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.”
Copies are available, post free, from email@example.com
“I wish this summer would last forever.”
The speaker is Marianne, the reporter is Erica, the narrator of this fictional memoir of the summer of 1960 on Hydra island in Greece. Erica is a troubled, naive eighteen year old who flees London and a brutal father after the death of her mother. She and her boyfriend head for Hydra to join a friend of her mother’s, Charmian, the matriarch of an ever-changing international community of writers and artists sojourning on the island.
The Marianne in question is Marianne Ihlen, a real person and sometime muse of Leonard Cohen. Marianne’s disastrous relationship with her husband Axel Jensen and her affair with Leonard Cohen forms a major part of the book. For this book, though fiction, weaves in and out of the real lives of Marianne, Cohen and, more, the lives of the charismatic and beautiful writer Charmian Clift and her ghastly husband George Johnston – chain-smoking, suffering from TB and causing others to suffer from his bitter tongue. Johnston was another writer who had worked in 64 countries, reporting on war. Throughout the book he sucks energy from Charmian whose own writing suffered.
Erica watches all this. She is taken under her wing by Charmian, for reasons only clear at the end of the book, which ends in modern time with Erica one of the few survivors from those days looking back. to 1960 and a subsequent visit ten years later.
And what days those were, and people “… keep coming… all with their pocketbooks of names who might be relied on for a meal or a bed in Ibiza, Paris, Venice, Tangier, Corsica or Casablanca.” To spend their time, and why not, where you can go “… outside to pick vine leaves. Beyond the high courtyard walls the island bells ring: mountain bells from churches and goat bells and the jingling of passing donkeys. [Where the] light falls tender green… [and] an ancient lemon tree is splinted but defiantly beautiful with both blossom and fruit.” There people can “swim late at night and lie naked between the moon and the tide on the still-warm rocks”. Or, like Cohen, write for 24 hours solid on Benzedrine, while seducing Marianne, Charmian and everyone else for that matter.
The island has a port, tavernas, impossibly steep streets up which people have to carry their supplies including water – there were no cars on the island. Indeed there are still no cars on the island though I believe what was once a working island is now overrun by the wealthy from Athens, and those on the Leonard Cohen trail. But this is 1960 and while the tavernas need the trade of the internationals, as does the water seller who charges them more than the locals, there is little interaction between the islanders and their quarrelsome bohemian visitors. It is not the islanders who are insular, but the internationals even though the central couple have lived there a decade.
We are left to guess what the islanders think. There is a passing reference to a traditional religious parade of local women, covered head to toe in peasant costume which contrasts with the young, bronzed women visitors covered in very little. But we are left to guess as local people form little more than a backdrop to the parties, the drinking, the bed-hopping and the petty jealousies of those who leave at the end of summer.
And yet, as the main story ends with Charmian and George themselves leaving for Britain at the end of that summer Polly Sampson’s description of the various birds of passage moving on I was left with regret that I was leaving too. Erica stays on for a few months, leaving the day the almond trees come into blossom.
The lives of a number of the Hydra characters has been picked over, especially that of Leonard Cohen and Marianne. Some ended tragically, not least the Johnston family, and not only Charmian and George but their children – young in this book. Some of this is prefigured in a slow moving, sometimes annoying – because so many of the people were annoying – but ultimately successful novel which blends fiction with truth. A Theatre for Dreamers makes me wish I was there in 1960 but also to thank the stars that was neither my time nor my life.
A Theatre for Dreamers is available for £14.99 post free from firstname.lastname@example.org
People’s memories of Foyles, the major bookseller on Charing Cross Road (with some branches elsewhere) vary according to age. The modern reader will know a smart bookshop geared up to an international customer base that pours through its doors. The elderly overseas reader of the past might have been one of those who sent 35,000 letters a day to them in the 1950s, when they were the pre-eminent English language mail-order bookshop in the world. The reader in the 1960s might remember a rather bitter strike. In the 1970s the reader with time on their hands will have queued to hand over the book of their choice, be given a slip to go somewhere else – never nearby – to pay for it, before returning to queue again to pick up their book… that is if you had not just walked out of the shop because it was impossible to find anything, or anyone to ask in what was then its old warren-like building.
