Simon Schama talks about History of Now

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But no matter how grim the outlook, Sir Simon Schama stubbornly maintains a “glass-half-full” philosophy he credits to his three small grandchildren.

“When you are a grandparent, you absolutely cannot allow yourself fatalism,” he explains.

“You can be a worried grand-parent, but you cannot possibly look at your grandchildren and say ‘Doom is around the corner’.”

Nevertheless, despite the existence of grandchildren Moses, nine, Franklin, six, and Ulysses, four, the bestselling author, broadcaster and historian is concerned.

And why not? After all, the UK is on its third PM this year and the chaos-creating Donald Trump has just confirmed his intention to run for President again in 2024.

Schama, 77, has written 19 books and presented 50 documentaries, but his new three-part series, History of Now, which kicked off on Sunday night on BBC Two, is his most personal yet, examining as it does the artists, writers and musicians who fought for the post-World War Two values of democracy, freedom and equality – values he fears are eroding before our eyes.

“The history of now turns out to be the history of then,” he tells me.

“By that, I mean all the battles and big issues from when I was growing up, which seemed to have been won, have turned out not to be, whether it’s civil rights or the big debate about whether we can afford a welfare state.

We thought all the huge issues – like the fragility of democracy, its dependence on truth – were sorted in 1989 when the Soviet Union finally collapsed.”

The series includes his recollections of some major historical events he witnessed. Producers were insistent, he explains, that he share more of himself on camera.

“I had to be hogtied and pulled kicking and screaming,” he smiles. “I kept on saying ‘I don’t want it to just be about me’, but this seemed to have no effect.”

One of his favourite moments was recalling seeing civil rights activist and novelist James Baldwin debate conservative commentator William Buckley on race at the Cambridge Union in 1965.

Schama, a scruffy youth visible in the archive footage, had recently returned from America where he had experienced first-hand the tension of a nation buckling under race.

The arguments of both men were prophetic, he says, pointing to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and hardline, race-baiting US conservatives.

“Mark Twain is alleged to have said that history does not repeat itself, but it does often rhyme,” he says.

“The ending of Buckley’s speech is striking in that he says if there comes a moment when what he thinks of as American civilisation is torn down, it’s going to be a very rough day for everybody.”

He is overcome with emotion revisiting Prague as he recalls the artists and writers who resisted the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968.

He had studied there as a student three years earlier and knew people who were subsequently jailed after the Russian tanks rolled in.

At the time, he recalls: “We were constantly approached by students wanting to talk about the various stratagems they used in order to not get locked up and air public opinion.

You could smell the beginnings of people’s frustration and anger and craving for freedom.”

Schama was born in London on February 13, 1945, the first night of the notorious Allied bombing raids on Dresden in which as many as 25,000 people died and the capital of the German state of Saxony was all but destroyed.

“Even though I’m Jewish and the Holocaust happened, I don’t think there was any justification for that,” he says today.

“What won the war was the Normandy invasion, and the Soviet Union [joining the Allies in 1941] and so on, not the saturation bombing of civilian populations.”

Schama’s voice is warm, lilting and instantly recognisable from his many hit programmes, including such epic series as The History Of Britain (2000) and Civilisations (2018) as we talk at his agent’s office in central London.

He grew up part of a generation intent on rebuilding the world in the aftermath of war, and the new series maps the changing world since his birth.

Today he worries that online abuse, anger and lies incite real-life violence.

“Originally we all thought the internet was a force for transparency and truth and fact-checking,” he explains.

“It’s not that it’s not those things, but it’s created echo chambers and instead of being an unquestionable weapon against the authority of lies…” he trails off, then continues: “You can hear George Orwell saying, ‘Well what did you expect?’

“He prophesied in 1984 that when there is a big media technical change there will be somebody who figures out pretty quickly how to manipulate it.

It’s become a big problem over the last 10 years as repressive regimes with a vested interest in the imposition of lies have caught on.”

Orwell’s dystopian novel about Britain controlled by a totalitarian government led by Big Brother is one of the prophetic works featured in History of Now.

Schama, a staunch liberal, also explores Pablo Picasso’s anti-war painting Guernica, Nina Simone’s civil rights-era protest song Mississippi Goddam, Boris Pasternak’s ground-breaking novel Dr Zhivago, and David Hockney’s exploration of his sexuality in his painting Two Boys Together Clinging.

