Friday, 27 May 2011

History Boys


Before Easter I was chatting to the editor of the quarterly magazine which now very kindly gives me work, and he mentioned interviewing the UK’s ten top historians, Schama, Fergusson, etc. and finding out who they dine with, go shooting with at weekends, advice given to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown etc.

It sounded like a great idea and I wished him well. Then he said that I was doing it.

I set about it immediately, before the shock had set in – real hard work for a change, all those phone numbers to find, most of them abroad as that last generation of grammar school boys provided a round the world history service.

The whole country was about to pack up for Easter followed by the Royal Wedding but I beavered away feeling the way I imagine Kenneth Branagh behaved when he was trying to rustle up a cast for his Hamlet: “Who is it? Oh – Darling we’ve got Jack Lemmon! Oh Derek you sweetheart! Darling, we’ve got Jacobi! And so on collecting them all up; Julie, Katy and that old fellow who used to be in sitcoms as Polonius.

I got most of my history stars before the hiatus of the wedding and the bank hols.

“Your magazine is exactly our target audience here at the Royal Palaces,” said Lucy Worsley winsomely, but they were a tricky bunch. I had to establish a time and call them. One young buck who'd once been on TV spouting about castles was out when I called and when I spoke to him a day later he gave no apology or explanation. Another provided a time to call him at home in New England but when I rang no one answered. When I tried again the next day his wife said vaguely that she thought he was at a party and he had not been able to speak to me the night before because he was in the basement doing the laundry and couldn’t hear the phone.

David Cadwardine got back to me after a party. Alcohol can be the interviewer’s best friend, but not in that case. He was so maudlin and self-deprecating, saying he had no influence over anyone, that he really had nothing much to say. Lord Hennessey of the mysterious, erotic sounding Nympsfield, was also unsure that anyone listened to him.

No word from the Scots lothario Niall Ferguson, but then he never used to speak to me even when I was working for his wife.

There was soon only one person left – Simon Schama that cerebral, writhing, fevered exponent of world history, so passionate and mighty that he can even get away with using long words and winding sentences on TV.

Before Easter hit, I left messages with his publisher, or tried to. I got through to the voice mails of girls with names like Suzanna, Savannah and India, who’d never heard of him. When I was put through to the correct double-barrelled name she had already slipped away for the break.

After the holiday with my deadline only a day away, I got a date and time fixed to call the great man but he would only do it if I read his views on education on line, and a salient chapter in his new book, Scribble, Scribble, Scribble. The publisher didn’t know which chapter that was.

I rushed off to Waterstone’s and bought the book, only out in hardback, got back and started trying to read as much of it as possible before he called the next day at 3pm our time.

I sat at my desk, reading possibly relevant chapters, not sure what he would ask me, making notes, going through my questions, waiting until the appointed moment, but he was not in.

The next day no reason was given for this silence, perhaps he was doing his laundry or out at a party. The publisher made another date for me. She thawed out a little as if we were both now up against it. I waited at the appointed time, sitting there like a love-lorn fool, but heard my phone ringing off the hook as they say in rom-coms.

On Friday 13th I went off out for the day to collect some of my paintings from my friend Charles in East Finchley, which is a lovely looking place if you live in Acton.

The date lived up to its reputation as when I got home I’d got a parking ticket, having forgotten to display my new and costly parking permit. There was also a message waiting from the publisher with the double-barrel name, saying Schama would talk to me at 4pm.

It was 5.30pm and she left no number for herself or him. I scrambled to find her in my note-book again and she gave me a number for Schama in New York. I rang but it didn’t work. I tried it again, mixed the code around a bit, tried 118, but no use. Just caught the publisher before she went off and she promised to get me another number. She also suggested I should apologise to him for not being in when I was supposed to be.

“Yes, apologise Jane, apologise, do it!” said my editor, sounding more like an editor than he normally does. He's usually very pleasant.

I had a flash of perception about the publishing world, where if you are in that extremely rare position of making money with your books you cannot be in the wrong, a bit like an old Hollywood star or even royalty.

As I waited again, I wondered how you talk to the most interesting man on earth? At last I heard that silky, careful, almost whispered voice. I’d been to the Jan Gossaert exhibition at the National Gallery, and I hoped he’d be interested in that. He was.

There was an exquisite little sculpture in the show called the Spinario, of a boy taking a thorn out of his foot. This slightly erotic image was immensely popular in the early modern period, the Pope and later Charles I commissioned them. I'd never seen it before and mentioned it to him. There was a moment of silence – had I by chance found the one thing in the world unknown to the maestro?

After this tiny lull the conversation cracked on well, I even got a possible diary story. I also mentioned the arguments I had heard against history as a subject. The line is that it’s all propaganda written by the victors in battle, and there are no real facts. Also that the facts we once used are redundant as they only apply to an extinct patriarchy. I was surprised when he said he hadn’t heard those views very much.

“That argument has been kept from me,” he said, as if it was of no consequence.

I got an impression about his world too, that it’s a comfortable place where left wing views do not form the main opinion. Lucky he – when I was in university and recently in FE and working in prison I was surrounded by teachers who hated history as a subject and were suspicious of knowledge itself.

The following week I had lunch with some of my former Fleet Street colleagues to try to catch up on the latest round of gossip i.e. sackings and whose got work and who hasn’t.

Of course one of them knows someone who slept with Schama when they were young. Apparently he was really interesting in that department too.

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