Bill Bryson - Local stories for global people

Bill Bryson has caught the spirit of our stay-at-home times with a grand tour of his own house. Boyd Tonkin surveys his domestic epic and finds trouble brewing in the literary neighbourhood

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:13

The Icelandic volcano may lie almost dormant, but airline strikes persist. Add to these disincentives a national mood of austerity and a growing reluctance on green principles to travel far or often. Every factor falls into place for a revived willingness to cultivate and celebrate our own backyards. Travel literature, once so eager to scour the planet for obscurely exotic nooks, now embraces a stay-at-home culture we might dub the New Local. Prophetically, Alain de Botton last year published his drolly enlightening essay about terminal existence inside Heathrow, A Week at the Airport.

At this week's Ondaatje Prize award for the best book on the "literature of place", at least three shortlisted titles backed up a trend towards travel – or anti-travel - writing that digs down into familiar soil: Madeleine Bunting's The Plot, about her father's beloved acre of Yorkshire, William Fiennes's The Music Room, which evokes a (somewhat grand) house and the family life that unfolded within it, and Iain Sinclair's deliriously erudite tour of his east London manor, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. If the prize did eventually go to Ian Thomson's anti-romantic Jamaican travelogue, The Dead Yard, bear in mind that it focuses on reverse-migrants who returned to the island from Britain. This, too, is a book about home and what it means.

At the Ondaatje ceremony, Adam Nicolson – who won last year for his sumptuous exploration of his own fabled family plot, Sissinghurst – spoke of the value of writing that aims to tell the story of "everything that has ever happened" on one spot. Bill Bryson's "home" may be less splendid than Sissinghurst. Still, it acts as the focus for a wide-angled tour of domesticity in Britain which proves that the whole wide world may impinge on our everyday routine. His new book, At Home: a short history of private life (Doubleday, £20), delivers a great whiffy chunk of the New Local, a load of homespun history as compelling – and sometimes alarming - as the arrival of a truckload of farmhouse cheese or organic compost. If in the "literature of place", staying put is the new going out, here is its Tristram Shandy or its Moby-Dick – a book appearing in the very year, 1851, that saw Bryson's Norfolk parsonage rise amid the quiet fields to accommodate a well-to-do young bachelor clergyman, Thomas Marsham.

Bryson's much-loved travel books have led satisfied readers on genial rides around Australia and Appalachia. Remember, though, that his career-defining works excelled at the now-standard New Local manoeuvre of an angled, offbeat route down humdrum or well-trodden paths: his adopted Britain in Notes from a Small Island, or the small-town America of The Lost Continent.

In At Home, Bryson strolls from room in room through his own ample rectory. From scullery to attic, with excursions into the fuse-box, down the garden and up the stairs, as well as stays in bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, he shows at digressive length how a 19th-century English middle-class house can in its layout and amenities enshrine a global past. Bryson views his home, any home, as the place where "history ends up".

If the Caribbean mahogany and Indian shellac of a Georgian table exposes "the growth of empire", tea and sugar in it taste of slavery and the opium trade. The glass in your windows, the U-bend in your loo, the socket on your wall and the cereals in your bowl: all harbour residues of scientific discovery, ocean-spanning trade, and tectonic shifts in power and wealth. Of course, many historians have delved into everyday life before. Bryson quotes and bows to dozens of them. Some may still resent his likely sales.

Tidy-minded organisers among them will, I supect, descend on At Home like a ton of Victorian bricks - about which, typically, we get a dozen lavish pages on the minerals behind their colours or the patterning of "Flemish bond". Yes, the book rambles: maddeningly, endearingly, shamelessly. When at its outset Bryson labels the Victorian house "a collection of architectural bewilderments", he prepares us for his own ramshackle labyrinth of odd facts, strange stories and eccentric people.

So the neo-classical mouldings in the rectory's parlour, the "Plum Room", trigger a historical excursion to Andrea Palladio's Vicenza in the Renaissance, and then 20 pages on the glories of Jefferson's and Washington's Palladian homes at Monticello and Mount Vernon. Bryson likes to cheer on American inventiveness whenever he has a chance. The development of the middle-class home as "a history of getting comfortable slowly" gives him plenty. Incidentally, this long Jeffersonian digression fills us in on the President's waffle-irons, dumb-waiters and drains, but says not a word about the most intensively-studied relationship at Monticello: that between Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, with whom he might have had a child (or more).

Although he writes eloquently on the plight of servants and children in the home, Bryson seems happier with objects than with feelings. Desire, love and marriage remain pretty marginal here in spite of a jaunty fascination with the effects of syphilis or the techniques of forceps delivery. The bedroom features as "the seat of more suffering and despair than all the other rooms... put together". This (Victorian?) reticence is a shame, because when Bryson does investigate the emotional underside of the domestic carpet, his instincts feel sound. For example, he nails the silly social historians' orthodoxy that pre-modern parents didn't much love their children (because so many died young) as "a serious misreading of human nature".

