Simon Schama
Stanford Humanities Center


Simon Schama: Excerpts

From The Embarassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (1987)

The Embarrasment of Riches book cover

In wandering around the Dutch city, bumping into its cultural furniture, I have strayed a good deal from the straight and narrow of the historical method.  Shameless eclecticism has been my only methodological guide.  The thieving-magpie approach to other disciplines may seem, superficially, to be newfangled but in fact it is very old-fashioned.  It follows on from the precedent of those venerable nineteenth century compendia of manners and mores (zeden en gewoonten, the Dutch call them) that were part folklore, part antiquarian anthology and which for all their methodological innocence remain a rich treasure house of arcane and intricate knowledge.  Before them, the eighteenth century had already produced the first great Dutch ethnographies, the product of encyclopedic social exploration.  Their authors had the authentic eighteenth-century compulsion to acquire, accumulate and codify information on every kind of physical and social phenomenon in their country.  Where some natural scientists made seashells or tropical flora and fauna their specialty, writers such as Kornelis van Alkemade turned to drinking horns, ceremonial goblets, standing salts and the history of native feasts.  An even more omnivorous intelligence, the physician le Francq van Berkhey, in his Natural History of Holland encompassed an exhaustive account of habitat, with volumes on social custom and costume, literally from the cradle to the grave.  From the engraved plates in his volumes it is possible to examine, in detail, the reproductive organs of the cow or the human funeral rites appropriate for different classes of the bereaved.

So that there is nothing especially daring about a working definition of culture drawn from social anthropology.  In this well-established tradition I follow the kind of characterization offered by Mary Douglas of cultural bias as “an array of beliefs locked together in relational patterns.”  In the same essay, however, she cautions that for those beliefs to be considered the matrix of a culture, they should “be treated as part of the [social] action and not separated from it.”  I have tried to follow this rather Durkheimian command in what is, essentially, a descriptive enterprise that emphasizes social process rather than social structure, habits rather than institutions.  Acting upon one another, beliefs and customs together form what Emile Durkheim called “a determinate system that has its own life:…the collective or common conscience…it is by definition diffuse in every reach of society.  Nevertheless it has specific conditions that make it a distinct reality.”

To see this elusive quarry—the conscience collectif—in its proper habitat and in action, rather than prone and eviscerated on the sociologist’s dissecting table, I have used visual as well as textual evidence.  Even this has a respectable pedigree, for le Francq van Berkhey thought nothing of alluding to still lifes or genre paintings when trying to evoke a particular set of customs or some items of the national diet.  To exploit the bottomless riches of Dutch art—not merely panels and canvases, but architecture, sculpture, and the cornucopia of the decorative arts on glass, ceramic, tapestry—seems so natural and so obvious that it is difficult to conceive of any kind of cultural history, even an anthropologically bent one that leaves them out.  “What other people,” wrote the nineteenth-century critic-politician Théophile Thoré, “has written its history in art?” Unlike the art of Renaissance Italy, Dutch art, he thought, was so much the record of the here and now, of “la vie vivante,” anchored in a specific time and place. It was the record of “the men and the matter, the sentiments and the habits, the deeds and the gestures of a whole nation.” And the quality of social document inherent in much of Dutch art does indeed make it an irresistible source for the cultural historian.

Treating art as a kind of historical evidence, though, has its dangers for the unwary.  Thoré also supposed it to be “a sort of photography of their great seventeenth century,” a phrase that has been used time and again to suggest the kind of descriptive literalism that is supposed to reflect the empirical ethos of the prosaic bourgeois.  There are undoubtedly some pictures that record with unmediated naturalism what was in front of the artist’s eye.  But in another passage, Thoré reminded his readers that “nothing is less real than reality in painting.  And what is called that depends strictly on a way of seeing.” And unless one supposes baskets full of lepers’ rattles or cripples’ crutches to be typically suspended over Jan Steen’s kitchen, it should be obvious that very many Dutch paintings, and even more engraved prints, filter the perception of the eye through the lens of moral sensibility. Even Jacob van Ruisdael, for example, was known to rearrange or invent landscape, most famously in his versions of The Jewish Cemetery, to accommodate symbolic rumination.  In keeping with these important reservations, then, I have used Dutch art not as a literal record of social experience, but as a document of beliefs.  Where imagery is set to text, as in emblem books or the innumerable engraved how-to manuals that flourished in Holland, its meaning is immediately accessible for historical interpretation, and I have made liberal use of it.  Where, in genre painting, for example, meaning may be hidden but seems open to iconographic reading through reference to related emblematic imagery, I have borrowed from that scholarly technique with what, I hope, is the respect due for the special qualities inherent in a work of art.

