Issue 222 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published August/September 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
Swansea's Dylan Thomas Centre was the fitting setting for a
remarkable performance by poet and playwright Adrian Mitchell and
illustrator Ralph Steadman, who came together to launch their new
book, Who Killed Dylan Thomas?
Mitchell read his angry and moving tribute in a performance that was divided into numerous short pieces with titles such as 'The pedestalisation of Dylan', 'The pain of debt' and 'Dylan lives but they keep killing him'.
Mitchell, a passionate socialist himself, made a strong defence of Dylan Thomas and his body of work. He also warned of isolating great artists on pedestals.
'I heard of someone about to lecture on Dylan Thomas who was warned to treat him with respect. I remember being in Russia and being told by a large committee that Pushkin should be treated with respect. To me this is dangerous. It is the idea of placing an artist on a pedestal high above the heads of the crowd, to be looked up to. I think an artist should be kept at ground level, so we can look him in the eye as a brother or sister. I will not treat Pushkin or Dylan Thomas with respect for they were never respectable but I hope I will treat them with love.'
Indeed he does. But he points an accusing finger at those in authority in the universities, in the arts establishment and in the BBC who for two decades denied one of this century's finest lyrical poets a decent living wage so that he was forced to live with his family in penury, dogged by financial problems, worry and insecurity. In 1938 for example, he was refused an arts bursary on the grounds that he was not 'an established writer'.
Mitchell's tribute to Dylan Thomas reclaims the writer for all of us. He argued that 'his sympathies were always with the underdog... Dylan Thomas was the exact opposite of Margaret Thatcher.' It wasn't the alcohol alone that killed him. Mitchell, aided by Ralph Steadman's unsettling graphics, reveals some of the humiliation and pain that lies in the attempt of a creative artist to bare his soul while failing to make a living.
Who Killed Dylan Thomas? by Adrian Mitchell and Ralph Steadman is published by Ty Lien Books £9.95
Faith In the Poor Bob Holman Lion £16.99
Dark Heart: the shocking truth about hidden Britain Nick Davies Vintage £7.99
Consider this statistic. in the last decade or so, the price of thrashing a young girl in a London brothel has fallen dramatically. Whereas the wealthy men who visit the network of West End flats which have proliferated over the past ten years once had to pay £100 for each stroke of the cane they inflicted on a young woman's back, they can now indulge themselves for only £10 a stroke. As Nick Davies comments, 'Supply and demand. There is a market surplus of desperate young women.'
It is the operation of the capitalist market and the ways in which it blights the lives of millions while enriching a very few which is the central theme of both of these books.
In Faith in the Poor seven residents of Easterhouse in Glasgow write about their daily lives with a commentary by Bob Holman, a local Christian community worker. The book is intended as a response to those, like the right wing theorist Charles Murray, who consign the residents of Easterhouse and similar council schemes to 'underclass' status, condemned to poverty and unemployment by their own fecklessness, inadequacy and 'welfare dependency`. In fact, what emerges from these often moving and painful accounts is that, far from being inadequate, these individuals, like the mass of people in Easterhouse, require an enormous amount of energy and ingenuity simply to survive on or below income support levels.
Even such energy and ingenuity, however, is sometimes no match for the inequality which means that Easterhouse parents can spend less than a sixth of the national average on educational aids for their children or that by the end of the week a meal for some will often consist of a single slice of bread. The result is lives characterised by hardship, monotony and a feeling of powerlessness. The fact that people can still find the strength not only to write about their experiences but to fight back through involvement in food co-ops and community groups is the best answer to reactionaries like Murray and his New Labour supporters.
As Nick Davies demonstrates in his powerful study of 'hidden Britain', such families avoid disaster 'only by living in the social equivalent of an iron lung', measuring every penny and planning every action. Even then, such 'lives of quiet desperation' are always on the edge of disaster. It is these lives, captured through hundreds of interviews up and down the country, that form the basis of Davies' investigation.
His journey begins in Hyde Park Close in Leeds, the scene of a youth riot some years ago, which involved the burning down of a local pub. Without minimising the misery and fear which youth crime produced on this estate, particularly among the older residents, Davies goes beyond the ritual denunciations of the local press and the then home secretary, Michael Howard, to try to make sense of what such behaviour was about. What he found was a group of young men only too eager to share their bitterness at the hand they had been dealt, full of despair and anger not least at the local university students who seemed to have so much when they had so little. Far from being 'mindless thugs' as Jack Straw would have us believe, 'they all had their own little dreams, most of them very mundane. They wanted to go to college, to get a job or simply have something to do all day. In real life, as they readily described, there were only two things to do - thieving and twocking (stealing cars). They wanted much more. Their lives refused to let them have it, so they became frustrated and hopeless and bitterly angry and they fought their war against the law with a furious rage.' The same is true of other young people whose lives and squalid deaths in seedy brothels or lonely bedsits Davies records-such deaths so often the final link in a chain which invariably began with poverty and unemployment.
