My Secret Life: Simon Schama, historian, 64

Interview,Charlotte Philby
Saturday 27 June 2009 00:00

The home I grew up in ... was a removal van: my father was always going broke.

When I was a child I wanted to be ... a nuclear physicist – but I'm crap at geometry.

My greatest inspiration ... is emotional and psychological bravery without cheap sensationalism.

The moment that changed me for ever ... was the birth of my first child. My life since then has been a permanent spasm of involuntary unselfishness.

My real-life villain is ... the Taliban, who hate women.

I drive ... like John Prescott, I've joined that socially reprehensible, enjoyable club and bought myself a convertible Jaguar.

At night I dream of... When I was a child, being pursued by medieval armoured firemen up a tall tower: Hello Dr Freud. Later, being forced to return to college to find the portcullis slamming down: Hello Dr Kafka.

What I see when I look in the mirror ... an interesting mess.

My style icon ... if only I could look like Lou Reed. Oh, to grow old and hard like him.

The shop I can't walk past ... I love the clothes shop Start on Rivington Street in east London, and Matches on Ledbury Road in west London.

A book that changed me ... was 'The Leopard' by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. It is the most wonderful meditation of all time.

The last album I bought ... I'm ashamed to say was Lily Allen's 'Fear'. She's a very clever, naughty girl and I really adore her.

The person who really makes me laugh ... Robin Williams in full, mad, unhinged cry is staggeringly funny.

It's not fashionable but I like ... cigars.

My favourite work of art ... for the sheer meditative and almost hallucinogenic quality, I love Cézanne's 'Mont Sainte-Victoire'.

My favourite item of clothing ... are my shoes. There is a fantastic shop in Amsterdam, where I buy different colourful dark boots by Hester van Eeghen.

You wouldn't know it but I'm good at ... singing. I have a lounge-lizard repertoire. I do a croaky Tom Waits, but need to drink and smoke more to get it right.

You may not know it but I'm no good at ... knowing where the hell I put my keys.

All my money goes on ... holidays, mortgages, wine, clothes: the usual disgraceful, pleasurable self-indulgences. And modern art, in a small way.

If I have time to myself ... I write secret short stories. Some for children and others based on various places I have visited.

My house ... a late-Seventies, modernist building (my most despised style in the history of architecture), 500 feet on top of a hill surrounded by woodland and over-looking the Hudson River.

My most valuable possession is ... a Rembrandt etching plate. It was the same price as remodelling our kitchen. I stuck it in the pocket of my jeans, and when the airport security guard asked, "What is that?" I said, "It's a 17th-century etching plate!"

My favourite building ... The ensemble of buildings in Greenwich. It is the stretch of river of my childhood, and has a deep sense of Englishness.

Movie heaven ... 'Casablanca' followed by 'Singing in the Rain'.

I wish I'd never worn ... a powder blue, linen summer suit. I looked like one of the losers from 'The Apprentice'.

In 10 years' time, I hope to be ... dead.

My greatest regret ... is that nobody who is in a position of power has heard me sing my lounge-lizard songs.

My life in six words ... recklessness undeservedly rewarded by good fortune.

A life in brief

Simon Schama was born in London on 13 February 1945. His highly acclaimed television series include the BBC's A History of Britain. His latest book, The American Future: A History (Vintage, £9.99), is available now. Schama lives in an upstate suburb of New York with his wife and their small poodle

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