Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bill Bryson's "At Home: A Short History of Private Life"

I absolutely love Bill Bryson's book. He has a wonderful writing style and a love of things, of details, of facts, of idiosyncracies. Everything I love. This book is supposedly looks at one house, the vicar's house in one part of England, but ends up being a tale about history and things and people and events. You name it, Bryson squeezes it into his tale. Delightful!

This bit got me up out of my comfy chair to post about the book. This is relevant to the social world of today. The right wing politics of today is driven by the ultra-rich who are determined to return us to the "wonders" of the 19th century when governments were small, the rich were "respected", and the poor knew their place. They want to turn us all into their servants. It isn't good enough to have us their wage slaves, they want a more total control of our lives. This description of servants from Bryson's book gives a better idea than I can draw:
Pamela Sambrook notes how two sisters worked in the same house -- one as a housemaid, one as a nursemaid -- but were not allowed to speak or indicate acquaintance when they met because they inhabited different social realms.

Servans were given little time for personal grooming, and then were constantly accused of being dirty, which was decidedly unfair since typical servant's day ran from 6:30 in the morning to 10:00 at night -- later if an evening social event was involved. The author of one household manual noted wistfully how she would have loved to provide her servants with nice rooms, but sadly they always grew untidy. "the simpler, therefore, a servant's room is furnished, the better," she decided. By the Edwardian period servants got off half a day per week and one full day per month -- hardly munificent when you consider that that was all the time they had for personal items, get their hair cut, visit family, court, relax, or otherwise enjoy a few hours of precious liberty.

Perhaps the hardest part of the job was simply being attached to and dependent on people who didn't think much of you. Virginia Woolf's diaries are almost obsessively preoccupied with her servants and the challenge of maintaining patience with them. Of one, she writes: "She is in a state of nature: untrained; uneducated ... so that one sees a human mind wriggling undressed." As a class they were as irritating as "kitchen flies." Woolf's contemporary Edna St. Vincent Millay was rather more blunt: "The only people I really hate are servants. They are not really human beings at all."
That's the world that the ultra-rich want to resurrect. They want a world where humans are reduced to objects at beck and call. Where the only "needs" that count are those of the "superior" people. Where the riffraff are expected to scurry out of the way and be unseen, but at the same time to rush about doing everything possible to fulfill the whims of their overlords. That is the brave new world being proposed by the Republicans.

When Wisconsin's governor wants to remove the rights to negotiate working conditions or a wage hike bigger than inflation, he is telling hundreds of thousands of people in his state that their "job" is to be reduced to "servant" class, i.e. not seen or heard, but always scurrying about to make sure that their "betters" are well served.

The book is excellent. Excuse my social commentary. When I read I love to connect things within the book to things without. I love details because they are so many and so wondrously interconnected. I love history because the past is mysterious but crucial. In discussing rooms such as the buttery and the dairy, Bryson unearths the roots of language to explain the usage:
Some of the workroom names are not quite as strightforward as they might seem. Buttery has nothing to do with butter. It refers to butts, as in butts of ale. (It is a corruption of boutellerie, the same word from which butler and bottle are derived; looking after the wine bottles is what butlers originally did.) Curiously, the one service room not named for the products it contains is dairy. The name derives from an Old French word, dey meaning maiden. A dairy, in other words, was the room where the milkmaids were to be found, from which we might reasonably deduce that an Old Frenchman was more interested in finding the maid than the milk.
In this book about a house he ends up musing about foods and the lowly potato:
Potatoes, the other great food crop,of the New World, present an almost equally intriguing batch of mysteries. Potatoes are from the nightshade family, which is of course notoriously toxic, and in their wild state the are full of poisonous glycoalkaloids -- the same stuff, at lower doses, that puts the zip in caffeine and nicotine. Making any wild potatoes safe to eat required reducing the glycoalaloid content to between one-fifteenth and one-twentieth of its normal level. This raises a lot of questions, beginning most obviously with: How did they do it? And while they were doing it, how did they know they were doing it? How do you tell that the poison content has been reduced by, say 20 percent or 35 percent or some other intermediate figure? How do you assess progress in such a process? Above all, how did they know that the whole exercise was worth the effort and that they would get a safe and nutritious foodstuff in the end?
The book is a gem. Everybody should read it.

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