The greatest possible irony

Bryson, in his various entertaining books, likes to poke at the reader’s vulnerability with quick accounts of the many catastrophes in history, whether by plague, war or primitive medical procedures. Or he might cite the coming nuclear holocaust, random meteor hit or volcanic eruption that will swiftly turn the earth into a vacant desert. To be sure, all this stuff is perfectly possible. In his sketches of remarkable individuals he also keeps our attention by citing their extreme financial success or, more often, their poverty, suffering and lack of recognition, despite contributing mightily to the march of civilization.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

I imagine him having a team of researchers who hand him lists of fascinating facts which he weaves into his text, around a theme. In his book One Summer, 1927, he uses events from that short fecund period as springboards to examine the broader picture. Lindberg crossing the Atlantic to look at aviation, Babe Ruth to look at baseball, its history, including salaries. He does much the same in At Home: A Short History of Private Life, spinning off the rooms in a rectory he purchased in England.

The small church graveyard near the rectory, he early in the book tells us, is final resting place to 20,000 souls, layered over the many years such that the church itself seems to be sinking into the rising land. As the author moves from room to room he expands outward in his narrative to some of the many stories his research has compiled. The “hall” for example evokes the evolution of the word and an examination of living conditions over time, from primitive, shared, no-privacy quarters to today’s many-roomed mansions. How did early humans survive the winters, heat their quarters, cook their meals, order their affairs, treat their servants, serve their masters? How were parsons privileged, what was the typical culinary arrangement at the dinner table – or cave floor, depending on time frame?

A typical story is of Joseph Paxton, humble gardener, who came up with a design for a grand exhibition building when nearly 300 proposals by architects were turned down as unworkable, too expensive and incapable of being built in the timeframe necessary. His design out-shown the professionals aesthetically, came in under budget and made the near impossible timeline. The solution was a very large scale greenhouse. Bryson uses the occasion to comment on the times, 1851, when glass was so expensive that most structures had small and few windows. Events coincided such that the lowering of a glass tax, Paxton’s availability and a happenstance visit to a French exhibit contributed to the happy outcome. Paxton, incidentally, was the inventor of the Christmas card. And did you know that the outdoor privvy was the rule, in London and elsewhere, until this exhibition which had flush toilets, which turned out to be as popular as the exhibits and sparked a new trend?

Speaking of France, another spin-off, this time of the room called passage (or hallway). The Eiffel Tower was built of iron, just as it became, as building material, obsolete. Steel had just been invented, making way for the industrial revolution. That little aside, how steel was accidentally discovered by blowing air into pig iron, comes under the chapter titled, “The Cellar. Anyway, Alexandre Gustave Boenickhausen-Eiffel had a reputation as a noted bridge builder. He also designed the superstructure for the Statue of Liberty, the thickness of which, Bryson informs us, is less than a tenth of an inch. Eiffel’s solution to that problem, created the technique of curtain-wall construction, the most important building technique of the twentieth century, making skyscrapers possible. All that from the Passage. Of 100 entries in a competition for an iconic centerpiece for the Paris Exposition of 1889, Eiffel’s was chosen. Who can think of Paris without bringing to mind this structure? Yet certain French celebrities embarrassed themselves in their opposition to this “atrocity!”. Not mentioning any names but some of their initials were, Emile Zola, Paul Verlaine and Guy de Maupassant. Bryson mentions that not only was it the largest thing ever built but the largest completely useless thing.

So merrily on goes Bryson, covering the The Study, The Kitchen, The Pantry, The Garden, The Bathroom (of course – did you know that ancient Babylon had drains and sewage system and the Minoans had running water and bathtubs well over 3500 years ago?) , The Dressing Room, The Nursery and ending with, yup, The Attic. Bryon’s attic has a tiny, architecturally baffling balcony from which he gazes out on the landscape, imagining how it must have appeared at various past times, – back to the Roman occupation, way back to lions, elephants and exotic fauna grazing on arid plains. And with this he explains that the difference there is attributable to a temperature that humans alive today will live to see again. A change humans will have to adapt to at a much faster than geologic pace. His closing sentence, “The greatest possible irony would be if in our endless quest to fill our lives with comfort and happiness we created a world that had neither.”


Image Credit: the featured editorial cartoon was created by the author, © Tom Ferguson.

Tom Ferguson

Tom Ferguson

Tom is a painter, a cartoonist, a musician, a thinker and more. View some of his web sites:

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