There is a frenetic energy to Simon Schama when he talks about history, the kind of energy that you might expect from a highly excitable child caught in the ecstasy of their very favourite topic rather than a Cambridge-trained professor of Modern History. Schama appeared on Friday as part of the International Festival of the Arts Writers and Readers Festival, one of two talks that he was scheduled to speak at, and his only solo appearance.
During Friday’s sell-out session in the Wellington Town Hall, he nimbly darted in and out of the questions from interviewer Sean Plunket. Schama’s hands became so animated at one point that he whacked off his own lapel microphone, which had become so tangled that it forced him into a hunched position. “If I were a leprechaun, it’d be perfect,” he quipped to his audience, who even before the incident had perhaps noted something leprechaun-like in their lively speaker.
Professor Schama is best known to New Zealand audiences through his 15 part television series, A History of Britain. This magnificent and sweeping documentary was almost not to be. Propositioned by the television producer Michael Jackson to take the role of writer/presenter, Schama was initially sceptical about the project, worried that it would gobble up his time and stretch well beyond his academic expertise. It was the memory of a piece of Dickensian advice from his father that “you always regret the things you don’t do” which propelled him forward.
Here, Schama found himself learning on the job—not only about the dramaturgical art of television presenting but also about telling a great swathe of historical narrative outside his own comfort zone—and it was this “dangerous idea” that animated his passion for the project.
His work is animated by the desire to write history with the spirit of an explorer, making him cautious not to over-burden our conclusions. He wryly told Saturday’s audience that during his high school days, his history teacher had once decisively declared, “well boys, two things we know, it’s bye-bye to the nation-state and organised religion.” “The great shock of the early twenty first century,” Schama told his audience, “is the revival of theocratic certainty.”
Continuing with contemporary themes he also reflected on the recent developments in the presidency of Barack Obama. While Obama seemed “too fine a philosopher to have any political acumen” at points during his first hundred plus days in office, this was the kind of history-making juncture that historians look back on either as the gathering of the waves or a slow ebb. There’s no doubting which way Schama, a keen admirer of Obama’s politics, would like to see history play out. What he saw during the 2008 elections while he filmed for another television series was the familiar process of “America coming together in a moment of intense self examination” and he can’t see that finishing yet.
It was easy to observe from his discussion in front of Friday night’s audience why he has become so popularly loved. His easy charm as a speaker and as a historian lies in more than his ability to narrate enthralling histories and to reflect on their meanings. Writers and Readers Festival audiences would have seen in his tangential asides the workings of his ability to bridge ideas and evoke in his history “the unembarrassed excitement of proximity.”