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In the autumn of 1850, in Hyde Park in London, there arose a most extraordinary structure: a giant iron-and-glass greenhouse covering nineteen acres of ground and containing within its airy vastness enough room for four St. Paul's Cathedrals. For the short time of its existence, it was the biggest building on Earth. Known formally as the Palace of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, it was incontestably magnificent, but all the more so for being so sudden, so startlingly glassy, so gloriously and unexpectedly there. Douglas Jerrold, a columnist for the weekly magazine Punch, dubbed it the Crystal Palace, and the name stuck.
It had taken just five months to build. It was a miracle that it was built at all. Less than a year earlier it had not even existed as an idea. The exhibition for which it was conceived was the dream of a civil servant named Henry Cole, whose other principal claim to history's attention is as the inventor of the Christmas card (as a way of encouraging people to use the new penny post). In 1849, Cole visited the Paris Exhibition-a comparatively parochial affair, limited to French manufacturers-and became keen to try something similar in England, but grander. He persuaded many worthies, including Prince Albert, to get excited about the idea of a great exhibition, and on January 11, 1850, they held their first meeting with a view to opening on May 1 of the following year. This gave them slightly less than fifteen months to design and erect the largest building ever envisioned, attract and install tens of thousands of displays from every quarter of the globe, fit out restaurants and restrooms, employ staff, arrange insurance and police protection, print up handbills, and do a million other things, in a country that wasn't at all convinced it wanted such a costly and disruptive production in the first place. It was a patently unachievable ambition, and for the next several months they patently failed to achieve it. In an open competition, 245 designs for the exhibition hall were submitted. All were rejected as unworkable.
Facing disaster, the committee did what committees in desperate circumstances sometimes do: it commissioned another committee with a better title. The Building Committee of the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations consisted of four men-Matthew Digby Wyatt, Owen Jones, Charles Wild, and the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel-and a single instruction, to come up with a design worthy of the greatest exhibition in history, to begin in ten months, within a constrained and shrunken budget. Of the four committee members, only the youthful Wyatt was a trained architect, and he had not yet actually built anything; at this stage of his career he made his living as a writer. Wild was an engineer whose experience was almost exclusively with boats and bridges. Jones was an interior decorator. Only Brunel had experience with large-scale projects. He was indubitably a genius but an unnerving one, as it nearly always took epic infusions of time and cash to find a point of intersection between his soaring visions and an achievable reality.
The structure the four men came up with now was a thing of unhappy wonder. A vast, low, dark shed of a building, pregnant with gloom, with all the spirit and playfulness of an abattoir, it looked like something designed in a hurry by four people working separately. The cost could scarcely be calculated, but it was almost certainly unbuildable anyway. Construction would require thirty million bricks, and there was no guarantee that such a number could be acquired, much less laid, in time. The whole was to be capped off by Brunel's contribution: an iron dome two hundred feet across-a striking feature, without question, but rather an odd one on a one-story building. No one had ever built such a massive thing of iron before, and Brunel couldn't of course begin to tinker and hoist until there was a building beneath it-and all of this to be undertaken and completed in ten months, for a project intended to stand for less than half a year. Who would take it all down afterward and what would become of its mighty dome and millions of bricks were questions too uncomfortable to consider.
Into this unfolding crisis stepped the calm figure of Joseph Paxton, head gardener of Chatsworth House, principal seat of the Duke of Devonshire (but located in that peculiar English way in Derbyshire). Paxton was a wonder. Born into a poor farming family in Bedfordshire in 1803, he was sent out to work as an apprentice gardener at the age of fourteen; he so distinguished himself that within six years he was running an experimental arboretum at the new and prestigious Horticultural Society (soon to become the Royal Horticultural Society) in West London-a startlingly responsible job for someone who was really still just a boy. There one day he fell into conversation with the Duke of Devonshire, who owned neighboring Chiswick House and rather a lot of the rest of the British Isles-some two hundred thousand acres of productive countryside spread beneath seven great stately homes. The duke took an instant shine to Paxton, not so much, it appears, because Paxton showed any particular genius as because he spoke in a strong, clear voice. The duke was hard of hearing and appreciated clarity of speech. Impulsively, he invited Paxton to be head gardener at Chatsworth. Paxton accepted. He was twenty-two years old.
It was the most improbably wise move any aristocrat has ever made. Paxton leaped into the job with levels of energy and application that simply dazzled. He designed and installed the famous Emperor Fountain, which could send a jet of water 290 feet into the air-a feat of hydraulic engineering that has since been exceeded only once in Europe; built the largest rockery in the country; designed a new estate village; became the world's leading expert on the dahlia; won prizes for producing the country's finest melons, figs, peaches, and nectarines; and created an enormous tropical hothouse, known as the Great Stove, which covered an acre of ground and was so roomy within that Queen Victoria, on a visit in 1843, was able to tour it in a horse-drawn carriage. Through improved estate management, Paxton eliminated £1 million from the duke's debts. With the duke's blessing, he launched and ran two gardening magazines and a national daily newspaper, the Daily News, which was briefly edited by Charles Dickens. He wrote books on gardening, invested so wisely in the shares of railway companies that he was invited onto the boards of three of them, and at Birkenhead, near Liverpool, designed and built the world's first municipal park. This park so captivated the American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted that he modeled Central Park in New York on it. In 1849, the head botanist at Kew sent Paxton a rare and ailing lily, wondering if he could save it. Paxton designed a special hothouse and-you won't be surprised to hear-within three months had the lily flowering.
When he learned that the commissioners of the Great Exhibition were struggling to find a design for their hall, it occurred to him that something like his hothouses might work. While chairing a meeting of a committee of the Midland Railway, he doodled a rough design on a piece of blotting paper and had completed drawings ready for review in two weeks. The design actually broke all the competition rules. It was submitted after the closing date and, for all its glass and iron, it incorporated many combustible materials-acres of wooden flooring, for one thing-which were strictly forbidden. The architectural consultants pointed out, not unreasonably, that Paxton was not a trained architect and had never attempted anything on this scale before. But then, of course, no one had. For that reason, nobody could declare with complete confidence that the scheme would work. Many worried that the building would grow insupportably warm when filled with baking sunshine and jostling crowds. Others feared that the lofty glazing bars would expand in the summer's heat and that giant panes of glass would silently fall out and crash onto the throngs below. The profoundest worry was that the whole frail-looking edifice would simply blow away in a storm.
