Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writings on Ice Cream, Obama, Churchill and my Mother

Simon Schama

Bodley Head

REVIEW: Donald Paul

A UNIVERSITY Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University, Simon Schama is one of those exasperatingly prolific writers, that is, he writes damned thick books, and lots of them.

He’s also written and presented more than 40 documentaries for the BBC. The title of his latest book is from a comment made by Edward Gibbon’s patron, the Duke of Gloucester: “Another damned, thick square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?”

To plough through Landscape and Memory, published in 1995, is somewhat the intellectual equivalent of cycling the Tour de France: relentlessly demanding, panoramic and exhilaratingly exhausting. The collection of essays, Scribble, Scribble, Scribble, is more like a long traipse through defined but unknown territory, a sort of Camino de Santiago, with stops along the way where you can re-gather yourself.

The book is divided into eight sections, ranging from “Travelling” to “Performing”, and from “Cooking and Eating” to “Remembering”. You can stop in where you like, and move on when and where the spirit takes you.

Schama, born in London, now lives in the US and his essay in “Travelling” about the historical depiction of the relationship between Europe and his fellow Americans goes a long way to explaining how different the two peoples are still to this day. It has a lot to do, he says, with the Americans’ insistence on “severance from history; and, above all, what the Germans called Bodenlosigkeit, a willed rootlessness”.

But the triumphant essay in this section is his description of Amsterdam. It helps that he has written two (thick) books about the history of the Netherlands, but even if you have never visited the city, you will be irredeemably drawn to go there immediately, to this “city of laughing money and dangerous design”.

But it was the essay on ice cream that made me want to read the rest of his essays. Who else would begin such a story with reference to Anthony Eden’s pending invasion of Egypt (the Suez Crises of 1956), sweep through the Roman emperor Nero’s dalliance with flavoured ice hewn from the Apennine peaks and hauled back by “moaning slaves”, digress to the early recipes from the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akhbar, and end up with a summation of American history as revealed in the “successive brandings [that] have spoken to whichever paradise seems to have been most poignantly left behind”. Thus the Great Depression produced the Good Humour Bar; the 1960s, crying over its murdered president (Kennedy), came up with “the fake Scandwegian brand of Häagen-Dazs, with its meaningless hovering umlaut to comfort [the] country”. He also gives some good recipes.

His review of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas provides so much insight into the director that you overlook the fact that the film itself has submerged into the essay.

His only weakness throughout the collection is his interview with Charlotte Rampling, where he is reduced to almost adolescent mawkishness in his attempt to win her admiration. It’s touching.

But you have to read it to know it, and this collection is irrepressibly readable.