'You don't know it , but history is in you'

September 25, 1998

WORLDLY WISE 15

Is Simon Schama our 'most gifted historian' or a prima donna? Harriet Swain reports.

When Simon Schama was seven years old, his father would get him to declaim Shakespearean speeches from memory. When he was 12, they read Shakespeare's entire works together. Now, at 53, spoken of as "the most gifted historian of his generation," "indecently successful", "a great thinking machine and a golden lyricist as well", he still shares with his seven-year-old self an air of precocious cleverness, a way with language and a talent for performance.

But first he likes to set the scene. He fetches wine and olives. He moans about the soullessness of the London flat found for him while he is over from his home in the United States. (He is professor of the humanities at Columbia University.) He amusingly describes the lift as straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Eventually, warm-up session over, he perches on a hard chair and answers questions, occasionally leaping up to find things that may illustrate a point or to replenish the olive supply.

To have a conversation with Schama is to be transported dizzyingly from a BBC "on location" spot in the Orkneys, to Norman Conquest Britain. It is to spin from a stuffy Oxford tutorial to a Bavarian cafe with a hangover. He cannot resist a good story or a superlative. Many things in Schama's world are "amazing", many people are "marvellous". All are brought to life with a funny deep voice for a cliche and always a sense of where they are and where they have come from.

For Schama, history is not something that only happens in the past. "It isn't that I don't believe in scholarship," he says. "I believe passionately in it. It's just that in the contemporary world you can see a million reasons why people have no time for history - because it's the history of dead white men. That makes you want to shock people and say, 'you don't know it yet, but history is in you already'."

His work has increasingly explored this idea over the years. The Embarrassment of Riches, often considered his best book, examined the Dutch golden age of the 17th century, using anthropological techniques to focus on the minds of people living then rather than events surrounding them.

It was followed by Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, a bestseller.The book was published to coincide with the bicentenary but was so controversial, because of its emphasis on the revolution's violence, that it was never translated into French.

Next was Dead Certainties, a fictionalised history that looked at two deaths: that of General Wolfe, conqueror of Quebec, and that of Harvard professor George Parkman nearly 100 years later. The attraction of the subject for Schama, in his first - and criticised - venture into fiction, was that the facts surrounding each death had been falsified for different reasons. His point was the fuzziness of history, its closeness to fiction.

In Landscape and Memory, the book he says he always wanted to write, he returned to history, with every point backed by facts and footnotes, but he ignored chronology, darting between times even as he whizzed between locations. In one chapter, he travels to a Polish forest stretching along the border with Belarus and Russia - site of innumerable battles - to directly experience "a sense of place".

His latest project has similar aims but it is not a book: the BBC has asked him to write and present a televised history of Britain in time for the millennium. He says he had to be coaxed: "I kept saying, 'I have children, I'm in America'." Eventually, he was persuaded by the argument that he could not bemoan the fact that his children's generation had lost the sense of narrative - "those big stories that turned me on to history in the first place" -Jand not do something about it when offered the chance. "I thought it would be unbelievably good fun to try a single overarching narrative from the beginning to the 20th century," he says. "It would be either the most wonderful thing I have done or I would be known as the biggest prat in history."

The time was right, he felt, in that Britain was exploring its identity in relation to Europe. And he remembered his father and one of his favourite sayings: "You only regret the things you don't do, not the things you do." So he finally said yes to the Beeb.

He wants the series to work at many levels, appealing to children and adults, using medieval chronicles and oral history and taking in all the nationalities that grow and shrink in importance at different stages of Britain's history. "I'm not the person to do this if what you are after is some sceptred isle, fundamental Britishness," Schama says. In fact, he considers himself an "outrageous amateur" at British history and sees doing the series as "a chance to educate myself at public expense". In exchange, he offers the freshness that comes from distance: "I'm just on the edge, and I chair with excitement."

This is Schama through and through. He has always preferred to study cultures that are not his own. He likes to be near, but never quite at, the centre of things. Coming back here makes him think about his Britishness, he says, and how much of it has disappeared in his 20 years in the US.

Schama was born in London on the night Dresden was bombed, and he grew up in Essex. Arthur, his father, was a textile merchant of Turkish Jewish descent with a passion for literature. Schama tells how Arthur blew the savings for his first holiday on the complete works of Dickens. His mother is from a family of Lithuanian loggers and is still "a great, rumbustious storyteller".

The most important of his many other influences was Jack Plumb, Walpole's biographer and Schama's mentor at Cambridge, where he studied history as an undergraduate. Plumb was from a special generation, Schama says. "They had been in the army, done military service, they weren't public school kids." He liked the way they had to do journalism to make ends meet. "They kept company in their own minds with Macaulay and Carlyle and that sort of unapologetic conviction that history was public art. That rubbed off on me," Schama says. A Cambridge don at 21, after receiving a starred first, he soon began to moonlight on The Sunday Times and admits to being a "journalistic groupie". He is now a regular columnist on the New Yorker.

During his ten years at Cambridge, as Plumb's favourite, he talked history with the likes of Roy Porter, Geoffrey Parker, Quentin Skinner and, later, Linda Colley. He also had a chance to explore his Jewishness, which had lapsed after a fairly strict upbringing, holding seminars on Jewish history in his rooms. But by the time he reached Oxford in 1976 as fellow of modern history at Brasenose College, he was chafing at the bit of British academia. He found the tutorial system at Oxford restrictive and hated the arbitrariness of finals.

In 1980, he moved to the United States with his wife, American genetics professor Virginia Papaioannou. It came as a liberation. There, as professor of history at Harvard, he was no longer confined to political history but could explore links between painting and politics, history and literature.

His kind of "inspired flamboyance" goes down much better in the US than it would in the UK, which is less sympathetic to academic superstars, says one former colleague. This showiness is a characteristic that has come in for criticism. Not everyone approved of his tendency to bring autobiographical detail into Landscape and Memory, his poetic style of writing can be complicated, and his last series of BBC programmes was a bit wordy. He has been described as "touchy", a "prima donna" and a "show-off".

But Schama likes show and has a good eye. He helped design the richly illustrated Landscape and Memory. His fascination with Dutch history stems from his interest in the country's extravagance, the ability of its people to turn an unstable geography in to the world's richest nation, and not only to make money but to make it with flair.

His next, typically eccentric, project will be a history of Hawaii, because "all the modern world is there in this tiny space". But first he will be back in Britain for six months next year to work on the BBC series. Its final film will include a meditation on the relationship between past and future and "there will be a whither" to the whole project. "The way I feel about this is the way I have always felt about history," he says. "I hate the false dichotomy between Cool Britannia on the one hand and the furniture polish, country house, sceptred isle on the other. History has always been what I want to tell my kids and is absolutely living."

He does not agree with Tony Blair's maxim that "the past is a wonderful place but you wouldn't want to live there." Schama says: "I think sometimes you do."

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