So the risks were considerable and keenly felt, yet after only a few days of fretful hesitation the commissioners approved Paxton's plan. Nothing-really, absolutely nothing-says more about Victorian Britain and its capacity for brilliance than that the century's most daring and iconic building was entrusted to a gardener. Paxton's Crystal Palace required no bricks at all-indeed, no mortar, no cement, no foundations. It was just bolted together and sat on the ground like a tent. This was not merely an ingenious solution to a monumental challenge but also a radical departure from anything that had ever been tried before.
The central virtue of Paxton's airy palace was that it could be prefabricated from standard parts. At its heart was a single component- a cast-iron truss three feet wide and twenty-three feet, three inches long-which could be fitted together with matching trusses to make a frame on which to hang the building's glass-nearly a million square feet of it, or a third of all the glass normally produced in Britain in a year. A special mobile platform was designed that moved along the roof supports, enabling workmen to install eighteen thousand panes of glass a week-a rate of productivity that was, and is, a wonder of efficiency. To deal with the enormous amount of guttering required- some twenty miles in all-Paxton designed a machine, manned by a small team, that could attach two thousand feet of guttering a day-a quantity that would previously have represented a day's work for three hundred men. In every sense the project was a marvel.
Paxton was very lucky in his timing, for just at the moment of the Great Exhibition glass suddenly became available in a way it never had before. Glass had always been a tricky material. It was not particularly easy to make, and really hard to make well, which is why for so much of its history it was a luxury item. Happily, two recent technological breakthroughs had changed that. First, the French invented plate glass-so called because the molten glass was spread across tables known as plates. This allowed for the first time the creation of really large panes of glass, which made shop windows possible. Plate glass, however, had to be cooled for ten days after being rolled out, which meant that each table was unproductively occupied most of the time, and then each sheet required a lot of grinding and polishing. This naturally made it expensive. In 1838, a cheaper refinement was developed-sheet glass. This had most of the virtues of plate glass, but it cooled faster and needed less polishing, and so could be made much more cheaply. Suddenly glass of a good size could be produced economically in limitless volumes.
Allied with this was the timely abolition of two long-standing taxes: the window tax and glass tax (which, strictly speaking, was an excise duty). The window tax dated from 1696 and was sufficiently punishing that people really did avoid putting windows in buildings where they could. The bricked-up window openings that are such a feature of many period buildings in Britain today were once usually painted to look like windows. (It is sometimes rather a shame that they aren't still.) The tax, sorely resented as "a tax on air and light," meant that many servants and others of constrained means were condemned to live in airless rooms.
The second duty, introduced in 1746, was based not on the number of windows but on the weight of the glass within them, so glass was made thin and weak throughout the Georgian period, and window frames had to be compensatingly sturdy. The well-known bull's-eye panes also became a feature at this time. They are a consequence of the type of glassmaking that produced what was known as crown glass (so called because it is slightly convex, or crown-shaped). The bull's-eye marked the place on a sheet of glass where the blower's pontil-the blowing tool-had been attached. Because that part of the glass was flawed, it escaped the tax and so developed a certain appeal among the frugal. Bull's-eye panes became popular in cheap inns and businesses, and at the backs of private homes where quality was not an issue. The glass levy was abolished in 1845, just shy of its hundredth anniversary, and the abolition of the window tax followed, conveniently and fortuitously, in 1851. Just at the moment when Paxton wanted more glass than anyone ever had before, the price was reduced by more than half. This, along with the technological changes that independently boosted production, made the Crystal Palace possible.
The finished building was precisely 1,851 feet long (in celebration of the year), 408 feet across, and almost 110 feet high along its central spine-spacious enough to enclose a much admired avenue of elms that would otherwise have had to be felled. Because of its size, the structure required a lot of inputs-293,655 panes of glass, 33,000 iron trusses, and tens of thousands of feet of wooden flooring-yet thanks to Paxton's methods, the final cost came in at an exceedingly agreeable £80,000. From start to finish, the work took just under thirty-five weeks. St. Paul's Cathedral had taken thirty-five years.
Two miles away the new Houses of Parliament had been under construction for a decade and still weren't anywhere near complete. A writer for Punch suggested, only half in jest, that the government should commission Paxton to design a Crystal Parliament. A catchphrase arose for any problem that proved intractable: "Ask Paxton."
The Crystal Palace was at once the world's largest building and its lightest, most ethereal one. Today we are used to encountering glass in volume, but to someone living in 1851 the idea of strolling through cubic acres of airy light inside a building was dazzling-indeed, giddying. The arriving visitor's first sight of the Exhibition Hall from afar, glinting and transparent, is really beyond our imagining. It would have seemed as delicate and evanescent, as miraculously improbable, as a soap bubble. To anyone arriving at Hyde Park, the first sight of the Crystal Palace, floating above the trees, sparkling in sunshine, would have been a moment of knee-weakening splendor.
As the Crystal Palace rose in London, 110 miles to the northeast, beside an ancient country church under the spreading skies of Norfolk, a rather more modest edifice went up in 1851 in a village near the market town of Wymondham: a parsonage of a vague and rambling nature, beneath an irregular rooftop of barge-boarded gables and jaunty chimney stacks in a cautiously Gothic style-"a good-sized house, and comfortable enough in a steady, ugly, respectable way," as Margaret Oliphant, a hugely popular and prolific Victorian novelist, described the breed in her novel The Curate in Charge.
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A Walk in the Woods
We hiked till five and camped beside a tranquil spring in a small, grassy clearing in the trees just off the trail. Because it was our first day back on the trail, we were flush for food, including perishables like cheese and bread that had to be eaten before they went off or were shaken to bits in our packs, so we rather gorged ourselves, then sat around smoking and chatting idly until persistent and numerous midgelike creatures (no-see-ums, as they are universally known along the trail) drove us into our tents. It was perfect sleeping weather, cool enough to need a bag but warm enough that you could sleep in your underwear, and I was looking forward to a long night's snooze—indeed was enjoying a long night's snooze--when, at some indeterminate dark hour, there was a sound nearby that made my eyes fly open. Normally, I slept through everything—through thunderstorms, through Katz's snoring and noisy midnight pees--so something big enough or distinctive enough to wake me was unusual. There was a sound of undergrowth being disturbed—a click of breaking branches, a weighty pushing through low foliage—and then a kind of large, vaguely irritable snuffling noise.
I sat bolt upright. Instantly every neuron in my brain was awake and dashing around frantically, like ants when you disturb their nest. I reached instinctively for my knife, then realized I had left it in my pack, just outside the tent. Nocturnal defense had ceased to be a concern after many successive nights of tranquil woodland repose. There was another noise, quite near.
"Stephen, you awake?" I whispered.
"Yup," he replied in a weary but normal voice.
"What was that?"
"How the hell should I know."
"It sounded big."
