Towards the end of this book, a memoir of the historian’s life with and love for Raphael – Ralph, Raph – Alison Light, another historian – writes of the obituaries that quickly appeared in all the broadsheets. “As well as being grateful, I was taken aback by how swiftly Raphael’s closest male friends could write about him, how readily they occupied the public space.” At that point I rested, wondering whether to write this review, as someone who neither knew Samuel directly or Light at all. What right have I to intrude on this public space, this public grief? I have not even lost a partner, so how could I understand? So if there are yawning gaps in this review, reader, forgive me. They are there on purpose.
Alison Light will be known to some readers for her books of social history and for her spell as an editor of Feminist Review. Raphael Samuel may be familiar to older readers of for the History Workshop project. Samuel was a secular Jew to whom, according to this book, Jewishness was not important, though there were shadows of his Yiddish past. He happily fried bacon in the morning before setting off for Ruskin College and the mezuzzahs on his doors were from previous residents at his house in Elder Street in East London. We would come to know this house well through the book, a five storey Huguenot house with an outside toilet and with books, papers, folders and Lever-arch files spilling out of every room, every space.
A Radical Romance is not a biography of Samuel, still less of Light – but it did make me want to know more about both people. The couple were twenty years apart in age, leaving her as a youngish widow when her husband died at 62. He had previous lovers, previous significant others and – keeping everything – there’s letters from them to Samuel. But he also kept the sort of “see you later” notes busy people would leave for their partners, addressed to Honey, to Sweetheart, sobriquets he would use in everyday life.
But I did know something of Raphael Samuel’s biography, my partner being a sometime guest at his uncle Chimen Abramsky’s Friday night meals, invited by Miriam Abramsky (they were her meals, to be exact), both of whom appear in this book. More publicly, I was entranced by the story first published in New Left Review and filled out in Samuel’s The Lost World of British Communism of how, one by one, the family became communists. Twelve according to Alison Light, with The Lost World... describing how the family bookshop, once a mainstream Jewish bookshop sold taleisim (prayer shawls) at one end and and Marxist texts at the other. Being a Jewish communist was almost an ethnicity of its own.
The History Workshop books included some impressive titles, notably Jerry White’s Rothschild Buildings and Theatres of the Left, edited by Ralph Samuel and others. And their two dozen or more conferences were important – it’s hard to imagine a conference nowadays about “history from below” advertised by a poster saying “Tickets limited to 700”. This meant that everyone wanted a piece of Raphael Samuel – the house was a way-station for sophisticated scholars from around the world. Alison Light makes it clear that was not always easy for her, particularly as a younger working class woman from Portsmouth. At times she felt Spitalfields, while it was not yet so gentrified, oppressive. And the conflict between his Jewishness and her Englishness was there to be negotiated.
But now to try to address some of the yawning gap. Alison Light explains things clearly enough – how, at the huge memorial meeting someone said there were quite a few widows present. No, she wanted to say, there’s only one widow. And she talks of “widowing about”, with so much to do. Only later, at Bishopsgate Institute some twenty years later, does she go through the letters of condolence saved from public view but part of the Raphael Samuel archive. There’s letters from friends, from ex-lovers, from the man at the photocopy shop, from people who did not know her husband, from professional colleagues, from people who get her name right and wrong…. letters that had peaked at 200 a day. Reading through them she “fell into a daze, a reverie. And in that dreaming state some miracle took place, call it a romance. … Raphael was remembered. Grief turned back into love. … I saw too that what we were in other people’s eyes was also true: a happy marriage, a blessed companionship.”
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I’m hesitant to offer a review of two memoirs by people I know but these books, which I’ve read over the summer, are so very good that I want to recommend them to all.
There’s a book by George Perec called An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (‘Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien’) in which he observes, makes lists and otherwise attempts an exhaustive account of one small corner of Paris. Of course, it’s not exhaustive; apart from anything else the place is in motion and continually changing – even the present moment cannot be captured.
There’s a sense in which both Graham Caveney’s The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness (Picador, £14.99) and Joanne Limburg’s Small Pieces: A Book of Lamentations (Little, Brown, £14.99) are similarly attempts at what is termed in French an épuisement in that they are both attempts to understand distressing and traumatic events by investigating them in a multitude of aspects. One of the ways they do this by placing them in the broader settings of life before and after. But both also acknowledge that the subjects they address will never be fully understood or accommodated; what has happened has to be borne and managed, and the attempt to understand will continue long after the books are written and published.
