'True comrade' at cutting edge

20th December 1996 at 00:00
Raphael Samuel: shunned prestigious career

Moving tributes to the liberal historian Raphael Samuel poured in this week as the schoolboy Communist turned university professor was buried at Highgate Cemetery in London.

Raphael Samuel, who died from cancer at the age of 62, inspired teachers, academics and students alike with his thoughtful, alternative brand of history which covered women, children, and cultural diversity and which has now become a mainstay of most reputable history courses.

After gaining a first at Balliol College, Oxford, he began teaching at Ruskin College. He maintained close ties with Ruskin until his death, despite moving to East London University to launch a new centre for research into East End life.

Perhaps his greatest gift to society was History Workshop - an organisation developed in the Sixties for pooling ideas and knowledge. He was also the life and soul of History Workshop Journal. Among his numerous articles were those at the cutting edge of research which explored culture as a collection of signs.

He shunned a prestigious career and was only persuaded to apply for a university chair last March partly because, as a London Jew, he wanted to pursue his lifelong interest in the capital's history.

His image was bohemian - long, wild hair, well-worn jeans and denim jackets, the breast pocket bulging with notebooks and pencils. He would often arrive at meetings with poems and archives bulging out of plastic bags.

Janet Nelson, professor of medieval history at Kings College, London, and a member of the editorial collective of History Workshop Journal, said: "He was an extraordinary, charismatic person. Gentle and considerate and always willing to listen to other people, never imposing his views. He inspired tremendous love and confidence."

Professor Nelson stressed that newspaper obituaries had failed to mention one important facet of his character. He collaborated well with women, a skill which many men lacked.

The most moving tribute of the week came from John Prescott who was a student at Ruskin College in the 1960s.

The deputy leader of the Labour Party wrote in the Guardian: "He never forgot you. When I was standing for the deputy leadership of the party in 1992 after Roy Hattersley resigned, I came under a lot of attack from people who said I could never hold the job because I might stumble over my words and say the wrong thing . . . Raph wrote this wonderful piece for the Guardian about me, recalling some very strong memories of those Ruskin years and urging support for me. It moved me to tears.

"I was devastated to hear of his death. He had such a genuine love for people. He had the loveliest warm smile, a warm, knowing smile. It was truly comradely. Everything was lovely about that man."

Raphael Samuel, historian, born September 26, 1934; died December 9, 1996. He is survived by his wife, Alison Light, a lecturer in English literature at University College London, and his mother.

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