Bodley Head £16.99
A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World?, By Simon Schama
Sunday 06 December 2009
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.
Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigourfilm
Bannatyne leaves Dragon's DenTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Why I'm on the brink of burning my Israeli passport
- 2 Israel-Gaza conflict: ‘Sderot cinema’ image shows Israelis with popcorn and chairs 'cheering as missiles strike Palestinian targets'
- 3 Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
- 4 Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country
- 5 Barack Obama fist bumps Texas restaurant employee in support of gay rights
Sustained immigration has not harmed Britons' employment, say government advisers
War is war: Why I stand with Israel
Even when it brutalises one of its own teenage citizens, America is helpless against Israel
Socialist Worker called to apologise over ‘vile’ article saying Eton schoolboy Horatio Chapple's death is ‘reason to save the polar bears’
Emergency data law: David Cameron plots to bring back snoopers’ charter
NUT strike: David Cameron announces crackdown on strike action ahead of mass industrial action
- < Previous
- Next >