The history master - Simon Schama interview

Simon Schama tells DAVID ROBINSON about being 'a reporter from the past' in America's uncertain present

SIMON SCHAMA IS IN A RUSH. HIS agent made him write a newspaper feature this morning, tomorrow he's flying back home to New York, and just up to ten seconds ago he was in a darkened room in Soho watching the final edit of his new TV series starting next week about American history and politics. Somehow in the next half an hour or so, he's got to fit in an interview about his latest book and have his picture taken. "I know all about multi-tasking," he sighs, flopping onto the sofa next to my tape recorder, "but this is ridiculous."

The day's last train to Scotland leaves in minutes, so technically I'm in a rush too. But I've admired the way in which Simon Schama writes history for so long I'm going to forget about that. And in those slowed-down seconds in which my first impression of him forms, I notice that he's not quite what I expected.

For one thing, he's more camp. That's not just the long scarf he wears with his light charcoal pinstripe, but the feyness of some – just some – of his conversation: "I won't TELL you how recently it was that we were still filming, well alright it was ...."; "I'm TOO embarrassed to say which football team I support, well alright it's ..."

Then there's the ego, which is slightly bigger than I had expected, although if you're the world's best-paid TV historian (his last deal with the BBC was worth 3 million) it presumably comes with the job. All the same, any historian whose e-mail address begins with "Tacitus" isn't short in the chutzpah department. "I know, I know," he admits, "anyone less taciturn than me is hard to imagine. But you know what they say about inside every fat man there's a thin man trying to get out – well maybe inside me there's a taciturn one."

Yet here's the thing. You can be camp without being withering, egotistical without being annoying. And you can be slightly camp and mildly egotistical and yet also be not just great company but the most readable contemporary historian in the English language. Schama's new book The American Future: A History proves the point. Most historians can give you the broader picture of how and why a country's past changed. The cavalier ones can't stand the detail, the puritan plodders get bogged down in it. What makes Schama special is that he's a cavalier who understands the past's detail, yet who makes his own idiosyncratic way through it.

To give an example of Schama's narrative panache, consider the multi-disciplinary, time-skipping way in which he tells the story of American military might. He starts off in Iowa in January this year, talking to Democrats about to vote for Obama because of his opposition to the Iraq war. That takes us to Arlington cemetery, where the only statue among a quarter of a million gravestones is of a young Union soldier, son of the man who planned it. His name is John Rogers Meigs.

Remember it, because soon Schama will travel further back into the past, when the young, idealistic Unites States were debating how – and indeed whether – they should train their army officers. He'll pause to analyse that debate, because the country's future hung on it. Then he shows how the then tiny US army set great store by training its officers to be engineers, building bridges and straightening rivers and generally opening up the land. Men like Montgomery Meigs, heartbroken father of John Rogers Meigs, the architect of much of civic Washington (including the Capitol's dome) and, as the officer in charge of logistics for the biggest army the world had ever seen, the man who won the civil war.

Look closer at what Schama is doing here. Already he's told us about how the Meigs family came over from England in the 17th century, about its branch that settled in the South and became slave-owners, and about the Meigs general who looked after the Cherokee before they were ethnically cleansed from Georgia. And he'll tell us about other Meigses and the various wars they fought, because they always were a military family. But he'll keep coming back to Montgomery Meigs. He mattered. Towards the end of the Civil War, it was said, you could always tell if the Confederate army had passed by from their bloodied footprints on the road. That never happened to the troops Montgomery Meigs looked after: he made sure they had shoes. Small details win wars.

Then, on page 108, you read this. "Washington DC, February 2008: Montgomery Meigs strode into the room and it was as if I'd always known him..." And yes, there is indeed a four-star General Montgomery Meigs, just retired, and – get this – he teaches a course on "why presidents go to war when they don't have to" and occupies the Lyndon Baines Johnson Chair of World Peace at the University of Texas.

In other words, if you follow Schama's narrative ribbon through just the history of one family, you're taking in a much wider story. You've got caught up in a vibrant clash of ideas between Jeffersonian idealism and Hamiltonian pragmatism over the founding of West Point. No sooner have you understood that than he's off again, swooping down into the minutiae of the Meigs family's life, snatching out some heart-rending last letter, telling of some love story, then zooming out for widescreen shots of armies clashing, or cemeteries filling with war dead, then finishing with just the right anecdote, a soundbite that makes sense, or – as with the modern General Meigs – finding a moment of pure historical drama in, of all places, the present.

It's virtuoso stuff. That pathway through the past is one that Schama has carved alone: Montgomery Meigs has had a couple of dry, respectful biographies, but no other historian has thought to put the links together to tell the story of American militarism through the prism of his extended family. Then, where many historians shy away from the present, Schama likes to start and finish there.

He writes political and art history, I've always thought, like the very best journalist imaginable: prose which buttonholes, which makes the past as vivid and full of potential as the present. I ask him what his writing owes to journalism, and his eyes smile with memories. "I've never talked about this before," he says, and tells me about being a young don at Cambridge, working on a series of "1,000 Makers of the 20th Century" to help out his friend Robert Lacey, then working on the Sunday Times colour supplement in what Fleet Street historians now insist was its golden age. "So I did these tiny capsule biographies and I did a little reporting. To actually have a SNIFF of the Sunday Times at that moment was COMPLETELY intoxicating."