Bill Samuel has written (and self-published) an entertaining, old-fashioned memoir of the firm, his own rather adventurous life before joining the family business and his successful attempt to rebuild the finances and reputation of Foyles, both of which had been destroyed by his aunt Christina Foyle. His aunt had run the business from its glory days when she took over until it had become the shambling wreck it was at her death some fifty years later.
There was no love lost between the author and his aunt who he describes as “beautiful, charming, witty and intelligent” and “self-centred, ruthless and vindictive”. Among her many sins was to sack workers just as they would have become eligible for employment rights. The bizarre payment system she invented – which inspired a poem by Wendy Cope – was partly because she did not trust her staff. But her complete lack of financial controls meant that some of the senior workers were taking bribes from publishers’ reps to overstock their books, and were syphoning off, it would appear, millions. When the author came into the business he found one worker with a complete non-job (running a speakers’ agency that had not booked anyone out for years), uncashed cheques all over the place and an unsent cheque to the tax people for over a million pounds. Christina also refused to allow computers in the business. Or to allow the phones to be answered, leaving just a recorded message with opening times.
Christina treated the firm’s income as her own private account, and her country house drains were once found to be blocked by financial records she had tried to flush away.
So how did the shop survive, the shop whose origins stretched back to one George Foyle who set up a wholesale grocer and drysalter in Hoxton in 1843? Well, it was an entrepreneurial family – one member invented the folding cardboard box – and William Foyle, the author’s grandfather – put the firm’s profits into property during the period when his firm was selling about 8% of all books sold in Britain.
After Christina Foyle, Bill Samuel had the job of rebuilding the firm. He sacked the corrupt staff, appointed people who knew what they were doing and, along the way, bought in Silver Moon Feminist Bookshop and Ray French’s Jazz shop, both of which were due to close due to rapacious landlords elsewhere on Charing Cross Road.
It’s hard to imagine now the importance of Foyles in the past, but their customers included Bill Clinton and one Nelson Mandela. And in January 2003 the US Embassy bought their entire stock of road maps of Iraq. Work that one out, but just the thought of there being a bookshop that did have a stock of road maps of Iraq.
To a bookseller, it’s all fascinating but the book might be of interest to anyone interested in how family firms grow and wealth gets passed on or dissipated by subsequent generations.
Towards the end the author is a minority of one on the board in, for example, allowing charitable use of the Foyles Gallery for events, and clearly there is more going behind the scenes on than we are told. But he was in agreement with the decision to sell Foyles off to Waterstones and their American owner. So ends the life of Foyles as an independent bookshop, though Waterstones promises to keep Foyles as Foyles.
And Bill Samuel – no longer young – can develop his own interests which includes planting olive trees in Ramallah. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book will go to The Book Trade Charity, another area of the author’s charitable interests.
And the firm’s fortune? Well, Christina, who, while living, had no love for her family or for charity, did leave her money to establish the Foyle Foundation which supports charities working in arts and literature. So she finally did something useful!
Strangely, this £14.99 book is on sale at Foyles website for £20 – perhaps the ghost of Christina is at work.
George Orwell left London for Catalonia on December 22nd 1936. He fled Barcelona in fear for his and his wife Eileen’s life six months later, hastily across the French border at Perpignan, through France by train, “away from the mountain and the vine, back to the meadow and the elm”, and was back in the family home in Wallington by the first week of July 1937.
