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Alison Light’s Spitalfields

February 23, 2020
by Nadia Valman

The writer and historian Alison Light spent fifteen formative years in Elder St, as she recounts in her new book A Radical Romance, A Memoir of Love, Grief & Consolation, exploring her marriage to the Marxist historian Raphael Samuel. Nadia Valman talked to her about the challenges and revelations of life in Spitalfields.

Portrait by Rachel Ferriman

I met Alison Light on a bright winter’s afternoon in White’s Row beside one of Spitalfields’ most shiny new developments. It could not have been more different from the Spitalfields that Alison remembered from her first visit to Elder St in 1984.

‘The old Liverpool St Station was very cavernous and confusing,’ she recalled, ‘with lots of brick parapets and walkways. You emerged at Broad St and you would have to find a way from there to Bishopsgate. I remember everything as dark. As you went past Spital Sq, you could see the hushed darkness of the market with its green Arts & Crafts ironwork and then you turned into an extremely dark road, which was Folgate St. There weren’t really any decent pavements but there were bollards and cobblestones everywhere.’

Alison was born in Portsmouth and the urban landscape she was familiar with was a Victorian suburb with its uniform terraces and parish landmarks of church and pub. Spitalfields felt very different: it was, she admitted, ‘a very easy place to get lost in.’

That day, a young scholar full of intellectual curiosity, Alison was on her way to a reading group at the home of Raphael Samuel, the charismatic historian twenty years her senior. Before long, Raphael would become her husband and 19 Elder St her home. Raphael had first moved to Elder St in the early sixties. ‘He came here,’ Alison explained, ‘because it was the oldest suburb in London and because he had family connections – his grandfather’s Jewish bookshop off Brick Lane, his mother had grown up off Wentworth Street, as a boy in the forties he campaigned here for the Communist Party – and for him there was the very deep historical layering of the place.’

But dramatic changes were afoot with the construction of Broadgate and the threat of further encroachment from the City. The rapid disappearance of local shops was bewildering. Alison and Raphael were among those who campaigned against the closure of fruit and vegetable market, even though it kept local residents awake in the early hours of the morning. ‘It wasn’t because we felt sentimental about the market,’ remembers Alison, ‘but because we knew it protected lots of local industry and a mix of jobs, and many others who were dependent on it in the neighbourhood. And it kept house prices down.’

Preserving the built environment has been an important theme in the last few decades in Spitalfields, so I was interested in how Alison and Raphael, as historians, felt about the Conservation movement. ‘Some of our neighbours were involved in squatting the threatened Georgian houses back in the seventies and Raphael supported that,’ Alison confirmed. ‘But,’ she admitted, ‘Conservationism was strange to me because I had grown up in an English working-class family and for me bare floorboards were a sign of poverty, something my family had struggled very hard to overcome. Refusing to have central heating struck me as astonishing … why would you want to live like that?’

So although they kept the floorboards bare and the toilet – ‘beautifully crafted by Jim Howett’ – stayed outside, Alison and Raphael were not purists. ‘The house wasn’t a period piece,’ insisted Alison, ‘and before I moved in Raphael had already Victorianised it quite a bit. He put up heavy velvet curtains and covered up a lot of panelling with books and files. He’d got a Victorian stove. He had a Victorian love of darkness and shade, so he planted ivy which took over the back of the house and made things even darker – absolutely not an eighteenth-century way to live.’

I found this especially revealing because Raphael Samuel was one of the first historians to analyse the heritage industry and especially the public fixation on Victoriana during the Thatcher years. But Alison’s additions – a Habitat table, a sofa and a fitted carpet in the bedroom – brought the twentieth century into the mix.

Alison evoked a vivid picture of living at 19 Elder St during the eighties and nineties: the cramped basement kitchen, noisy with gesticulating historians engaged in intense debate and the dusty groaning bookshelves in the dark upper rooms. In her calm and measured way, Alison reflected candidly, too, on how the house shaped the intimacies of their marriage.

‘I believe that where you live shapes your daily habits, and shapes what is and isn’t possible,’ she began. ‘I was always delighted by the fact that the house was full of books and was a place of learning.’ But it was built for multiple occupancy with one room on each floor, and that encouraged a kind of separateness.