There is a common thread to all these stories. It is the grinding poverty which official estimates show now consigns around 14 million people in this country to lives of misery and destroys their hope and humanity. As Davies makes clear, however, such poverty is not an 'act of god' nor some natural disaster. He recounts the chilling encounter between the newly elected prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and her new social security secretary, Patrick Jenkin, in April 1979. 'I think we have to go back to soup kitchens,' she told him and paused. Then, noting his reaction, she continued, 'Take that silly smile off your face. I mean it.'
Reading Dark Heart reminded me of writer John Steinbeck's response to the plight of the dustbowl migrants during the Depression of the 1930s: 'There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolise. There is a failure here that topples all our success ... and in the eyes of the people there is the failure, and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. in the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.' Such words perfectly describe Britain in the late 1990s.
What Davies, in an otherwise excellent book, sometimes fails to recognise is that the anger and sense of alienation extend well beyond the ranks of the very poor. K is an anger that we have seen most recently in the walkouts in a Glasgow social work department or in a Greenock shipyard or in the people queuing up to sign a petition demanding justice for Stephen Lawrence. It is an anger which will produce far greater social explosions in the months and years ahead.
The Struggle for Breeches Anna Clark University of California Press £14.99
The story of the emerging working class in Britain is complicated and controversial. The period from the end of the lath century to the middle of the 19th saw the growth of factory work, the destruction of old skills, the creation of unions, the development of the Chartist movement and its ultimate defeat after 1848. Why did the first working class in the world develop in the way that it did, and what were the implications for men, women and their families?
The aim of this book is to 'infuse gender ... into the analysis of class'. It is a conscious critique of Edward Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, which Clark describes as presenting 'a masculine version of working class history'. Clark also aims to build on the writings of Barbara Taylor in Eve and the New Jerusalem, a history of the Owenite movement in Britain, to show why these utopian socialists never gained a mass following.
Unfortunately The Struggle for the Breeches is a much less impressive book than either of those that she seeks to improve. Thompson's book and, to a lesser extent, Taylor's are full of insight and provide a coherent analysis. Thompson in particular is recognised as having provided a pathbreaking understanding of how the English working class came together as a class. Clark's book fails to provide a dynamic of the system or a sense of where the working class was going.
It fails partly because of its misguided polemic. We are told, for example, that 'wives dreaded the working man's custom of Saint Monday, celebrated by historians as proletarian resistance to capitalist time discipline'. Evidence for this sweeping inclusion of all wives is the existence of one song where a wife laments her husband drinking and beating her on his day off.
Clark also criticises the Marxist historian John Foster who 'celebrates northern industrial workers as the fierce proto-socialist vanguard bent on seizing state power, but ... seems confused by the fact that so many of his ideal proletariat were female textile workers'. Evidence for this assertion is simply to footnote Foster's book Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution, without any page number to check out his confusion. The existence of large numbers of female textile workers would come as little surprise to most Marxists, since the writings of Marx and Engels repeatedly refer to this feature of the English working class.
Clark studies mainly textile workers in Glasgow. Lancashire and London and much of her evidence for domestic violence and discordant family life comes from contemporary court records. Yet trying to picture a working class through those who were accused of breaking the law of necessity gives a partial picture of what was happening. What about the majority of workers who didn't end up in court?
The book's conclusion is that workers and radicals increasingly adopted a theory of domesticity which meant working class struggle was defensive. Groups such as the Owenites, who posed a radical sexual alternative, were marginalised, and the struggle against the Poor Law of 1834 harked back to a mythical pre- industrial golden age Clark claims. Increasingly as the working class developed it began to raise the demand for a family wage and protective legislation which would exclude women and children from certain work.
This is to impose a coherence and direction on the working class which didn't exist. Revulsion at the Poor Law led to political protests but also to a defence of the working class family which took on a piecemeal form. Restriction of child labour was the key demand but it was implicitly recognised that a reduction in children's hours would lead to reductions for all workers; That workers claimed their lives had been better a generation before does not mean they believed in a golden age. Workers today who defend the welfare state do not believe that 1945 heralded a utopia but they do recognise when they are under further attack.
