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?


Fortunately this does not involve cold showers and forced marches. At the weekend I went to see a panel talking on the subject of building a character. This was part of The Words in the Square Literary Festival celebrating 175 years since the founding of The London Library by Thomas Carlyle. They were actors and directors not writers, the usual subject of this blog, but it was interesting to hear what they had to say on the matter. The panel was made up of Simon Russell Beale (SRB) Simon Callow (SC) Harriet Walter (HW) Natascha McElhone (NM) and Nick Hytner (NH) and they were being kept in order by James Runcie.

Preparing for a role:

HW said that she does Shakespeare from the text. She quoted John Barton as saying you do what they do and you say what they say and a character emerges. So the thing was not to impose yourself on it but to allow the character to emerge. Then the character was altered or developed by its interaction with others in rehearsal.

SRB said you start at base level and then build it up like a mosaic piece by piece. The only Shakespearean role he had done outside research for was King Lear, and then he had looked into different forms of dementia. But he said it was rare for him to do that.

Film he finds scary because of its solitary nature. He likes the interactions with others you get in theatre. He’s been cast in a film as Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief, and is hoping the director is open to a rehearsal period. He said one way to warm up a part in a long stage run was to listen to others afresh. You also had to trust to your own individuality. To trust that ‘your’ Hamlet would be different to someone else’s. He said that he got the measure of playing Cassius in Julius Caesar when he realised that in every scene Cassius appears in, he threatens to kill himself.

SC said that actors were ‘expert voyeurs’, looking at people, seeing how they behave. That they built up a vast memory bank. He said the trouble was if you had to act a part which you couldn’t find anywhere in your memory bank. That had happened to him doing Richard III on the radio. He felt no connection at all and found there was nothing to draw on. He also found it in Pozzo in Waiting for Godot. He said his bowels did not engage with it in any way! He said that he listened to Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony and that in that he found a noise that was Pozzo and that then because Pozzo comes on leading a man on the end of a rope he thought of themes of Empire and dominance and that brought him to Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and then it began to fall into place.

Rôles they loved or failed at?

NM said she was tormented by the part of Costard, a comic figure, in Love’s Labour’s Lost, that she played in drama school. She said even if the rôles are ones you did in drama school, if they fail they stay with you. She said in the end she borrowed a friend’s pair of dungarees, put on a pair of clogs and listened to Irish reels. When she was in Branagh’s film of Love’s Labour’s Lost she was guiltily relieved to  see Nathan Lane struggling in the same part, as well.

HW said she loved playing Nina in The Seagull and Helena in All’s Well but she was fed up with being cast as 2-dimensional malevolent older women in TV productions.

SRB said the good rôles changed your life and then went on to talk about all the bad ones. He said he’d never got to grips with Edgar in King Lear or Malvolio in Twelfth Night. And he said he was in a terrible production of Jekyll and Hyde with Roger Allam when he (SRB) decided to play Jekyll as an angel and it was obvious from the previews that it ‘was crap’. One of the best ‘notes’ he ever had was from Juliet Stevenson who told him ‘to be less conscious of the effect you’re trying to have.’

NH said that as a director you have to shut up when you see actors’ eyes glaze over.He and SRB have worked together 5 or 6 times and he said it works because they think in a similar way. They have an intellectual approach and the feelings follow the thought but he said some actors act instinctively. He once made the mistake of casting Tom Hardy in a restoration comedy Man of Mode. He said that the play was all about style and language and it was entirely inimical to Hardy’s way of working. He blamed himself for persuading him to appear in it.

SC said that sometimes you know from the first page of a play that you are that rôle. He felt that when he read Tuesday at Tescos translated from the french Le Mardi à Monoprix. It’s about a transgender woman called Pauline and the first line is ‘Everyone stares at me on Tuesdays.’ The day she goes shopping with her elderly father at Tescos.

He told an interesting story about a friend of Flora Robson’s going to see her as Lady Macbeth playing opposite Charles Laughton. He refused to go back stage after the production because he said it was so bad. He told her later it was not her job to be ‘psychological’ but to ‘flick Lady Macbeth through her soul’. Rather a lovely expression.

There’s more  I may put into a Part Two, but to sum up for now, they were lovely this lot – generous with each other and the audience, collaborative and funny. And James Runcie was an  amiable figure focusing the discussion in an elegant way to a happy conclusion.