Surprisingly, then, Dutch art invites the cultural historian to probe beneath the surface of appearances.  By illuminating an interior world as much as illustrating an exterior one, it moves back and forth between morals and matter, between the durable and the ephemeral, the concrete and the imaginary, in a way that was particularly Netherlandish. And the paradoxes crowd in so thickly that the culture seems to be designed as a contrapuntal arrangement.  Thoré thought nature morte absurdly in appropriate a term for the heaps of fruit, flowers, or fish that in some Dutch pictures sat carefully on white linen, on others tumbled over silver and glass.  Still life was a misnomer, he wrote,  for these things still live; they respire.  Life in death; animation in immobility; the illusion of vitality and the reality of inertia: all these polarities seemed deliberately made to rebound off each other.  Even allowing for his Catholic bias in favor of the disintegration of the mortal world, Paul Claudel, who wrote with exceptional intelligence and sensitivity on Dutch painting eighty years after Thoré, also noticed this preoccupation with what he called désagrégation—a coming apart.  Still lifes, he thought, were caught (in the Dutch) at their toppunt: the zenith before the fall: the moment of perfect ripeness before the decay.  Militia pieces like The Night Watch represented the désagrégation of the group: both a setting-off and a coming-apart.  So that the animate and inanimate world of the Dutch was seen in a state of organic flux, forever composing, decomposing and recomposing itself.  This was what, in a wonderful phrase, Claudel called its élasticité secrète; the essential kinetic quality for a country where the very elements of land and water seemed indeterminately separated, and where the immense space of sky was in a state of perpetual alteration.  And it was this acute sense of the mutable world that he thought gave lie to those who supposed the Dutch lived out their existences according to some sort of clodlike bourgeois adhesion to the concrete.  Was not the landscape itself, he mused, “a kind of preparation for the sea, a flattening of all relief…an anticipation through the grass of the water, so much so that it seems not too much to suggest that the enterprise of Dutch art is like the liquefaction of reality.”

That, perhaps is too much.  But it is a sobering reminder to the cultural historian that the collective image he may try to recover might at best be fugitive and ghostly, like the outline of houses that Proust saw reflected in the Maas at Dordrecht, which trembled into incoherence with every ripple of the evening tide.  (p. 8-11)


From Citizens:  A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989)

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution; book cover

I have chosen to present these arguments in the form of a narrative.  If, in fact, the Revolution was a much more haphazard and chaotic event and much more the product of human agency than structural conditioning, chronology seems indispensable in making its complicated twists and turns intelligible.  So Citizens returns, then, to the form of nineteenth century chronicles, allowing different issues and interests to shape the flow of the story as they arise, year after year, month after month.  I have also, perhaps perversely, deliberately eschewed the conventional “survey” format by which various aspects of the society of the old regime are canvassed before attempting political description.   Placing those imposing chapters on “the economy,”  “the peasantry,” “the nobility” and the like at the front of books automatically, it seems to me, privileges their explanatory force.  I have not, I hope, ignored any of these social groups, but have tried to introduce them at the points in the narrative where they affect the course of events.  This, in turn, has dictated an unfashionable “top down” rather than “bottom up” approach.

Narratives have been described, by Hayden White among others, as a kind of fictional device used by the historian to impose a reassuring order on randomly arriving bits of information about the dead.  There is a certain truth to this alarming insight, but my own point of departure was provided by a richly suggestive article by David Carr in History and Theory (1986), in which he argued a quite different and ingenious case for the validity of the narrative. As artificial as written narratives might be, they often correspond to ways in which historical actors construct events.  That is to say, many, if not most, public men see their conduct as in part situated between role models from an heroic past and expectations of the judgment of posterity.  If ever this was true, it was surely so for the revolutionary generation in France.  Cato, Cicero and Junius Brutus stood at the shoulders of Mirabeau, Vergniaud and Robespierre, but very often they beckoned their devotees towards conduct that would be judged by the generations of the future. 

