Instalments of Audiobook of the Month have been a wee bit thin on the ground of late. There is a very simple reason for this, namely, I don’t sit at a desk staring at a computer screen for eight hours a day anymore which means my audiobook listening time has been sorely culled. I still sit at a desk every day but now it’s for more like eighteen hours and I’m reading about dead people rather than scheduling television channels, which let me tell you takes a darn sight more concentration. So I now have about two hours a week to listen to radio/podcasts/audiobooks and that just about gets me through the Archers Omnibus.
However after about three months I’ve finally finished one. I was listening to The Secret Listeners by the brilliant Sinclair McKay; however in a move entirely out of character for a completionist like myself I broke off about two thirds of the way through because this came out…
I like Bill Bryson’s work very much. I rank him alongside David Attenbourgh and Michael Palin as one of a breed of humans put on this planet to point out interesting things to all of us who are too busy trying to upgrade our phone contract whilst simultaneously buying an M&S meal for two to notice. These are lovely people. They make the world a better and more fascinating place. When I feel truly dispirited by the modern world, say after reading about total tools threatening to rape women on Twitter for having the audacity to, you know, say something, I’ll think about Bryson and the like and remember that somewhere in a jungle in South America there is a species of frog who wave to one another. Or that atoms in my body would once have also been contained within Shakespeare’s. Or that in 1879, at the age of fifty-four John Merridew left his profession as a local baker to become the world’s leading authority on rare tropical diseases. That last one I made up, but similar wonderful characters seem to crop up in Bryson’s books frequently. In fact, it was listening to A Short History of Nearly Everything at my desk in the spring of 2008 that inspired me to not simply spend my evenings watching Kath and Kim on an endless loop (although a noble pastime) and go back to university instead. ‘If Mary Snelly can discover 243 new species of newt with no formal training whilst working as an Edwardian parlour maid, I can get another degree’, I didn’t say to myself because I just made her up too, but very nearly kind of did.
So I was pretty chuffed when I discovered that old Bryson had written a book, using his similar format of, ‘ooh look over there! An interesting thing!’ but centred solely on the year 1927.
1927 in America was apparently one of those years when lots of things seemed to coalesce and converge in the cultural landscape. I suspect London in 2012 will have similar books written about it in 90 years time by another eternally curious member of our fair breed. This was the year that saw the race for transatlantic air flight go bananas and completely consume much of the world’s imagination; it was the World Cup, F1 and Wimbledon final all rolled into one. Bolstered by the lure of the Orteig Prize, (a $25,000 pot awarded to the first team to complete a non-stop flight between New York and Paris), teams from America and France pushed their planes, wallets and physical selves to the limit. Many men and women lost their lives during this year of air travel frenzy and Bryson tracks in his usual sympathetic style, the stories of many of these doomed missions. Of course as we all know, a lanky, slightly strange chap from Minnesota eventually succeeded in the task after setting out from Roosevelt Fields on the 20th May 1927, making it all look positively easy and immediately becoming an international Godhead in the process.
During the same summer, the first female prisoner on death row was killed by electrocution, President Coolidge announced he would not be standing for re-election, The Jazz Singer was released, a wave of bombings occurred, apparently in a show of support for the imprisoned Sacco and Vanzetti and the New York Yankees had their best season on record and secured their place in history as the greatest team to have ever lived.
There are coincidences and crossovers peppering the narrative and you see how so much of life is a spider’s web. Just people meeting people, at parties, boxing matches or in court rooms. Governors drink cocktails with movie stars and people fall in love, marry and unknowingly form dynasties. The summer of 1927 was the epoch of much. However I’m not entirely convinced that the same party trick Bryson is so good at, couldn’t be applied to any year in American history. Or British history, French or anywhere else on Earth with a reasonably large population and some international connections. All years, months, weeks and days have fascinating, weird and confounding things happening in them which will inevitably connect and dissipate into larger motifs of cultural identity. However that’s a small point and really shouldn’t at all detract from the sheer delight of this work. Bryson’s style is the same as ever and unfaultable; interesting, romping and sweet in equal parts and once you get used to his slightly-softer-than-expected-New-England-with-a-British-lick accent, he is also a pretty good narrator.
If you have the time in your schedule I would heartily recommend purchasing a copy of this little number, it will remind you that the world is pretty fascinating, because sometimes we all need reminding.