Today's past master

profile Simon Schama Some historians are populist, some academic, and some redefine our view of history , writes Blake Morrison
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The Independent Online
SIMON SCHAMA sits in the window of the Trafalgar Tavern, Greenwich, gazing at the Thames. It is, for several reasons, an appropriate spot to meet him: because Schama is a historian, and this is a place rich in royal, maritime and literary history; because rivers, along with woods and mountains, are the subject of Schama's epic and fascinating new book, Landscape & Memory, published tomorrow; and because Schama's father passed down to his son a fanatical love of whitebait, and the Trafalgar Tavern still famously hosts an annual whitebait dinner for the Cabinet.

Behind Schama are buildings by Inigo Jones and Christoper Wren, across from him the futuristic toytown of Docklands. The conservationist in him hates what Canary Wharf does to the view from the Royal Observatory. But another bit of him, the bit that wrote his latest book, recognises and even celebrates how each generation imposes itself on the landscape. There sits Schama, a mouthful of whitebait, negotiating between city and country, art and history, old and new.

Few contemporary historians have his power to bring the past to life, to prove it on the pulses, to take you there, to make you hear the swish- thud of the guillotine in 1792 or smell the cooking pans and milk-churns in a Dutch interior, circa 1620. But Schama is also a product of the intellectual crises and fashions of his time. With his easy charm and bright blue spectacles, he's not musty or fusty. And part of the appeal of his books is their instinct for choosing histories that speak to us now.

Little wonder that, at 50, he is sometimes described as a contender for the title - vacant since the death of AJP Taylor - of Great British Historian of our times. Not that the title sits easily. What's expected of the GBH is populism, plain-speaking and John Bullishness. But Schama, who has lived in the United States for some years, isn't a columnist like John Vincent or Norman Stone. And though later this month he will have his televisual moment, when he presents a five-part BBC series based on Landscape & Memory, an early viewing suggests that television is not his natural medium. In the flesh, Schama is generous and enthusiastic: he waves his arms around, hurls out ideas, reels off reading lists, cracks jokes, is sensitive to criticism but knows how to look after himself. On the screen, budget constraints keeping him to an arty studio, he looks strained, uncomfortable. There is no disguising his intellect, and television is seldom kind to intellectuals.

But if not a GBH in the old Taylorish sense, Schama has other, more important claims to the title. He has written two indisputably great books, The Embarrassment of Riches, a study of Dutch 17th-century culture, and Citizens, a chronicle and reappraisal of the French Revolution. He has revived the art of narrative. He has inherited John Aubrey's gift for pen portraits which rescue men of substance from misrepresentation or neglect.

He deploys a range of disciplines - art history, anthropology, literary criticism - to shed light on his subjects. He gets out from the library and explores places, using "the archive of the feet". He has mastered the art of snappy chapter headings, and of bold opening sentences. Try this, from his new book: "Returning to the cabin in the woods by Walden Pond, a catch of fish tied to his pole, Henry David Thoreau was seized with an overwhelming urge to eat raw woodchuck."

Without laying the law down, Schama has redefined what being a modern historian means. It's not enough, his work implies, to be the custodian of a small specialism, like the Repeal of the Corn Laws or Clement Attlee; you have to range wider and more boldly, across centuries, across continents, even into the realms of the imagination. His last book, Dead Certainties, in part a deconstruction of the death of General Wolfe, in part a 19th- century Harvard murder whodunnit, was published by Granta Books, and was Granta-ish in being self-doubting faction. Schama is no nave relativist - he recognises the difference between fact and fiction - but he's anxious to remind readers that history is story and that its narrators can't help but be subjective.

Which is why, perhaps, his new book is in parts unashamedly personal. It has the air of an autobiographical quest, delighting in the discovery that some of his Jewish ancestors - Lithuanian on his mother's side, old Ottoman on his father's - were woodmen. Between its art criticism and demythologising, the book also makes room for snatches of his own life: Schama lying on his back in an overgrown Jewish cemetery staring up at the blue sky; Schama in northern California with his wife, mother-in-law and two children, inspecting the giant redwoods; Schama, at 10, excavating a secret hoard from an abandoned air shelter in Hampstead.