"Everything sounds big in the woods."
This was true. Once a skunk had come plodding through our camp and it had sounded like a stegosaurus. There was another heavy rustle and then the sound of lapping at the spring. It was having a drink, whatever it was.
I shuffled on my knees to the foot of the tent, cautiously unzipped the mesh and peered out, but it was pitch black. As quietly as I could, I brought in my backpack and with the light of a small flashlight searched through it for my knife. When I found it and opened the blade I was appalled at how wimpy it looked. It was a perfectly respectable appliance for, say, buttering pancakes, but patently inadequate for defending oneself against 400 pounds of ravenous fur.
Carefully, very carefully, I climbed from the tent and put on the flashlight, which cast a distressingly feeble beam. Something about fifteen or twenty feet away looked up at me. I couldn't see anything at all of its shape or size—only two shining eyes. It went silent, whatever it was, and stared back at me.
"Stephen," I whispered at his tent, "did you pack a knife?"
"Have you get anything sharp at all?"
He thought for a moment. "Nail clippers."
I made a despairing face. "Anything a little more vicious than that? Because, you see, there is definitely something out here."
"It's probably just a skunk."
"Then it's one big skunk. Its eyes are three feet off the ground."
"A deer then."
I nervously threw a stick at the animal, and it didn't move, whatever it was. A deer would have bolted. This thing just blinked once and kept staring.
I reported this to Katz.
"Probably a buck. They're not so timid. Try shouting at it."
I cautiously shouted at it: "Hey! You there! Scat!" The creature blinked again, singularly unmoved. "You shout," I said.
"Oh, you brute, go away, do!" Katz shouted in merciless imitation. "Please withdraw at once, you horrid creature."
"Fuck you," I said and lugged my tent right over to his. I didn't know what this would achieve exactly, but it brought me a tiny measure of comfort to be nearer to him.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm moving my tent."
"Oh, good plan. That'll really confuse it."
I peered and peered, but I couldn't see anything but those two wide-set eyes staring from the near distance like eyes in a cartoon. I couldn't decide whether I wanted to be outside and dead or inside and waiting to be dead. I was barefoot and in my underwear and shivering. What I really wanted—really, really wanted—was for the animal to withdraw. I picked up a small stone and tossed it at it. I think it may have hit it because the animal made a sudden noisy start (which scared the bejesus out of me and brought a whimper to my lips) and then emitted a noise—not quite a growl, but near enough. It occurred to me that perhaps I oughtn't provoke it.
"What are you doing, Bryson? Just leave it alone and it will go away."
"How can you be so calm?"
"What do you want me to do? You're hysterical enough for both of us."
"I think I have a right to be a trifle alarmed, pardon me. I'm in the woods, in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, staring at a bear, with a guy who has nothing to defend himself with but a pair of nail clippers. Let me ask you this. If it is a bear and it comes for you, what are you going to do—give it a pedicure?"
"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," Katz said implacably.
"What do you mean you'll cross that bridge? We're on the bridge, you moron. There's a bear out here, for Christ sake. He's looking at us. He smells noodles and Snickers and—oh, shit."
"There's two of them. I can see another pair of eyes." Just then, the flashlight battery started to go. The light flickered and then vanished. I scampered into my tent, stabbing myself lightly but hysterically in the thigh as I went, and began a quietly frantic search for spare batteries. If I were a bear, this would be the moment I would choose to lunge.
"Well, I'm going to sleep," Katz announced.
"What are you talking about? You can't go to sleep."
"Sure I can. I've done it lots of times." There was the sound of him rolling over and a series of snuffling noises, not unlike those of the creature outside.
"Stephen, you can't go to sleep," I ordered. But he could and he did, with amazing rapidity.
The creature—creatures, now—resumed drinking, with heavy lapping noises. I couldn't find any replacement batteries, so I flung the flashlight aside and put my miner's lamp on my head, made sure it worked, then switched it off to conserve the batteries. Then I sat for ages on my knees, facing the front of the tent, listening keenly, gripping my walking stick like a club, ready to beat back an attack, with my knife open and at hand as a last line of defense. The bears—animals, whatever they were—drank for perhaps twenty minutes more, then quietly departed the way they had come. It was a joyous moment, but I knew from my reading that they would be likely to return. I listened and listened, but the forest returned to silence and stayed there.
Eventually I loosened my grip on the walking stick and put on a sweater—pausing twice to examine the tiniest noises, dreading the sound of a revisit—and after a very long time got back into my sleeping bag for warmth. I lay there for a long time staring at total blackness and knew that never again would I sleep in the woods with a light heart.
And then, irresistibly and by degrees, I fell asleep.
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I'm a Stranger Here Myself
One of the pleasures of living in a small, old-fashioned New England town is that it generally includes a small, old-fashioned post office. Ours is particularly agreeable. It's in an attractive Federal-style brick building, confident but not flashy, that looks like a post office ought to. It even smells nice—a combination of gum adhesive and old central heating turned up a little too high.
The counter employees are always cheerful, helpful and efficient, and pleased to give you an extra piece of tape if it looks as if your envelope flap might peel open. Moreover, post offices here by and large deal only with postal matters. They don't concern themselves with pension payments, car tax, TV licenses, lottery tickets, savings accounts, or any of the hundred and one other things that make a visit to any British post office such a popular, all-day event and provide a fulfilling and reliable diversion for chatty people who enjoy nothing so much as a good long hunt in their purses and handbags for exact change. Here there are never any long lines and you are in and out in minutes.
Best of all, once a year every American post office has a Customer Appreciation Day. Ours was yesterday. I had never heard of this engaging custom, but I was taken with it immediately. The employees had hung up banners, put out a long table with a nice checkered cloth, and laid on a generous spread of doughnuts, pastries, and hot coffee—all of it free.
After twenty years in Britain, this seemed a delightfully improbable notion, the idea of a faceless government bureaucracy thanking me and my fellow townspeople for our patronage, but I was impressed and grateful—and, I must say, it was good to be reminded that postal employees are not just mindless automatons who spend their days mangling letters and whimsically sending my royalty checks to a guy in Vermont named Bill Bubba but rather are dedicated, highly trained individuals who spend their days mangling letters and sending my royalty checks to a guy in Vermont named Bill Bubba.
Anyway, I was won over utterly. Now I would hate for you to think that my loyalty with respect to postal delivery systems can be cheaply bought with a chocolate twirl doughnut and a Styrofoam cup of coffee, but in fact it can. Much as I admire Britain's Royal Mail, it has never once offered me a morning snack, so I have to tell you that as I strolled home from my errand, wiping crumbs from my face, my thoughts toward American life in general and the U.S. Postal Service in particular were pretty incomparably favorable.
