Simon Targett talks to the irreverent historian of landscape and descendant of Lithuanian loggers, Simon Schama. Simon Schama never knew Sir Percy Winfield. The old Cambridge lawyer had been dead ten years by the time the young Schama arrived at the grand oak gates of Christ's College on the corner of St Andrew's Street in October 1963. Yet it is possible that Sir Percy set Schama on the path of the professional historian, if in ignorance and if for the wrong reason.
Back then, Schama was expecting (and expected by his parents) to become a lawyer. He had studied history for two years, and in eager anticipiation of a change to law in the final year of his degree, he hurried along to the college library and borrowed Winfield's classic, On Tort. "It was a drowsy afternoon," he remembers. "Almost immediately, I fell into a strange glaze, and I thought, 'I can't face reading another page of this, let alone spending another year studying the subject'."
His mind made up, he returned to the books about the past, took a brilliant starred first, and the rest - as they say - is history.
Except that it is not - history, that is; at least, not in the sense of the traditional textbook or solid academic monograph. His latest book, Landscape and Memory, which explores the traces of memory and myriad mythology captured in the seemingly natural but actually man-made landscape, is a rich tapestry of form: straight historical fact, poetic narrative, simple story-telling, travel writing, elements of autobiography and anecdote, and all called upon in a roundabout "meandering" (one of his favourite words) way. It defiantly breaks the rules of forgettable dry-as-dust history, recalling the idea of the "poetry of history" espoused by Trevelyan and reminding readers that history does not have to be penned in the language of the professional historian.
In this respect, it follows in the footsteps of his other work. Embarrassment of Riches is a romantic tale of family life during the Dutch "golden age" of the 17th century. Citizens, which sold more than 100,000 copies across the Atlantic, is a rip-roaring chronicle of the French Revolution. Dead Certainties is a novelesque history of the deaths of General James Wolfe and Harvard professor George Parkman, tellingly published by Granta.
All this suggests a restlessness, a perception reinforced by seeing him in the flesh. On the settee in his hotel room, he throws his arms about like a concert conductor and takes up a hundred positions as he darts from one subject to another with the speed of an allegro movement. It also suggests a sort of disobedient fondness for innovation and experimentation, and much of this can be explained by the fact that Schama is something of an outsider. His penchant for Italian outfits and for coloured spectacles - he is happy to be counted as a "flashy dresser" - make him look more like your typical get-up-and-go advertising executive than what he really is, an academic.
His background confirms this sense of the stranger. He was born 50 years ago. His father was a textile merchant from Turkish-Jewish stock. His mother hails from a family of Lithuanian loggers, as he reveals in Landscape and Memory. He was sent to Haberdashers' Aske's in Elstree. Today, the school is recognised as a greenhouse for bright Oxbridge students. But in the early 1960s, it had no such recognition. As one former teacher recalls: "Somebody asked me: 'what do you teach there, how to sew on buttons?'" Academically, it prepared Schama well. Quentin Skinner, now professor of history at Cambridge, "vividly" remembers Schama's entrance papers as "the best of the year". But socially, Schama was shocked by Cambridge. He had thought of himself as Mr Cool - "a know-it-all wise guy" as he puts it - until he was confronted by "a wall of tweed jackets and public school accents". One conversation - or rather, confrontation - sticks in his memory. It was with a law student, a Trinity man, a president of the union during the heyday of the Howards and the Lamonts and the rest of the conservative "Cambridge Mafia", who has since risen to the dizzy heights of Queen's Counsel, and who lists fishing, racing and gundogs among his recreations in Who's Who.
"'You'd better know,'" Schama begins, plucking the words out of the distant past and putting on an implausibly plummy accent, "'my name's Weaver. Oliver Weaver. And you'll learn the rules of this game pretty damned soon'." Slipping back into his own voice - a subtle South-east chattering class metropolitan, with just a hint of Anglophile American East Coast - Schama concludes: "I felt it was the most staggeringly patronising thing I'd ever heard in my life."
After this encounter, Schama started "hanging around with Yanks and Australians". He might have become totally alienated by the stiff, starched-collar culture of 1960s Cambridge. He did not, and for that he owes much to J. H. Plumb, Walpole's biographer who was then, as Schama says, "at the height of his powers".
There were, of course, other formative influences. His school teacher, Simon Stuart, was "a dazzling teacher of literature" who helped "shape my sense of what I could do". No longer at Haberdashers', Mr Stuart remembers Schama as "hugely intelligent" - although he confesses to "not guessing the extent of Simon's success" - and lays some claim to developing "his ability to apply himself to texts". Another, later influence was Richard Cobb, whose seminars on French history were "one of the chaotic glories of Oxford". Cobb taught Schama the value of the "archive of the feet", a resource he uses extensively in Landscape and Memory.