He returned a changed man. Not just, as Fenner Brockway, general secretary of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) observed, “far more mature as a socialist”. Nor simply having seen first hand the brutal early military realisation of the “wave of revolutionary feeling” that, recalling in 1944, he felt sweeping over every detail of life in Europe at the time. The abject bitterness of Orwell’s experiences in and immediately after leaving Spain – the fatal betrayal of his militia by Stalinist Communist forces; the helpless witnessing of comrades imprisoned, tortured and murdered; the capitulation to Soviet propaganda, and subsequent personal defamations, by elements of the British left – affected him in the most profound way possible.
He returned a man shocked into truth and steeled as a writer facing those truths. And though it would be many years before he would put them to paper, many of the sinister realities forced upon Orwell in Spain would resurface in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Bernard Crick wonders whether one bitter incident in particular – the apparent ‘confession’ by Orwell’s comrade in arms F. A. Frankfort (Frank Frankford), that the P.O.U.M. had been fighting for not against the Spanish fascists – was a grain destined to grow. “Could this specifically,” Crick writes in George Orwell: A Life, “as well as the Moscow trials generally, have given Orwell the idea for the bizarre and pathetic confessions of the animals in Animal Farm?”
If by the time he returned from Spain, as Crick believes, “most of Orwell’s formative experiences were over” and the seeds of the two great dystopian novels were indeed sown, it is fitting that 1936 is the year in which Dorian Lynskey begins his new ‘biography’ of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was the year in which Orwell himself said that “history stopped”; in The Ministry of Truth Lynskey adds that “history stopped, and Nineteen Eighty-Four began”.
Speaking at a recent event at renowned radical bookshop Five Leaves, in Nottingham, Lynskey agreed that Spain was a “turning point” for Orwell. As far as it can ever be truly surmised, by starting at this point of the novel’s conception, he explained, his new book offers a different angle for the reader. “I wanted to do it the other way around,” he told the audience. “I like to focus on the part of their life when they do their great writing. It’s easy to get lost in research. I wanted to bring Ninety Eighty-Four home to the reader.”
The Ministry of Truth doesn’t claim to be a complete biography of Orwell. But it does attempt to chart the life of his most famous novel, from conception to the modern day, decades past the point Orwell had succumbed to the illness that so blighted and dragged out the writing of it. In the years in between Catalonia and Jura [where he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four], Orwell grew steadily in stature as a public literary figure. With that profile came renown, much praise and – perhaps inevitably, given his tendency for truculence and “intellectual brutality” – many opponents.
Of the high-profile clashes Orwell became involved with in his career, Lynskey is particularly interested in a bitter literary tête-à-tête with War of the Worlds author H. G. Wells, setting aside a whole fascinating chapter to it. He recounts a fierce exchange between the two writers, on one of the few occasions when they met in person, at Orwell’s Abbey Road flat in August 1941. “Two days before dinner,” Lynskey writes, “Wells learned that Orwell had published an essay about him in Cyril Connolly’s magazine Horizon and procured a copy. ‘Wells, Hitler and the World State’ did not fill him with delight”.
One of the sharpest ironies of Orwell’s life is that after the punishing process of writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, a fearsome vision of a potential future, he scarcely had a future himself. And he was acutely aware that this was probably the case. Leaving Barnhill [the farmhouse in Jura] for the last time, he wrote to his close friend, Observer editor David Astor that “Everything is flourishing here except me”.
Even so, Lynskey notes in The Ministry of Truth, Orwell maintained a fierce schedule of work while he was on the island: “He typed it himself at the punishing rate of around four thousand words a day, seven days a week, propped up in bed for as long as he could bear in between bouts of fever and bloody coughing fits.”
He would only see another 227 days after Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, almost all in miserable health. “He never lived in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Lynskey said at Five Leaves. But Nineteen Eighty-Four has lived on in the world – well into the 21st century, yet another generation is hearing the warning bells from this great dystopian novel.