But, as nearly always with government services, it couldn't last. When I got home, the day's mail was on the mat. There among the usual copious invitations to acquire new credit cards, save a rain forest, become a life member of the National Incontinence Foundation, add my name (for a small fee) to the Who's Who of People Named Bill in New England, help the National Rifle Association with its Arm-a-Toddler campaign, and the scores of other unsought inducements, special offers, and solicitations that arrive each day at every American home—well, there among this mass was a forlorn and mangled letter that I had sent forty-one days earlier to a friend in California care of his place of employment and that was now being returned to me marked "Insufficient Address—Get Real and Try Again" or words to that effect.
At the sight of this I issued a small, despairing sigh, and not merely because I had just sold the U.S. Postal Service my soul for a doughnut. It happens that I had recently read an article on wordplay in the Smithsonian magazine in which the author asserted that some puckish soul had once sent a letter addressed, with playful ambiguity, to
and it had gotten there after the postal authorities had worked out that it was to be read as "John Underhill, Andover, Mass." (Get it?)
It's a nice story, and I would truly like to believe it, but the fate of my letter to California seemed to suggest a need for caution with regard to the postal service and its sleuthing abilities. The problem with my letter was that I had addressed it to my friend merely "c/o Black Oak Books, Berkeley, California," without a street name or number because I didn't know either. I appreciate that that is not a complete address, but it is a lot more explicit than "Hill John Mass" and anyway Black Oak Books is a Berkeley institution. Anyone who knows the city--and I had assumed in my quaintly naive way that that would include Berkeley postal authorities--would know Black Oak Books. But evidently not. (Goodness knows, incidentally, what my letter had been doing in California for nearly six weeks, though it came back with a nice tan and an urge to get in touch with its inner feelings.)
Now just to give this plaintive tale a little heartwarming perspective, let me tell you that not long before I departed from England, the Royal Mail had brought me, within forty-eight hours of its posting in London, a letter addressed to "Bill Bryson, Writer, Yorkshire Dales," which is a pretty impressive bit of sleuthing. (And never mind that the correspondent was a trifle off his head.)
So here I am, my affections torn between a postal service that never feeds me but can tackle a challenge and one that gives me free tape and prompt service but won't help me out when I can't remember a street name. The lesson to draw from this, of course, is that when you move from one country to another you have to accept that there are some things that are better and some things that are worse, and there is nothing you can do about it. That may not be the profoundest of insights to take away from a morning's outing, but I did get a free doughnut as well, so on balance I guess I'm happy.
Now if you will excuse me I have to drive to Vermont and collect some mail from a Mr. Bubba.
(Some months after this piece was written, I received a letter from England addressed to "Mr. Bill Bryson, Author of 'A Walk in the Woods,' Lives Somewhere in New Hampshire, America." It arrived without comment or emendation just five days after it was mailed. My congratulations to the U.S. Postal Service for an unassailable triumph.)
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Flying into Australia, I realized with a sigh that I had forgotten again who their prime minister is. I am forever doing this with the Australian prime minister—committing the name to memory, forgetting it (generally more or less instantly), then feeling terribly guilty. My thinking is that there ought to be one person outside Australia who knows.
But then Australia is such a difficult country to keep track of. On my first visit, some years ago, I passed the time on the long flight reading a history of Australian politics in the twentieth century, wherein I encountered the startling fact that in 1967 the prime minister, Harold Holt, was strolling along a beach in Victoria when he plunged into the surf and vanished. No trace of the poor man was ever seen again. This seemed doubly astounding to me—first that Australia could just lose a prime minister (I mean, come on) and second that news of this had never reached me.
The fact is, of course, we pay shamefully scant attention to our dear cousins Down Under—not entirely without reason, of course. Australia is after all mostly empty and a long way away. Its population, just over 18 million, is small by world standards—China grows by a larger amount each year—and its place in the world economy is consequently peripheral; as an economic entity, it ranks about level with Illinois. Its sports are of little interest to us and the last television series it made that we watched with avidity was Skippy. From time to time it sends us useful things—opals, merino wool, Errol Flynn, the boomerang—but nothing we can’t actually do without. Above all, Australia doesn’t misbehave. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn’t have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities, or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner.
But even allowing for all this, our neglect of Australian affairs is curious. Just before I set off on this trip I went to my local library in New Hampshire and looked Australia up in the New York Times Index to see how much it had engaged our attention in recent years. I began with the 1997 volume for no other reason than that it was open on the table. In that year across the full range of possible interests—politics, sports, travel, the coming Olympics in Sydney, food and wine, the arts, obituaries, and so on—the Times ran 20 articles that were predominantly on or about Australian affairs. In the same period, for purposes of comparison, the Times ran 120 articles on Peru, 150 or so on Albania and a similar number on Cambodia, more than 300 on each of the Koreas, and well over 500 on Israel. As a place that caught our interest Australia ranked about level with Belarus and Burundi. Among the general subjects that outstripped it were balloons and balloonists, the Church of Scientology, dogs (though not dog sledding), Barneys, Inc., and Pamela Harriman, the former ambassador and socialite who died in February 1997, a misfortune that evidently required recording 22 times in the Times. Put in the crudest terms, Australia was slightly more important to us in 1997 than bananas, but not nearly as important as ice cream.
As it turns out, 1997 was actually quite a good year for Australian news. In 1996 the country was the subject of just nine news reports and in 1998 a mere six. Australians can’t bear it that we pay so little attention to them, and I don’t blame them. This is a country where interesting things happen, and all the time.
Consider just one of those stories that did make it into the Times in 1997, though buried away in the odd-sock drawer of Section C. In January of that year, according to a report written in America by a Times reporter, scientists were seriously investigating the possibility that a mysterious seismic disturbance in the remote Australian outback almost four years earlier had been a nuclear explosion set off by members of the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo.
It happens that at 11:03 p.m. local time on May 28, 1993, seismograph needles all over the Pacific region twitched and scribbled in response to a very large-scale disturbance near a place called Banjawarn Station in the Great Victoria Desert of Western Australia. Some long-distance truckers and prospectors, virtually the only people out in that lonely expanse, reported seeing a sudden flash in the sky and hearing or feeling the boom of a mighty but far-off explosion. One reported that a can of beer had danced off the table in his tent.
The problem was that there was no obvious explanation. The seismograph traces didn’t fit the profile for an earthquake or mining explosion, and anyway the blast was 170 times more power- ful than the most powerful mining explosion ever recorded in Western Australia. The shock was consistent with a large meteorite strike, but the impact would have blown a crater hundreds of feet in circumference, and no such crater could be found. The upshot is that scientists puzzled over the incident for a day or two, then filed it away as an unexplained curiosity—the sort of thing that presumably happens from time to time.
