The utterly splendid Simon Schama

Pity James Runcie, the man who last Sunday had the job of trying to keep Simon Schama in some kind of order, for another of The London Library Words in the Square events. Simon is not a man to allow a clip-on mike to stay on his body for more than about 10 seconds at a time, so the talk was interspersed with it pinging loose fairly frequently, which was emblematic of what Simon himself did over the course of the next hour.

The subject of the talk was The Books That Made Me. As you can imagine there were a lot of them and some were fairly obscure (to me anyway). He started with Shakespeare. Simon was born in 1945, the year the war ended. His father would read Shakespeare with him when he was as young as nine and they would take all the parts between them. His father’s view was that England had saved the Jews and that their ‘decency was locked into the past and expressed in literature.’ He made Simon learn a lot of it by heart and made him do that in order to then be taken to see Richard Burton at the Old Vic when he played Henry V. ‘Do you think the iambic pentameter has had an effect on your prose?’ James Runcie speculated. Simon seemed bemused but later he said of his prose style: ‘I try to aim for clipped – not really.’

His childhood was full of storytelling. Each night his father would tell him a story called ‘Knock ’em down Ginger.’ I think this was something his Dad made up. Of history Simon said: ‘It is a rich type of storytelling’ and that ‘Herodotus used to recite his histories at the Pan-Hellenic Games.’

He said he read the Bible as an adventure story. He mentioned Jonah and Naboth’s Vineyard, then Cain and Abel, which he described as Quentin Tarantino-esque. ‘Has anyone read Ezekiel?’ he asked. Ping went his mike. ‘Yes,’ a brave woman replied. He said ‘It starts with someone being told that in order to speak the word of God you have to physically eat it first.’ Good grief!

Then we were onto more books:

  • The Scourge of the Swastika by Lord Russell – a short account of the German War Crimes of World War 2 – ‘Thank God for the English Channel,’ Simon said.
  • The Defeat of the Spanish Armada by Garrett Mattingly – he talked of the cadence and sonority of the prose and also the use of *in medias res.
  • To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson – it’s about revolutionary thought but I can’t remember for the life of me anything Simon said about it so you’ll have to check it out yourself.

At about this point James Runcie put his head in his hands and groaned, ‘We’re never going to get through them all.’ Also at this point my notes became, ahem, somewhat erratic… a glass of wine … a very hot tent … the use of the expression in medias res had put me into a depressed coma. What did it all mean? I was struggling to keep up. But then a book I recognized – hurrah!

  • The Ipcress File by Len Deighton – at the beginning Simon had read out an opening paragraph of a book and suggested the audience might try and guess which book it was. If someone was successful they would win a bottle of wine. No one got it at first so he now read out another bit and the bottle was won. The microphone pinged and then we were off again.He liked Len Deighton because there was a bit of him which is ‘sardonically cool’ (like Harry Palmer). He said this made his wife laugh a great deal.
  • The Police and the People by Richard Cobb. It’s about the French Revolution. Cobb was an uncontained writer, a drunk, chaotic … he had to carry him to bed. Oh good, soap opera, Oxford gossip, now I was wide awake. He learnt from Cobb about the importance of delivering a sense of place and the archive of the feet…(don’t ask I was still struggling with in medias res). Simon read out the final paragraph of the book. It was made up of one very, very long sentence … oh god the tent was hot…

Now, Runcie gave up, ‘If you’ve got any questions for Simon you’re just going to have to ask him when he’s signing books,’ he said despairingly. Had in medias res got to him too? Or was it the archive of the feet? Or Naboth’s vineyard? Now we were crashing towards the end.

  • The Idea of History by Collingwood. He (could have been Collingwood or was it Simon?) described historians as slightly incompetent detectives piecing together clues and fragments. He talked of history as a form of re-enactment and about total immersion in your sources leading to becoming a ventriloquist for the past.
  • War and Peace by Tolstoy. Novels matter. All of human life is there. The creak of a corset.
  • The Meaning in the Visual Arts by Panofsky
  • The Leopard by Lampedusa
  • The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth
  • The Good Soldier Svejk  by Jaroslav Hasek
  • Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  • Serve it Forth/Borderland   by M.F.K Fisher. The sensuality of her prose. The description of biting into a tangerine or was it a tangerine left on a radiator?

Sorry about those last ones but I was a goner. All I can say is that if Simon Schama were a firework, he would not be one of those ones you could put in a milk bottle and expect to whizz straight up in the air and explode decorously over your head. No, he would be the one you light and at first does nothing. Then just as you think you had better go back and light it again, it will shoot past your ear, hurdle your neighbour’s fence, smash into his greenhouse and set fire to his cat. He’s a marvel! He’s splendid! He is the utterly splendid Simon Schama! And he was wearing a very beautiful pair of lavender suede shoes. If you get the chance to hear him talk make sure you go but don’t take notes, it’s too stressful and may make you feel thick.

*in medias res – the use of a narrative that begins somewhere in the middle. You knew that didn’t you, I know you did?