Clark argues that 'the necessarily defensive nature of working class politics in the hard years of the 1830s and 1840s blocked more radical solutions'. But this is hardly an accurate picture of working class politics, as contemporary ruling class and working class views show. In the 1840s there were a number of directions in which the working class movement could have gone. The 1842 general strike, the growth of the Chartist movement and increasing radicalisation pointed one way; increased state repression and a cautious response to it pointed another.
The defeat of Chartism and of the European revolutions in 1848 were major setbacks to the working class. They coincided with a renewed phase of British imperial expansion and the onset of Britain's role as the workshop of the world, the development of male dominated craft industries such as engineering and shipbuilding, and an increase in the living standards of many workers. Clark contrasts the tiny amount of housework done by factory working women in the 1830s to the much greater domestic demands which more prosperity brought.
The re-establishment of the working class family was a product of these historical circumstances, not their cause. To argue, as Clark does, 'that the fatal flaws of misogyny and patriarchy ultimately muted the radicalism of the British working class' is to ignore the real class relations inside capitalist society. These pushed both male and female workers back, into defending the existence of the working class family - clearly under threat in the 1830s and 1840s - and led to a strengthening of the family which tied in with a growing conservatism inside the working class. Here we see the failure of working class politics and organisation to successfully challenge the power of capital. We are still living with the consequences.
The Luddite Rebellion Brian Bailey Sutton Publishers £18.99
It's been a tough century for the Luddites. Not that they had it easy in the 19th century, being turned into paupers, shot at and executed. But in the 20th their name has been turned into a term of abuse, shorthand slang for anyone who prefers a book to a CDROM, or can sit on a train without yelling into a mobile phone.
Official Labour movement historians such as the Webbs and Hammonds have dismissed them as backward and irrelevant. And the revolutionary left, while applauding their heroism, has often done so with a patronising hand on the shoulder and, There, there. Brave effort but it was the capitalist system, not the machines, you fools.'
One of the results of their plight is that much of the Luddite movement is still clouded in mystery. So a book called The Luddite Rebellion ought to be a welcome recruit for their cause.
The background is all there. The letter to the manufacturer declaring there were '2,782 sworn heroes bound in a bond of necessity either to redress their grievances or gloriously perish in the attempt in the army of Huddersfield'. There's the daring Indiana Jones style death defying raids, and the levels of repression which at one point led to there being almost as many soldiers in Nottingham as Wellington had at Waterloo.
There's also the case for why the Luddites can't be characterised as backward looking-their demands being that craftsmen put out of work by new machines should be compensated, and that technology shouldn't be used to lower the quality of work or to cut wages. But anyone who has read the magnificent prose of E P Thompson on the same subject in The Making of the English Working Class will experience a sense of emptiness as the anecdotes unfold.
Bailey's first problem is that he provides little context for the upheavals. Typical victims of the manufacturers' greed during the Industrial Revolution were half a million weavers, whose wages over a 30 year period went from 20 shillings to five shillings. Even more importantly, to break the sense of control over production enjoyed by pre-factory craftsmen (such as when to start and finish work), the factory system introduced an entirely new philosophy that humans were not human but part of a machine.
Fines and beatings were administered to anyone stroppy enough to wash, eat or whistle during the boss's time. Children were whipped and pregnant women forced to stay at their machines until the day of labour. Stand the Luddites against this reign of terror and they take their place as heroes, but remove the context and they're a bunch of nutters with a sledgehammer.
More strikingly, where Thompson's narrative whips off the page with the urgency of the finest heart - pulping thriller, Bailey remains distant and dispassionate so that the stories lose all sense of human endeavour, resistance and tragedy, and become instead a laborious academic text.
Finally it leads him to add to the derision of the movement. George Mellor, a leading Luddite, is dismissed as a ,small-time gangster'. They had no political ideas, he claims, but were 'acting out of dire need'. Anyone who has taken part in any campaign will understand that protests begin because of dire need, but political ideas explode when that dire need can't be answered. So when a crowd returns from burning down a mill. supported by the whole community in an area swarming with troops and spies, the debates and ideas that follow will be about more than the weather. The Luddites were more than heroes, threatening the birth of industrial capitalism at its economic and philosophical heart, and it is inconceivable that none of them drew revolutionary conclusions.
They deserve better than Bailey. He has amassed a great deal of information but if he had bothered to spend five minutes with the working class he might have produced a work of some value.
