Home Library Special Collections and Archives London History Samuel, Raphael Island Stories : a bibliographical note on the text

Alison Light, 'A Biographical Note on the Text' in Raphael Samuel (eds. Alison Light, Sally Alexander and Gareth Stedman Jones), Island Stories: Unravelling Britain Theatres of Memory, Volume II (Verso, 1998)

Historians are notorious for piling up footnotes, sometimes in the attempt to save more of their preciously-mined material from oblivion. They are also, perhaps, especially and rightly susceptible to feeling the weight of past work. To a socialist historian like Raphael, footnotes were also a matter of principle as well as common courtesy, acknowledging one's debts as well as making other people's work available, recognizing that thinking and writing are part of a collaborative, shared culture; like authority, thought is always borrowed, on permanent loan, as it were. I have only been able to acknowledge somewhat randomly in the notes, and where it was most obviously signalled, the contribution of friends, colleagues, librarians, students, and innumerable others whom Raphael consulted over the last two years. That is a great shame. Nor could anyone reproduce the ways in which Raphael's footnotes, at best, were both a teaching device and could act as an alternative text, allowing the opportunity for cameo portraits, minor digressions down to one of history's lesser-known byways, pointed summaries or miniature genealogies of an argument or concept. There are, for example, about a dozen crowded files on 'Saxonism', charting the different uses to which the idea of the Anglo-Saxon has been put across the centuries by historians and politicians and in the popular imagination (for a couple of lines in 'Unravelling Britain'); for the merest mention in 'The Voice of Britain' of one example of BBC children's programming - Toytown - half a file of notes. Yet where the material is at its richest, I have often found myself most stumped, unable either to select or condense. I have consoled myself by believing that the files were perhaps metamorphosing, advancing towards becoming separate essay topics in their own right. And I reread what Raphael wrote about footnotes in Volume I of Theatres of Memory, where he was musing on the historian's method as involving its own levels of artifice:

‘Historians today don't knowingly forge documents. But by the nature of our trade we are continually having to fabricate contexts . . . Footnotes serve as fetishes and are given as authorities for generalizations which a thousand different instances would not prove.’ (pp. 433-4)

Raphael's files, which I have worked through in order to footnote, speak volumes about the kind of historian he was and the kind or kinds of history he valued. His method of notekeeping, to which he recruited many of his students and fellow-workers, derived from that of the Fabian social investigators, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, a method Beatrice describes in appendix C to My Apprenticeship (1926). Perfected for the 'scientific historian' in the 1890s and 1900s, it depends upon the employment of quantities of loose sheets of paper rather than ' a conglomerate notebook', each page with only one note or source of information on it, perhaps no more than a line or two, on one side only. The note - be it transcribed quotation or précis, a cutting, a xeroxed extract or a handwritten thought - is given a heading and grouped, and its source briefly attributed. The beauty of this method, as the Webbs saw it, is that the detached sheets can be shuffled and reshuffled indefinitely, new notes added, headings retitled and, they believed, in rearranging and reordering new sequences, surprising intellectual discoveries could be made which might overturn one's original presuppositions and biases.

Beatrice Webb unbends a little to give a picture of herself and Sidney playing a 'game with reality', reshuffling their mass of papers and 'backing' rival hypotheses in their studies of trade unions or factory work - 'a most stimulating recreation!', she writes almost skittishly. To a modern (or postmodern) eye this idea of the reinterpretability (the unravelling) of the evidence might seem to sit ill with the Webbs' faith in history as a science dealing in facts. It was this reversible process of notemaking - a method which could be deconstructive as well as constructive, improvisatory as well as accumulative - which I think appealed to Raphael and which he made uniquely his own. Their method relies on a vast amount of 'fact gathering'; it is deeply retentive; but it also allows, indeed encourages, a constant disassembling of ideas. Together with a formidable capacity to collect evidence and devour book after book, Raphael was quite fearless in his capacity to dismantle his own arguments, start again, and even jettison former views rather than treat the case as settled once and for all. (Typically, another of the half-written pieces that had to be omitted from this volume is a reply to the critics of Volume I, 'The Heritage Debate Revisited'.)