Then in 1995 Aum Shinrikyo gained sudden notoriety when it released extravagant quantities of the nerve gas sarin into the Tokyo subway system, killing twelve people. In the investigations that followed, it emerged that Aum’s substantial holdings included a 500,000-acre desert property in Western Australia very near the site of the mystery event. There, authorities found a laboratory of unusual sophistication and focus, and evidence that cult members had been mining uranium. It separately emerged that Aum had recruited into its ranks two nuclear engineers from the former Soviet Union. The group’s avowed aim was the destruction of the world, and it appears that the event in the desert may have been a dry run for blowing up Tokyo.
You take my point, of course. This is a country that loses a prime minister and that is so vast and empty that a band of amateur enthusiasts could conceivably set off the world’s first nongovernmental atomic bomb on its mainland and almost four years would pass before anyone noticed.* Clearly this is a place worth getting to know.
* Interestingly, no Australian newspapers seem to have picked up on this story and the New York Times never returned to it, so what happened in the desert remains a mystery. Aum Shinrikyo sold its desert property in August 1994, fifteen months after the mysterious blast but seven months before it gained notoriety with its sarin attack in the Tokyo subway system. If any investigating authority took the obvious step of measuring the area around Banjawarn Station for increased levels of radiation, it has not been reported.
and so, because we know so little about it, perhaps a few facts would be in order:
Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered from the sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.
It is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the largest monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru to use its now-official, more respectful Aboriginal name). It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures—the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish—are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous cone shell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.
And it is old. For 60 million years since the formation of the Great Dividing Range, the low but deeply fetching mountains that run down its eastern flank, Australia has been all but silent geologically. In consequence, things, once created, have tended just to lie there. So many of the oldest objects ever found on earth— the most ancient rocks and fossils, the earliest animal tracks and riverbeds, the first faint signs of life itself—have come from Australia.
At some undetermined point in the great immensity of its past—perhaps 45,000 years ago, perhaps 60,000, but certainly before there were modern humans in the Americas or Europe—it was quietly invaded by a deeply inscrutable people, the Aborigines, who have no clearly evident racial or linguistic kinship to their neighbors in the region, and whose presence in Australia can only be explained by positing that they invented and mastered ocean- going craft at least 30,000 years in advance of anyone else, in order to undertake an exodus, then forgot or abandoned nearly all that they had learned and scarcely ever bothered with the open sea again.
It is an accomplishment so singular and extraordinary, so uncomfortable with scrutiny, that most histories breeze over it in a paragraph or two, then move on to the second, more explicable invasion—the one that begins with the arrival of Captain James Cook and his doughty little ship HMS Endeavour in Botany Bay in 1770. Never mind that Captain Cook didn’t discover Australia and that he wasn’t even yet a captain at the time of his visit. For most people, including most Australians, this is where the story begins.
The world those first Englishmen found was famously inverted—its seasons back to front, its constellations upside down—and unlike anything any of them had seen before even in the near latitudes of the Pacific. Its creatures seemed to have evolved as if they had misread the manual. The most characteristic of them didn’t run or lope or canter, but bounced across the landscape, like dropped balls. The continent teemed with unlikely life. It contained a fish that could climb trees; a fox that flew (it was actually a very large bat); crustaceans so large that a grown man could climb inside their shells.
In short, there was no place in the world like it. There still isn’t. Eighty percent of all that lives in Australia, plant and animal, exists nowhere else. More than this, it exists in an abundance that seems incompatible with the harshness of the environment. Australia is the driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile, and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents. (Only Antarctica is more hostile to life.) This is a place so inert that even the soil is, technically speaking, a fossil. And yet it teems with life in numbers uncounted. For insects alone, scientists haven’t the faintest idea whether the total number of species is 100,000 or more than twice that. As many as a third of those species remain entirely unknown to science. For spiders, the proportion rises to 80 percent.
I mention insects in particular because I have a story about a little bug called Nothomyrmecia macrops that I think illustrates perfectly, if a bit obliquely, what an exceptional country this is. It’s a slightly involved tale but a good one, so bear with me, please.
In 1931 on the Cape Arid peninsula in Western Australia, some amateur naturalists were poking about in the scrubby wastes when they found an insect none had seen before. It looked vaguely like an ant, but was an unusual pale yellow and had strange, staring, distinctly unsettling eyes. Some specimens were collected and these found their way to the desk of an expert at the National Museum of Victoria in Melbourne, who identified the insect at once as Nothomyrmecia. The discovery caused great excitement because, as far as anyone knew, nothing like it had existed on earth for a hundred million years. Nothomyrmecia was a proto-ant, a living relic from a time when ants were evolving from wasps. In entomological terms, it was as extraordinary as if someone had found a herd of triceratops grazing on some distant grassy plain.
An expedition was organized at once, but despite the most scrupulous searching, no one could find the Cape Arid colony. Subsequent searches came up equally empty-handed. Almost half a century later, when word got out that a team of American scientists was planning to search for the ant, almost certainly with the kind of high-tech gadgetry that would make the Australians look amateurish and underorganized, government scientists in Canberra decided to make one final, preemptive effort to find the ants alive. So a party of them set off in convoy across the country.
On the second day out, while driving across the South Australia desert, one of their vehicles began to smoke and sputter, and they were forced to make an unscheduled overnight stop at a lonely pause in the highway called Poochera. During the evening one of the scientists, a man named Bob Taylor, stepped out for a breath of air and idly played his flashlight over the surrounding terrain. You may imagine his astonishment when he discovered, crawling over the trunk of a eucalyptus beside their campsite, a thriving colony of none other than Nothomyrmecia.
Now consider the probabilities. Taylor and his colleagues were eight hundred miles from their intended search site. In the almost 3 million square miles of emptiness that is Australia, one of the handful of people able to identify it had just found one of the rarest, most sought-after insects on earth—an insect seen alive just once, almost half a century earlier—and all because their van had broken down where it did. Nothomyrmecia, incidentally, has still never been found at its original site.
You take my point again, I’m sure. This is a country that is at once staggeringly empty and yet packed with stuff. Interesting stuff, ancient stuff, stuff not readily explained. Stuff yet to be found.
Trust me, this is an interesting place.
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A Short History of Nearly Everything
1 HOW TO BUILD A UNIVERSE
NO MATTER HOW hard you try you will never be able to grasp just how tiny, how spatially unassuming, is a proton. It is just way too small.
