Simon Schama

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Simon Schrama, 2006

Simon Schama (born 13 February 1945) is a British historian and art critic.


  • Part of me wants to say with Wordsworth: 'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.' But if you ask me was it worth it, I don't think it was. If you pin me against a wall and ask: 'Schama, do you think more human happiness than unhappiness emerged?' I have to say no.
  • I remember we thought that, whatever else happened in the remainder of the century, two traditional issues were going to go away. One was the nation, which was simply going to dissolve because the new realities were international. We thought the story of the nation had come to an end in 1945 in the rubble of Berlin. The second was organized religion—the new world realities would be technological. I've been kicking myself ever since. Religion and the persistence of nationalism have proved two of the most overwhelmingly important issues.
    • Interview with Bryan Appleyard, quoted in Bryan Appleyard, 'The revolutionary historian', The Times (13 May 1989), p. 31
  • When I started writing [Citizens], I thought the revolution of 1789 then goes on the skids and turns into the Terror of 1793. But I became more and more alarmed by what happened in 1789, and more and more bleak about what it is we are supposed to be celebrating. It dawned on me that no sooner had the Declaration of the Rights of Man been signed than a law was passed which allowed opening of mail, stopped freedom of movement and had a brutal attitude to who was a patriot and who was not.
    Then there was the violence. It was not the fact of decapitation so much as the way these people self-consciously understood what you could do with violence, the way violence could construct allegiances.
    I'm not saying no good came of the revolution. There was the definition of a citizen with equal rights before the law, the emancipation of the Jews and black slaves – these were intrinsically noble. But the way the revolution enacts these doesn't accidentally produce violence. It necessarily produces violence. And if you look at the landscape of France in 1799 with Bonapartist military dictatorship, the balance is unhappy rather than happy.
    • Interview with Bryan Appleyard, quoted in Bryan Appleyard, 'The revolutionary historian', The Times (13 May 1989), p. 31
  • Historians are left forever chasing shadows, painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness however thorough or revealing their documentation. We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.
    • Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) p. 320 (1991)
  • Landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from the strata of memory as layers of rocks... The book [Landscape and Memory] is a celebration of the improbable resilience both of the Earth and of the ability of these cultural contacts to survive the nightmares of late capitalism and late industrialization. I don't want to be understood as some anti-environmentalist, which I am most emphatically not, but I do have an argument with the notion that there is this determined history whereby technological society is necessarily going to mean oblivion for nature.
    • Interview with Ben MacIntyre, quoted in Ben MacIntyte, 'Landscapes of the mind', The Times Magazine (8 April 1995), p. 11
  • If there's one four-letter word that runs through my television history, oddly it is "Rome". Over time, I came to realise that Rome doesn't just come and go in England's history; instead, we have had an extended love-hate relationship with Rome, whether as empire or church.
  • Right through British history we see this constant pull between piety and pragmatism, between deference to the monarch as a godlike figure, and a requirement that he runs the business of Albion with practical efficiency.
  • To be fully MAGA is still to live, 24/7, within a parallel universe, hermetically closed off from the inconvenient intrusion of fact, blissfully captive to a fantastic theology.
  • Inheriting the acronym from the father figure of radio populism, Rush Limbaugh, Trump habitually dismisses his Republican adversaries as Rinos (Republicans In Name Only). But the gravamen of the charges levelled by Liz Cheney and Chris Christie is that the real Rino, the fake conservative, is actually Trump himself.

Quotes about Simon Schama

  • This is the most marvellous book I have read about the French Revolution in the last 50 years. It is beautifully written, with, every now and then, the most wonderful throw-away line. Its importance, in view of all the fuss over the bicentenary of the French Revolution, is that it concentrates very sharply on what the French Revolution was really about: violence and random killing, mostly in Paris... The book is beautifully written, fully illustrated, and throughout enlightened with a great deal of compassion as well as humour.
    • Richard Cobb, 'Always bloody', The Times (25 May 1989), p. 21
    • A review of Citizens
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