A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World?, By Simon Schama

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The Independent Culture

First published to accompany his 2000 TV series of the same name, this initial volume in a trilogy about the history of Britain confirms Simon Schama's status as one of the world's leading historians, not only thanks to his expansive knowledge of history, but also to his ability to succinctly and unerringly pinpoint the psychological motivations of his characters.

Yes, I did say his "characters". There is something almost novelistic about Schama's approach to history: his writing has a certain stylistic flair but it also demonstrates a willingness to understand individuals, so that all those Anglo-Saxon figures whose names sound remarkably similar, and all those kings with numerous sons all named after themselves, take on distinct identities. He mixes academic scrutiny with the common touch: who else would sum up Thomas Becket's contrariness thus: "Becket was a cockney, a street-fighter and as tough as old boots under the cowl"?

Schama's thesis is that history is made by change, not by continuity: it is those moments of radical alteration that really show us who we are. And that thesis is inevitably dependent on strong, determined individuals: it is Henry VIII who makes his country's break with Rome, to satisfy his own need for a male heir; it is Becket's intransigence in the face of Henry II's rule that alters the relationship between Church and State forever. But there are also events, not individuals, that change the course of things, as Schama explains. The Black Death wiped out so many people that the existent feudal system was destroyed, effecting, or helping to effect, a great rural transformation.

This is an exciting, intensely seductive presentation of history. And Schama is clever enough not to dismiss an appeal to the head as well as the heart, for all his focus on personality: a winning combination.