A proton is an infinitesimal part of an atom, which is itself of course an insubstantial thing. Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this i can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them, rather more than the number of seconds contained in half a million years. So protons are exceedingly microscopic, to say the very least.
Now imagine if you can (and of course you can't) shrinking one of those protons down to a billionth of its normal size into a space so small that it would make a proton look enormous. Now pack into that tiny, tiny space about an ounce of matter. Excellent. You are ready to start a universe.
I'm assuming of course that you wish to build an inflationary universe. If you'd prefer instead to build a more old-fashioned, standard Big Bang universe, you'll need additional materials. In fact, you will need to gather up everything there is--every last mote and particle of matter between here and the edge of creation—and squeeze it into a spot so infinitesimally compact that it has no dimensions at all. It is known as a singularity.
In either case, get ready for a really big bang. Naturally, you will wish to retire to a safe place to observe the spectacle. Unfortunately, there is nowhere to retire to because outside the singularity there is no where. When the universe begins to expand, it won't be spreading out to fill a larger emptiness. The only space that exists is the space it creates as it goes.
It is natural but wrong to visualize the singularity as a kind of pregnant dot hanging in a dark, boundless void. But there is no space, no darkness. The singularity has no "around" around it. There is no space for it to occupy, no place for it to be. We can't even ask how long it has been there—whether it has just lately popped into being, like a good idea, or whether it has been there forever, quietly awaiting the right moment. Time doesn't exist. There is no past for it to emerge from.
And so, from nothing, our universe begins.
In a single blinding pulse, a moment of glory much too swift and expansive for any form of words, the singularity assumes heavenly dimensions, space beyond conception. In the first lively second (a second that many cosmologists will devote careers to shaving into ever-finer wafers) is produced gravity and the other forces that govern physics. In less than a minute the universe is a million billion miles across and growing fast. There is a lot of heat now, ten billion degrees of it, enough to begin the nuclear reactions that create the lighter elements--principally hydrogen and helium, with a dash (about one atom in a hundred million) of lithium. In three minutes, 98 percent of all the matter there is or will ever be has been produced. We have a universe. It is a place of the most wondrous and gratifying possibility, and beautiful, too. And it was all done in about the time it takes to make a sandwich.
When this moment happened is a matter of some debate. Cosmologists have long argued over whether the moment of creation was 10 billion years ago or twice that or something in between. The consensus seems to be heading for a figure of about 13.7 billion years, but these things are notoriously difficult to measure, as we shall see further on. All that can really be said is that at some indeterminate point in the very distant past, for reasons unknown, there came the moment known to science as t = 0. We were on our way.
There is of course a great deal we don't know, and much of what we think we know we haven't known, or thought we've known, for long. Even the notion of the Big Bang is quite a recent one. The idea had been kicking around since the 1920s, when Georges Lem tre, a Belgian priest-scholar, first tentatively proposed it, but it didn't really become an active notion in cosmology until the mid-1960s when two young radio astronomers made an extraordinary and inadvertent discovery.
Their names were Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson. In 1965, they were trying to make use of a large communications antenna owned by Bell Laboratories at Holmdel, New Jersey, but they were troubled by a persistent background noise—a steady, steamy hiss that made any experimental work impossible. The noise was unrelenting and unfocused. It came from every point in the sky, day and night, through every season. For a year the young astronomers did everything they could think of to track down and eliminate the noise. They tested every electrical system. They rebuilt instruments, checked circuits, wiggled wires, dusted plugs. They climbed into the dish and placed duct tape over every seam and rivet. They climbed back into the dish with brooms and scrubbing brushes and carefully swept it clean of what they referred to in a later paper as "white dielectric material," or what is known more commonly as bird shit. Nothing they tried worked.
Unknown to them, just thirty miles away at Princeton University, a team of scientists led by Robert Dicke was working on how to find the very thing they were trying so diligently to get rid of. The Princeton researchers were pursuing an idea that had been suggested in the 1940s by the Russian-born astrophysicist George Gamow that if you looked deep enough into space you should find some cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang. Gamow calculated that by the time it crossed the vastness of the cosmos, the radiation would reach Earth in the form of microwaves. In a more recent paper he had even suggested an instrument that might do the job: the Bell antenna at Holmdel. Unfortunately, neither Penzias and Wilson, nor any of the Princeton team, had read Gamow's paper.
The noise that Penzias and Wilson were hearing was, of course, the noise that Gamow had postulated. They had found the edge of the universe, or at least the visible part of it, 90 billion trillion miles away. They were "seeing" the first photons—the most ancient light in the universe—though time and distance had converted them to microwaves, just as Gamow had predicted. In his book The Inflationary Universe, Alan Guth provides an analogy that helps to put this finding in perspective. If you think of peering into the depths of the universe as like looking down from the hundredth floor of the Empire State Building (with the hundredth floor representing now and street level representing the moment of the Big Bang), at the time of Wilson and Penzias's discovery the most distant galaxies anyone had ever detected were on about the sixtieth floor, and the most distant things—quasars—were on about the twentieth. Penzias and Wilson's finding pushed our acquaintance with the visible universe to within half an inch of the sidewalk.
Still unaware of what caused the noise, Wilson and Penzias phoned Dicke at Princeton and described their problem to him in the hope that he might suggest a solution. Dicke realized at once what the two young men had found. "Well, boys, we've just been scooped," he told his colleagues as he hung up the phone.
Soon afterward the Astrophysical Journal published two articles: one by Penzias and Wilson describing their experience with the hiss, the other by Dicke's team explaining its nature. Although Penzias and Wilson had not been looking for cosmic background radiation, didn't know what it was when they had found it, and hadn't described or interpreted its character in any paper, they received the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics. The Princeton researchers got only sympathy. According to Dennis Overbye in Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, neither Penzias nor Wilson altogether understood the significance of what they had found until they read about it in the New York Times.
Incidentally, disturbance from cosmic background radiation is something we have all experienced. Tune your television to any channel it doesn't receive, and about 1 percent of the dancing static you see is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang. The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe.
Although everyone calls it the Big Bang, many books caution us not to think of it as an explosion in the conventional sense. It was, rather, a vast, sudden expansion on a whopping scale. So what caused it?
