Raphael Samuel – Theatres of Memory


A bumper book of essays, this time mainly written for other people and collected into clusters based on their broad themes. I read this when it first came out and was interested, if a little amused by the author’s ivory-towers insularity. He cites Jon Savage as the origin of the phrase no future in England’s Dreaming, for example. I saw a new edition in our library and noted that the introduction was by my MA supervisor so I gave it another look.

Samuel’s basic thread through these pieces was that a lot of effort has gone into creating a theme-park shorthand of each period of British history, a simplified and sellable one that omits any mention of the work real people had to do. He was acutely aware of the political dimension to the Laura Ashleyfication of architecture in the 80s, all that ‘vernacular’ style we know from out-of-town supermarkets and Stratford ‘Business Village’. He was ahead of the game in questioning why those Past Times boutiques of knick-knacks felts so much like the shops we’d have if the Nazis had won. Even his perspective on mid-90s NME articles about taxonomical distinctions between types of music was so far out of the loop he didn’t know there was a loop, which makes him – perversely – seem like the kind of writer Paul Morley wanted to be.

The new cover photo shows women on a day out to the Festival of Britain. That’s something of a touchstone here. Poised at the mid-point of the Twentieth Century, it was a concerted attempt to sum up Britishness in a few bold strokes, to build new houses and restore old traditions (Stepney and Poplar have whole estates conceived here, but Morris Dancing sides got funding too). The future was all jaunty ‘contemporary’ design and primary colours. Above all, it was a fun fair and trade-fair all in one on the South Bank, summing up the past as a consensus narrative then offering the Dome of Discovery as the gateway to our exciting future. By 1953 this had been flattened (except the Royal Festival Hall) and the incoming government tried to make out that the whole reign of George VI was a bad dream, which is where things started going retro. Samuel was too shrewd to portray the following debate as simply Linear-Progress-Upwards = Left and Invented-Consensus-Nostalgia = Right and the tensions and alliances between all four poles of that argument created fascinating micro-climates for him to investigate. The old left, especially the lemonsucking Frankfurt School, had been very keen on telling everyone off for relishing nostalgia and old things, but Samuel entirely saw the appeal and was seeking to detach it from consumerism, defuse it and if possible use that energy in what he thought was a more positive way.

As I hinted, he was more at home in the political theory of the late 80s and early 90s than, well, Britain in that period. He reported on shops and magazines, buildings and TV shows as if he’d just landed after decades on a desert island with only the New Statesman and a flask of tea parachuted down every week. That bewilderment is rather disarming, however frustrating it is to have things everyone else knew explained as if to a Martian and then paragraphs assuming a familiarity with now-half-forgotten thinkers of the 50s. He was also quite nonchalant about fact-checking, something other historians have allowed him some leeway for simply because he never based his argument on any one piece of supposed evidence but on a set of unspoken assumptions he sought to lay bare.

By Tat Wood