Book review: England's dreaming
As Britain slowly disintegrates, what can the English salvage from their past? Robert Hewison scans two divergent views
Saturday 13 June 1998
With the state of the union in such tension, it is a good time to consider two writers who, from very different perspectives, take the break-up of Britain seriously. Both books reflect our contemporary anxiety about the future of a collective sense of national identity.
Sadly, there is an inevitably unravelled aspect to Samuel's book. He died before completing it, and it has been lovingly put together by his "friends and co-workers", Sally Alexander and Gareth Stedman Jones, and by his widow, Alison Light, who contributes an engaging memoir of Samuel's omnivorous methods. But it is unlikely that the book would be stitched any more neatly if the author were still living. Samuel did not write books: he amassed essays, articles and reviews in a mirror-image of his research methodology, which impresses you not only with how much he read, but also how little he discarded from his bulging files.
Island Stories is the second of his projected trilogy - or quartet - of volumes under the title Theatres of Memory. The first, subtitled Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, appeared in 1994. Astonishingly for someone who had been writing since the 1950s and had published so much, this was his first sole-authored book. But it was appropriate for a man who believed in the collective that this should be so.
Samuel translated E P Thompson's "history from below" into that institution for the recovery of working-class and peasant memory, History Workshop, which first met in 1967 and which has transformed social historiography through its journal. British feminism also owes a debt to Samuel, for its present history stems from a History Workshop conference in 1970. He was brought up a Communist, as a fragment of autobiography in the present volume records, and devoted almost his entire life to adult education and the labour movement as a tutor at Ruskin College, Oxford.
Samuel believed passionately in history from below, all the more because it was offensive to the official history being taught in the university to which Ruskin is nominally attached. But what really seems to have driven him was, in his own phrase, "history against the grain". This was apparent in his politics. He was a member of the reforming Historians Group during the crisis of the British Communist Party in 1956, and, by the time the party evaporated altogether in the 1980s, he gave the impression of being the last King Street party member.
It is also apparent in his history. Theatres of Memory took so long to compile that it almost contradicts itself on the subject of popular ideas of the past. When what might be called memory from below began to be exploited for commercial ends in the 1970s, Samuel was critical; but when a younger generation of cultural historians labelled this process of appropriation and commodification the "heritage industry", he switched sides and attacked the "heritage-baiters" - much to the delight of right-wing historians such as Jonathan Clark.
Yet a good piece on Mrs Thatcher and Victorian values shows that he was aware of the political implications of Thatcher's reinvented past: "Victorian Britain was constituted as a kind of reverse image of the present, exemplifying by its stability and strength everything that we are not. The past here occupies an allegorical rather than temporal space." Which is precisely what the heritage-baiters were arguing.
In Unravelling Britain, history against the grain means that the opening section on the possibilities of a "four nations history" (one that emerges from the break-up of Britain) broadly welcomes the idea - only to argue that now, therefore, is the time to study British history. Similarly, the arrival of multicultural approaches make it more, not less important to study the British Empire.
There is a rag-bag air about the volume, as it ranges from the Tower of London to the BBC to the SDP. A section devoted to the arguments around the place of history in the National Curriculum begins with a typical against-the-grain statement of 1989: "History has had a better deal from the Conservative administration than it would from any imaginable Labour one." The reason given is that the Tories cared enough about it to attack the way it was taught.
From sheer perversity, Samuel would probably have loved the self-confessed "old timer" Peter Vansittart's In Memory of England. His book was provoked by the news that British farmers had to apply to the Brussels Eurocrats for permission to plant trees on their own land, and he fears that "Britain might indeed disintegrate".
Vansittart subtitles the ensuing elegy "A Novelist's View of History". A historian's view of history it is certainly not. Without references, and largely without dates, though obeying a rough chronology from 1400BC to 1914, this is an impressionable accumulation that somehow misses out discussion of significant events such as the Wars of the Roses and the Crimea. It seems quite uninterested in the causes or consequences of anything.
As is also too often the case with Samuel, Vansittart's historical research produces only lists. Here is a typical evocation of the 18th century: "Inside the country houses mannered voices chattered about India, a capsized warship, a St James's scandal, a murder in Hyde Park. In long galleries and orangeries, flounced ladies sauntered during bad weather."
Though Vansittart acknowledges history from below - which he seems to attribute to Tony Benn - this is history from above. It is full of kings and queens and aristocrats, of aphorisms and Churchill. A schoolboy fascination with executions and torture betrays a sadistic streak. The questions raised by the existence of English history but a British Empire are not discussed.
Vansittart's imaginary homeland is in fact Albion, "nostalgic symbol of poetic or ideal England, small, valiant, pastoral, unpolluted"; and his hero "the first British intellectual" Pelagius (350-420), "downright, practical, sociable, serious but not solemn". Periodic summations of the English - not British - character appear throughout the book. "Drake was recognisably English: obstinate, acquisitive, humourous, puritan, dedicated to his reputation and Name, to gold, England, God, probably in that order."
John Bunyan, however, was "an enduring but not altogether endearing English, or northern type, the type that will sacrifice all goods, all relationships, for his own truth". One would call this complacency were it not for Vansittart's title, which suggests that all is over. His final chapter is called "Towards the Somme", though the significance for the Ulster Irish of that battle eludes him.
Neither of these books is likely to be read by the light of flickering television screens in darkened pubs this summer. As the shouts and groans erupt, the question remains: what are we shouting and groaning for? A lost goal, or a lost identity? The Scots, with devolution to play for, have a future, but England is the absence that no amount of face-painting and flag-waving can hide.
While, for Vansittart, England is now only a neo-romantic memory, Samuel sees hope in Britishness, which "instead of being a secure, genetic identity, can be seen as something culturally and historically conditioned, always in the making, never made". Yet, as the common inspiration for these books reveals, it is not the making, but the unmaking of a national identity that we now must face - and neither has the answer.
Robert Hewison is professor of literary and cultural studies at Lancaster University
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