The two traumatic events – the death by suicide of Joanne Limburg’s brilliant younger brother and the sexual abuse perpetrated on the teenage Graham Caveney by his charismatic headmaster – are very different. However both lead to a consideration of the effect of trauma on family relationships, social position and relationship to religion (Joanne was raised in the Jewish faith while Graham’s family background is Catholic). Both also occupy a kind of outsider status. In Joanne’s book this is most clearly articulated in her encounter with the mostly kind and well-meaning Americans in the place she calls Plainsville where her brother and his Japanese wife settled. Graham explores the distance between working-class Accrington with its loving but limited home life and his desire for something beyond, suggested by the works of Beckett and Kafka, by music, by the visits to the theatre and abroad which his headmaster, a Catholic priest, holds out as tempting treats. and both cannot help at times asking the question we all ask ourselves after grief and trauma: “Was it something I did or said? Was it all my fault?” However much logic tells us this is not the case, it is usual to be burdened at times, solipsistically, with a sense of guilt.
But there’s more than this that the books have in common. Both are also structured adventurously – and perhaps this is essential when the experience at the centre of each will never cease to have its effects. While both memoirs have a sense of direction, they are compelled to move backwards and forwards in time – something which any writer knows is hard to achieve while maintaining the momentum of the book. Yet both are written in such a way that I read them avidly. In Joanne Limburg’s book, this meant I had to move through a series of vessels rather than chapters. In the tradition of the Kabbalah there were ten aspects of of the divine contained in vessels which almost immediately fractured, scattering the contents through the universe and mixing them up with the material world with its evils and suffering. And each of the vessels in Joanne’s book includes fragments of the divine – of goodness, of love – as well as the anguish of loss and the difficulty of accommodating a mourning self in a changed world.
Graham’s book is even more urgent with almost every section headed ‘Next’. It articulates the question which may be implicit in Joanne’s book: what would I have been if this had not happened? That, of course, is the unknowable. It is plain that Graham has suffered damage from the assaults he experienced and that his pathway has been different as a result of his singling out by the headmaster. The results are not even entirely regretted since the headmaster offered, in place of sweets or temporary goodies, the treat of a knowledge of culture which cannot be entirely dismissed or rejected – although Graham’s choice to specialise in American literature was conceived as a rejection of what the headmaster stood for.
Despite the clear focus of each memoir, both build the sense of a wider world. In Small Pieces there are pictures of family life with all its complexities as well as meditations on the author’s relation both to her Jewish identity and the Jewish religion. She comes from a family of tough women, sometimes overset by events beyond their control, and the memories she recounts of her childhood show the kind of relationship between older sister and younger brother that is founded on familial closeness and love. At times it called to mind my relationship with my own younger brother, who I love dearly – there are the same childhood squabbles and jostling for power and love as well as alternating times of communication and times when conversation is less frequent (my brother also lives in North America). While the references to Judaism were largely unfamiliar to me, I read them – as I often read – for greater knowledge and understanding, and also because they were integral to the story being told.
In some ways, Graham’s story seemed closer to my own life, although my working-class parents in London were consumers of culture and my mother in particular was avid to devour the culture of which she felt deprived after leaving school at thirteen to work in a factory. His lists of the tastes of childhood set me to conjure up the tastes I recalled from that time. I also shared his sense of the need to protect my parents – in my case from an acutely unhappy boarding-school experience having been sent away from home on a scholarship at 9-years-old. I knew this involved sacrifices made by my parents, that they were happy and proud of some of my achievements, and that they couldn’t understand why their happy child had such difficult teenage years. And, like Graham, I don’t know how much was the separation from my parents and how much the normal pains of adolescence. But I also know that I was lucky not to endure the appalling betrayal he endured of being abused by someone in a position of power. Of course he couldn’t have told someone at the time. Who could he have told? Who would have believed a working-class teenager’s word rather than that of a headmaster and a priest? Later, when the climate of public opinion and knowledge had changed Graham was able to report the abuse to the church. His position as the author of two books probably gave him credibility and the headmaster admitted what he had done.
These books don’t have happy endings – what could those be? Yet they don’t have entirely unhappy endings either. Life is a movement forward in which we learn to live with seemingly impossible loss and trauma. Both Joanna and Graham are part of our world and have written books from which we can learn, if only by being aware of the grief of others and bringing our own intelligence and experience of life to bear on the problems that caused it. Both books reach towards understanding. They invite the reader to play a part in that important work.
