By Simon Schama
Bodley Head, £20
Simon Schama established his academic reputation with a solid and scholarly work on Dutch history during the period of the French revolution. He established his popular reputation with a series of television programmes, later a book, charting the history of Britain from earliest times to the 20th century.
Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writings on Ice Cream, Obama, Churchill and My Mother, is a collection of his occasional pieces and book reviews. The title is derived from a comment made in the 18th century by the Duke of Gloucester to Edward Gibbon, historian of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire: "Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?"
Schama has always been fascinated by journalism. "I scribble," he says, "therefore I am." The first newspaper in which his writings appeared was in fact the Jewish Chronicle, where he was employed in the school holidays as a cutter and paster in the newspaper's library (do such people still exist?) "But the real bonus," so he tells us "was getting dates with the editor's curvy daughter, who in turn procured for me the occasional classical music review - off I went with the date to Annie Fischer, David Oistrakh or the Amadeus Quartet and, back home, more or less randomly assembled the adjectives in plausible order. You would be amazed how often they coincided with the professional notices".
At Cambridge, Schama produced an anthology of writings called The Cambridge Mind. Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of History at Oxford, told him that he had been trumped by Oxford, which had, some years earlier, produced a similar volume on the older university. It was called The Oxford Sausage.
The first newspaper in which his writings appeared was the JC
Scribble, Scribble, Scribble covers a rag-bag of subjects - favourite cities, the awfulness of George W. Bush, the greatness of Barack Obama, Isaiah Berlin, Winston Churchill, Shakespeare's kings, Charlotte Rampling, Ruskin, Rembrandt, the slave trade and his mother's cooking - all written in that slightly breathless prose which Schama has made his own.
Argument is not his strong point, but he is a difficult man to criticise because he is so disarmingly aware of his weaknesses. At Cambridge, his professor used to annotate his essays - "This paragraph is five times as long as it needs to be" - and asked him: "Do you never tire of adjectives?" Would that Schama could have shown him these essays.
Journalism does not often translate well into hard covers, and Scribble, Scribble, Scribble is no exception to the rule. That is not because the pieces in it are necessarily bad as journalism. It is because good journalism is written for a specific occasion. When the occasion is past, the best use for it is as wrapping for one's salt-beef sandwiches. Bernard Levin was the ablest British journalism of his age. Yet even he could not produce a good book out of his collected journalism. Where Levin failed, Schama cannot be expected to succeed. This is a book, therefore, to be read, not in the study but on the beach - once.