Books: A long road to Brooklyn (Spice)

What if Bill Bryson took a walk through the 20th century? Bill Greenwell imagines the result
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE 876,576 hours in the 20th century, give or take the odd dodder around the Sun. It stretches all the way from the birth of Lady Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon - that's the mother of all Queen Mothers to you - to Brooklyn Spice. At the start the UK was producing 228,790,000 tons of coal, a stonking black hoard even the US couldn't quite match. Louis Baekeland had just flogged the first commercially saleable film to Kodak, and was busy nights on his next trick, Bakelite. Old Lou was born in Belgium, by the way, thereby providing one more disproof to the canard about that country's nonentity (although one of the main ingredients was formaldehyde, which makes you wonder what he was really into).

The 20th century is some hike. It requires a serious wardrobe. A frock coat only lasts you a decade or two, and you're no sooner out of a flapper dress than you need to stock up on nylons, flared trousers, hot pants and joggers. The trail is littered with various devices to hold you in, hold you down, hold you up, and let you loose. When you're taking off your puttees in the first Nissen hut on the Western Front, you have to wait some before you can slip into a kaftan.

"Hey," I said to Katz, as we climbed out of the trenches, "was that the war to end all wars?" He gave me a look like a Martian inspecting a mangle for signs of intelligence. "Bryson," he sighed, "there is no sign of the Kup Kake, and they just announced Prohibition." I looked around. While Europe was busy playing musical boundaries, artists were having a field day.

You had to hand it to jazz. Trumpeters were tootling like there was no yesterday. They sounded like nightingales born in a swamp. They sounded like clean sex in a dirty bathroom. It was fine. "Jeez," said Katz, "Uruguay just held the first World Cup Final."

Actually, the 1930s were an uphill slog. Everywhere there were slumps - sudden depressions into which Katz and I tumbled, our pockets hanging out of our trousers like old snot-rags. We were broke. So were the old empires. The landscape was littered with splinters of country, and the borders kept shifting.

Dictators with the consistency of sugar puffs or the slippery surface of Jell-O appeared. Most of these guys were clean-shaven - when they got home from a hard day's bullying, they ate their greens and drew up lists of what to do when their lists ran out. Dictators suck. They look like Zeppo Marx, and they hand you candy. Then they whop you round the tonsure with leathery rhetoric. "How about we miss the Second World War?" I asked Katz. He gleamed. My wife drove us both to the 1950s.

By the time we reached the end of the decade, the Cold War was more than an icicle, more than a snap. While Uncle Ike was demonstrating the golf- kart (the letter K had gotten into its stride, which gave Katz an extra appetite), there was a positive global permafrost.

Kastro was ready for Kuba, and Kim Il Sung was in Korea. Khrushchev. Kennedy. Klansmen and Kronkite and Marshal Ky. Kommunism and Kapitalism. If you believed in anything beginning with (say) V, like Veganism or Volapuk, you had to stand in the corner till the bell was rung. Who did the Brits send to turn the Gold Coast into Ghana? The Duchess of Kent. Who ran Africa? Kenyatta, Kaunda. Need I go on?

The Sixties and Seventies required some style. Katz and I had it. Why, even my wife admitted it. She looked us over, and announced, "You've had it". We rocked onwards, our ears glued to transistor radios (actually, with a little pink plug in one ear), so that we kept up with the race. By 1980, and this is an interesting fact, I believe, NATO forces numbered about 5 million, and so did those of the Warsaw Pact. Both sides had, oh, 6 or 7 million ICBMs. Each of these little tinkers could take out a chunk of land the size of Luxembourg, or the number of people who bought Bridge Over Troubled Water. The woods were full of twitchers. We took it with a pinch of SALT.

The Eighties were easy-going. Easy come, easy go. By this time, thanks to the micro-chip, Katz and I were able to travel without crawling under the weight of white goods. The trail was littered with stout dependable fridges and heavy duty tape-recorders. Now, apart from the obligatory satellite dishes attached to our bobble-hats, we could fit most of technology between the teeth of our combs. As the Millennium approached, we drank some virtual Coke - almost like The Real Thing - and e-mailed ourselves, as attachments, to 2000. If they ever fix the web server ("The site you requested could not be found"), I guess we'll see you in Des Moines. Somebody has to.