Fry and Schama astride the American saddle

Two books that accompany major TV documentaries offer contrasting reflections of their authors’ British origins.


By Clive Sinclair, November 20, 2008
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Gaze across the water: Simon Schama in wistful mood in the television series that shares a title with his book

Gaze across the water: Simon Schama in wistful mood in the television series that shares a title with his book

The American Future: A History
By Simon Schama
The Bodley Head, £20

Stephen Fry in America
By Stephen Fry
HarperCollins, £20

Pressing deadlines demand fast food, which is why Stephen Fry's book is only half-baked. Even so it contains a lot of plums. The guest of a nonagenarian Georgia matriarch named (I kid you not) Mrs Nancy Schmoe, Fry is required to mount a Tennessee Walking Horse, which promptly belies its appellation by bolting.

So startled are the Schmoes that it takes them "some little while" to register Fry's peril. "A ‘some little while'," he notes, "that is filled by me shouting ‘Whoa!' and pulling as hard on the reins as I dare..." To no avail. With the help of his hosts, he survives, vowing to eschew the saddle evermore. This is the self-deprecating humour of a house-trained Anglo-Jew.

How different is the behaviour of Simon Schama when he finds himself in a similar situation. In Colorado with a film crew he feels compelled (for no good reason) to share the memory of an earlier visit.

He was riding with a posse of egg-heads on day release from a conference when his nag, too, decided to bolt. Schama hung on for dear life, but gradually assumed control, using skills learned from John Wayne movies. "Amazingly ‘Whoa' seemed to work," he notes (as if in unconscious competition with Fry).

If only he had ended the anecdote there. But he goes on to tell how another rider appeared. "To my amazement," writes Schama, "he then did that thing, leaning back in the saddle, taking the cowboy hat off and waving it in salutation." Schama excitedly greets the cowboy in kind, only to discover that the cowboy is no cowboy, but merely another prof. Nonetheless, he records the other's opening remark verbatim: "That point you were making about Hobbes' theory of sovereignty this morning... Really insightful!"

Maybe Schama's years in America have lifted the curse of self-deprecation and transformed him from Anglo-Jew into Jewish-American, have raised him out of the frying pan and into the melting pot. Why not? Isn't this his book's raison d'être, recklessly based on a wager: that Barack Obama would become President-Elect Obama, the embodiment of the America Schama celebrates: an exceptional nation that not only has the power to revitalise its citizens, but also has the potential to reinvent itself every four years. No, not "reinvent"; better "renew". For Schama shows how the seeds of America's future are buried deep in its past.

As the man on the horse said, this stuff is very insightful, especially those parts dealing with the progenitors and descendants of the formidable Montgomery Meigs (the founder of the still useful Arlington Cemetery), a family involved in every aspect of American life. But there is a problem with Schama's being caught between roles; part professional historian, part social butterfly. Take, for example, his frequent use of the word "cheeky" when he describes his bearding of Generals, Senators, and even President Bush.

I hope Schama will forgive my cheek if I suggest that his book would have benefited if an editor had been permitted to rein in the TV presenter, and given the historian his head. After all, his book (unlike Fry's, which has "As Seen on BBC" on its jacket) is packaged as a scholarly addition to his oeuvre. At least the election results have provided it with a happy ending. Inshallah!

Clive Sinclair's "True Tales of the Wild West" is published by Picador

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011