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?


In 1949 the following paper was published in Ibis the official journal of the British Ornithologists’ Union. The title was: Rook and Jackdaw Migrations Observed in Germany 1942-1945.

1942-1945? Wasn’t something else going on in Germany then?

So who exactly was doing the observing while Europe was being torn apart by the Second World War? The compilers of this article were John Buxton, Peter Conder and George Waterston, who were POWs in Germany at the time. There were many ways POWs sought to escape the boredom of captivity: reading, acting, playing music, painting, doing academic courses of various different sorts, sports, escape activities and yes, bird watching.

The amount of time they put in was extraordinary. Here is a run down of an average day’s bird watching during the summer :

6-8.30 watching


9.30-12.30 more watching


1.30-5.30 watching again


6-9.30 more watching with a break at 19.30 for supper

That is a great many hours to look at the sky. These men were incarcerated in Germany where most of the camps were situated away from towns and cities and many were in wooded areas. In addition officers, unlike the ORs, did not have to work and therefore had time on their hands. The 16 page note they produced had the occasional wry aside that bore witness to the extraordinary circumstances of their observations. For example it was noted that the rooks enjoyed feasting on fields covered in human excrement!

In his wonderful book Crow Country Mark Cocker has this to say about the obsessional aspects of bird watchers:

‘Perhaps all monomanias … are a way of offsetting some deeper pain in life.’

Well, I think in this case it’s highly probable that the pain was that of captivity, hunger, boredom, and anxiety about loved ones back home and how the war was progressing. Looking into the air, looking at birds which were free to fly where ever they wanted maybe gave them some reprieve from their incarceration.

Waterston suffered severe kidney damage when he was captured in Crete in 1941 but took an active role in the Dössel camp bird watching. However in 1943 he was allowed to go home because of his ill-health. Another bird man, his friend Ian Pitman, demanded to be repatriated at the same time. When he was challenged as to the fact that he seemed in perfect health, he took out his glass eye and slammed it down on the German Commandant’s desk and was thus sent home with his friend. After the war the two of them bought Fair Isle in the Shetlands and established it as a migration study site. Condor and Waterston became two of the leading environmentalists of their age. John Buxton became a distinguished Oxford don and poet.

In the film The Great Escape  there’ s a scene where the prisoners are being given a lecture on birds and it’s a cover for them forging documents.

Finally, for those of you who like your escapes a bit more physical. Here’s that famous attempted escape sequence with Steve McQueen and the stunt he executed himself. An iconic film star, a tasty motorbike, some beautiful mountains and quite a nifty bit of music to accompany it as well. Elmer Bernstein wrote the score. He also wrote the film scores for The Magnificent Seven and Thoroughly Modern Millie amongst many others. If you’re interested in finding out how crows figure in my book Far Away here’s the link:

How do you escape? Motorcycles or bird watching? Or … ?

Sources: Mark Cocker: Crow Country, Midge Gillies: The Barbed-Wire University.