Simon Schama inspired by nature

The historian Simon Schama is a wonderful writer bringing historical figures to life, vividly recounting the past. He humanises history. Like any good writer, he also has the gift of metaphor. Striking analogies are to be found in his writing.

He finds inspiration in nature as he writes about history. As a historian, of course, he stresses the importance of history. Nature and the importance of history are both present at the conclusion of his three-volume History of Britain, which ends on a pastoral note.

Also present on those pages are George Orwell and 1984.

Importance of history

Schama writes:

“Until one reads the book as the English novel it is, rather than as an extended lecture on the abuses of power, it is easy to overlook that up there in Jura, among the eagles and the red deer and the sea otters, Orwell was also penning one of the most impassioned arguments for the indispensability of history. History and memory are not the antithesis to free will, but the condition of it. When O’Brien, the arch-deceiver who has persuaded Winston Smith that he is running a resistance group, suggests sealing his recruitment with a toast to the future, Winston lifts his glass and drinks instead ‘To the past.’ ‘The past is more important,’ agreed O’Brien gravely. And, of course, for the reason that history is the enemy of tyranny, oblivion is its greatest accomplice. By encouraging forgetfulness, the Party became free to impose on its hapless subjects its own version of whatever past it chose.”

Woodland scene

And then Schama ends his history on the theme of nature, referring to Orwell and 1984 again:

“Nothing could be more British — all right, more English — than for George Orwell to insist that to have a future, a free future at any rate, presupposes keeping faith with the past. Only one thing mattered more to him, and that was nature. Winston Smith does not have time for, nor access to, the archives that would allow him to imagine the alternative outcomes embedded in past time. But he does dream, not unlike those earlier sometime radicals Wordsworth and Coleridge, of a “Gold Country”. In his dream, ‘It was an old, rabbit-bitten pasture, with a foot track wandering across it and a molehill here and there. In the ragged hedge on the opposite side of the boughs of the elm trees were swaying very faintly in the breeze, their leaves stirring in dense masses like women’s hair. Somewhere near at hand, though out of sight, there was a clear, slow-moving stream where dace were swimming in the pools under willow trees.’ And of course, there is, because in Orwell’s fugitive Golden Country nature, freedom and history are all ravelled up together. Some before him called such a place of hope and blessings ‘Jerusalem’. And some of us, obstinately, think we can call it Britain.”

The ending is so wistful, a history of Britain ending with the word “Britain” in a woodland scene.

That is the genius of Schama.

The American Future

Schama uses nature to marvellous effect also in The American Future. Published in 2009, this book is about the 2008 US election campaign that brought Barack Obama to power.

Whereas A History of Britain ended in a woodland scene, in The American Future, Schama is inspired by an aerial view of America to extol the greatness and resilience of America.

He writes so eloquently that it’s impossible for me to paraphrase him.

Here is Schama, in full flow, on the greatness and resilience of America.

An English historian teaching in America, he was inspired to write this by another foreigner. A Russian sitting next to him on a plane, looking through the window, was spellbound by the magnificent beauty of America seen from the air.

America from the air

Flying back home to New York from San Diego and passing over the southern Sierra Nevada, I remembered a journey in the opposite direction spent beside Grigory the Russian It was in the early days of glasnost, and this was Grigory’s first time in the United States. He was on his way to a mathematics congress, I think at Stanford… Every so often Grigory, who had the window seat, would look out of the window. And since it was one of those miraculously clear days, coast to coast, there was a whole lot of America to look at. Beyond the Great Lakes over Nebraska and its irrigation circles, the habit became more than looking. The Russian turned his body three-quarters in the seat and pressed his sandy-haired face against the window like a child trying to get at a Christmas display in a department store. As the scenery became not just picturesque but spectacular and the torn-off snows of the Rockies climbed into the window frame, Grigory became fidgety, almost agitated. On and on he stared at Colorado and Utah with such strange intensity that I began to feel guilty for not looking quite so hard myself, all the more so since I was then writing a book about landscape. It was a morning flight, due to land at San Francisco around one in the afternoon, but as the jet flew west, the interior of the plane had grown dark, most of the passengers opting for sleep or closing their shades to watch movies. It turned out that this airborne darkness at noon was upsetting Grigory and which he found incomprehensible when there was the beauty of the earth to witness beyond those pockmarked little windows. When we crossed Lake Tahoe and the pinewoods that Mark Twain had accidentally set alight, it was finally too much, and he broke from hi silent agitation. “Ah,” he said very loudly, turning to me and waving a contemptuous hand at the dozes, “these people, why do they sleep? Why don’t they see? Why do they not understand? This belongs to them! They must treasure like gold; you tell them, you must tell them, wake them up and tell them, go on yes, see, treasure.” “I wish I could,” I said, “but they’re really Back to the Future.”

