Simon Schama: The past master

His style and intelligence have catapulted him to the front ranks of the TV dons. With a new series on the power of art starting this week, he tells Greg Neale why the study of history is so crucial to a civilised society
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Thanks to a press officer's slip of the pen, The Independent on Sunday is sent to interview Simon Schama not at his literary agent's offices in London's Russell Street but to a rather grander building in Russell Square. It is a side entrance to the British Museum. When, 20 embarrassing minutes later, I relate this to Schama, he roars with laughter. "That's the introduction to your piece," he giggles: "We know Simon's pretentious - but regarding himself as an antiquity!"

At 61, he is hardly an antiquity. But since his landmark BBC Television series A History of Britain, which ran between 2000 and 2002, Schama, professor of art history and history at Columbia, has become something of a national treasure, in the traditions of the corporation's cultural arbiters. When he was subsequently asked to join the commentary team for the Queen Mother's funeral, Schama's elevation to the great and the good was confirmed, with a CBE and affectionate impersonation by Dead Ringers to complete the process.

This week, however, as his new series, Simon Schama's Power of Art arrives, he is in more radical mood. The series looks at eight artists who shocked the establishment of their day - Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Bernini, David, Turner, Picasso and Rothko. In their art at least, all were radicals, some distinctly flamboyant. Does Schama feel a personal affinity for them? "Probably, probably, yeah," he says. "Are there any that I don't feel any connection to? No, you're probably right."

In conversation, Schama is equally iconoclastic - describing President George Bush as "an absolute fucking catastrophe", criticising Tony Blair over the invasion of Iraq, and censuring politicians on both sides of the Atlantic for their lack of historical awareness. He is critical of the idea of a "war on terror", and is hoping that the US will elect the African-American Senator Barack Obama as its next president.

Born in London at the end of the war, Schama studied history at Cambridge as part of a gilded generation of young scholars - including Quentin Skinner, John Brewer, Roy Porter and Lisa Jardine - who have since become standard-bearers for new styles and interests in cultural and intellectual history. Professor Jardine, now of Queen Mary, University of London, and a close friend of Schama's, says: "Many of that generation were passed over by the history establishment, and either had to work abroad or to develop new fields to find success."

In Schama's case, a frustrating period as a young Cambridge don was relieved by the discovery of freelance journalism. The Sunday Times, then in its liberal heyday, was producing a series of colour supplements, and Schama found a stimulating - and lucrative - release from the strictures of collegiate discourse, writing sparky profiles of the "makers of the 20th century". His academic outlook began to broaden. When a short period teaching history at Oxford also proved professionally frustrating, Schama accepted a job at Harvard and hasn't looked back since. His writing flowered, embracing art history, anthropology and other disciplines. His approach delighted general readers, but his delight in human stories annoyed the critical theorists in the art history establishment.

"I remember when Simon was roundly criticised by the elderly Ernst Gombrich for reintroducing narrative and person-based history, the scales fell from my eyes," Professor Jardine recalls. "I realised then that Simon represented the future."

While a string of books and cultural essays in the 1980s and 1990s established Schama's reputation in the literary and academic world, it was not until the turn of the century that he made his mark on a wider public. Janice Hadlow, then head of the BBC's history unit and now controller of BBC4, flew to New York and asked him to write and present the series that would do it. A History of Britain secured Schama not only high audience ratings and book sales, but a personal recognition for his style: the leather-coated historian who could compare Thomas á Becket with an East End barrow boy; the radical who could also tell the stories of "great" British history. It also catapulted him into the front ranks of the telly-dons, along with such figures as David Starkey, now able to command six- and seven-figure advances as well as prime-time audiences.

"He's made for the medium," says Tristram Hunt, the historian of Victorian Britain who has also ventured into television and newspaper commentary. "He takes the visual imagination seriously, which not many dons do, and he also delivers his scripts brilliantly. I don't think it's going too far to say that Schama is the Macaulay of our age."

Schama believes that historians should help fashion political debate, and that politicians could benefit from greater historical awareness. "I think it is part of our trade," he says. "It's this sense, actually, of civic vocation. I'm almost embarrassed to feel the words leave my lips, but I do feel that, yes, that's what we should do."

He worries about policy-makers' historical literacy. "I think that [the invasion of] Iraq was made by a school of thought, and it's fair to call them Straussians, who had a particular view that certain ideas are absolutely valid at all times and among all peoples. If you bought into that, that ideas are not contingent on a historical moment and a place and a tradition and a culture - that they are actually transportable between any historical moment - then you are going to believe that democracy can simply be unplugged from one set of wiring and plugged into another one, and it will be the same democracy. That turns into Michael Gershen's speeches for Bush that 'peoples all over the world yearn for one thing - freedom'. And that, in a sense, was an utterly fatal delusion.

"The alternative to that is reading the history of our experience in Iraq from 1918. Of course, things change - the independent variables are enormous - but, you know, hold on a moment and think! So, the historian's job is necessarily contingent, cautionary, specific, concrete, material and pessimistic."

The historian Peter Hennessy recently disclosed that Tony Blair had once expressed a wish that he had studied history rather than law at university. Does Schama agree? "Yes, history would have helped him. It would have specifically said: give the weapons inspectors more time."

He is also critical of the Bush administration's invoking of a "war on terror". "That particular piece of branding has had a terrible blow-back. Because it's not a war in which you can ever have a decisive victory. It should have been treated as a set of crimes, for which you have police action. We're reaping the dragons' teeth of that. But I also don't want to go in the other direction - there are cultures around the world that have to decide whether they want to be a theocracy or not."

The Bush administration, he says, has "been an absolute catastrophe, even if you take away Iraq. He [Bush] has managed to turn an enormous surplus into a gigantic deficit; catastrophic in terms of climate; an appalling response to [hurricane] Katrina. He's been less reasonable, less flexible than Ronald Reagan - I mean, he makes Reagan look like the most pragmatic, independent-minded President."

Hillary Clinton is a near neighbour, but Schama thinks she faces a hard fight if she runs for the presidency. "I admire her in all sorts of ways, but I think she has a real uphill task. It's not who she is, or that she's a woman, but because of the Republicans. No, the [Democrat] nominee ought to be Barack Obama (the Senator from Illinois), that's very clear. If Obama goes against [the current Republican front-runner, Senator John] McCain, the Democrats will win with a landslide."

Like other historians, Schama is worried at the way the past - or partisan readings of it - is regularly invoked in international disputes, whether over political or religious issues. "We need a party of humanity back again, which was Voltaire's definition of the Philosophes," he muses. "That's the party I belong to."

"So, Simon, have you been to any good parties recently?", I tease. He is notoriously good at them. "Yes!" he laughs. "And what would the canapés be like at the party of humanity?"

Civilised, undoubtedly.

Greg Neale is founding editor/editor at large of 'BBC History Magazine' and resident historian for BBC Television's 'Newsnight' and 'The World'. 'Simon Schama's Power of Art' begins on BBC2 at 9pm on Friday 20 October. The book of the series is published by BBC Books, £25

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