A review of Raphael Samuel’s book Theatres of Memory (Verso, 1995), published in the Guardian 4 February 1995. For more recent thoughts on this argument see ‘Who do you think you are . . . ?’ under ‘Conversations’.
UNTIL contact was lost a few years ago, I would occasionally pick up my phone to hear a soft-spoken man addressing me as ‘Comrade’ and wanting to speak about things that happened in another age.
Sometimes Raphael Samuel was only pursuing a footnote or a photocopy; but I also remember a delightful conversation about Bridport in West Dorset. We considered the town’s rope-making industry, the harbour and street pattern, the Quakers and communists who had lived there; and I was amazed when my telephonic inquirer, who dialed from a sparingly modernised Georgian house in the heart of Spitalfields, mentioned in passing that he had never actually been to the place whose story he knew in such detail. His considerable knowledge of Bridport came from the archive, and the fact that people were driving motor cars through its historical streets even as we spoke seemed a strangely irrelevant afterthought . . .
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