I’m a sucker for books about bookshops and publishing, with an embarrassing number of books on this subject, even some of that tacky sub-genre about books where someone inherits an unlikely bookshop and a customer falls in love with them. Sadly these are all in rural areas of France or Germany, in America or Australia and sometimes the bookshop is on a barge, not downtown Nottingham, but I can dream.
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 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.
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