Bryson's America: A cabinet of splendidly irrelevant curiosities


NOW HERE'S a story I like very much. Just before Christmas last year an American computer games company called Maxis Inc released an adventure game called SimCopter in which players had to fly helicopters on rescue missions. When they successfully completed the final level, according to The New York Times, the winning players were supposed to be rewarded with audio-visual hoopla involving "a crowd, fireworks and a brass band". Instead, the winners found images of men in swimsuits kissing each other.

The rogue images, it turned out, were the work of a mischievous 33-year- old programmer called Jacques Servin. When contacted by the paper, Mr Servin said that he had created the smooching fellows "to call attention to the lack of gay characters in computer games." The company hastily recalled 78,000 games, and invited Mr Servin to find employment elsewhere.

Here's another story I like. In June of this year, while travelling alone across America by car, Mrs Rita Rupp of Tulsa, Oklahoma, got it in mind that she might be abducted. So, just to be on the safe side, she prepared a note in advance, in appropriately desperate-looking handwriting, that said: "Help, I've been kidnapped. Call the highway patrol." The note then gave her name and address, and phone numbers for the appropriate armed authorities.

Now if you write a note like this, you want to make certain that either a) you do get kidnapped or b) you don't accidentally drop the note out of your handbag. Well, guess what happened. The hapless Mrs Rupp dropped the note, it was picked up and turned in by a conscientious citizen, and the next thing you know police in four states had set up roadblocks, issued all-points bulletins and generally got themselves pretty excited. Meanwhile, Mrs Rupp drove on to her destination sweetly unaware of the chaos she had left in her wake.

The trouble with these two stories, delightful though they are, is that I haven't figured out a way to get them into one of my columns. That's the trouble with this column-writing business; I find I am forever coming across interesting and worthwhile titbits and when I come across these diverting items I carefully cut them out or photocopy them and file them away. Then, some time later I come across them again and wonder what on earth I was thinking.

I call this collecting of interesting but ultimately useless information the Ignaz Semmelweiss Syndrome, after the Austro-Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweiss, who in 1850 became the first person to realise that the spread of infection on hospital wards could be dramatically reduced by washing one's hands. Soon after making his breakthrough discovery, Dr Semmelweiss died - from an infected cut on his hand.

You see what I mean? A splendid story, but I've got no place to put it. I might equally have called the phenomenon the Versalle Syndrome, after the opera singer Richard Versalle, who in 1996, during the US premiere of The Makropoulos Affair at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, sang the fateful words "Too bad you can only live so long," and then fell down dead from a heart attack.

Then again, I might have named it in honour of the great General John Sedgewick of the Union Army, whose last words, at the Battle of Fredericksburg during the American Civil War, were: "I tell you, men, they could not hit a bull at this dis..."

What all these people have in common is that they don't have the slightest relevance to anything I have ever written about or probably ever will. I keep these things filed away just in case they may come in handy in a pinch. In consequence, I have manila folders bulging with cuttings like well, like this one from a newspaper in Portland, Maine, bearing the headline "Man Found Chained to Tree Again". It was the "Again" that caught my eye. If the headline had said "Man Found Chained to Tree" I would probably have turned the page. After all, anyone can get himself chained to a tree once. But twice - well, now that's beginning to seem a tad careless.

The person concerned was one Larry Doyen of Mexico, Maine, who has the interesting hobby of attaching himself to trees with a chain and padlock and throwing the key out of reach. On this particular occasion, he had been out in the woods for two weeks and had very nearly expired.

This diverting story is clearly a salutary lesson for any of us who were thinking of taking up al fresco bondage, but it's hard to imagine at this remove what I was hoping to make of it in this column. I am similarly at a loss to recall the presumed significance of a small story I saved from the Seattle Times concerning a group of army paratroopers who, as a public relations exercise, agreed to parachute on to a high-school football pitch in Kennewick, Washington, to present the game ball to the home team's quarterback. With commendable precision they leapt from their aeroplane, trailing coloured smoke from special flares, executed several nifty and breathtaking aerobatic manoeuvres, and landed in an empty stadium on the other side of town.

I am equally unable to account fully for another story from The New York Times, about a couple who wrote down the gurgling sounds made by their baby daughter, presented it in the form of a poem (typical line: "Bwah- bwah bwah-bwah bwah-bwah"), submitted it to the North American Open Poetry Contest, and won a semi-finalist prize.

Sometimes, alas, I don't save the whole article, but just a paragraph from it, so that all I am left with is a mystifying fragment. Here is a quotation from the March 1996 issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine: "It is perfectly legal for a dermatologist to do brain surgery in his garage if he can find a patient willing to get on the table and pay for it." Here's another, from The Washington Post: "Researchers at the University of Utah have discovered that most men breathe mainly through one nostril for three hours and mainly through the other for the following three." Goodness knows what they do for the other 18 hours of the day, because I didn't save the rest of the article.

I keep thinking that I will figure a way to work these oddments up into a column, but I haven't hit on it yet. However, the one thing I can confidently promise you is that when I do, you will read it here first.

`Notes from a Big Country' is published by Doubleday, price pounds 16.99

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?