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.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Amber Peat: Body found in search for missing 13-year-old who left house after argument with her parents
- 2 California man brutally beat 82-year-old Sikh grandfather he mistook for 'one of those people'
- 3 School kitchen manager 'fired from Colorado school for giving hungry students free lunches'
- 4 Amy Schumer: 'I'm 160lbs and can catch a d**k any time I want'
- 5 Isis executes three gay men by dangling them from top of 100ft building and letting go
Syd Barrett's inner visions
Britain's Got Talent 2015: Simon Cowell 'feels like an idiot' after Jules and Matisse scandal
Game of Thrones season 6: George RR Martin doing 'anything he can' to get new book The Winds of Winter out before next HBO series airs
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 9, The Dance of Dragons: Jon Snow returns to The Wall after epic Battle of Hardhome
Prison Break revival series planned by Fox with Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
Michael Gove determined to scrap the Human Rights Act – even if Scotland retains it
Threat to scrap Human Rights Act could see UK follow Nazi example, warns UN official
Church of England 'one generation away from extinction' after dramatic loss of followers
Russian 'aggression' sees Poland rearm its military as minister warns: 'We must be ready'