Landscape and Memory, by Simon Schama

I have little history. Antecedently my knowledge of largely unsearched for familial data severs its narrative two generations past, at my paternal grandparents. From whence he hailed I have no inkling nor care much more. I know he was a butcher and that he accompanied my grandmother on the piano as she sang in the pubs and clubs of Bedford. Even less is known by me of my grandmother’s prior history, a slight frail looking woman who, like her husband, looked down on my siblings and I as we lived ‘South’ of the river, never mind her son was our father. I am talking only of my paternal side, it is an easier tale to tell on my mother’s side where there existed a family tree going back to the fifteenth century, though that now appears lost. As far as I can remember we were visited twice by my father’s parents in twenty years, though we were ushered in the other direction by my mother in an attempt, I am sure, to curry favour. Little was forthcoming. Their mid terrace house in George Street still stands, long and slim and once the home to nine children and their parents, I never sensed the warmth of family when there and can’t do so now in retrospect. We were never ushered into the front room, we sat still and quiet in the living room and then went home; sometimes walking the five or six miles to do so, to save money and perhaps reflate.

Simon Schama’s view of landscape and his personal memory as he relates early in his book ‘Landscape and Memory’ is one which seeks to understand the bondage of one to another, perhaps his heritage of displacement seeks solace in comprehending and reasoning where he ‘is’ now and how he came to that place on that “other” worldly world that the Europeans made of the American continent. And in doing so ‘otherring’ those who worked those lands for centuries beforehand. Seeking explanations as to the why and wherefore of his place in the world, to have a knowledge of the path that had been trod by his forebears, and very eloquently, seems altogether normal for one who has every right to be proud of their history. Schama’s memory is fuelled by layers and layers of injustice, political intrigue, meta narratives that usurped the value of those tied to the land. The pogroms of Imperial Russia, the subsequent fate of those who survived, then to be further hounded by fascism only to find hope in flight to an other country. Answers to questions long ago asked is perfectly reasonable when those answers are in the soil of distant lands and time. Memories linger longer in the soil than they do in the stale air of stasis, where the land harbours no spirit for those that have no regard for it. So whilst I may have drunk copiously from the Lethe, Schama has bathed in it’s counterpart, perhaps sourced in the Steppe.

Landscape isn’t my subject, nor is it the means by which I wish to release my story. Perhaps there are fetid remains waiting to be uncovered or discovered, displayed and worked over in the narrative I’m wanting to unveil, but I’m not sure I want to find them. If, as I believe, the land, and perhaps most especially this old land of ‘Old Europe’, carries the burden of history, of the weight of people’s plight, their suffering, their joy, their hopes dashed or otherwise, then it is the occupation of historians to narrate, not mine. A detached third person account of hard labour fought and won, or lost, is best left for those with a desire to tell the stories of others – even if the others have lineage to the writer/historian.
When Schama, for example, meanders through his own history, it is an historical account of past pre natal; his context, like so many others, is to reach for higher and wider narratives to explain his current situation. Their histories are buried in the ground, stratified in speculation and viewed, usually, with a perspective enlivened through academic research and the need to reveal the courses of historical flow that led them to their current place of ease or unease. Scratching in the historical dirt won’t help help me tell my tale of fiction.

As I fled to Purgatory in the hope to find a narrative to drape my context around, I was enticed by the ‘place’. I found the un-ease of the physical journey a tempting corollary to my chance of witnessing what I wanted to portray. Knowledge of the ‘un-settled’ nature of the physical place, with its concomitant ambiguities of historical and geographical contexts, would assist I thought in helping find the ‘space’ in the ‘place’. And those early forays in difficult conditions certainly helped to form some ideas. Purgatory isn’t a specifically defined area, the place isn’t marked, except perhaps on one side by the River Dorn, but land-side it drifts to a public right of way and to an agrarian scape on another; no land marks to discern its limit. It is perhaps just the building, an empty edifice sat proud above the flood plain amid the clear ruins of older dwellings that defines what Purgatory is, and this carapace is imbued with its own history, a history that I wasn’t getting past as I try to reveal what it is that I want to narrate.
Memory lies in the sod and soil to be sure, the land which Schama describes is fecund with lost remembrances waiting to be excavated to the page, connecting the prior to the here and to the after. During the most recent conflict in South Ossetia – there have been many – a BBC correspondent asked a local about why there was so much trouble between the two peoples. The interviewee replied, with some venom, about how their enemy from the North came over their border, to a local village nearby and “raped our women, killed our children and old folk”. The reporter confessed to have been quite moved by the account, about how detailed the atrocity was portrayed and so asked the interviewee whether he had reported it to the local governance, supported by the Russian state, as it clearly was a crime against all the conventions. The response was that that might be difficult as it was committed in the thirteenth century “but we don’t forget!” What chance of the land forgetting when humanity inscribes it into myth and folk lore? There is every reason to believe a similar story is held by the other side on the other side of the hill or the plain or the river forming a landscape, hiding as many truths as untruths, or maybe replete in only half truths.

Lines are drawn across the earth, scarring both the land and the people, drawn and redrawn; one has only to consider the human cost of human expediency and incompetence the nib created across the Punjab, or the lives/yard across the Somme, the list is very long and we remember to remember. Schama’s book re-invokes memories or brings them fresh to the reader in an act of explanation for those who might never have known to remember. Memory and Landscape, is a book less about landscape than about memory, and maybe as much about history as about memory and it is these twin frail witnesses, constantly open to reinterpretation that Schama provides for the reader in his book. No one should believe anything in these pages, but just as equally one might just trust in the veracity of his prose, after all it is more than eloquent enough.

Histories are fictions, lines are drawn with treaties and agreements, but the land is impervious to conventions of man’s making, it’s spread of comprehension is somewhat wider and deeper than that humanity has cause to think important. Schama provides context to fleeting moments of he earth’s history, contexts mediated by his own twin witnesses, stringing together narratives of man’s inhumanity or otherwise to his fellow man? And largely it is the inhumanity we record, the South Ossetian’s seven centuries of bottled vengeance isn’t balanced by how they were offered a kindness from those inhabiting the ‘North’. Purgatory’s unwritten history is at least a blank piece of paper to clothe in fiction, to seek to find echoes, but I’m wondering about the benefit and the purpose.

I have little history, and what scant remains of it there is I wish to reject. If it were a landscape to describe my current perspective it would be of a distant horizon looking forward and to leave history behind using my memory to reveal the future.

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2 thoughts on “Landscape and Memory, by Simon Schama

  1. I enjoyed the book though felt the same as, so far as I know, I don’t have history of danger and persecution in my family background. I spent quite some time trying to research my history but got so stuck. A grandfather on one side and great-grandfather on another both had ‘father unknown’. I was specially interested in researching my maternal line but again was blocked because my great-grandmother was born on the same day and to a father with the same name as another girl.
    That apart – are you beginning to doubt the value of this project?

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