Finally, the narrative, as will be obvious, weaves between the private and public lives of the citizens who appear on its pages.  This is done not only in an attempt to understand their motivation more deeply than pure public utterance allows, but also because so many of them, often to their ruin, saw their own lives as a seamless whole, their calendar of birth, love, ambition and death imprinted on the almanac of great events.  This necessary interconnection between personal and public histories was self-evident in many of the nineteenth-century narratives and, to the extent that I have followed their precedent, what I have to offer, too, runs the risk of being seen as a mischievously old-fashioned piece of story-telling.  It differs from the pre-Tocquevillian narratives in being offered more as witness than judgment.  But like those earlier accounts it tries to listen attentively to the voice of the citizens whose lives it describes, even when their voices are at their most cacophonous.  In this sense too it opts for chaotic authenticity over the commanding neatness of historical convention.  (p. xv-xvi)


From Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) (1991)

Dead Certainties; book cover

In The Sense of the Past, Henry James has the young historian Ralph Pendrel, the improbable author of “An Essay in the Aid of Reading History,”  reflect that “recovering the lost was at all events…much like entering the enemy’s lines to get back one’s dead for burial.”  That this novel remained unfinished at James’s death should not surprise us.  For it sets out the habitually insoluble quandary of the historian: how to live in two worlds at once; how to take the broken, mutilated remains of something or someone from the “enemy lines” of the documented past and restore it to life or give it a decent interment in our own time and place.

Pendrel yearns for the kind of communion with the dead denied him by the customary practices of his profession.  “He wanted the unimaginable accidents, the little notes of truth for which the common lens of history, however the scowling muse might bury her nose, was not sufficiently fine.  He wanted evidence of a sort for which there had never been documents enough or for which documents mainly, however multiplied, would never be enough.”  And he succeeds only through a metaphysical mystery by which, in the year 1910, he walks through the front door of the London house left to him in a legacy and enters 1820.

Without this convenient epiphany, historians are left forever chasing shadows, painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness, however thorough or revealing their documentation.  Of course, they make do with other work: the business of formulating problems, of supplying explanations about cause and effect.  But the certainty of such answers always remains contingent on their unavoidable remoteness from their subjects.  We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot. 

Both the stories offered here play with the teasing gap separating a lived event and its subsequent narration.  Although both follow the documented record with some closeness, they are works of imagination, not scholarship.  Both dissolve the certainties of events into the multiple possibilities of alternative narrations.  (p. 319-320)

Though these stories may at times appear to observe the discursive conventions of history, they are in fact historical novellas, since some passages (the soldier in Wolfe’s army, for example) are pure inventions, based, however, on what documents suggest.  This is not to say, I should emphasize, that I scorn the boundary between fact and fiction.  It is merely to imply that even in the most austere scholarly report from the archives, the inventive faculty—selecting, pruning, editing, commenting, interpreting, delivering judgements—is in full play.  This is not a naïvely relativist position that insists that the lived past is nothing more than an artificially designed text.  (Despite the criticism of dug-in positivists, I know of no thoughtful commentator on historical narrative who seriously advances this view.) But it does accept the rather banal axiom that claims for historical knowledge must always be fatally circumscribed by the character and prejudices of its narrator.  (p. 322)


From “Clio Has a Problem,” The New York Times Magazine, September 8, 1991

The scene: A seminar room at Harvard. The occasion: an oral examination for a history senior in danger of flunking his final exam. The question: "Would you care to compare the Italians' experience of the First World War with their experience of the Second World War?" Panic strikes the student; beads of perspiration form on his brow. His nervous response: "You mean there were two?"

