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Island Stories: Unravelling Britain, Theatres of Memory, Volume II

“The sheer scope and erudition of these pages is stunning.”—Terry Eagleton, Guardian
A luminous sequel to the highly acclaimed first volume of Theatres of Memory, 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. Samuel is interested by the fact that traditions can disappear no less abruptly than they were invented. How is it, he 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 by 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.


  • “The sheer scope and erudition of these pages is stunning ... an imaginative tour de force.”
  • “Provocative, original ... a powerful testimony to the unending dialogue between the present and the past that is the essence and excitement of history.”
  • “A stunning collection ... humane, optimistic, multi-textured, ever-meandering but always sparkling ... One of the finest and—paradoxically—most quintessentially English historians of our time.”
  • “A magnificent and irreplaceable collection.”
  • “A provocative lens into both the remote and the near British past.”
  • “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.”
  • “A rich fund of subversive ideas.”


  • History in the making: Celebrating the work of Raphael Samuel

    Raphael Samuel was one of the most influential historians to come out of the New Left generation. A founding member of the History Workshop Journal which pioneered the "history from below" approach to historical scholarship, Samuel's work helped to democratise and move historical scholarship of the confines of the academy. His major work, Theatres of Memory, sought to celebrate the "unnofficial knowledge" that formed from popular conceptions of the past and present against the pretension of the professional historians.

    As Samuel himself wrote, this approach was motivated by "the belief that history is or ought to be a collaborative enterprise, one in which the researcher, the archivist, the curator and the teacher, the 'do-it-yourself' enthusiast and the local historian, the family history societies and the individual archaeologist, should all be regarded as equally engaged."

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  • Your country needs you!: Responses to the World War I Centenary

    National commemorations of major historical events usually offer an incredible opportunity for the Right to showcase its jingoistic logorrhea about national identity and patriotism. Starting this coming August, the First World War centenary will most likely be no exception.

    The Conservatives are battling on two different, though not unrelated, fronts. Contrary to what Max Hastings argues, it is the Right indeed who is “making an ideological argument out of World War I, as it does out of almost everything else in history.”

    In a Telegraph article, David Cameron puts particular emphasis on commemorating, and even celebrating the break-out of World War I as a moment of national unity and cohesion, “a fundamental part of our national consciousness.”

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Other books by Raphael Samuel Edited by Sally Alexander, Gareth Stedman Jones, and Alison Light