This isn't how GBHs are supposed to write history. To his detractors Simon Schama is the Oliver Sacks of history, exotic and fanciful, and arousing the suspicion, if not of outright invention, certainly of poetic licence: "Reading him is like eating a Belgian chocolate every three or four seconds," said one. "You end up wishing he'd be a bit plainer, a bit duller. There goes Concorde you think, but I have to catch a 73."

"I understand the objection," says Schama. "It's the notion that history should be against personality. But even someone like G R Elton, who would have hated being personal, is an intense and passionate presence in his work. My own instinctive sympathy is for 19th-century Romantic writing where immediacy comes from dropping the pretence of dispassion. There are many precedents for what I'm doing: Macaulay, Victor Hugo, Trevelyan, a contemporary like Jonathan Spence. As for the bits of my life in the new book, there aren't that many and in the end I felt I'd be mad to leave them out. When a personal sense of family speaks to a larger sense of history, that's legitimate."

SCHAMA was born in 1945, on the night the Allies bombed Dresden, and grew up - an only son, though he has an older sister - on the Thames estuary in Essex. His mother, strong, passionate, a natural storyteller, took up work when she was 50 and has been hard at it ever since. His father, a businessman "and a bit of a dandy", speculated in textiles: "He'd buy fabrics from mills in Lancashire, taking a bet on next season's colour. We were never poor but it was sometimes a bit bumpy. The Schamas are famous for overdoing it."

Schama Senior overdid it when Simon was nine, and the family went down in the world, returning to London (where both parents had been born) and a house in Golders Green. But the father's spirit was undaunted, and he had ambitions for his son: "He was a terrific producer of amateur theatricals. I remember seeing Richard Burton in Henry V with him, because he wanted me to play the part at school." When Simon was 10, his father also began taking him on public-speaking tours, to improve his debating skills. Those who have heard Schama lecture say that it was time well spent.

At Haberdashers' Aske's, Schama acquired a reputation as a Mouth, and once clocked up 12 consecutive detentions for speaking in class. But his academic talents were clear, and the only question was whether he should read English or history. Choosing the latter, he studied at Cambridge under J H (Jack) Plumb, not only a great historian but a catalyst for and collector of young talent: Roy Porter, Quentin Skinner and Linda Colley were among those in and around Christ's College at that time. "Plumb taught us that writing was not just an auxiliary to research. He wanted people outside the academy to read history, and he wanted it to be entertaining. We were all social historians in the making."

Schama took a starred first and, a mere 21, was elected as a fellow of his college. Among the topics he covered over the next 10 years was the French Revolution, an unfashionable subject then, but former students recall his lectures as an extraordinary theatrical experience.

In 1976 Schama moved to Brasenose College, Oxford, where he met his Californian wife, Ginny Papaioannou, a geneticist. In 1980 they moved to Harvard, where they had two children. With two books already behind him, Schama published The Embarrassment of Riches in 1987 and Citizens in 1989. The former brought him critical acclaim; the second, its 950 pages written in two years, made him famous, and, appearing as it did as the Soviet empire crumbled, chimed with an Eighties scepticism about the foundations of Communism. Schama was attacked in Le Monde and made some strange right- wing bedfellows. Though he admitted at the time that, if pushed to say whether more happiness than unhappiness had emerged because of the French Revolution, he'd have to say no, he is not a reactionary: "I'd describe myself as a liberal democrat, to the right in the Labour Party - though in Blair's Labour Party maybe to the left."

Two years ago, Schama moved to New York to become Old Dominion Professor of Humanities at Columbia University. But in some ways his life is now less urban than ever before. The family home, "a 1970s End of Modernism house", is located 25 miles to the north of the city, 500 feet above the Hudson River, with forest as far as you can see: an apt home for his latest book, which is much possessed by rivers and trees. The book challenges some of the more pious assumptions of ecology, and may get him into trouble, at least in the US. But it's not that Schama assents to the degradation of the planet, simply that he wants us to see how all landscapes are imprinted with human myths and obsessions: "Without man, landscapes could not be said to exist." Though a meandering book and one he found difficult to write, there's a playfulness too: he originally wanted to subtitle it "an intellectual entertainment", he says.

His next book will be about Rembrandt, and after that he plans a history of 19th-century Hawaii. Not much scope for the personal there, and not the subjects to be expected from a GBH. But Schama never does the expected, and he'd not be so interesting if he did.

Michael Ignatieff reviews `Landscape & Memory' in the Sunday Review.