Simon Schama: How I learnt to love humanities

Britain's best-known historian explains how he developed his passion for his subject
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I loved history even before school (Haberdashers' Aske's – a place full of inspired, unorthodox types, real storytellers). It was my Dad who turned me on to the subject by walking me around ruins. Holidays in Dorset meant the blackened stumps and stones of Corfe Castle, sticking from the grass like rotten teeth, a fantastic, blitzed-out place given the treatment by Cromwell.

But history, I thought, had a special aroma too. My father was a huge Shakespeare fan. When I was about 10, we went to see Richard Burton as Henry V at the Old Vic. I inhaled deeply what I imagined was the dark, weirdly mouldy scent of the 15th century. Of course, it was grease-paint make-up and the Old Vic's not-too-current wardrobe department, but for me it was the pong of romance. I was a goner.

I don't have "favourite characters", but I get pretty intensely involved with people I'm working on – currently, the passionate feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She was brave, headstrong, naïve and generally impossible, but filled with a reckless originality, and she led a life of damaged heroism – two suicide attempts followed by a death from septicaemia after a ruptured placenta; a horrible fate for someone who wanted reason to prevail over biology.

I've lived a long time in the Dutch 17th century. I became obsessed by Holland of that period when I discovered (more than 30 years ago) how unprosaic, how deeply enigmatic and mysterious it was. No wonder Voltaire called it the China of Europe.

But if there was a time when I think I know how it would feel to get up in the morning, pull on a pair of boots, and deal with the day, it would be, I suppose, exactly 200 years ago, circa 1800; a time when everything seemed to be in the process of being remade, but also a time when the odds were getting ever steeper against hope.

When it comes to being fired up about history, there's no substitute for actually going to the places. So my advice to the young is to force your mum and dad to do a little bit of homework, then do the footwork together, share what's almost a ghostly experience. It's a long way but, if you can get to the Neolithic sites in Orkney, you'll have a mind-blowing experience – walking our own utterly remote yet weirdly familiar antiquity.

History, as a great Dutch historian said, is "an argument without end". But to avoid it being just an academic shouting match, the arguments have to be carried by stories. We're an ancient craft. Herodotus – so much cleverer than his gossipy persona suggests – knew this right from the start; we are the memory-carriers of the tribe, its singers and its sayers; a deeply oral calling. By an amazing turn of events television, with its necessary emphasis on stories, has brought us back to those ancient, noble obligations. We must talk to each other, generation to generation, lest we forget.