sadly he is missed.
Dan Cruickshank is an architectural historian