What has gone wrong with historical education? Consider the landscape. More professional historians—those who earn their bread by doing nothing else—are at work today than at any time since Herodotus began his chronicle. Graduate programs in mighty universities produce legions of Ph.D.'s, who go on to produce yet more Ph.D.'s, who populate the countless conferences and multiplying institutes. The once-spacious chambers of the historical house have become subdivided into ever-smaller closets of specialization. More and more is known about less and less. Articles like "Labor Relations in the Dutch Margarine Industry 1870-1934" (History Workshop Journal, 1990) have no difficulty in finding a publisher.

Things are just as bad in the high schools, where students sit stupefied over world history textbooks the size of telephone directories and about as thrilling to read. Millions of publishing dollars are tied up in an industry where the sacred rule is, "Do not give offense," especially not to politically elected adoption committees whose acceptance or rejection can make or break a publication. Playing safe, many of these books are manufactured by an assembly line of graphic designers, editorial committees and text drones, and then rubber-stamped by scholars paid to hold their noses and look the other way. Entirely missing from these productions are the great narratives of history, written by a single hand or at most a pair (like the Nevins and Commager of my school days), capable of stirring the imagination, feeding the immense hunger for historical drama latent in nearly every young mind.

Largely demoted to a minor branch of civics, Clio, the Muse who dare not speak her name, is nonetheless under assault. On the one hand, she is told to stand forth and deliver the Eternal Verities of the Western tradition; on the other hand, she is told that she is a wicked good-for-nothing unless she becomes "multicultural."

Furious battles ensue over niceties that would be comically preposterous—like the difference between "enslaved persons" and "slaves"—if they didn't leave behind a wasteland of bitter polemics. But "Eurocentric" and "Afrocentric" name-calling misses the point entirely: namely, that as long as history in the schools and colleges takes the form of a scrapbook of documentary snippets and bland pieties, its capacity to seize the imagination will be lost. A multicultural history that does nothing but offer user-friendly shorthand guides to world civilization (two pages on Benin, two on the Mughals) is just as likely to bore with its gospels of ancestral saintliness as the older histories distorted events by their emphasis on cost-free European dynamism.

And while history in our schools may be genuinely threatened with a kind of extinction, scholars like the formidable Gertrude Himmelfarb fret and fume lest footnotes turn into an endangered species. (I myself have recently been taken to task by her in The New York Times Book Review for omitting footnotes in Citizens, my book about the French Revolution, a work expressly written for a popular audience.) Other self-appointed constables for Clio hit the panic button at the least sign of literary playfulness. Above all, historians are cautioned and reprimanded: Eschew the subjective, the interpretative. The road to the truth is the hard and stony way of cumulative empiricism; the holy grail at the trail's end, a chill, limpid objectivity. The face of the historian should not betray the story-teller's animation; it should be a mask of dispassion.

But self-effacement—the pretense at distance—was not a conspicuous quality in the historians I read in school, nor indeed in any of the great historical texts that have endured. The scholars I admired—David Knowles, who taught and wrote about the Tudor dissolution of the monasteries as a tragic moment rather than a triumph of English state-building; the Glaswegian Denis Brogan, who turned a sardonic eye on the politics of both the French and American republics; Richard Cobb, whose seminar on the French Revolution was one of the chaotic glories of Oxford in the 1960's and 1970's—shared an instinctive ability to dwell in worlds separated from our own by time, and to bring the closeness of that experience of the "other" to their work, to give it voice and color and texture.

Perhaps the most eccentric of these involuntary time-travelers was Walter Ullmann, the great historian of the papacy to whose attic rooms in Nevile's Court, Trinity College, Cambridge, I was sent in the summer of 1965 to study medieval history. The day was unusually stormy, a gray-black morning lit up by sudden forks of lightning. In his philosopher's cell was the somber, hunched figure of Ullmann, Pius XII spectacles perched precariously on his nose, his gown greenish with the kind of mildewy iridescence that much-used academic robes acquire in damp East Anglia. Chain-smoking cheap cigarettes and flicking the ash into his trouser cuff, he was a figure—even by Cambridge standards—of daunting eccentricity. I dutifully proceeded to read my clumsy essay on the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity against the background opera of the increasingly violent storm. At one point, just as I was nudging the Emperor toward an expedient decision, there came a deafening clap of thunder. Ullmann shot to his feet, rushed to the window and exclaimed, “I hear the death-knell of Byzantium!"

