At Home: A Short History of Private Life is another of Bill Bryson’s entertaining books about history. This one came about when he was looking around his Victorian house in Norfolk and considering how the majority of real history isn’t about wars and treaties, but about “masses of people doing ordinary things”. Accordingly, this is a history of domestic life, with a chapter devoted to each room in his house, so that the kitchen chapter is a history of food and cooking, the bathroom a history of hygiene, the nursery about the changing notion of childhood, and so on. Although there are references to ancient history and even prehistory, most of it looks at the past two centuries of life in England and the United States in fascinating and often amusing detail. Bryson is a wide-ranging researcher and I often found myself saying, ‘I never knew that!’ and wanting to learn more. For example, did you know that income tax didn’t exist in the United States until 1914 and that an earlier attempt to introduce a 2% income tax was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court? Or that the ancient proto-city of Çatalhöyük had no streets, laneways or footpaths, and houses had no doors or windows, with people accessing their houses through a hole in the roof? Or that rats work in teams and have been observed forming a multi-rat pyramid under a hanging slab of meat, allowing one rat to climb up and gnaw its way through the meat above the hook until the meat falls to the floor, whereupon the meat is devoured by all the rats?
Although Bryson takes his research seriously, this book is more about breadth of coverage than depth. Once or twice, I came across a topic that I happened to know a lot about and I could tell he hadn’t read the relevant primary sources. For example, in his discussion of scurvy, he gets James Lind’s theory only half-right, then has this to say about James Cook:
“On his circumnavigation of the globe in 1768-71, Captain Cook packed a range of antiscorbutics to experiment on, including thirty gallons of carrot marmalade and a hundred pounds of sauerkraut for every crew member. Not one person died of scurvy on his voyage – a miracle that made him as much a national hero as his discovery of Australia …”
As most Australians would know, Cook wasn’t a Captain on that voyage and more importantly, he didn’t discover Australia. People had been living there for at least fifty thousand years by the time he arrived. He wasn’t even the first European to land there. Also, Bryson omits an amusing anecdote about the sauerkraut, which I’m certain he would have included if he’d read about it in Cook’s journals. But this was only a minor issue and for the most part, I was thoroughly engrossed in this book. Fortunately, it includes an extensive bibliography for those readers who want to know more about, say, the construction of Monticello or the history of London’s sewers or how the repeal of the Corn Laws affected England’s vicars. Recommended for Bill Bryson fans and those who enjoy popular history.
I also enjoyed A Treasury of Cartoons by First Dog on the Moon. This selection of his work from 2009 to 2015 reminded me of just how awful Australian politics was during that period (five prime ministerships in six years, including two whole years of Tony Abbott). It was almost beyond satire, but First Dog still manages to make me laugh. My favourites were Ian the Climate Change Denialist Potato (who writes erotic fanfiction about Greg Hunt) and the racist carrot (“Tell me this! If Islam is a religion of peace, how is it that all these white Australian men are being provoked to attack Muslim women in the street – those headscarves are making people crazy!”). I also liked his non-political cartoons, such as his illustrated pavlova recipe “that was stolen from its inventor Margaret Fulton by the All Blacks that time they dropped around for a cup of tea and 270 scones”. (Apparently, beating the egg whites involves whacking the electric mixer with a wooden spoon and shouting things like “Stand up!” and “Go faster!” This must be where I’m going wrong in my meringue-making.)
I have read other books lately, but I didn’t like any of them enough to recommend them here. As a public service announcement, I should also add that if you’ve enjoyed some of Muriel Spark’s most popular novels and are delving further into her work, you should probably avoid The Driver’s Seat.