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Taxing inheritance;Books

Theatres of Memory Volume 1: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, By Raphael Samuel Verso pound;19.95. 0 86091 209 4.

The 1960s saw the emergence of the study of ordinary people's pasts. In the light of a new study by the pioneer of this approach, Michael Rosen asks what national heritage means today.

A buzz went round in 1968 that serious radicalism was going on at Ruskin College, Oxford. You could sit in at a kind of free university where there would be no distinction between students, teachers and professors; and what would be on offer was a new kind of history, history from below, some of it researched and told by people who had lived it.

Eric Hobsbawm would be brushing shoulders with scholar-miners, coopers and railwaymen. This was the answer to the "bourgeois triumphalism" of prescribed syllabuses. When we got there, the rooms were packed and people like Bob Gilding, a retired cooper from East London, had us rolling in the aisle with his descriptions of illicit rifling of liquor barrels, while David Morgan, a one-time agricultural labourer, explained how harvesting in the 19th century was, in parts of England, carried out by an indispensable army of migratory Irish labour. This was History Workshop at the centre of which sat the tutor in social history at Ruskin College, Raphael Samuel.

This was a history that didn't deny its origins, or rather, made a virtue of them, proclaiming its bias and partisanship. And 1968 was also the year of the Penguin edition of E P Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, a history that had up until that year been restricted to a handful of names: A L Morton, G D H Cole, J L and B Hammond alongside the various biographies, pamphlets, and journals produced since the 1930s around the Communist Party. History Workshop conferences have nourished a steady flow of books, a journal, female and feminist history, and it constantly renews itself with contributions from education, anthropology, folk-studies and more. It's not yet clear whether History Workshop was simply one of many forays into the rediscovery of "ordinary people's" pasts or whether it is what gave birth to the movement. Rather curiously, Theatres of Memory does not illuminate this question.

It is curious because at times Theatres of Memory: past and present in contemporary culture seems to be a book about dates. Again and again its author, Raphael Samuel tries to pick the exact moment when the national pulse changed; when conservation and "Heritage" began; when "contemporary" styles of interior decor turned into "neo-vernacular"; when family history research became a mass activity. One moment Samuel makes it seem crystal clear - "the late 60s emerge as a key historical faultline" - until we are thrown off-track by so many precursors and prefigurings that one can start wondering whether this was quite so key after all. In the high-speed tour on offer, such dates as the founding of The Council for the Preservation of Rural England, (1926) or the "retrochic" phenomenon of Teddy Boys ("early 1950s") quite illogically and absurdly start to look "early".

The book is part of a massive three volume project to reveal the process of history-making. But whereas History Workshop began life talking about people making history through their work, now the focus has shifted to people making history through their representations of . . . well . . . history. Encyclopedically, Samuel has documented the ways in which many (perhaps all) of us are markers and participators in this process and in particular in the latest example of this: "heritage". We reveal cornices, save railways, watch "period drama", buy lavender bags, visit old pumping stations, save trees, buy from Past Times, read History Today, fit leaded window-panes, watch The Antiques Roadshow.

Samuel's catalogue has an ideological purpose: to demolish the "heritage-baiters". These sneerers see in "Heritage" a ruling class conspiracy to distract our attention from the industrial and social disaster of Thatcherism, andor to remould us into a nation when it is clear we are both more diverse and more international than "British", andor to suggest stability and continuity where in reality there is rupture and change. No, says Samuel, the "historicist turn" to conservation and heritage is democratic, female, pluralist, activist, progressive, dissident, interventionist, "quite collectivist" and pleasingly labour intensive. He sees signs of leftist snobbery from commentators and fellow historians who despise "metal-detectorists", archaeology, photographic evidence and all visual, spectacular and non-written sources. Then, perhaps by way of demonstration of how history both constitutes and is constituted by art, he takes us through The Elephant Man, Me and My Girl, and Dickens on stage and in film. The climax, then, is literary-critical where indeed History Workshop 1994 found itself too, looking at 19th century children's literature.

I made myself unpopular at that conference by suggesting that History Workshop, in spite of its still stated aim of being "socialist and feminist", had largely lost sight of the socialist bit. But as Karl Marx and Tony Blair know, it all depends on how you define your clauses. The "historicist turn" that Samuel has charted may or may not be as virtuous as he claims, but without doubt, he is part of it.

In celebrating it, he becomes part of its apparent classlessness, its uncontroversial all-togetherness. There are signs though that this has incurred some repression on his part which leads to contradiction: quite out of key with the flow of the narrative, the Globe Theatre project is abused for being a "resurrectionary folly" and "megalomaniac"; Freud is enlisted to suggest that the keeping of photos can be an attempt to "establish a past that never was but which corresponds to what we would have liked it to be". Compilers of town albums are described as producing a "kind of municipal nostalgia" and are seen as being "alert" to "anything that can be labelled 'picturesque'".

More seriously, "Heritage" is accused of being an attempt to escape from class by substituting a sense of place. This seems to be a self-critique on the rest of the book, with its classless talk of "local lore", "legendary history", "social form of knowledge" - an approach exacerbated by surveys of lifestyles unrelated to income or ethnicity. However, to support his libertarian approach he summons up literary "reception theory" only to ignore it in his analysis of photos, by telling us that one of the photos in the book can "only" signify "miserabilism".

Unfortunately, he seems to think that reception theory enables us to understand how a "spectator is positioned by the camera's eye" whereas the theory suggests quite the opposite: that we position ourselves according to who we are and where we are coming from.

It's no coincidence that this book's final flourish is literary criticism. Fellow History Workshopper, Gareth Stedman Jones wrote a book, Languages of Class, (Cambridge University Press 1983) whose main claim was that the Chartists failed because they didn't possess the appropriate language.

More recently, I ordered through the post Hugh Cunningham's The Children of the Poor (Blackwell 1991) foolishly thinking it would be about how poor children lived, only to find that its subtitle was Representations of Childhood since the Seventeenth Century.

Samuel's prose is drunk with the delights of this fashionable game - and it is a game, because the changing flow of representations need not be grounded in the way in which we are positioned in society according to our means of livelihood and survival, nor to how we are in constant turmoil over the unequal distribution of resources.

Indeed, in this grab-all colonising approach of what the poet John Agard calls "compulsive cultural kleptomania", it's quite easy for Samuel to make errors: 33 people did not die at Ronan Point; GCSE exams were not founded in 1965; Notting Hill Carnival cannot possibly be classed with modern pastiche mediaeval fayres; the folk song "Oh No John" was not replaced by bawdy songs in the folk clubs of the 1960s - by then, thanks to James Reeves' research in The Idiom of the People (Mercury 1958), it was itself discovered to be bawdy; Cecil Sharp did not "discover Morris dancing", he reinvented it and he can't easily be recruited for a "progressive" cause with his racism towards "nigger music", his bowdlerisms, as with "Oh No John", and his crude nationalism ("Our system of education is, at present, too cosmopolitan; it is calculated to produce citizens of the world rather than Englishmen. And it is Englishmen, English citizens, that we want") organised left-wing enthusiasm for the countryside did "survive the post-war years". Finally, shouldn't culturally hip commentators like Samuel, who say we should include the visual as a historical source, go and see the artifacts they write about? Not when it comes to football museums, it seems.

But then, watching football is part of a massive cult of the new, the exciting present and an indeterminate future, which wouldn't fit in with 479 pages on the cult of the past.

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