The Prehistory of Sex Timothy Taylor Fourth Estate £8.99
One unexpected source of intellectual support for New Labour's rightward shift is the newly established 'Darwin office' at the London School of Economics. One of its primary arguments concerns sex and the family. A recent guest speaker was American psychologist Steven Pinker. His main argument is that the nuclear family, the inferior position of women in society, even the sexual stereotyping of men and women, are all due to 'natural' causes.
A central flaw in Pinker's account is the way he rests his case about sex and the family on a 'Flintstones' view of human prehistory. The task of countering such a view has been made a ]at easier by the publication of The Prehistory of Sex, written by archaeologist Timothy Taylor. With the aid of the latest archaeological discoveries, Taylor uncovers quite a different picture, one in which from the earliest times human sexual behaviour has distinguished itself from animals in being as much a cultural as a biological phenomenon.
Even in animals there is a remarkable range of sexual behaviour, especially so among our closest relatives, the apes' But there is also a fundamental difference between human sexuality and that of animals. Since we first developed the ability to hold complicated ideas, concepts and visual images in our heads, and communicate these through language, sex for humans has been as much a function of the mind as of the sexual organs. This also means that sexual attraction can be moulded by cultural changes in society.
We are often presented with a thoroughly sexist image of human evolution with 'man the hunter' going out to kill while the woman stays back at the cave to cook and look after the kids. The truth seems rather different. The use of tools is now accepted as a crucial stage in human evolution, preceding even the development of bigger brains, as Frederick Engels first recognised. Tool use was such a powerful development not only because it provided human beings with an extra lever to manipulate the natural world, but also because it brought them together in cooperative, social labour. It was this more than anything that led human evolution into a different sphere from the animal world. In all of this women played a central role. They may even have led the way in the use of tools, using sticks to dig up tasty roots, worms and grubs from the earth. Yet women's contribution has too often been ignored in accounts of human evolution.
One important pattern which emerges from the study of sex in prehistory is the link which exists between women's economic situation and the sort of sexual behaviour practised and permitted in a particular society. Frederick Engels famously linked the oppression of women, 'the world historic defeat of the female sex', to the development of agriculture and the rise of class society. The fundamentals of Engels' account have stood up well despite the limited archaeological evidence available in his day.
The process by which women were forced into an inferior position, and the effect this had on sexuality, may have been a more uneven development than Engels supposed. During the Ice Ages, women found it far more difficult to continue their traditional role of gathering food and survival depended more on men's big-game hunting. This may explain why in the cave art of this period there appear to be more images of women as passive sexual objects. However, another interpretation is that such images represent a mother goddess. What is clear is that when the ice melted, and women won back the economic independence they had partially lost, then too the images of sexuality also changed. The sculptures and rock carvings of this period show a symbolic intertwining of male and female, with complex androgynous representations that seem to deliberately play on the underlying anatomical similarities between men and women.
Class society put an end to equality between men and women. It was a minority of men who seized the surplus that agriculture first made possible because women--weighed down by pregnancy and suckling young children weren't able to share equally in agricultural production. With private property came the question of inheritance and thus a move towards monogamous marriage where a woman must obey her husband. The art of this period shows an increasing obsession with phallic symbols and images of penetration. The graves of this time first begin to show a marked difference in the codes of dress for men and women. Perhaps it was useful for people to accept that men and women naturally dressed differently, for then the naturalness of other divisions, such as between rich and poor, which are supported by no biological reality, would be more believable. But even in the midst of these changes, there is evidence of resistance to the convention of the times.
Male graves of this period typically include a little copper dagger. But some biologically female graves have also been found with copper daggers, suggesting that as soon as a standardised sex-gender burial practice was established, it was subverted by those who did not fit into it easily. In fact, a significant minority of men and women were buried with opposite grave furnishings--women cross-dressed as men, and men cross-dressed as women. Such practices at times seem to have become quite widespread.
In pre-capitalist class societies sexual acts that threatened the link between sex and reproduction were often severely punished. In some parts of the United States today 'sodomy' is an offence covering both oral and anal intercourse even for straight couples. But it was only in the 19th century that homosexuality became a specific, criminal offence. The knowledge of past sexual behaviour helps us in the struggle for freedom of sexuality today. It shows that what is still considered most 'normal' today-monogamous, heterosexual couples bound together by marriage-is just one moment in the long passage of human history.
The Calendar David Ewing Duncan Fourth Estate £12.99
The Calendar is the story of how humans have grappled with the idea of time, from stone age stargazers tracking the cycles of the moon to the modern day atomic clock, which measures time as the number of oscillations of a caesium atom.
