Make yourself at home

Here’s a multiple choice quiz to start the year. You are in a bird hide on the banks of the Limpopo River in Africa with a pair of binoculars. Do you:

(a) Train them upwards to follow the flight of circling raptors

(b) Look down to better spot the lurking Big Five or

(c) Aim straight ahead to the pink smudge that is a lone house on the Mozambican side of the river.

I’m a (c) and there’s a book for people like us, it’s At Home: A Short history of Private Life by (little fanfare here) Bill Bryson.

Bryson must be one of the most engaging writers of our time. He has proved this in books like A Short History of Nearly Everything and Notes from a Small Island. He has an unerring ability to dish up huge wodges of information in an entertaining way.  You’ll find you have to read bits of it out loud to your significant other. His writing is detailed, disarming and droll.

Using the floor plan of his home in Norwich as the comforting structure of this book, he free ranges over a vast array of loosely domestic topics from every corner of the globe. From the rise of the female gardener to burial grounds in London, from everything you never wanted to know about rattus rattus to poisonous beauty aids, this book has it all.

In a way, At Home sanctions my walking to and fro in front of any interesting house in the hope that the homeowner will come out and ask (nicely – not snarkily): “Would you like a closer look?”  And I’d go in for  a Cook’s tour and a  Grand Designs type of a chat. When I leave the owner might be taken aback to find that all the toilet seat covers have been firmly pressed down but you won’t be once you’ve read the book, where on page 259  Bryson quotes:

” One of the oldest of all urban legends, that rats come into homes by way of the toilets, is in fact true. On several occasions, rats were found alive in covered toilet bowls.” If ever there was a reason to put the lid down, this could be it.

In the end I had to own this book. It’s now added to my list of Desert Island Reads. What would make it on to yours?