Files, just like ideas, could keep on turning into something else; arguments could be abandoned and, in one of his favourite usages, 'revivified'. Raphael usually adduced a minimum of ten or twenty instances, on separate sheets, for each heading or thought which might eventually become a paragraph, say, on the cult of walking in the 1930s. These in turn could splinter into several subheadings - 'Communism and Walking', 'Walking and Trespass', 'Fresh Air Fads', etc. - and result in a solid phalanx of black A3 'lever-arch' ringbinders, all labelled 'Walking between the wars'. (For many years the 'Clarity' lever-arch file was manufactured and supplied by a longstanding firm, Jockelson, White and Co. of 292/4 Bishopsgate, London EC2, just around the corner from us.) Everything could be 'decanted' and refiled under new headings. Files would lateer be 'filleted' and then 'cannibalized' as he called it, for ensuing projects. (The culinary metaphors - he also talked of 'gutting books' - were a sign of Raphael's immense appetite for the work, I think; and his need to be fed by it.)

The Webbs' method is profligate with paper. Though they soberly advised identically sized sheets, Raphael's files are crammed with reused paper of all shapes, textures and colours: a motley of notes stuck on the backs of scrap (from college memos to drafts of friends' articles, all themselves interesting, if distracting, reading); cut-ups from xeroxes and press-cuttings agencies, shreds of paper napkins from restaurants where a conversation was hurriedly written down and later dissected. His method involved hours of 'sticking-up', using scissors and paste (a large, very unstable Gloy gluepot and brush before the days of PrittStick), turning a great deal of what the Webbs called 'brainworking' into messy physical labour; quite relieving and childlike in its pleasures. In tandem with the cliffs of ringbinders in every available space in our house (except for the kitchen and the bedroom), excitable, ever-mounting piles of file-cards, with their full bibliographical references, were packed uneasily into old Oxo tins, teetering on dusty windowsills or lurking beneath chairs. Since everything could, in theory, be reused, nothing could be thrown away.

Raphael's files are, to use one of his phrases, an 'omnium gatherum' or, as he described a commemorative volume for twenty-five years of History Workshop, a 'collectanea', an assembly of materials in which the attempt to understand a phenomenon or a historical argument might yoke together seemingly disparate evidence, the extract from a scholarly article cheek by jowl with a clip from Homes and Gardens, the leaflet which came through the door yesterday jostling with the label off a jar of homemade jam - but all to be synthesized under an infinitely reclassifiable thought: 'the country look in the 90s' or 'the aesthetics of nature' or 'the contemporary idea of the domestic' and so on. The files themselves, like the dozen or so on 'retrochic' for Volume I of Theatres of Memory come to constitute a historical treasury, containing much that is the stuff of history as well as an attempted analysis of it. The Webbs' method was intended to make it possible for someone else to take over one's notes and use them, and the footnotes show, whatever else, that even given Raphael's inventive handwriting, this is indeed the case. The editors of this volume, who are also Raphael's literary executors, hope in the coming year to find a new home for his papers, pamphlets and books, in an archive or archives, so that more people can use them and make of them what they will.
The art of notemaking as espoused by the Webbs only really made sense as part of a life's work, something organic and total, always generating and regenerating; the work was simply never over. Raphael was predisposed in so many ways, from his Jewish childhood (his maternal grandfather ran a Hebrew bookshop; his mentor, Chimen Abramsky, is a man of great learning) to his Communist upbringing by his mother, Minna Keal, herself an activist and organizer, to find this a sympathetic philosophy. He was a dedicated worker, with an almost nineteenth-century faith in the value of the work, testing his own capacities to the limits, often going without food or sleep, living in 'little nips' of spirits, and lashings of nightmarishly strong coffee, to 'get up a head of steam' on what he was writing. He could spend the day 'in a pit', rewriting the same sentence a hundred times, because, like so many others, he cherished the hope that if he could only find the right word or turn of phrase, the whole argument would be instantly illuminated and the reader wooed into agreement. Raphael was never really 'off-duty' (the notion of his ever 'retiring' was quite shocking and repellent to him); the life and the work were meant to be seamless; their pleasures enhancing each other so much that the distinction between them ought to disappear.

I don't think I ever heard Raphael say that a piece was finished; he was temperamentally, politically, and as a historian, opposed to endings (he couldn't easily follow plots, either, and the average amount of suspense demanded by reading a thriller or watching a television series seemed to baffle and alarm him). One probably apocryphal story which tickled him enormously was of the Oxford don (he said) who firmly believed that the only truly gentlemanly thing to do was to publish posthumously. Although Raphael often spoke of how kind the University had been to him both as an undergraduate and later as a historian, it was Ruskin College's marginal and oppositional place in Oxford and in higher education that he savoured, and where he belonged for over thirty years. Still, he has certainly behaved like his imaginary don and left material enough for several more volumes. Verso hopes to publish at least two of them: one on the philosophy and practice of history; the other on the dreamers and planners of socialist and Marxist history and thought.