The search for a way to quantify time progressed most as society developed. The advent of agriculture in ancient civilisations created the need to follow the course of the seasons more accurately than before. For Egyptians living along the Nile, knowing when the floods would come was of vital importance. They were one of the first peoples to base their calendar on the sun instead of the moon, and incredibly calculated a year that was accurate to within 11 minutes of the true solar year.
In this book Duncan weaves his way through the years with sometimes slightly fictional accounts in the search for an organised calendar. For example, did Caesar discover the Egyptians' use of a solar rather than lunar year through his relationship with Cleopatra? But however this was discovered, once the idea arrived in Rome it became the basis for the reform of the Roman calendar. The need to organise time in a world where there were shipping contracts, crop growth, religious worship and correspondence between cities became a powerful political tool. It was Julius Caesar who installed 'the year of confusion' which lasted for 445 days as he changed the calendar from one based on the moon to one based on the sun.
As the Roman Empire declined and the political chaos of the dark ages followed, keeping track of days and months became insignificant to most people. The immediate necessities of survival, such as finding enough food and staving off attacks, were more important than knowing the exact date. However, the growth of the church and the need to keep track of the days to calculate the nature of the complex timing of Easter kept alive some remnants of the Julian calendar, although now it was controlled almost exclusively by the priests. This led to the battle of religious claims on time, the insistence that only god could determine the days and the months, over later reformers who tried to use mathematics and astronomy to resurrect an accurate measurement of time.
By the 13th century the 11 minute inaccuracy of the Egyptian calendar had caused a nine day drift of the calendar year against the solar year. An English friar, Roger Bacon, alerted the papal authorities to this matter, but was branded a heretic for his outrageous challenge to the Catholic Church because he insisted that Christians were celebrating Easter, and every other holy day, on the wrong dates. It took over 300 years of astrologers, philosophers and mathematicians challenging the Vatican before Pope Gregory introduced a papal edict which corrected the drift. Ten days were suddenly dropped with the establishment of the Gregorian calendar.
But even today our calendar is not accurate. The precision of the atomic clock is perhaps too precise compared with the fluctuations in the earth's yearly cycle round the sun, with the need for leap seconds to be added nearly every year to account for these changes. What seems to us almost natural, the division of time into seconds, minutes, hours and days and the idea that we are approaching the millennium-is only our society's way of interpreting time.
Duncan's book presents a fascinating account of the triumph of science over nature. It also depicts the battles that arose between religious dogmatism and astronomers, philosophers and mathematicians searching for a measure of time that matches up with the observed reality.
I Shall Bear Witness: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer 1933-41 Ed: Michael Chalmers Weidenfeld & Nicholson £20
This is a valuable book detailing life in Germany under Hitler and in particular the Nazi persecution of Jews. Born into a learned German Jewish family, Victor Klemperer was a professor of literature in Dresden. Politically a liberal, a member of the Protestant church, he was proud to have fought in the First World War. in 1933 he saw himself as fully assimilated, a German rather than a Jew. He detested the Nazis, not just for their anti-semitism but also for their general barbarism, especially their abuse of the German language and other cultural atrocities.
Between 1933-1941, in this first volume of his life under the Nazis, he recorded, day by day, the relentless drive by the Nazis to persecute and scapegoat Jews-the attacks in the press, the radio speeches by Nazi leaders broadcast over loudspeakers in public places, the harassment by officials, the endless publication of new decrees removing every conceivable right from Jews. At first unwilling to emigrate to safety, eventually unable to, his situation constantly worsens - he loses his job, his house, his driving licence, his phone, his typewriter. Meanwhile he is forbidden to use certain shops, suffers a curfew at night, is not allowed a full set of food rations, is forced to wear a large yellow star on his coat. Ultimately, it is only because his wife is classified as an Aryan he is able to survive.
The publication of this diary in English is particularly timely because it so powerfully undermines the thesis put forward by Daniel Goldhagen in the book Hitler's Willing Executioners that all Germans were willing accomplices in the destruction of the Jews. Klemperer is at no point under any illusions about his fellow Germans. He recognises that most Germans do nothing to stop the terror and are indifferent to it much of the time. He nevertheless records again and again small acts in defiance of the regime and in support of Jews. Mostly these are very minor deeds - small gifts, sympathy expressed in private conversations, anti-Nazi jokes, refusals to give the Nazi salute and so on. But given the conditions and the climate of fear created and sustained by the Nazi terror, they all required some courage and show some degree of resistance, however small. Not least, these actions help Klemperer to maintain his spirit and thus to carry on with his daily struggle to survive.