Oliver Sacks wrote a succession of popular books about strange medical conditions, most famously The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and a well-received autobiography, On the Move. He died at the end of last year. This short book – beautifully produced in a gift format – includes four short essays written in his old age and in expectation of his imminent death. The title reflects how he felt about the gifts that life had given him. The final essay – his final essay, is a meditation on the Jewish Sabbath, the Shabbes of his youth, where, after describing the Orthodox practice of friends and their acceptance of him as a gay (married-out!) atheist, he comes round to seeing his own life as a Sabbath, with the feeling that he has done his work and can now, at ease, rest.
For some people in Aberdeen sometime in the 70s, their introduction to Patti Smith was a large graffito saying “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”, painted up on the back wall of a city centre church. It stayed for quite a while. It’s the sort of thing that punky people did back then. To them Patti Smith was a star.
For people of a certain age and a certain background, Marge Piercy was an important writer. Her feminist utopia Woman on the Edge of Time is perhaps still read but, at least as a novelist, her star has faded. I’ve read thirteen of her seventeen novels and used to read Vida every year or two, Piercy’s book about a woman in America’s illegal political underground of the 60s and 70s, but the stream of novels seems to have ended.
Some years ago Five Leaves published two collections of Marge Piercy’s poetry. In America she is still renowned as a poet but her collections did not travel well. I met her once, prior to publishing the books. It would be fair to say it was probably not a memorable occasion for either of us. I hope I did not behave like some of her fans described in “Fame, fortune and other tawdry illusions” who expect more from Piercy than the normal relationship between an author and a writer. She writes in that chapter about the way some of her readers would over-personalise the author/reader relationship. Indeed she details the views of her academic feminist critics who thought that she was not living up to their expectations.
Yet it’s precisely her involvement in the causes she writes about that made her books important to so many people, and in this book – a set of essays – she reinforces what perhaps we instinctively knew. She describes her Jewish working-class, hardscrabble background which led her, as a writer, to give voice to women workers on whose labour, for example, universities depend. She describes the reasons she became a feminist, an essay that should be widely circulated, and she describes her involvement in the anti-war scene in America. Unusually for an American writer she also describes herself as a socialist.
Of equal importance to the historical essays are “Gentrification and Its discontents” and “Housewives without houses”. In the latter she talks about meeting homeless women, the hidden homeless of America and in the former – one of the causes of such homelessness – the way cities have become gentrified. In this essay she works her way through the cities she has lived in – Detroit, Paris, New York – talking about the rents she once paid and the rents now charged for the same flats showing how working class people and lower-earning bohemians are forced out. Even in Wellfleet, her Cape Cod home for many years, which has been famed as an artists’ colony, the area has been taken over by people with summer houses. Ironically, a committee set up to look at how to bring more year-round employment to the area had difficulty meeting as several of the committee themselves were only part-time residents.
For those of us who read Marge Piercy in the 70s and early eighties the “personal is political” strap-line mattered. And in America it still does as witnessed by the title essay in the book, “My life, my body” which is about abortion. Piercy talks about her own abortion and her active involvement in supporting women before the landmark 1973 Roe Vs. Wade case which made abortion legal in America. For the pro-life, pro-gun, pro-death penalty right abortion rights are at the cutting edge of their politics with clinics being picketed and pro-abortion doctors being attacked (and in some cases killed). At the same time as the right acts against women’s right to choose welfare is attacked, daycare is limited and Obamacare is threatened. Piercy reminds us who suffers most here.
I came to adulthood just after the 1960s, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and like many of my generation regret having just missed out on the 1960s. Though I was fined £1 in Glasgow for flyposting against the war, which still raged, the main countercultural changes in the USA, the draft resistance, the Civil Rights Movement, flower power were all over.
Not that I’d like to live through a war like Vietnam again or to have to fight segregation and there were terrible things within the counterculture – another Ed Sanders book was about The Manson Family. In this book he gives his take on the 1960s, a detailed history. Sanders was, with Tuli Kupferberg, the main character in The Fugs, a political rock’n’roll band, and a poet. He was the proprietor of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the editor of Fuck You magazine, a friend of everyone from Janis Joplin to Allen Ginsberg. And when he came to Britain he visited Stonehenge with the poet Michael Horovitz, who I know, which makes me only two steps of separation from Janis Joplin!
