Friday, September 30, 2011

At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson

A while ago, I lambasted Tolstoy for cluttering up Anna Karenina with tangential bird hunts and peasant dances. Bill Bryson's recent books, A Short History of Nearly Everything and At Home, are entire compilations of tangents bound together by mere filaments, but am I complaining?  No. When Bryson ambles off into the wilds of wig fashions in a chapter ostensibly devoted to dressing rooms, I'm delighted to tag along. Following Tolstoy into a marsh to shoot ducks? No, thank you. 

When Bryson first got the idea to write a book about our homes, focusing on the English parsonage in which he lives, he sighed with relief.
The idea had a certain appeal, I must say. I had recently done a book in which I tried to understand the universe and how it is put together, which was a bit of an undertaking, as you will appreciate. So the idea of dealing with something as neatly bounded and cosily finite as an old rectory in an English village had obvious attractions. Here was a book I could do in carpet slippers.
And he might have done, if he could have contained his insatiable curiosity, but one thing leads to another, and it's not long before the carpet slippers are cast off in favour of shoes better suited to roaming around through continents and centuries.When I read A Brief History of Everything, I felt it was a brilliant survey course of the sciences. Bryson managed, with his odd anecdotes and quirky perspectives, to spark an interest in the sciences that had laid dormant since I was five and which nearly all my science teachers had managed to extinguish. The breadth of Bryson's research was staggering, and to hell with all those scientists who grumble about a lack of depth. That is what a bibliography is for. It's very telling that the bibliography at the back of At Home comprises 25% of the book. If the earlier book aimed to interest us in science, this one is the survey course of the humanities. If you don't want to dig any deeper, fine. There's still plenty of meat in Bryson's "brief" histories.

Do you pine for the good old days? Stop it. They weren't so good, really.
We are so used to having a lot of comfort in our lives – to being clean, warm and well fed – that we forget how recent most of that is...
...We forget just how painfully dim the world was before electricity. A candle – a good candle – provides barely a hundredth of the illumination of a single 100-watt light bulb. Open your refrigerator door and you summon forth more light than the total amount enjoyed by most households in the eighteenth century. The world at night for much of history was a very dark place indeed.
...Until well into the nineteenth century, the notion of a well-balanced diet had occurred to no one. All food was believed to contain a single vague but sustaining substance – ‘the universal aliment’...  Of scurvy alone it has been suggested that as many as two million sailors died between 1500 and 1850. Typically it killed about half the crew on any long voyage. Various desperate expedients were tried. Vasco da Gama on a cruise to India and back encouraged his men to rinse their mouths with urine, which did nothing for their scurvy and can’t have done much for their spirits either.
...Christianity was always curiously ill at ease with cleanliness anyway, and early on developed an odd tradition of equating holiness with dirtiness. When St Thomas à Becket died in 1170, those who laid him out noted approvingly that his undergarments were ‘seething with lice’. Throughout the medieval period, an almost sure-fire way to earn lasting honour was to take a vow not to wash.
...the last thing privies often were was private. The Romans were particularly attached to the combining of evacuation and conversation. Their public latrines generally had twenty seats or more in intimate proximity, and people used them as unselfconsciously as modern people ride a bus... The most notable feature about anecdotes involving toilet practices is that they always – really, always – involve people from one country being appalled by the habits of those from another.
...there was actually plenty of food in Ireland itself. The country produced great quantities of eggs, cereals and meats of every type, and brought in large hauls of food from the sea, but almost all went for export. So 1.5 million people needlessly starved. It was the greatest loss of life anywhere in Europe since the Black  Death.
...In poorer households – and that is what most homes were, of course – every person was, from the earliest possible moment, a unit of production. John Locke, in a paper for the Board of Trade in 1697, suggested that the children of the poor should be put to work from the age of three, and no one thought that unrealistic or unkind. 