And so, I imagine, he did. Was Ullmann's history—that astonishing sense of immediacy it conveyed—the worse for it? Was he the more dubious scholar, the weaker analyst, for this psychological abridgment of the centuries? I very much doubt it, any more than Macaulay was hobbled by his ebullient belief in the Whig religion of progress, or Jules Michelet by his burning faith in the democratic destiny of France.

The tension between popular historians and the arbiters of professional decorum is itself ancient history. Many of the most enduring historians—Voltaire, Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle, and Trevelyan—were not just outside the academy but in self-conscious defiance of it. Gibbon was abruptly whisked away from Oxford by a father enraged by his flirtation with Catholicism and packed off to Lausanne where his intellect would flower. But his autobiographical recollection of the "deep and dull potation of the dons" is one of the most damning accounts of the somnolent quality of academic life.

G. M. Trevelyan, who wrote so eloquently of the "sclerotic self-congratulation of scholars," abandoned his fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, precisely because he believed he would be intimidated by analytical historians from creating the literary history that was fermenting in his marvelous imagination. The great 19th-century American historian Francis Parkman did, in the end, become a professor at Harvard, but his chair was in horticulture.

For all these writers, history was not a remote and funereal place. It was a world that spoke loudly and urgently to our own concerns. How can their sense of the dramatic immediacy be revived? In the first place, history needs to be liberated from its captivity in the school curriculum, where it is held hostage by that great amorphous, utilitarian discipline called social studies. History needs to declare itself unapologetically for what it is: the study of the past in all its splendid messiness. It should revel in the pastness of the past, the strange music of its diction. (p. 30-32)


From Landscape and Memory (1995)

Landscape and Memory; book cover

Perhaps, say the most severe critics, the entire history of settled (rather than nomadic) society, from the irrigation-mad Chinese to the irrigation-mad Sumerians, is contaminated by the brutal manipulation of nature.  Only the Paleolithic cave-dwellers, who left us their cave paintings as evidence of their integration with, rather than dominion over, nature, are exempted from this original sin of civilization.  Once the archaic cosmology in which the whole earth was held to be sacred, and man but a single link in the long chain of creation, was broken, it was all over, give or take a few millennia.  Ancient Mesopotamia, all unknowing, begat, global warming.  What we need, says one such impassioned critic, Max Oelschlaeger, are new “creation myths” to repair the damage done by our recklessly mechanical abuse of nature and to restore the balance between man and the rest of the organisms with which he shares the planet.

It is not to deny the seriousness of our ecological predicament, nor to dismiss the urgency with which it needs repair and redress, to wonder whether, in fact, a new set of myths are what the doctor should order as a cure for our ills. What about the old ones?  For notwithstanding the assumption, commonly asserted in these texts, that Western culture has evolved by sloughing off its nature myths, they have, in fact, never gone away.  For if, as we have seen, our entire landscape tradition is the product of shared culture, it is by the same token a tradition built from a rich deposit of myths, memories, and obsessions.  The cults which we are told to seek in other native cultures—of the primitive forest, of the river of life, of the sacred mountain—are in fact alive and well and all about us if only we know where to look for them.

And that is what Landscape and Memory tries to be: a way of looking; of rediscovering what we already have, but which somehow eludes our recognition and appreciation. Instead of being yet another explanation of what we have lost, it is an exploration of what we may yet find.

In offering this alternative way of looking, I am aware that more is at stake than just an academic quibble.  For if the entire history of landscape in the West is indeed just a mindless race toward a machine-driven universe, uncomplicated by myth, metaphor, and allegory, where measurement, not memory, is the absolute arbiter of value, where our ingenuity is our tragedy, then we are indeed trapped in the engine of our self-destruction.

