Island Stories: Unravelling Britain

Overview

Island Stories is an engrossing journey of discovery into the multiple meanings of national myths, their anchorage in daily life and their common sense of a people’s destiny. Raphael Samuel reveals the palimpsest of British National Histories, offering a searching yet affectionate account of the heroes and villains, legends and foibles, cherished by the “four nations” that inhabit the British Isles. Raphael Samuel is interested by the fact that traditions can disappear no less abruptly than they were invented. ...
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Overview

Island Stories is an engrossing journey of discovery into the multiple meanings of national myths, their anchorage in daily life and their common sense of a people’s destiny. Raphael Samuel reveals the palimpsest of British National Histories, offering a searching yet affectionate account of the heroes and villains, legends and foibles, cherished by the “four nations” that inhabit the British Isles. Raphael Samuel is interested by the fact that traditions can disappear no less abruptly than they were invented. How is it, her asks, that the Scots have lost interest in a British narrative of which they were once a central protagonist? Why is the celebration of “Britons” thriving today just as its object has become problematic?

Island Stories marvelously conveys the mutability of national conceits. Samuel calls as witness a galaxy of authorities—Bede and Gerald of Barri, Macaulay and Stubbs, Shakespeare and Dickens, Lord Reith and Raymond Williams, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn—each of whom sought to renew the sense of national identity be means of an acute sense of the past. Island Stories is a luminous study of the way nations use their past to lend meaning to the present and future. This sequel to the widely acclaimed Theatres of Memory is as passionate, unexpected and enjoyable as its predecessor.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A magnificent and irreplaceable collection”—John Gray, New Statesman

“A provocative lens into both the remote and the near British past.”—Publishers Weekly

“A rich fund of subversive ideas.”—Daniel Johnson, The Times

“A stunning collection ... humane, optimistic, multi-textures, ever-meandering but always sparkling ... one of the finest and- paradoxically—most quintessentially English historians of our time.”—Ben Pilmot, Independent on Sunday

“Deeply researched, intelligently argued, lovingly presented, thoroughly excitable and immensely stimulating ... [Samuel is] as comfortable with seventeenth-century sectarians as with Victorian nonconformists, as familiar with the townlands of Ireland as the streets of London.”—John Gillis, Left History

“One of the most outstanding, original intellectuals of his generation: a passionate, creative and innovative social historian and a man of unique personal qualities and distinction of mind and spirit.”—Stuart Hall, New Left Review

“Provocative, original ... a powerful testimony to the unending dialogue between the present and the past that is the essence excitement of history.”—David Cannadine, Observer

“Raphael Samuel gave new meaning to the idea of history ... He brought to the writing and popularisation of history a seemingly inexhaustible energy and creativity.”—Gareth Stedman Jones, Independent

“Samuel was born to be an historian. He had the vital quality of living at the same time in the past, the present and the future. Everything interested him, from public health to colonial rebellion and from street lighting to street fighting.”—Times

“The sheer scope and erudition of these pages is stunning ... an imaginative tour de force.”—Terry Eagleton, Guardian

David E. Bell
...Samuel [explores] with evident delight, the vagaries and the vicissitudes of popular collective memory in Great Britain....[it has] a taste for whimsy and [an] appetite for exposing invented traditions....His work has nothing systematic about it. It reflects, rather, one of his own favorite phrases: "madcap enthusiasm." -- The New Republic
Kirkus Reviews
A collection of scholarly, oddly compelling essays that aim to unravel the complexities of British identity. Historian Samuel intended Island Storiesþthe second installment of a planned trilogyþto address "the wildly different versions of the national past on offer at any given time, depending on whether the optic is that of town or country, center or periphery, the state or civil society." Although he died of cancer before he could complete the project, his longtime editors and literary executors completed it posthumously, bringing together key essays intended for the book, many of them on the verge of completion, others unfinished. The result is an odd pastiche that encompasses a variety of forms: essay, argument, travelogue, and personal memoir. It seems less a definitive history than a history of definitionsþSamuel clearly delighted in pulling apart the labels that have often been applied to the inhabitants of the so-called United Kingdom. Current events are proving it to be anything but, and Samuel made a point of noting that "the unity of the British Isles, so far from being the norm, can appear rather as an exceptional condition." Samuel examines the myths and oppositions inherent in the idea of Britain: Saxon and Celt, urban and rural, middle class and working class. Samuel's timeliness is indisputable: Nationality has become the key issue, the "storm-center" around which domestic politics in Britain now revolve. Indeed, there is a strange discomfort in using the word "British"; Samuel himself described it as capable of generating "a vertiginous sense of impending loss." Rather than being a "secure, genetic identity," he wrote, "[it] can be seen assomething culturally and historically conditioned, always in the making, never made." Strangely enough, the same could be said of his book. As fascinating and politically astute as Island Stories is, it suffers nonetheless from a lingering incompletion. (illustrations, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781859849651
  • Publisher: Verso Books
  • Publication date: 6/17/1998
  • Series: Theatres of Memory Series
  • Pages: 391
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Raphael Samuel (1934–1996) was a tutor in History at Ruskin College, Oxford, and a founding editor of History Workshop Journal. His works include Theatres of Memory and Island Stories, also from Verso. For more information about his work, see The Raphael Samuel History Centre and Archive online.
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Table of Contents

Illustration Acknowledgements
Editors' Preface
A Biographical Note on the Text
Pt. I Nations, States and Empires
Epical History: The Idea of Nation 3
Four Nations History 21
Unravelling Britain 41
Empire Stories: The Imperial and the Domestic 74
Pt. II English Journeys
The Tower of London 101
The Lost Gardens of Heligan 125
Country Visiting: A Memoir 132
North and South 153
The Voice of Britain 172
Pt. III History, the Nation and the Schools
History's Battle for a New Past 197
Heroes below the Hooves of History 203
One in the Eye: 1066 And All That 209
The Return of History 214
The People with Stars in Their Eyes 224
Pt. IV The War of Ghosts
Religion and Politics: The Legacy of R. H. Tawney 233
The SDP and the New Middle Class 256
Ancestor Worship 272
The Discovery of Puritanism, 1820-1914: A Preliminary Sketch 276
The Tory Party at Prayer 323
Mrs Thatcher and Victorian Values 330
App Reading the Runes 351
Index 371
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