By Snowman, Daniel
History Today , Vol. 54, No. 7
I HAVE JUST READ, or re-read, some 6,000 pages of history. Not all of Simon Schama's published oeuvre; but most of most of him books. Not that there are that many of them. But several are journeyings across vast cultural landscapes, Grand Tours of the mind. You embark upon The Embarrassment of Riches, Citizens, Landscape and Memory or Rembrandt's Eyes in the spirit of old-time travellers boarding the Trans-Siberian or Orient Express. These are Big Books. Reading, as Roy Porter famously pointed out, can be bad for your health and (how shall I put this delicately?) my lap is just recovering from having supported, day after day, some 2.5 concentrated kilos of Schama's Rembrandt in hardback. I did wonder at one point whether it might not be safer to chain the book up like a medieval bible and read it standing up.
Size, of course, is not everything and other authors have produced a sequence of doorstops. But few have Schama's capacity to clamp personal experience and prodigious scholarship to so glittering a literary imagination. His writings are packed with evocative detail: rich fruit cakes crammed with raisins, currants, nuts and glace cherries all mulled in brandy sauce. Too rich for their own good? It is sometimes easy to forget where the journey is supposed to be taking you. But, as in any Grand Tour, the byways are as absorbing as the route map. And it's always worth persevering, for Schama's cascades of intellectual bonhomie ensure that he is invariably a stimulating guide: even if you feel temporarily lost in the woods, you sense he will get you there in the end.
Schama was born in February 1945, a few hours before the destruction of Dresden. His parents were typical products of East End Jewry: poor immigrant by background, keen to taste the enticing offerings of Northwest London suburbia and to improve their prospects and those of their offspring. Simon went to school at Haberdashers' and remembers himself as a noisy, clever adolescent, an observant Jew, serious Zionist and committed CND leftie. He was torn between English and History (he says he still is). Perhaps his love of language and literature came from his father, evidently something of an actor manque, who read Dickens aloud to the family. When the family fortunes made one of their periodic downturns, Mrs Schama would round on her husband, upbraid him as a latter-day Micawber and proclaim they were all headed for the workhouse. Simon, whose historico-literary imagination was already on heat, would think: 'Oh God; it's Newgate and gruel for me!' At his first attempt to get into Cambridge, he was so nervous he passed out during the European History exam and had to be fanned back into consciousness. Years later, he recounted this episode to Quentin Skinner. 'I know,' smiled Skinner; 'I was the invigilator!'
In due course, Schama went up to Christ's where he fell under the influence of the abrasive but irresistible Jack Plumb. After a Starred First in Part II, Schama soon became a multi-tasking junior don required to teach everything from Thomas Aquinas to Thomas Jefferson. He also moonlit on the Sunday Times' new colour supplement, where he was let loose on a project called 'A Thousand Makers of the 20th Century'. He loved it. Not for the last time, he admits, the 'naughty journalist in me' struggled mightily with the serious historian. Meanwhile, at Cambridge, Schama was being pressed to find a research topic. He had been reading about the expansionism of post-Revolutionary France (not to mention the recent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia). What happens when a little state, with its own proud history, culture and identity, is overrun by a newer, ideologically-driven bigger one? Around this time, Schama caught a series of lectures about those fading polities of the eighteenth century: Genoa, Poland, Venice and Holland. It was to the Netherlands that he was to turn for his first book.
Patriots and Liberators was ten years in the making and chronicles the decline of the once wealthy Dutch Republic under the onslaught of Napoleonic France. …