Sunday, 14 May 2017


The book, At Home by Bill Bryson – subtitled A Short History of Private Life – published by Black Swan, (that is Transworld Publishers, which is Penguin Random House UK), London, 2010, (the publishing world has endured many amalgamations in recent years), is the usual easy, chatty read of a Bryson text. His story-telling style presents strings of facts with a relaxed, voluble simplicity that disguises its studied, structured intent. His skill is in editing collations of sundry information to offer a collaged, coherent, and interesting quirky story.

Bryson brings together his gathered material into a text that weaves apparently unrelated tales together. While he presents material that is not unusual general knowledge, he loves to delve into the more intimate backgrounds of these known historical facts, telling more about different but related things offbeat, strange and weird, and explaining how these have had an impact on our history and perhaps us. In between this approach that involves his collected researched readings – his bibliography is thirty-three pages long - Bryson pulls apart words, their meanings and origins, to explain how an odd term in common usage today has gained its current meaning and relevance in much the same manner as Cockney rhyming slang has materialised with its linear, phased logic. Lucian Freud explains, in Geordie Greig's Breakfast with Lucian, p.51, how saucepans became anti-Semitic cockney rhyming slang: "saucepan lids = Yids; . . . fucking Jews, bloody saucepans." -see: 

Bryson's work has something of the gossip about it. He loves events that astonish, and elaborates on these deliciously as he envelopes history with 'his story' that purports to be the cliché ‘true’ story-behind-the-story with a mocking delight for the formal records of the past that he implies have been somewhat sanitised.

Bryson’s ‘historical’ - some might say ‘hysterical’ - writing has something of the character that is revealed in Hendrik Willem van Loon’s texts, without the author’s illustrations. It is tempting to suggest that the concept of things ‘looney’ might have come from the van Loon writings, such is his style, but we will leave this for Bryson to elucidate, maybe in another book.# The idea of this parallel style does highlight the sense of things ‘van Loon’ that Bryson likes to concentrate on: unusual stories, descriptions and astonishing understandings and re-interpretations of the past.

At Home purports to be A Short History of Private Life. To give some sense of structure to his book, Bryson has the idea of using his home in England, an old Victorian vicarage, as the excuse, the idea, to structure the publication – room by room. He jokingly notes that he is tired of travel, so wants to stay ‘at home.’ The concept offers a certain intimacy to the work. He explains that he is going to look into each room to try to understand ‘home,’ and he does, but only to develop a framework to allow him to diverge well beyond ‘home’ into anything interesting and stimulating, and to further expand this ‘investigation’ into ever more intriguing stories even more remote from his beginning. ‘Home’ becomes merely a series of rooms named for the chapter titles, little else.

The book tells us barely nothing about the character and intrigue of this old cottage. There are floor plans published with the text that suggest that there might be some interesting and revealing intimacies about place and circumstance in this writing, but alas, no. Bryson seems unable to help himself stride off into almost endless stories, story leading into story, diversions that have only the merest, most meagre association with this house, his home. More often the yarns have their own integrity with no essential bearing on the context, the room they are supposed to relate to. Bryson carries on and on into these ‘interesting’ fields. He is unrelenting. Only at the beginning and end of each chapter – each room – does he bring the reference back to the particular space being used to enfold his endlessly, chatty, ‘looney’ yarns: the unusual and quaint stories behind the recorded history.

The technique is one seen in some very poor writing. One self-published novel comes to mind. The author constantly expands his text with facts on matters he introduces into his story. For example, he might tell us, as a part of his narrative, that ‘Bill and Jane, after arriving in Alice Springs a day ago, and argued, have now decided to drive north to Darwin along the Stuart Highway.’ These place and highway names become clues for an endless elaboration of details that become intertwined in the fiction as factual expansions, a shallow pretence for enriching descriptive dramatisations. The novel, for example, will wander off into what could be seen as a travel guide of Alice Springs; then, after involving us more in the ‘Bill and Jane’ saga from time to time, tell all of the historical and physical facts about the highway; and, in between more tiresome conversational episodes, finally tell a similar story about Darwin. Bryson’s style is not dissimilar to this name-and-develop technique. He names the room, tells us a few sundry but simple facts about it, and then races off into anything he chooses to talk about if he can obliquely relate it to this space as a yarn, to chat about it and any other diversion that this superficial layer might expand into; and again, and again. Then he returns to sum up with some observation on his personal space, tidying up the idea of the book’s structure with some utter irrelevance.

But Bryson is entertaining; he is beguiling. He is a master story-teller. His one dozen books illustrated as front covers inside the rear cover of this publication illustrate his success. A colleague, an architect, thought so much of this book that he gave a copy of it to all who attend the monthly curry luncheon for Christmas. One can see how it can be engaging, but only on a certain level. Whether chatting about his experience in Britain, Australia, or the American countryside, or delving into history, Bryson always feels the same. His words and ideas, his explanations and chronicles, slide across the page seamlessly, with a happy, chirpy certainty that bursts out occasionally into a bright spark of humour. There is nothing cynical in the text, even when it might be exposing cynicism. The boyish charm of Bryson shines through with a naive enthusiasm, a ‘Boy’s Own,’ Boy Scout ebullience.

There is a naive quality here that enjoys the ‘dirty’ little stories in life, and their surprising interrelationships. The quality is something like the experience of a few lads purving at forbidden female poses, grinning and smirking at the revelations – a wink, wink; a nod, nod as the pages turn. Is it this characteristic that makes Bryson attractive: ‘forbidden’ histories? Is it the shared intimacies of untold stories that beguile; that establish that quiet, chatty relationship between the reader and the storyteller who occasionally cracks a cheeky joke to delight in his cunning stunt – the quirky inversion of old history? This understanding gives the subtitle, A Short History of Private Life, a completely new meaning.

The book has nothing to do with Bryson’s private life or his living arrangements, his spaces: it has everything to do with the unusual tales of others’ private lives that lie behind history itself. The reader becomes the hidden onlooker; a stalker; an accomplice; a co-conspirator, sharing in the taboo delights. Perhaps this is why The Times is reported on the front cover as saying that the book is ‘Extraordinarily entertaining.’ Maybe this is all one should expect of A Short History of Private Life.

The book has very little to do with being At Home which is an experience that needs careful elaboration, investigation and understanding. It is a circumstance involving a complex intimacy that enhances contentment and simple satisfaction, something that our era seems to lack with its interest in things bespoke, startling and surprising, the very matters that seem to attract the attention of Bill Bryson whether he is at home or not. They are matters designed to divert us with the distracting gentle grin of amazed amusement.

Why wait?

Word Origin and History for loony
Also loonie, looney, 1853, American English, short for lunatic, but also influenced by loon (n.2 - a crazy or simple-minded person), and perhaps loon (n.1 - any of several large, short-tailed, web-footed, fish-eating diving birds of the genus Gavia, of the Northern Hemisphere), the bird being noted for its wild cry and method of escaping from danger. As a noun by 1884, from the adjective. Slang loony bin "insane asylum" is from 1919. Looney left in reference to holders of political views felt to be left-wing in the extreme is from 1977. Looney Tunes, Warner Bros. Studios' animated cartoon series, dates from 1930.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

(Apologies to Hendrik Willem van Loon - and to Mr. Bryson)

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