Off the shelf (3)

As followers of our blog will know, voracious reader Robyn has been sharing with us on a regular basis the titles that she has been adding to her For Later shelf. This time she reports back on some of the titles that have graduated to her Completed shelf.

Some lovely books that have come off the For Later shelf recently.

Cover for Robert KimeRobert Kime by Alastair Langlands. Matthew Dennison, author of a great book about Vita Sackville-West, reviewed this in that madly aspirational magazine World of Interiors. He said that Kime can “claim to devise schemes that genuinely appear ‘undecorated’: stylish but lacking obvious contrivance, with nothing matchy-matchy and not too much strangulated coordination”. An irresistible recommendation and the book did not disappoint.

The Face of Britain: The Nation Through its Portraits by Simon Schama. Power, Love, Fame, the Mirror, the People – these themes are covered with Schama’s customary skill; matching great stories with images from the National Portrait Gallery in London. This book accompanies a television series of the same name.

Cover for Portrait of FashionA Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery by Aileen Ribeiro with Cally Blackman. A happy accident that two books featuring the collections of the National Portrait Gallery  arrived at the same time. Amazing that so few of the images overlap. The reproductions in this one are bigger and more colourful than in The Face of Britain but then they should be; clothes need detail.

Schama’s comedy routine stunning

audiobook coverIt wasn’t Sean Plunket’s legendary interviewing skills that were needed for this session at the Wellington Town Hall, it was his skills at holding a lid down on a conversation. Plunket, like the rest of the hundreds in the audience, was a passenger as Simon Schama’s energy, wit and stand-up comedy brought the house down – almost literally.

Schama couldn’t wait to get on stage, prancing out like a court jester to rapturous applause. During the first answer he sent his microphone flying as he jumped up to demonstrate a point.  Soon he was asking how much insurance the festival had if he dipped the microphone into the water and electrocuted himself. Then Sean had to warn him to move his chair forward otherwise he’d go over backwards.

Yet at the same time as the sideshow, we learnt so much about Schama and his life and his passion for history. British history was always alive for him – his father read Dickens aloud, so the characters seemed real. He was born the night Dresden was bombed – houses on either side of the nursing home he was born in were flattened.

He told how he grew up with a sense of  “imperishable Albion and  extremely perishable Jewish” history. His most well-known work, History of Britain, was partially so good because of the “panic-driven excitement of learning one week before the show” about what he was re-telling.

Schama had taken “a lot of brick bats from the academy” for his performance style, and that he was “proud but not complacent” about his work. Popular history nourishes scholarly history, he said.

“Writing a good script that asks difficult questions without making it feel like homework is the most exacting thing you can do. It makes you think visually and apply a strict and disciplined process of selection.

Making history compelling enough that people wouldn’t turn over to the snooker was a “dramaturgical art,” he said.

“Pay audiences the compliment of communicating difficult subjects in a story-telling way. We are nothing without our stories but our [non-fiction] stories differ from fiction by the courage of the questions we ask.”

So with that in mind, when it came to question time I headed up to the front to ask Simon Schama a question. I got my turn after Wyatt Creech, and I asked how libraries and archives should meet the digital deluge of information so that historians like him (and everyone else) could benefit in the future.

“Embrace it; totally rush to it,” he said.

We are in the “bring it on phase”. More people are reading historical texts now than ever before. The danger comes only when people are unaware that some items are forgeries, and in the moral question about who are the gatekeepers of truth.

Schama is a star, and a brilliantly funny man. If this festival is about inspiring words, he is the embodiment of them. Lots of them. His stand-up jokes about bears are pretty good too.