Poor people have always thought it would be lovely to be rich and without worries. Wrong again. Rich people just have different, more ridiculous worries.
At the time of his death Henry VIII had no fewer than forty-two palaces. But his daughter Elizabeth cannily saw that it was much cheaper to visit others and let them absorb the costs of her travels, and so she resurrected in a big way the venerable practice of making annual royal progresses. The queen was not in truth a great traveller – she never left England or even ventured very far within it – but she was a terrific visitor. Royal progresses were nearly always greeted with a mixture of excitement and dread by those on whom the monarch called. On the one hand, they provided unrivalled opportunities for preferment and social advancement, but on the other they were stupefyingly expensive. The royal household numbered up to about fifteen hundred people, and a good many of these – a hundred and fifty or so in the case of Elizabeth I – travelled with the royal personage on her annual pilgrimages. A hapless courtier named Sir John Puckering gave Elizabeth a silk fan festooned with diamonds, several loose jewels, a gown of rare splendour and a pair of exceptionally fine virginals, then watched at their first dinner as Her Majesty admired the silver cutlery and a salt cellar and, without a word, dropped them into the royal handbag.
 ...Visiting his daughter in the 1920s, in a house too small to keep his servants with him, the tenth Duke of Marlborough emerged from the bathroom in a state of helpless bewilderment because his toothbrush wasn’t foaming properly. It turned out that his valet had always put the toothpaste on the brush for him and the duke was unaware that toothbrushes didn’t recharge automatically.
... Blenheim [Palace] was budgeted to cost £40,000. Ultimately it cost about £300,000. This was unfortunate as the Marlboroughs were notoriously parsimonious. The duke was so cheap that he refused to dot his i’s when he wrote, to save on ink.
... Some people needed more help with the rules of table behaviour than others. John Jacob Astor, one of the richest men in America but not evidently the most cultivated, astounded his hosts at one dinner party by leaning over and wiping his hands on the dress of the lady sitting next to him.
...[William Randolph] Hearst and his wife were not, evidently, the most sophisticated of buyers: when he told her that the Welsh castle he had just bought was Norman, she reportedly replied: ‘Norman who?’ The new rich began to collect not just European art and artefacts, but actual Europeans. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, it became a fashion to identify cash-starved aristocrats and marry one’s daughters off to them.
For a client named George S. Rasmussen, [architect Addison Cairns] Mizner forgot to include a staircase and so put an external one up on an outside wall as an afterthought. This compelled Mr and Mrs Rasmussen to put on rainwear or other appropriate attire when they wished to go from floor to floor in their own home. When asked about this oversight, Mizner reportedly said it didn’t matter because he didn’t like Rasmussen anyway. According to the New Yorker, his clients were expected to accept whatever he felt like building for them. They would present him with a large cheque, disappear for a year or so and come back to take possession of a completed house, not knowing whether it was a Mexican-style hacienda, a Venetian Gothic palace, a Moorish castle or some festive combination of the three. Mizner was particularly infatuated with the worn look of Italian palazzos, and ‘aged’ his own creations by boring artificial wormholes in the woodwork with a hand drill and defacing the walls with artful stains meant to suggest some vague but attractive Renaissance fungal growth. Once he used quicklime and shellac to age some leather chairs at the Everglades Club. Unfortunately the body heat from the guests warmed the shellac to a renewed gooeyness and several found themselves stuck fast. ‘I spent the whole night pulling dames out of those goddam chairs,’ recalled a club waiter years later. Several women left the backs of their dresses behind.

...Malcolm Forbes, the American publisher, paid $156,450 for a bottle of Château Lafite 1787. This made it much too valuable to drink, so he put it on display in a special glass case. Unfortunately, the spotlights that artfully lit the precious bottle caused the ancient cork to shrink and it fell with a $156,450 splash into the bottle. Even worse was the fate of an eighteenth-century Château Margaux reputed to have once been owned by Thomas Jefferson and valued, very precisely, at $519,750. While showing off his acquisition at a New York restaurant in 1989, William Sokolin, a wine merchant, accidentally knocked the bottle against the side of a serving cart and it broke, in an instant converting the world’s most expensive bottle of wine into the world’s most expensive carpet stain. The restaurant manager dipped a finger in the wine and declared that it was no longer drinkable anyway.
...For a century and a half men got rid of their own hair, which was perfectly comfortable, and instead covered their heads with something foreign and uncomfortable. Very often it was actually their own hair made into a wig. People who couldn’t afford wigs tried to make their hair look like a wig... By the early 1800s nobody wanted them and old wigs were commonly used as dust mops... Female wigs sometimes rose as much as two and a half feet, making the average wearer roughly seven and a half feet tall. When travelling to engagements they often had to sit on the floor of their carriages or ride with their heads out the windows. At least two fatalities were attributed to women’s hair catching fire after brushing against chandeliers.
I was astonished to read that our nomadic, neolithic ancestors ate better than we do. It's hardly an endorsement for domesticity. We've barely evolved in this sense.
It is not as if farming brought a great improvement in living standards either. A typical hunter-gatherer enjoyed a more varied diet and consumed more protein and calories than settled people, and took in five times as much vitamin C as the average person today. Even in the bitterest depths of the ice ages, we now know, nomadic people ate surprisingly well – and surprisingly healthily. Settled people, by contrast, became reliant on a much smaller range of foods, which all but ensured dietary insufficiencies... The average height of people actually fell by almost six inches in the early days of farming in the Near East... So sedentism meant poorer diets, more illness, lots of toothache and gum disease, and earlier deaths. What is truly extraordinary is that these are all still factors in our lives today. Out of the thirty thousand types of edible plant thought to exist on earth, just eleven – corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, cassava, sorghum, millet, beans, barley, rye and oats – account for 93 per cent of all that humans eat, and every one of them was first cultivated by our Neolithic ancestors. Exactly the same is true of husbandry. The animals we raise for food today are not eaten because they are notably delectable or nutritious or a pleasure to be around, but because they were the ones first domesticated in the stone age.
Many of Bryson's anecdotes are laugh-out-loud funny, but they're not vacuous. He always has a point to make. He just makes his points more entertainingly than nearly any other non-fiction writer. If you want to have a great read and learn some things in the process, indulge yourself in the first 75% of the book. If you feel that Bryson's just teasing you, dig into his bibliography.


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