Klemperer willingly admits that he is no hero. Shortly after the Nazis came to power he too swore an oath of allegiance to Hitler. He therefore does not see all Germans as equally guilty. On the contrary, in an entry in April 1936, Klemperer writes,
'If one day the situation was reversed and the fate of the vanquished lay in my hands. then I would let all the ordinary folk go and even some of the leaders, who might after all have had honourable intentions and not known what they were doing. But I would have all the intellectuals strung up and the professors three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from the lampposts as long as was compatible with the hygiene.'
It was those who knew what was going on and yet voluntarily contributed to the Nazi machine who carry the real guilt in Klemperer's eyes.
Closing: the life and death of an American factory Bill Bamberger and Cathy Davidson WW Norton £19.95
When photographer Bill Bamberger heard that the White furniture factory in his home city in North Carolina was closing down, he got permission from the company to take pictures at the factory all day every day for the last three months.
After the plant closed, Bamberger mounted an exhibition of the photographs in a disused store downtown. For the private view before the exhibition, he invited all the redundant workers and their families-and only them. They were real happy to see each other. Then they looked at the pictures on the wail, and the room got real silent and people were choked. Because those pictures, reproduced in this book. are honest and angry and sad and very beautiful. They're working clan pictures.
The details and the faces are very American and very southern, but the meaning, the experience, could be anywhere. If you ever put your tools on your shoulder and walked down the road, if your whole office ever got made redundant-if you ever even clocked a card- you'll know what these pictures are about. And you'll realise you've hardly ever seen anything like them.
There's Jimmy Gross on his final day at work, long hair, camouflage baseball cap, Jack Daniel's T-shirt, looking straight at the camera, refusing to cry. There's Avery Apple, short hair, short sleeved check shirt-that was the workers' favourite picture, because of the pain in his eyes. Their other favourite was Collie, Carlton and Linda signing their severance papers-the paperwork to getting fired. They look like you feel when you do that.
There's Tim and John - a young bearded worker in a baseball cap, coiled anger in his face that cannot be released, confronting his foreman who stares belligerently back, every subtle nuance of daily class struggle at work on their faces. And there's one picture with the faces of 13 workers, all looking at the section foreman as he tells them who will be laid off when. Each face is subtly humanly different, everyone hurt and angry differently, brave differently, needing the two weeks severance pay.
And there's lots more-black and white workers, old and young, women and men, alienation, bitterness, toughness, friendship, jokes and pride in their work. By comparison the text does not seem very good. But then it would take an extraordinary writer to measure up to the pictures.
This is an expensive book because good prints cost a lot. Why not go down to your local library and fill out one of those reserve forms and ask them to order it so lots of other people can look at it too?
Island Stories Raphael Samuel Verso £20
Anyone who has seen Raphael Samuel speak will be familiar with him shuffling a huge pile of notes and often shooting off at tangents to explore an interesting byway. In a sense this eclectic style was a product of the events of 1968 which inspired an attempt to break down the barriers between what was and was not considered suitable for an academic to look at.
The contents of volume 2 of Raphael Samuel's collected writings, Island Stories, while scholarly, are a long way from the concerns and format of 'traditional' history. Many of the drafts of meetings and lectures contained here. revised by Samuel's partner, Alison Light, after his untimely death in 1996, have the flavour of Samuel in full flow addressing a crowded meeting.
The book is divided into four sections. In 'Nations, States and Empires' Samuel looks at the making and remaking of British national identity in the post-imperial era. In the second section, 'English Journeys', Samuel revisits some of the themes of his earlier volume, Theatres of Memory, in exploring the ideas of heritage and Englishness. Readers of Socialist Review, however, will probably find most to interest them in the final two sections, 'History, the Nation and the Schools' and 'The War of Ghosts'.
As Alison Light's introduction underlines, Samuel was the most energetic intervener in the debates surrounding the introduction of a national curriculum in history by the Tories in the 1980s. In 'History's Battle for a New Past', first published as just such an intervention in the Guardian on 21 January 1989, Samuel slams the Tories' proposals for history in schools. But he also notes that 'history has had a better deal from the present Conservative administration than it would from any imaginable Labour one'. Given recent attempts to downgrade school history, who can doubt that Samuel, had he lived, would have been slamming into the lack of a sense of history which is one of the hallmarks of New Labour?