One notion is that perhaps the singularity was the relic of an earlier, collapsed universe—that we're just one of an eternal cycle of expanding and collapsing universes, like the bladder on an oxygen machine. Others attribute the Big Bang to what they call "a false vacuum" or "a scalar field" or "vacuum energy"—some quality or thing, at any rate, that introduced a measure of instability into the nothingness that was. It seems impossible that you could get something from nothing, but the fact that once there was nothing and now there is a universe is evident proof that you can. It may be that our universe is merely part of many larger universes, some in different dimensions, and that Big Bangs are going on all the time all over the place. Or it may be that space and time had some other forms altogether before the Big Bang—forms too alien for us to imagine—and that the Big Bang represents some sort of transition phase, where the universe went from a form we can't understand to one we almost can. "These are very close to religious questions," Dr. Andrei Linde, a cosmologist at Stanford, told the New York Times in 2001.
The Big Bang theory isn't about the bang itself but about what happened after the bang. Not long after, mind you. By doing a lot of math and watching carefully what goes on in particle accelerators, scientists believe they can look back to 10-43 seconds after the moment of creation, when the universe was still so small that you would have needed a microscope to find it. We mustn't swoon over every extraordinary number that comes before us, but it is perhaps worth latching on to one from time to time just to be reminded of their ungraspable and amazing breadth. Thus 10-43 is 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000001, or one 10 million trillion trillion trillionths of a second.
Most of what we know, or believe we know, about the early moments of the universe is thanks to an idea called inflation theory first propounded in 1979 by a junior particle physicist, then at Stanford, now at MIT, named Alan Guth. He was thirty-two years old and, by his own admission, had never done anything much before. He would probably never have had his great theory except that he happened to attend a lecture on the Big Bang given by none other than Robert Dicke. The lecture inspired Guth to take an interest in cosmology, and in particular in the birth of the universe.
The eventual result was the inflation theory, which holds that a fraction of a moment after the dawn of creation, the universe underwent a sudden dramatic expansion. It inflated—in effect ran away with itself, doubling in size every 10-34 seconds. The whole episode may have lasted no more than 10-30 seconds—that's one million million million million millionths of a second—but it changed the universe from something you could hold in your hand to something at least 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times bigger. Inflation theory explains the ripples and eddies that make our universe possible. Without it, there would be no clumps of matter and thus no stars, just drifting gas and everlasting darkness.
According to Guth's theory, at one ten-millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, gravity emerged. After another ludicrously brief interval it was joined by electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces—the stuff of physics. These were joined an instant later by swarms of elementary particles—the stuff of stuff. From nothing at all, suddenly there were swarms of photons, protons, electrons, neutrons, and much else—between 1079 and 1089 of each, according to the standard Big Bang theory.
Such quantities are of course ungraspable. It is enough to know that in a single cracking instant we were endowed with a universe that was vast--at least a hundred billion light-years across, according to the theory, but possibly any size up to infinite--and perfectly arrayed for the creation of stars, galaxies, and other complex systems.
What is extraordinary from our point of view is how well it turned out for us. If the universe had formed just a tiny bit differently—if gravity were fractionally stronger or weaker, if the expansion had proceeded just a little more slowly or swiftly—then there might never have been stable elements to make you and me and the ground we stand on. Had gravity been a trifle stronger, the universe itself might have collapsed like a badly erected tent, without precisely the right values to give it the right dimensions and density and component parts. Had it been weaker, however, nothing would have coalesced. The universe would have remained forever a dull, scattered void.
This is one reason that some experts believe there may have been many other big bangs, perhaps trillions and trillions of them, spread through the mighty span of eternity, and that the reason we exist in this particular one is that this is one we could exist in. As Edward P. Tryon of Columbia University once put it: "In answer to the question of why it happened, I offer the modest proposal that our Universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time." To which adds Guth: "Although the creation of a universe might be very unlikely, Tryon emphasized that no one had counted the failed attempts."
Martin Rees, Britain's astronomer royal, believes that there are many universes, possibly an infinite number, each with different attributes, in different combinations, and that we simply live in one that combines things in the way that allows us to exist. He makes an analogy with a very large clothing store: "If there is a large stock of clothing, you're not surprised to find a suit that fits. If there are many universes, each governed by a differing set of numbers, there will be one where there is a particular set of numbers suitable to life. We are in that one."
Rees maintains that six numbers in particular govern our universe, and that if any of these values were changed even very slightly things could not be as they are. For example, for the universe to exist as it does requires that hydrogen be converted to helium in a precise but comparatively stately manner—specifically, in a way that converts seven one-thousandths of its mass to energy. Lower that value very slightly—from 0.007 percent to 0.006 percent, say—and no transformation could take place: the universe would consist of hydrogen and nothing else. Raise the value very slightly—to 0.008 percent—and bonding would be so wildly prolific that the hydrogen would long since have been exhausted. In either case, with the slightest tweaking of the numbers the universe as we know and need it would not be here.
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The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
SPRINGFIELD, ILL. (AP)—The State Senate of Illinois yesterday disbanded its Committee on Efficiency and Economy “for reasons of efficiency and economy.”
—Des Moines Tribune, February 6, 1955
IN THE LATE 1950s, the Royal Canadian Air Force produced a booklet on isometrics, a form of exercise that enjoyed a short but devoted vogue with my father. The idea of isometrics was that you used any unyielding object, like a tree or a wall, and pressed against it with all your might from various positions to tone and strengthen different groups of muscles. Since everybody already has access to trees and walls, you didn't need to invest in a lot of costly equipment, which I expect was what attracted my dad.
What made it unfortunate in my father’s case is that he would do his isometrics on airplanes. At some point in every flight, he would stroll back to the galley area or the space by the emergency exit and, taking up the posture of someone trying to budge a very heavy piece of machinery, he would begin to push with his back or shoulder against the outer wall of the plane, pausing occasionally to take deep breaths before returning with quiet grunts to the task.
Since it looked uncannily, if unfathomably, as if he were trying to force a hole in the side of the plane, this naturally drew attention. Businessmen in nearby seats would stare over the tops of their glasses. A stewardess would pop her head out of the galley and likewise stare, but with a certain hard caution, as if remembering some aspect of her training that she had not previously been called upon to implement.
Seeing that he had observers, my father would straighten up and smile genially and begin to outline the engaging principles behind isometrics. Then he would give a demonstration to an audience that swiftly consisted of no one. He seemed curiously incapable of feeling embarrassment in such situations, but that was all right because I felt enough for both of us—indeed, enough for us and all the other passengers, the airline and its employees, and the whole of whatever state we were flying over.
Two things made these undertakings tolerable. The first was that back on solid ground my dad wasn’t half as foolish most of the time. The second was that the purpose of these trips was always to go to a Major League city, stay in a big downtown hotel, and attend ball games, and that excused a great deal—well, everything, in fact. My dad was a sportswriter for The Des Moines Register, which in those days was one of the country’s best papers, and often took me along on trips through the Midwest. Sometimes these were car trips to places like Sioux City or Burlington, but at least once a summer we boarded a big silver plane—a huge event in those days—and lumbered through the summery skies, up among the fleecy clouds, to St. Louis or Chicago or Detroit to take in a home stand. It was a kind of working holiday for my dad.