His mentor at Cambridge, the great social historian JH ("Jack") Plumb, always encouraged his star pupils to write populist history, arguing that it would strengthen, not weaken, their scholarship. Schama obliged, writing for the underground newspaper Ink as well as for the Sunday Times. But that impulse to drag his subject out of the ivory towers persists in him, just as it does with some of Plumb's other pupils, such as Niall Ferguson, Linda Colley, David Cannadine and the late Roy Porter.

"Making the series," he says, "somehow you have to take your courage in your hand and then – without it being a pastiche of the journalists you admire (in my case, Lester Bangs) – you somehow get into a zone where you're a sort of reporter from the past. So I draw on that journalistic past to give me a new way of writing sentences. It came to me horribly easily, I must admit."

In The American Future: A History, Schama is taking the kind of risks with deadlines that journalists take for granted. To give it up-to-the-minute zing, he writes about meeting President Bush at No 10 Downing Street in June and reporting from the Democratic party convention in August. Deadlines for historians seldom get quite as tight as this.

"I'd done the research for a lot longer, but because filming was so intense after the Iowa caucus in January, I had to take a deep breath and write on location, on planes and whenever I could. Oddly, I didn't feel any kind of pressure – there was a sort of mad oxygen coming with that degree of intensity.

When Bush met Schama ("he looked unmistakably like a man in need of a drink"), he broke the ice by talking about Texas. Schama told him that his policy on immigration was the only one he agreed with (that ego again, see?) and Bush told him he should get his camera crew down to the Rio Grande, and check out the economic regeneration on both sides of the border compared with the poverty he remembered there from his childhood in the Fifties.

Schama nodded: the crew were going to go there anyway. And in a few weeks, there he was, the Rio Grande behind him and the cameraman looking through the viewfinder and calling out "Back a bit ... back a bit!" until the inevitable happened and the 63-year-old historian fell into the river. Unfortunately, he landed on a sharp rock that smashed his shoulder, hospitalising him in Mission, Texas, alongside people who had been similarly unlucky with loaded shotguns.

By now, he felt he was running out of time. There just weren't enough minutes in the day before the deadlines started crashing around him. On the plus side, at least there was no ligament damage; he could carry on writing. He throws back his head and laughs. "That's nothing. Last year, I escaped a burning helicopter crash. I was making (the revisionist slavery documentary series] Rough Crossings in Sierra Leone when the engine caught fire and the helicopter fell 100 feet out of the sky. I'm a complete and utter walking travel disaster."

He's also a TV natural. Some British critics pick on his eagerness to explain, but that's just the way he is – and the way we are too. "It always used to make me so annoyed when I taught at at Oxford, that twinkle of amusement that came into my undergraduates' eyes when we tried to make them excited about history. They're like, you know – 'Show me something I don't know.' It was so refreshing when I went to Harvard in 1979 (he's been in the US ever since] to find myself teaching pupils who weren't that jaded – even if they did lack a certain amount of scepticism."

And it's that comparison between Britain and America that makes me ask one final – and, I fear, sycophantic – question. Next week, I point out, sees the launch of a new collection of Alastair Cooke's unpublished reportage. Called Reporting America, it will be published on the centenary of Cooke's birth. There is, I point out, a job vacancy he might be interested in: the man who explains America to Britain …

"Funny you should mention that. I knew Alastair Cook a little bit – he used to come over and see Jack Plumb. I hated his golf stuff, but everything else he did was wonderful. And when the BBC tried Harold Evans and David Cannadine as a replacement in that slot, they also tried me. I turned them down. But if they asked me again, I'd be sorely tempted."

&#149 The American Future: A History, by Simon Schama is published this week by The Bodley Head, priced 20.

Simon Schama on...

The one truth about America that took him longest to understand: "Growing up in Britain as a rather loose Jew, the two things that didn't belong together were freedom and religious intensity. In America they do. The Founding Fathers made a bet that if you didn't force everyone to profess religion in their own particular way, you could protect intellectual freedom and religion would flourish. What that's done – and you can see this in Obama's rhetoric – is to inject a strain of moral intensity without it leading to theocracy."

Who's going to win power a month today: "Obama, without having to do very much about it. But – and this is a huge but – he is very bad at TV debates. He comes over as professorial and patrician and his whole body language is wrong. Biden, though, will do much better than everyone thinks because he's got a real Reaganesque style of speech, as though he's speaking to everyone in the saloon."

Teaching in the sticks: "If someone asks me to go to speak at say Princeton, I might or might not go. But if someone asks me from Norman, Oklahoma, I certainly will go. I go to a lot of places in America lots of other professors don't – West Virginia, for example. Including the places I've been with this series, I've probably been to about 40 of the 50 states."

His next project: "I'm making A film about John Donne. There's a series on poets who've changed British poetry. I've loved his poetry ever since I first read it as a child of 12."