His genial ambles tend to leave the room-by-room format far behind. Curious knights' moves jump sideways from one theme to another. A history of the luxury spice trade veers into research on the causes of scurvy. The household curse of mice and lice segues towards rabid bats. Not surprisingly, the odd senior moment occurs. The same 1810 magistrates' report on the meagre fare given to factory lads on page 91 crops up again on page 441.

When links don't swerve, they lurch. Heart-rending evidence of the back-breaking labour and casual humiliation inflicted on servants (we're in the scullery here) closes in an abrupt gear-change: "Life for servants wasn't all bad by any means". Bryson is winnowing at speed from the vast crop of anecdotes, quotations and statistics that his broad reading has harvested. A lot of grit and husk stays in the mix. So, too, does Bryson's wayward charm.

Eccentric and miscellaneous, At Home almost invites the exasperated reader to re-arrange this pile of bricks into another shape. You might, for instance, choose to highlight salient motifs of this figure-loving author via some key numbers in his text:

3: depth of raw sewage (in feet) in a London yard before Joseph Bazalgette engineered his "sewer superhighway" .

4: weight (in pounds) of bacteria in the average human body.

17 1/2: minutes taken for Fanny Burney's mastectomy without anaesthetic in 1806 (a chillingly famous passage from her wonderful diaries).

60: maximum weight (in pounds) of the kitchen kettles servants carried.

130: length (in days) of the seaborne journey of American ice blocks from Boston to Bombay during the pre-refrigeration heyday of the ice trade.

170: landscaping commissions undertaken by Capability Brown as he re-shaped the actual, and ideal, look of the English countryside.

659: medieval churches within Bryson's home county of Norfolk: the densest concentration in the world.

800: total of light-bulbs illuminated by Thomas Edison's inaugural service of electrical power in 1882.

1400: sailors (out of 2000) killed by scurvy on Anson's voyage prior to the discovery of the protective properties of sauerkraut or citrus juice.

3000: mature oaks felled to build HMS Victory as the Navy's demands swept England almost bare of trees.

100,000: corpses buried over centuries in St Marylebone churchyard.

293,655: revolutionary plate-glass panels in Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace for the 1851 Great Exhibition.

306,166: Britons injured by falls on those ever-dangerous stairs in the last year of reliable statistics (2002).

500 million: oysters (with an equal tally of shrimps) sold at Billingsgate market during the worst year of the Irish potato famine.

12.5 trillion: Rocky Mountain locusts in a ruinous 1800-mile-long swarm in 1873. The sudden extinction of this species saved North American agriculture, allowed it to boom into a global export giant, and so pushed English country life into that long, sweet torpor that the writer from Des Moines, Iowa now so enjoys.

Bryson's view of continuities and changes in his sleepy Norfolk landscape may draw on up-to-date social and economic history. But his sense of a deep-rooted locality that evolves "too slowly to be noticed" has affinities with a genre of nostalgic English pastoral that goes back well beyond 1851. At the book's start and finish, Bryson summons up the "Roman fellow" who dropped a recently-excavated phallic pendant in nearby fields. For some readers, this toga-clad ghost will invoke the shade of Kipling: another great traveller who came to rest in rural England (Sussex for him). In "The Land", Kipling sets the timeless rights of the eternally disobedient English peasant "Hobden" against the illusion of control nurtured by a string of rich incomers, from "Julius Fabricius, Sub-Prefect of the Weald" down to the poet himself.

In terms of the politics of past and place, where does Bryson sit? With prefect or peasant? Squarely on the fence. At Home often calls attention to the toil and trouble of common folk as unearthed in the work of socialist or feminist historians. Yet it also feels perfectly comfortable in the fogeyish purlieus of country-house history, that terrain of madcap "improving" toffs - such as William Beckford, with whose grand folly at Fonthill Abbey Bryson has such fun - and punctilious homes-and-gardens connoisseurship.

Bryson, who loves his flesh-creeping touches, even tells us about the toxic downside of fashionable "arsenic green" paints. A great promoter of those hues was William Morris, whose double legacy - as smart interior designer for the rich and socialist visionary alike - sums up so much British ambivalence about the values of hearth and home.

Near the close, Bryson fulminates Evelyn Waugh-style against death duties and their role in pauperising the aristocracy and wrecking "some of the handsomest, jauntiest, most striking, ambitious, influential and patiently cherishable residences ever erected on the planet". So what weight should we attach to those 60-pound kettles and their sweating bearers? Private life, and local stories, remain a combat zone as much as a field of dreams. If travel writing goes on digging deep outside our own back doors, then look forward to lively literary wars on the home front.

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