The second half of The Ministry of Truth explores how this has happened, tracing Nineteen Eighty-Four’s passage through the collective cultural consciousness. Orwell coined the phrase “Cold War”, and this is where Lynskey begins, taking the reader through the 1950s when the novel was first received and began to pervade the wider culture. (In December 1954 seven million people in Briton watched the first two-hour adaptation of the book, on the BBC).
Later the music journalist in Lynskey loves to tell the story of David Bowie’s traumatic visit to Soviet Russia in 1973. During the return leg Bowie told Roy Hollingsworth from Melody Maker “I’ve seen life and I think I know who’s controlling this damned world. And after what I’ve seen of the state of this world, I’ve never been so damned scared in my life”. Soon after this Bowie began work on a musical adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which would form the basis of the album Diamond Dog, released in 1974.
Having traced Nineteen Eighty-Four’s life right through to the modern day, The Ministry of Truth ends, perhaps fittingly, with one of the novel’s first reviews – written while Orwell was still alive. The 1949 review, in Life, Lynskey says, “correctly identified the essence of Orwell’s message”, that to guard objective truth against self-serving mendacious minds who try to pervert it, is the highest calling of a writer. The Ministry of Truth goes a long way to showing how, and why, that is still so essential today.
This review first appeared on the website of the George Orwell Society
David Rosenberg has demolished an assumption and disrupted a habit. I always assumed my knowledge of London’s dissenting tradition was adequate but incomplete, but this revised edition of Rebel Footprints exposed my ignorance of key aspects of even the better-known episodes in the city’s radical history.
For years, quarterly meetings in Chancery Lane have been preceded by aimless, time-killing strolls around EC4, but my next visit will include a carefully planned trudge from the Savoy Hotel, on The Strand, to Dorset Rise, just off Fleet Street. As Rosenberg reveals, the Savoy marks the site of a palace destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, while Dorset Rise is the location of an obelisk commemorating Robert Waithman, linen draper and rebellious MP.
The Fleet Street writers and rioters walk, new to this edition, also introduces us to the London Corresponding Society, which integrated the struggle for democracy with the battle against slavery. Local figures of note are ‘Freeborn’ John Lilburne, a Leveller flogged, pilloried and gaoled for attacks on the authority of the clergy, and the pamphleteer Richard Carlisle, who was repeatedly imprisoned on charges of seditious libel and blasphemy.
Another new segment, on Bethnal Green and Shoreditch, introduces us to the area’s housing campaigners, including Charles Mowbray, tailor, printer, anarchist-communist, ‘no rent’ activist, co-founder of the Socialist League and sole non-Jewish member of the Yiddish-speaking sweatshop workers strike of 1889.
Mowbray’s story, deftly outlined over a few pages, illustrates one of the strengths of the book. Rather than compartmentalising people, places and issues, Rosenberg meanders across thematic and geographical boundaries to highlight the connectedness of class struggles and celebrate the resilience and diversity of Londoners.
The book’s eleven historical excursions are crammed with fascinating detail, such as the geographical and class-based schisms in the suffragette movement, and Sylvia Pankhurst’s lifelong commitment to socialism and anti-fascism. Sylvia’s contribution to the foundation of the Women’s Social and Political Union did not, we are told, secure a namecheck on the suffragettes’ commemorative statue in Westminster.
Rosenberg’s style is clear and accessible and his scholarship impressive, but the vital element of Rebel Footprints is its passion for the capital’s history of radical change. And it’s tremendous fun. Each chapter ends with an elegantly lettered and illustrated map, and an itinerary listing significant landmarks in geographical order.
This is a welcome antidote to the focus on ‘great men’, royalty and military adventure celebrated by the heritage industry and official guidebooks. It’s also a goldmine of narratives showing conditions can be improved, racists can be resisted, better cities can be built. The publication of this new edition is a fitting celebration of the first 50 years of Pluto Press.
This review first appeared in the Morning Star
David Rosenberg’s first book – Battle for the East End: Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s – was published by Five Leaves