But it was Plumb who exercised most influence, who was "the role model". He too was, in Schama's words, "an outsider", who had not been to public school, who had even been turned down by Cambridge. He too viewed history as literature. This was important for Schama. Years later, Schama wrote to his school teacher, recalling the agonising decision to study history rather than English at university, and concluding that he need not have worried so much because "it was really English all the time". Plumb would pick through Schama's essays line by line. "He would spend an hour just going over a paragraph: why this word here, why that comma there," Schama reveals.
Perhaps most of all, Plumb gave Schama a sense of place, of belonging even, by locking him into a long literary line. As the pupil of Plumb, who himself had been taught by Trevelyan who in turn was descended from Macaulay, Schama felt "part of some golden chain of people for whom literary flair was not just an add-on extra". Also, he was surrounded by Plumb's acolytes, a circle of bright young things who have since risen to the top of the history profession: Roy Porter, Geoffrey Parker, Quentin Skinner, and later Linda Colley.
At the feet of Plumb, and among these aspiring philosophes de salon, Schama finally realised his true promise after a disappointing second year when he had ended up with an upper second, an exam result the college viewed as "a monstrous injustice" and which "Jack Plumb still says was some conspiracy against him". Soon after graduating, Schama was elected into a college fellowship, or as he phrases it, given "this present of being made baby don, salary Pounds 800". Unheard of now, and even then fairly remarkable, this act of college generosity indicates the aura of brilliance which surrounded Schama. He skipped the traditional apprenticeship of the PhD and rushed straight into teaching.
This did not altogether turn him into an insider, into "one of us". As the youngest don in Cambridge, he felt very awkward, constantly passing the port the wrong way round and tripping over his gown. On one typical evening, he arrived at the senior common room and tripped over his gown in spectacular fashion. "I fell over to the most highly polished Oxford shoes I had ever seen in my life. I could even see my own embarrassed features in them. I then made my way up to the crisply pressed trousers and, at the top of this impeccable costume, was Harold Macmillan's face. And without a pause he said: 'Dear young man, gratitude is one thing, prostration quite unnecessary!'."
Schama stayed at Cambridge for ten years, leaving for a tenured job at Brasenose College Oxford in 1976. There, he was obliged to teach English political history, not his favourite subject. So four years later, he joined the brain drain, moving to Harvard and taking up a professorship which allowed him the freedom to teach everything and anything. This was a big loss for British history students, and Quentin Skinner regards it as a "tremendous shame".
The prospect of his returning soon is small, married as he is to an American genetics professor. Two years ago, he moved to New York, becoming Old Dominion professor of the humanities at Columbia University. He seems likely to stay there for some time. For all this, he remains an essentially British historian. Ronnie Mulryne, professor of English at Warwick University and a member of the panel which awarded Schama the lucrative NCR Book Award for Non-fiction for Citizens, recalls W. B. Yeats's phrase "so daring and sweet his thought" when remarking that Schama's "willingness to generalise, to look widely, makes him more British than American".
This quintessential Britishness has encouraged some old dominion observers to claim Schama as the next A. J. P. Taylor. Schama certainly knew Taylor, saying now that "he almost kind of adopted me", and there are several professional parallels. Schama shares Taylor's fad for freelance journalism. As a young don, he moonlighted on the Sunday Times in "the great days" of Harold Evans, and he even made it into Private Eye. "I was a journalistic groupie," he admits. "I just loved the kind of beery, chaotic, fast-deadline feeling of Gray's Inn Road". Also like Taylor, Schama is mildly eccentric, revealing that he actually helped design the layout of Landscape and Memory, choosing the typeface and placing the visuals just so.
And, of course, there is the taste for the popular audience. Yet here, perhaps, they differ. Taylor's prose was deceptively simple, transferring easily onto the television screen. Schama's prose borders on the poetic, and works less well alongside the moving image. Also, Schama deals more with intellectual history, with the mental universe. That is not easily translated into top-notch television - as the rather wordy BBC programmes entitled Landscape and Memory suggest - and it necessarily narrows the readership. Schama says his typical reader is "the into-it, lay, non-academic, but terribly kind of literate" person. Skinner agrees, pointing out that "those who think that Landscape and Memory can be read in the dentist's waiting room are in for a shock".
Extremely erudite, the book grew out of lectures at Cambridge and Princeton, and it represents a giant intellectual and imaginative leap, a professorial puissance of understanding. That this is so is important. As he puts it: "Without this, it would have been more like Bruce Chatwin, like richly informed travel writing, and I wanted a bit more scholarly force." Schama's achievement, here and elsewhere, has been to strike that rare balance between the popular and the professorial: putting the story back into history while retaining the seriousness of scholarship.
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