Theatres of Memory

Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture
Raphael Samuel
Verso   479pp   £14.99

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The heritage debate of the 1980s was spurred by the apparently paradoxical coincidence of deindustrialisation: Thatcher’s drive to modernise and waves of fashionable rural nostalgia. Was Britain becoming a ‘modern’ country or a country house museum? Or both at once, as affluent gentrifiers dressed in heritage clothing? Nowadays this latter possibility doesn’t seem as paradoxical to us as it once did and yet the big books of the heritage debate are still worth reading and Verso has reprinted one of the biggest books, Raphael Samuel’s Theatres of Memory. It was meant to form the first part of a trilogy, but Samuel died, aged only 61, shortly after its publication. His widow, the historian Alison Light, pulled together a successor volume, Island Stories (1999), but Theatres of Memory remains the only fully-realised portion of the whole project, now reprinted with a new introduction by Bill Schwarz.

Samuel had been a pioneer of ‘history from below’ in the 1960s and his distinctive contribution in Theatres of Memory was to greet the heritage boom of the 1980s as in many ways another avatar of ‘history from below’, even if one not immediately recognisable to that school’s champions on the Left. A great deal of the book is devoted to charting pedigrees for late 20th-century heritage concerns that link them back to democratic enthusiasms for collecting old photographs, bygones and other relics of everyday life, to environmentalist interests in the local, the natural and the small-scale and to the appetite of the 1960s counter-culture for cheerful Victoriana and other heritage kitsch. With his labour historian’s hat on, Samuel insists that heritage is as much about downstairs as about upstairs – about industrial archaeology and steam fairs and working-class family history.

On this level Theatres of Memory is a wondrous compendium of everyday uses of history. It is, as all Samuel’s work was, endlessly knowledgeable, contagiously enthusiastic, but also irritatingly repetitive and sometimes very misguided, albeit often in fruitful ways; I continue to cherish the (uncorrected) passage on p. 22 which manages to cram six distinct factual errors into two short sentences, while yet making a highly prescient point. And read nearly 20 years later one can see that this book specialises in prescience – not only in its general lack of anxiety about people’s fascination with the past, but also in specifics, such as its excitement over the possibilities of record linkage that would connect old photographs to the people and places they depict (now realised in historical ‘pin’ sites on the Internet), or his prediction that pit ponies would soon feature more prominently in our historical imagination (echoed in the War Horse craze).

On another level, though, what gave Theatres of Memory its needle was Samuel’s determination to bash not only the Establishment – especially the academic establishment, for failing to recognise this rich underworld of historical imagination – but also the Left. Towards the end of his life Samuel had been exploring the Tory within himself, the ability to appreciate realms of human experience that his puritanical left-wing upbringing had repressed – consumer goods, mass culture, national identity. So one thread of Theatres of Memory is a tirade against ‘heritage-baiters’ on the Left who, he claimed, were sometimes positively Thatcherite in their mistrust of even the most democratic uses of heritage. This line of argument led to some testy exchanges with Patrick Wright, whose writings on heritage had in some ways anticipated Samuel’s. It also laid bare Samuel’s own growing ambivalence about consumer capitalism. With his ‘feminine’, Tory side he wants to show that he ‘gets’ the appeal of ‘retrochic’ giftware – ‘hexagonal soaps … shaped as Victorian miniatures’, ‘country kitchen’ jams – and the achievements of gentrifiers in ‘retrofitting’ derelict homes in period styles. Indeed, he was a gentrifier himself, restoring an old weaver’s house in Spitalfields. But with his ‘masculine’, socialist side he continues to fret about the heritage industry’s tendency to clean up and prettify the dirty secrets of the past and the gentrifiers’ attempts to deny class not only in the present but in the past.

As the social changes of the 21st century deepen, the tension between the past’s own integrity and our multifarious uses of it for our own reasons will only sharpen and books like Theatres of Memory – read critically – will become more valuable in keeping them both in mind.

Peter Mandler's latest book, Return from the Natives: How Margaret Mead won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War, will be published in early 2013 by Yale University Press

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