Bill Schwarz’s foreword to the new edition of ‘Theatres of Memory’ epitomizes Raphael Samuel’s gloriously eclectic take on ‘History’ with this epigraph: ‘At Camden Lock … the past has almost caught up with the present’ - Samuel had that wonderful ability to segue from high intellectualism to street furniture sensibility in the blink of an eye. Schwarz further epitomizes the book thus: ‘The starting point of Theatres of Memory … is that history is not the prerogative of the historian, nor even, as postmodernism contends, a historian’s “invention”.’
Schwarz goes on to say that ‘As readers of Theatres of Memory will know, or will discover if they come to it for the first time, Samuel is less preoccupied with the procedures of mainstream or professional history. Rather he is engaged by the ‘unofficial knowledges’ that give form to the popular articulations of the past and the present. And this is precisely where the ‘memory’ of the title operates most forcefully.’
You can see the relevance of this to the 2014 Centenary. Why not construct your own ‘unofficial knowledges’, narratives, explanations, presentations and performances? You don’t need a lottery grant; you don’t need to follow the ‘official’ heritage line and trope; indeed, there is an argument that questioning official heritage is part of our official heritage. Charles Parker and Ewan MacColl’s 1960s ‘Radio Ballads’ fused with oral history and ‘O What a Lovely War’ could be an interesting approach for some people.
An alternative reading of the Great War would question what might turn out to be, otherwise, an official grand over arching heritage narrative about that conflict. Samuel wrote about how ‘heritage’ can become ‘an expressive totality, a seamless web … systemic, projecting a unified set of meanings which are impervious to challenge – what Umberto Eco calls ‘hyper-reality … a ‘closed story’, i.e. a fixed narrative which allows for neither subtext nor counter-readings’. How right he might be unless we do a little DIY-ery.
In further support of such an approach, I conclude with Samuel’s characteristic critique of the bumptious orthodoxy of the professional historian. ‘We suppress the authorial ‘I’ so that the evidence appears to itself. We improve on the original, making connections to cover the gaps in the story, the silences in the evidence … History is an allegorical as well as – in intention at least – a mimetic art … Like allegorists, historians are adept at discovering a hidden or half-hidden order. We find occult meanings in apparently simple truths … the ‘historian’s ‘reading’ of the evidence could be seen as an essay in make believe … an exercise in the story-teller’s arts …’
Well, if the official WW1 Centenary heritage trope is based on any of that, then surely a DIY approach to it is just as good, if not even better? As the Paris Situationists used to cry: “Underneath the pavement, the beach!’ but our cry might be: ‘Underneath the blue pencil, the truth!’