At the heart of this book is the stubborn belief that this is not, in fact, the whole story. The conviction is not born from any wishful thinking about our past or our prospects.  For what it is worth, I unequivocally share the dismay at the ongoing degradation of the planet, and much of the foreboding about the possibilities of its restoration to good health.  The point of Landscape and Memory is not to contest the reality of this crisis.  It is, rather, by revealing the richness, antiquity, and complexity of our landscape tradition, to show just how much we stand to lose.  Instead of assuming the mutually exclusive character of Western culture and nature, I want to suggest the strength of the links that have bound them together.  (p. 13-14)


From “Visualizing History,” Culturefront, Winter, 1998

Now I’m not about to start a self-evidently utopian crusade for the production of a new generation of Bancrofts and Parkmans. In many ways the passing of that generation was not entirely something to be lamented. It rids us of the sometimes over-heated cults of romantic nationalism, providential geography, ethnic egotism; the craving for the theatrical and the heroic which not infrequently (most egregiously in the pages of Carlyle) came dangerously close to a cult of the superhuman. As much as I love the more purely literary productions of the nineteenth century—especially in French—I’m not suffering from the illusion that we can bring them back to life. There are, especially in the past decade or so, plenty of instances of superlatively written narrative histories in the modern idiom, both within and without the academy—the late and much lamented Anthony Lukas’s wonderful Big Trouble being a classic case in point.

My concern is rather with the systematic repair of the broken ties which once bound popular and academic history, the histories that dwell respectively in the realms of what Macauley called poetry and philosophy, reason and imagination, back together again. And one way to do that it seems to me is to stop giving our graduate students within the academy the axiomatic sense that when they indulge in popular history, either as consumers or producers, they have somehow descended into the historical equivalent of Grub Street. On the contrary, it is important to provide some opportunity for those students, as part of their instruction, to have a chance to discuss the opportunities and pitfalls of the practice of public history, and even pick up some of the skills that have been learned—for they are certainly not spontaneously acquired—by those of us fortunate enough to have had a chance to practice them alongside our scholarship.

I was, after all, lucky enough to be taught, more than thirty years ago now, by a generation that had had its higher education postponed by military service. When those students began graduate research in the penny-pinching austerity of the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was a matter of survival, as well as a matter of instinctive pleasure, for them to combine scholarly research with journalism, both print and television. Writers and performers like A.J.P. Taylor, Denis Brogan, and J.H. Plumb brought it to a fine art. When we fell into their hands a generation later, in the 1960s, it was a truism of our education that not only should we not flinch from the popularization of history, but that our professional practice would be anemic and inbred without it. We might have had E.M. Forster’s telling remark emblazoned on our escutcheons: “What do they know of history, whom only other historians know?”

Thirty, forty, years on, though, I’m not sure that bright, brave, street-smart writing is going to be enough to shake real historical consciousness from the drowsy stupor to which social studies opiates have reduced it. Though we instinctively flinch at the indignity inflicted on the old girl, Clio needs a kick-start to get her up and running again in the noisy, unseemly world of digital knowledge. If this means retooling historical education, so be it. If new generations of historians want their subject to survive as more than simply Ph.D. fodder, if they want history to have real resonance in the public world, they had better start learning how to practice their trade out there in the noisy bazaar of contemporary culture; in the museum; in the exponentially accumulating space of the cyberarchive; in the barely pioneered realm of interactive electronic history; even (and if possible without holding their noses) in the worlds of film and television. (p. 14-15)


From “Fine Cutting Clio,”  The Public Historian, Summer, 2003

“Well, Simon,” said Liam, the BBC scheduler, “it’s like this.  History? White men over fifty. Saturday night before the football, that’s where you want to be.”

Liam was white himself, and thirty: smart, tough.  Liverpool: slate-gray shirt; iron-gray tie; not someone to mess around with.  I had beaten a path to his boss’s office, the Controller of BBC2, to make an impassioned case that A History of Britain, our fifteen-part series for the BBC, ought to be moved from its assigned berth in “The History Zone,” (Saturdays 8 to 10 p.m.) to somewhere in mid-week, prime time, with a better chance of hitting the big audience I and the producers had always wanted to reach.  Liam listened but was sceptical.  There was nothing wrong, he pointed out, with that safe berth. Excellent documentaries had gone out on Saturday night and had been seen by between one and a half and two million viewers.  The lost millions downing pints of ale in the pubs, at the movies, or partying in the discos were not, it was implied “our” audience. The rationale of the “zones” had been to give viewers with particular interests (say arts or nature) an established place in the weekly schedule where they could regularly expect to find programmes catering to those tastes.