Ah, the 60s. This was a period, under Johnson’s Great Society when he introduced “Medicare, Medicaid, the Freedom of Information Act, the Voting Rights Act, a law setting aside millions of acres of public land as permanent wilderness, and [his] executive order on affirmative action. … At the same time Johnson started up a ground and air war in Vietnam – with napalm, Agent Orange, fragmentation bombs… ” In response The Fugs tried to levitate the White House with the chant “Out, demons, out”.
Ed Sanders lived through it all, but more, in that he was a living link between the Beat generation of Jack Kerouac and the hippie era. Unfortunately, from this bookseller’s point of view, his promised history of the Peace Eye Bookstore is missing. Though the shop is constantly referred to we are left no wiser about what it stocked, other than at one stage he turned the shop over “to the community”. On his next visit he “noted that there were a lot of books in the garbage cans out front.” He was told that “the needed the wall space for psychedelic designs” and the floors were covered in mattresses as “what the community needed was space to crash”. Never anyone suggest Five Leaves is turned over to the community… At least he mentions a book party for the launch of Abbie Hoffman’s Revolution for the Hell of It.
Apart from campaigning against the Vietnam War and trying to make a hit record Sanders campaigned for the legalisation of marijuana. Drugs were important to him and campaigns for legalisation took up much of his time. That had its dangers – the poet John Sinclair got ten years for supplying a couple of joints “to an undercover cop in Detroit who was pretending to be a volunteer from the Committee to Legalise Marijuana”. The drug parts of the book reminded me of the tedious parts of the counterculture, in Sanders case also hanging round with people who injected harder drugs and who used amphetamines. In my day I was partial to the odd joint (who wasn’t?) but making it the centre of your life seems pretty boring.
Having not read much about the counterculture of late, what is also striking is the awful, awful sexism of the men. Save for his comments that he would not have been so positive about the use of needles in the Fuck You artwork – Sanders reports what happened, often in great detail and with lots of archive and fugitive material, without judgement. I found it hard not to be judgemental. I’m glad I read the book but will not be rushing out to find his nine volume verse history of America.
Heather Reyes is a contributor to the Five Leaves’s book London Fictions, writing about Virginia Woolf, and is the editor of the city-pick collections of literature from the world’s best loved cities. Our paths have crossed a few times over the years so I could hardly resist picking up her book on reading. I picked it up some months ago but have just got round to opening it to discover that it is not just a book on reading, but a meditation on reading in relation to her discovering she was very ill, with a prognosis of four to five years. How did I not know? I felt I should get to work immediately and read it in one sitting. Somehow that felt important.
This is not a maudlin book, far from it, and though Heather writes that it is not a book about illness but a book about books, there’s always a sense of time running out – indeed, talking about Turkish literature she ends the chapter lamenting her lack of reading with “…there is so much … so much … And that’s just one country. What about all the others I’ve missed out on or scarcely touched at all. So much to know, still, so much to enjoy, understand, experience. I want more time. More time.” And discussing an early incident when she was asked to dispose of an elderly person’s books she remarks “What will happen to my books?”
Not that this stops her buying. In the period she is writing she buys forty books, many of which she discusses here. The start of the book was picked for her – when she was facing a time when it was unlikely she’d have the energy to do more than read so she opens with a pre-treatment French holiday which includes stocking up on those beautiful austere French books with just their author, publisher and title on the cover (Heather reads easily in French). This is the hardest chapter, partly because of the shock of the illness and partly because the average reader – well, this very average reader – did not know any of the writers mentioned and can’t speak a word of French. But stick with it. Along the way I drew up a little list of must reads, including a travel writing book about France itself and was reminded to read Alberto Manguel’s books on reading, one of which is buried in a pile somewhere at home.
But for me, the most interesting parts of the book were not about reading or about not reading. She writes about her father, an immigrant who left school at thirteen but became a successful businessman, an adviser to the UN, who crafted a roll-top desk with his hands. After his death Heather found an inscribed copy of her first novel on his shelves with a bookmark between pages twelve and thirteen. He was an autodidact who could not read fiction. I wanted to know more about him, about her family.
Along the way we learn the first book she bought independently – a Penguin Classics book of essays by de Montaigne (to my shame, I can remember the first record I bought, by one Elvis Presley, but not my first book) and share with her pain at revisiting the burning of the library at Alexandria. We discuss books that change your life, including Heather’s daughter reading To Kill a Mocking Bird and deciding on a career in law. She is a Human Rights lawyer.
There is more to discuss of course, and more to read. The book ends with Heather’s husband Malcolm pouring her a glass of white wine while she gets on with her reading party – her guests ranging from Aeschylus to Zola.