For Simon Schama, eloquence is the highest virtue. Indeed, he writes (perhaps overstating it somewhat) that, "The survival of eloquence is the condition of both a free political society and a coherent community." Anyone who has listened to Schama's lectures or watched his several television documentaries knows that he is superb at practising what he preaches. And his eloquence is on magnificent display in this new book: a delightful collection of journalistic essays.
The book's title comes from the Duke of Gloucester's remark to Edward Gibbon: "Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?" The title is apt given the vast range of topics covered in this book, from history and art history (the subjects Schama teaches at Columbia) to current events (9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the British and US elections), essays on travel and films (with a particularly interesting one on Martin Scorsese), ice-cream ("the uninhibited indulgence of the mouth"), and the perfect bolognese sauce ("an easy, irresistible, almost childish pleasure").
But the allusion in the title is less apt considering that Gibbon was a painfully slow writer. Schama's writings, he tells us, are "most unGibbonish". They are instead "written on the fly", though, he adds, "after much thought". He describes his handwriting as loopy: it "bounds and leaps and lurches and can't wait to get to the end of the line because – gee, gosh, boy oh boy – there's another line to fill, and omigod, a whole half-page waiting just for me to do my thing all over it".
It is not surprising, then, that Schama has so much time for Thomas Carlyle, whose writings, filled with "wild and wandering digressions", were part of an attempt to blur the distinction between prose and poetry. Likewise, Schama writes that his entire life has "been spent trying to make the choice between literature and history moot".
Journalism has also been one of his lifelong passions. Apart from a few lectures, book chapters and theatre programmes, most of the pieces collected here were written for newspapers and magazines. "I got the hot-metal romance early," he writes, recalling a school trip to Fleet Street in the mid 1950s. "They had to drag me back to the school coach."
In a piece on Barack Obama originally published in The Independent, Schama gushingly describes Obama's speech of 3 January 2008, delivered after winning the Iowa caucus, as "pitch-perfect". Obama ("the historian-in-chief") crops up many times in Schama's writings, largely for that all-important quality, his eloquence. Churchill gets the same treatment for the same reason. But even when Obama eschews "rhetorical flamboyance" he does so, Schama writes, "in the service of a higher goal": the criticism of Bush's failures and the reassertion of a "common purpose". Obama can do no wrong.
Yet although he sometimes over-praises, Schama's writings are generally mixed with sombre, sceptical criticism. It is Thucydides, after all, the great critic of feel-good history as self-congratulation and the pioneer of history as self-criticism, who is another of Schama's heroes. "Thucydides's history – our history – is no one's cheerleader," he writes.
Schama is despairing of the fate of eloquence in what he calls "the age of the Osbournes". This book is a clarion call for a return to a public discourse based on eloquence. "And one of the most powerful qualities of such a discourse will be, as Lincoln knew at Gettysburg, knowing just when to stop." The length of his book, overflowing with purple prose (though very rarely at the cost of substance), demonstrates that, often, Schama does not know when to stop. But in this case, maybe that is not such a bad thing.Reuse content