But neither Martin Davidson, the executive producer of the series and my creative partner in every aspect of the programmes, nor I, had worked as hard as we had for three years just to be given a quiet if respectable corner of the schedule, guaranteed to draw history aficionados but perhaps few others.  The whole point had been to go beyond the history buffs, to those who would not normally have turned to a programme about the past, either for instruction or for entertainment.  “I’ve nothing against white men over fifty,” I told Liam as his eyebrows lifted in polite disbelief.  “I am one myself.  But we’re after (among others) nonwhite women of thirty; teenagers, grannies, the lot.”  The scheduling decision smacked, I said, of benevolent defensiveness; an anxiety, beneath the official fanfares, about who, exactly would want to watch this series.  It had been, we ourselves knew, a huge gamble: a pile of money (though nothing like the budget given to top-of-the-line PBS history documentaries) spent on reviving what by common broadcasting industry consensus was thought to be an obsolete genre: author-driven, on-camera, singe-presenter history, frankly interpretative, with no other talking heads to interrupt the flow of story and argument.  Kenneth Clark, John Berger, Jacob Bronowski, and Alistair Cooke had all been very fine in their day, but that was then.  Now, for the broadcasting executives, “factual” programming was, overwhelmingly, “fly-on-the-wall” contemporary reportage: hand-held shots of urban disasters amidst landscapes of grit and grunge, or Frederick Wiseman-influenced studies of “as they happen” days in schools, university colleges, or hospitals as well as behind-the-scenes dramas, in say, the Royal Opera House.  History still held an important place as a vital element in the schedules, but it was dominated by the “Pharoahs and Fuhrers” syndrome in which the industry wisdom still held that only archaeology in exotic locations and twentieth-century histories using stock archival footage, and commentaries voiced-over by someone other than the writer, had any chance of clocking serious ratings.  (p. 15-16)

Above all else, I suppose, I wanted our series to strip away the patina of reverence that often clings to history and which sometimes finds its vocal echo in the plummy notes of an accomplished voice-over narrator delivering someone else’s lines.  What I was after was a messier kind of excitement, the high voltage connexion that happens when an enthusiast takes an audience straight into the terror, the pain, or the pathos of the past.  Immediacy, in so far one can ever be immediate about the dead, was everything.

So the condition of my accepting one of the tallest orders in television history was that I would not just write and deliver the scripts but be an integral part of the production team, and be involved in every stage of the project, from building the architecture of the sequences, to looking at locations, and after filming, looking at each stage of the cuts, in and out the cutting room, discussing the musical score with our composer John Harle, doing reconstructions where we needed them, even on occasions fine tuning the dub. (p. 20)


From Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (2005)

Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution; book cover

For blacks, the news that the British Were Coming was a reason for hope, celebration and action.  Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, a Pennsylvania Lutheran pastor, knew what he was talking about when he wrote that the black population ‘secretly wished the British army might win for then all Negro slaves their freedom.  It is said that this sentiment is universal among all the Negroes in America.’ And every so often truth broke through the armour of Patriot casuistry.  In December 1775, Lund Washington wrote to his cousin George of both blacks and indentured servants, who were departing from the Washington Properties at speed, that ‘there is not a man of them but would leave us if they believ’d they could make there [sic] escape…Liberty is sweet.’  (p. 16)

The story of this mass flight, aptly characterized by Gary Nash as the Revolutionary War’s ‘dirty little secret,’ is shocking in the best sense, in that it forces an honest and overdue rethinking of the war as involving, at its core, a third party.  This third party of African-Americans, moreover, accounted for twenty per cent of the entire population of two and a half million colonists, rising in Virginia to as much as forty per cent.  When it came to blacks caught up in the struggle, neither side, British nor American, behaved very well.  But in the end … it was the royal, rather than the republican, road that seemed to offer a surer chance of liberty.  Although the history that unfolded from the entanglement between black desperation and British paternalism would often prove to be bitterly tragic, it was, nonetheless, a formative moment in the history of African-American freedom.  (p. 17-18)



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