Puttin' On The Brits

simon schama
This week, CBS News Sunday Morning's John Leonard recommends a trip in a scholarly time machine. It's the beginning of a six-hour TV program on Great Britain's history
In the manufacture of amiable eccentricity, nobody does it better than the British. Back when they had an empire, travel writers were a specialty -- roadrunners to remote precincts, with peculiar habit and odd options.

More recently, scholar-hosts of television documentaries have charmed, snarled, and snobbed their vagabond way into our affections. A Kenneth Clark on art, a Jacob Bronowski on science, and a David Attenborough on adhesive-padded gecko and mid-wife toads not only told us terrific stories, but also took everything personally, curling a lip and stamping a foot.

To their cranky number, add the name of Simon Schama, who will spend six hours explaining 5,000 years of British behavior, starting Monday night on the History Channel.

Although he professes history at Columbia University in New York City, Schama was born in London, educated at Cambridge, used to teach at Oxford, and has a long-term deal with the BBC.

His books include The Embarrassment of Riches, about Dutch culture in the age of Rembrandt, when Calvinists had to figure our how to be moral but rich at the same time. And Citizens, a chronicle of the French Revolution that blamed all the bad stuff on hack writers, bad actors, and Romanticism. And Landscape and Memory, in which the rise of the nation-state was backtracked to territorial identity and the abuse of nature.

The Leonard File
Read past reviews by John Leonard.
On television, he's an engaging amalgam of Woody Allen, Rod Sterling, and Lyle Lovett. The first two hours of his History of Britain gives us 4,000 years -- from the neolithic Orkneys to the Norman Conquest. We rob graves, read runes, tangle with Vikings, visit Stonehenge, defeat an invasion by Julius Caesar, get ourselves sold into slavery or slaughtered by Claudius and his 40,000 Roman soldiers, hide behind Hadrian's Wall, dip into the sacred springs of Bath, look down from Dover's cliffs, stiff some Saxons, and finally come up with a philosopher-prince, the first Alfred.

But just across the Channel are these Norman skinhead and their dragon-headed ships. And much as Schama enjoys re-fighting the Battle of Hastings, he has a very low opinion of William the Conqueror and the mass murder of 1066.

This is much more to come later in the week, before we get to the first Elizabeth and the only Shakespeare. And I love every lavish minute of it, even if I'm inclined to think that the last word on the British Empire will be written in the former colonies, on the darker continents, by people who aren't the least bit Anglo, Norman or Saxon -- like V.S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie and Wole Soyinka, and Zadie Smith.

They will write that word in English, of course, the imperial tongue. But they will also write in their own blood.