He has also interviewed The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and Russian singer Nadya Tolokonnikova of punk outfit Pussy Riot, jailed in 2013 for singing a song critical of Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral.

The interviews cover free speech, individualism, the rise in right-wing populism and the reversal of hard-fought freedoms, including the overturning of Roe vs Wade that has been used to outlaw abortion in several US states. Yet Schama insists History of Now is not a total lament.

He quotes the great US abolitionist Wendell Phillips that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”, sighing: “These battles really do have to be fought over and over again.”

He’s an active Twitter user and is “very worried” about billionaire Elon Musk’s recent takeover of the popular social media site.

Musk courted immediate controversy by firing hundreds of staff and instituting a fee-paying system that allowed users to verify themselves.

It had to be put on hold after fake accounts immediately verified themselves as major corporations then spread havoc on the stock markets.

The Tesla owner has declared himself a “free speech absolutist” who wants to stop the platform from splintering into far-right and far-left echo chambers.

“The first question I would ask him is: ‘What do you mean by free speech absolutist?’” says Schama. Being Jewish he is concerned about rising anti-semitism.

“Does that mean that anybody who tells a manifest falsehood, for example, that the Jews control the media, or they suck the blood of children before Passover, or as [political conspiracy group] QAnon claims, the Democratic Party is a cover for an international paedophile conspiracy… is that okay? Is that covered by free speech?”

Schama’s family moved to Southend, Essex, three years after he was born.

For the second film in the series, he revisits the seaside town to recall his first experience of anti-semitism, aged six, when he saw anti-Jewish graffiti on a wall and asked his father what it meant.

“My father was a street corner speaker and he trained me to be a debater,” Schama says.

“He said the Jews’ only real weapon was the mouth, in which case I was well armed. He was beaten up by Black Shirts many times.

He always got up and carried on talking, shouting and speaking.”

His father, a businessman in the fabric trade, “worshipped Churchill” and was self-educated, a prolific reader who “lived literature”.

On one occasion, en route to his first seaside holiday in Brighton, Schama Senior encountered a barrow boy selling a set of Charles Dickens books.

He traded his train ticket for the set and went home to read The Pickwick Papers.

“He made me learn Shakespeare speeches off by heart when I was nine, to my mother’s slight embarrassment,” Schama chuckles.

While his mother wanted him to be a lawyer, he soon realised the law was too boring for him.

Instead he studied history at Cambridge. It was a match made in Heaven. Erudite and articulate, he effortlessly quotes artists and scholars.

Today, he is most concerned about the “potency of falsehood”.

“It’s difficult to operate a democracy if the two sides don’t agree on what the truth is and that happened profoundly with who you believe won the 2020 US election.”

He has lived in America since the 1980s with his wife, Virginia Papaioannou, a retired geneticist turned yoga teacher, but has kept his British passport and retains a London flat.

Could this happen in Britain? He thinks not. “Maybe it’s naive of me but I find it very difficult to believe that, when we have the next election, one side or other would repudiate the results,” he says. “That really seems alien to our culture as well as our politics, doesn’t it?”

He believes future historians will view Liz Truss’s reign as Britain’s shortest-serving PM with “complete bafflement”.

“It was like she swallowed the wrong coloured pill and was off in The Matrix somewhere,” he says.

“The real universe was about how to make the best of Brexit. How do we deal with pandemics? How do we deal with the economic consequences of the Russian war?

“All those things hurtling towards us like meteorites. Difficult, immediate things, but the hustings and the contest seemed to take place on a different planet.”

I’m slightly surprised to hear him deplore climate activists who glue themselves to priceless artworks in public galleries, branding their actions “ludicrous and egregious”.

“You have to think [about the consequences of] alienating people who really want to be on your side,” he says. “It’s not art’s fault. Glue yourself to the front door of an oil executive if you have to.”

History always has something to teach us, he believes. “It doesn’t provide recipes but it does provide cautionary warnings about past disasters and sand traps of the future.

“And in some profound way, it teaches you the same lesson that great poetry or philosophy does – what it’s like to be human beings on earth at different points in time.”

It’s a good point when, surely, we need greater empathy than ever before.

Simon Schama’s History of Now returns on Sunday at 9.15pm on BBC Two and is available on catch-up via BBC iPlayer

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