Meanwhile the sound insulation was minimal, which made privacy impossible. ‘Lying in the bath,’ Alison remembered, ‘I could hear the Central Line rumbling underneath and Raphael overhead pounding away at the Olivetti’. The traffic on Bishopsgate and the colossal building site of Broadgate increased her feeling of being shut in. Trying to find a way to live amid the claustrophobia of 19 Elder St became overwhelming. ‘Spitalfields was also a place of breakdown,’ she revealed.

I wondered what impact the experience of living in Elder St had on Alison’s thinking as a scholar and writer. She considered the question carefully. ‘I started to think much more about what Englishness might or might not mean and that came from living with someone profoundly Jewish. The exchange of differences between us certainly got me thinking. And being in Spitalfields, with its rich mix of people, made me think in a more complex way about how there were different kinds of working classes. And feeling very displaced and isolated also became a way for me to put a distance between myself and my own family home.’

She explained how -in different ways – their research kept coming back to understanding the roots of English conservatism: the attachment to the past, fears of invasion, traditions of deference. These were urgent questions in the years of Tory government during the eighties and nineties, whose impact was being felt all over the East End.

After ten years of their marriage, Raphael died of cancer in 1996. One of the ways Alison kept herself going was writing her diary, which she described as a lifeline. Years later, it enabled her to recount in sharp detail the long and terrible process of mourning.

Alison continued to live in the house she had shared with Raphael. ‘I think what happens after a bereavement or a divorce is that you realise you want to live in the house in different ways, and then you realise you can leave it.’ She donated Raphael’s three thousand books to the University of East London where he had been a professor, and his papers to the Bishopsgate Institute, and the house began to open up. After seven years spent sorting through the prolific traces of Raphael’s life, oscillating between keeping things and letting them go, it was time to depart. Her voice lifts audibly when she remembers ‘feeling really pleased that the house had become a shell again, that someone else could do what they wanted to with it.’

One of the reasons Raphael Samuel loved Spitalfields was because he saw it as a place of, in his words, ‘Comers and Goers’ – beggars, wayfarers and vagrants. Living with Raphael and in Elder St had a lasting influence on Alison too.

‘It gave me a more historical turn of mind and got me thinking about what constitutes history,’ she reflected. ‘It was the oldest house I’d ever lived in and it felt on loan. I think that’s a good thing to feel. So many people had lived there and lived in very different ways. There were signs of them, like the Jewish mezuzahs on the door, or a little basin in the second-floor cupboard from when it was a lodging house in the fifties. You knew you were just passing through.’

Alison Light and Raphael Samuel celebrating their marriage in July 1987

Alison at her desk

Raphael at his desk

Elder St in the eighties

Alison Light

Portraits copyright © Rachel Ferriman

Raphael Samuel’s archive is held at the Bishopsgate Institute. The History Centre founded in his memory continues to organise lectures and seminars on public history for people in and beyond academia. For further information visit Raphael Samuel History Centre 

You may like to read these other stories by Nadia Valman

Alexander Baron’s East End

Israel Zangwill’s Spitalfields

The Last Of The London

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Moyra Peralta permalink
    February 23, 2020

    What a beautiful piece! Spitalfields Life at its very very best…

  2. February 23, 2020

    Wonderful, I loved this piece. Thanks.

  3. February 23, 2020

    “oscillating between keeping things and letting them go” —
    so much nuance and complexity in this piece, about conservatism, the idea of “just passing through…”
    thank you.

  4. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 23, 2020

    It must have been a fascinating time to live in Spitalfields.

    I loved the phrase “noisy with gesticulating historians engaged in intense debate”… I can think of at least one wildly gesticulating historian still living in Elder Street!

  5. Suresh Singh permalink
    February 23, 2020

    I bow down to Alison. I visited the Bishops Gate Institute this Friday and I bowed to the wonderful Raphael Samuel to whom DIRT was not a problem, from deep within my Sikh Heart

    Suresh Singh

  6. Ros permalink
    February 23, 2020

    A thoughtful and reflective piece that I read with interest and pleasure.

  7. Richard permalink
    February 24, 2020


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