THE fruits of Bill Bryson’s fluent and amusing writing have been fame and fortune, so he now lives in one of the most desirable dwellings in the world: an old rectory in an English country village. The social and technological history of this lovely old house is the theme of his latest book, published earlier this year in Britain and coming out in America next month.
English is what matters. It has displaced rivals to become the language of diplomacy, of business, of science, of the internet and of world culture. Many more people speak Chinese—but even they, in vast numbers, are trying to learn English. So how did it happen, and why?
Filthy, damp, cold and exhausting, living in Iceland for most of the past millennium had one redeeming feature: that the long dark winter evenings gave people the chance to read a lot and tell stories.
Every country’s version of the second world war is selective. For Russians, it starts with Hitler’s unprovoked attack in 1941 and highlights the colossal battles in the east. For Americans, it starts with Pearl Harbour and features the Normandy beaches and Guadalcanal. Germans may privately start the story rather earlier, with the humiliation at Versailles which brought economic collapse and fuelled Hitler’s rise to power.
For younger readers, stories about newspapers in their heyday may have a whiff of industrial archaeology, akin to tales about whaling or steam trains.
Imagine that you are invited to lunch at Oxford University. Sherry, wine and port flow like the Isis, with facts, anecdotes, bons mots and sparkling insights swirling past in a bewildering but entertaining array. The conversation continues on a punt, then on a brisk walk around the university parks, then over tea, which slips into (more) sherry, and afterwards a splendiferous “high table” dinner. Late at night you wobble through the darkened streets, still talking, feeling pleasantly at one with the world. It is great fun, but no substitute for actually studying history.
That is how reading Norman Stone’s book about the cold war feels.