Grigory, who perhaps had been too deeply immersed in Dostoyevsky at some point, was tormented that the docile planeload of passengers, their necks craned to the video monitors, were trapped in some sort of moral and aesthetic Neverland; they might take America, its history and its geography for granted, preferring to opt for a snooze. The president at that time was also famously partial to his daily naps, and inevitably Groggy (who was probably more on the insomniac side) passed animatedly from the topographic to the political. He wanted a democracy that was wide awake, and if it was necessary to shake people out of their childish slumber, so be it. But what I couldn’t tell him was that, though sometimes seeming to be lost in torpor, a visitation from big trouble will always bring about an American awakening. Nothing like hitting an air pocket to make the passengers vividly aware of the scenery below.

‘Looking hard at America’

Is that the case in 2008? Right now, airplane America has lost altitude; the startle reflex has kicked in; and the passengers are not screaming in terror, they are certainly not dozing either. What they are doing is looking hard at America — the whole bundle of history, economy, geography, power — as though their life depends on it, which it does. And they are considering which of the two men competing for their vote feels more the president who can somehow embody that whole American bundle and by so doing call the country back to a sense of common purpose, as all the great occupants of the White House have done before On the way to recovering that precious, easily squandered sense of national community, a lot of hard knocks will be given and taken, which is exactly what the Founding Fathers prescribed: the storm of argument about whither and whence America without which elections are just so many exchanges of advertising techniques, Something else is going on this time: the republic shouting to be remade, Can it be done? Can the lumbering beast of American power, so big and clumsy, so taken by surprise when its good intentions go awry and the world takes offence, manage the latest act of self-transformation? I’ve lived in the United States half my life, and take it from me, it can, though nothing is a sure bet anymore. But — and this, I hope, may not come as a complete shock to any reader who has made it this far — the glory of American life is its complexity, not a word usually associated with the United States, but true, nonetheless. From the richness of that complexity come, always, rejuvenating alternatives. The Hamiltonians have done you wrong for the last eight years? Well, you know where to go for redress. Anglo-America thinks it’s going down to a Hispanic reconquista? Try remembering that America has always been shared between Latino and Anglo cultures.

Resilient America

But what this wealth of alternatives means is that, however dire the outlook, it’s impossible to think of the United States at a dead end. Americans roused can turn on a dime, abandon habits of a lifetime, convert indignation into action, and before you know it there’s a whole new United States in the neighbourhood.

That too the Founding Fathers hoped for: that nothing would be beyond American reinvention except their Constitution, and that too of course could be amended. But if the country is to come charging out of the gates of its several calamities with a fire-driven sense of national renewal, it will be because its people draw so ceaseless on the lives and wisdoms of their ancestors. The history habit of America has nothing to do with reverence end everything to do with the timelessness they attach to their stories; moments that do have dates and dead people attached to them, but which somehow leak into the present. They feel about Lincoln the way we do about Shakespeare: the sound is old, the fury right now. It was striking that almost everyone I spoke to along this trip through American time and country sooner or later invoked Jefferson or DuBois, Teddy Roosevelt or FDR, Reagan or Hamilton, as though there was no distance at all between them and the YouTubers, which, in the long haul, there isn’t. It’s as though, at the most urgent moments of American decision, historical time folds in on itself and all of its shaping protagonists are there, to witness and instruct.

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