Baseball, like everything else, was part of a simpler world in those days, and I was allowed to go with him into the clubhouse and dugout and onto the field before games. I have had my hair tousled by Stan Musial. I have handed Willie Mays a ball that had skittered past him as he played catch. I have lent my binoculars to Harvey Kuenn (or possibly it was Billy Hoeft) so that he could scope some busty blonde in the upper deck. Once on a hot July afternoon I sat in a nearly airless clubhouse under the left–field grandstand at Wrigley Field beside Ernie Banks, the Cubs’ great shortstop, as he autographed boxes of new white baseballs (which are, incidentally, one of the most pleasurably aromatic things on earth, and worth spending time around anyway). Unbidden, I took it upon myself to sit beside him and pass him each new ball. This slowed the process considerably, but he gave a little smile each time and said thank you as if I had done him quite a favor. He was the nicest human being I have ever met. It was like being friends with God.
I CAN'T IMAGINE there has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive than America in the 1950s. No country had ever known such prosperity. When the war ended the United States had $26 billion worth of factories that hadn't existed before the war, $140 billion in savings and war bonds just waiting to be spent, no bomb damage, and practically no competition. All that American companies had to do was stop making tanks and battleships and start making Buicks and Frigidaires—and boy did they.
By 1951, when I came sliding down the chute, almost 90 percent of American families had refrigerators, and nearly three-quarters had washing machines, telephones, vacuum cleaners, and gas or electric stoves—things that most of the rest of the world could still only fantasize about. Americans owned 80 percent of the world's electrical goods, controlled two–thirds of the world’s productive capacity, produced more than 40 percent of its electricity, 60 percent of its oil, and 66 percent of its steel. The 5 percent of people on Earth who were Americans had more wealth than the other 95 percent combined.
Remarkably, almost all this wealth was American made. Of the 7.5 million new cars sold in America in 1954, for instance, 99.93 percent were made in America by Americans. We became the richest country in the world without needing the rest of the world.
I don’t know of anything that better conveys the happy bounty of the age than a photograph (reproduced in this volume in the frontmatter of the book) that ran in Life magazine two weeks before my birth. It shows the Czekalinski family of Cleveland, Ohio—Steve, Stephanie, and two sons, Stephen and Henry—surrounded by the two and a half tons of food that a typical blue–collar family ate in a year. Among the items they were shown with were 450 pounds of flour, 72 pounds of shortening, 56 pounds of butter, 31 chickens, 300 pounds of beef, 25 pounds of carp, 144 pounds of ham, 39 pounds of coffee, 690 pounds of potatoes, 698 quarts of milk, 131 dozen eggs, 180 loaves of bread, and 8 1/2 gallons of ice cream, all purchased on a budget of $25 a week. (Mr. Czekalinski made $1.96 an hour as a shipping clerk in a DuPont factory.) In 1951, the average American ate 50 percent more than the average European.
No wonder people were happy. Suddenly they were able to have things they had never dreamed of having, and they couldn't believe their luck. There was, too, a wonderful simplicity of desire. It was the last time that people would be thrilled to own a toaster or waffle iron. If you bought a major appliance, you invited the neighbors around to have a look at it. When I was about four my parents bought an Amana Stor–Mor refrigerator and for at least six months it was like an honored guest in our kitchen. I’m sure they’d have drawn it up to the table at dinner if it hadn’t been so heavy. When visitors dropped by unexpectedly, my father would say: “Oh, Mary, is there any iced tea in the Amana?” Then to the guests he’d add significantly: “There usually is. It’s a Stor–Mor.”
“Oh, a Stor–Mor,” the male visitor would say and elevate his eyebrows in the manner of someone who appreciates quality cooling. “We thought about getting a Stor–Mor ourselves, but in the end we went for a Philco Shur–Kool. Alice loved the EZ-Glide vegetable drawer and you can get a full quart of ice cream in the freezer box. That was a big selling point for Wendell Junior, as you can imagine!”
They’d all have a good laugh at that and then sit around drinking iced tea and talking appliances for an hour or so. No human beings had ever been quite this happy before.
People looked forward to the future, too, in ways they never would again. Soon, according to every magazine, we were going to have underwater cities off every coast, space colonies inside giant spheres of glass, atomic trains and airliners, personal jet packs, a gyrocopter in every driveway, cars that turned into boats or even submarines, moving sidewalks to whisk us effortlessly to schools and offices, dome–roofed automobiles that drove themselves along sleek superhighways allowing Mom, Dad, and the two boys (Chip and Bud or Skip and Scooter) to play a board game or wave to a neighbor in a passing gyrocopter or just sit back and enjoy saying some of those splendid words that existed in the fifties and are no longer heard: mimeograph, rotisserie, stenographer, icebox, dime store, rutabaga, Studebaker, panty raid, bobby socks, Sputnik, beatnik, canasta, Cinerama, Moose Lodge, pinochle, daddy–o.
For those who couldn’t wait for underwater cities and self–driving cars, thousands of smaller enrichments were available right now. If you were to avail yourself of all that was on offer from advertisers in a single issue of, let's say, Popular Science from, let's say, December 1956, you could, among much else, teach yourself ventriloquism, learn to cut meat (by correspondence or in person at the National School of Meat Cutting in Toledo, Ohio), embark on a lucrative career sharpening skates door to door, arrange to sell fire extinguishers from home, end rupture troubles once and for all, build radios, repair radios, perform on radio, talk on radio to people in different countries and possibly on different planets, improve your personality, get a personality, acquire a manly physique, learn to dance, create personalized stationery for profit, or “make big $$$$” in your spare time at home building lawn figures and other novelty ornaments.
My brother, who was normally quite an intelligent human being, once invested in a booklet that promised to teach him how to throw his voice. He would say something unintelligible through rigid lips, then quickly step aside and say, “That sounded like it came from over there, didn’t it?” He also saw an ad in Mechanics Illustrated that invited him to enjoy color television at home for 65 cents plus postage, placed an order, and four weeks later received in the mail a multicolored sheet of transparent plastic that he was instructed to tape over the television screen and watch the image through.
Having spent the money, my brother refused to accept that it was a touch disappointing. When a human face moved into the pinkish part of the screen or a section of lawn briefly coincided with the green portion, he would leap up in triumph. “Look! Look! That’s what color television’s gonna look like,” he would say. “This is all just experimental, you see.”
In fact, color television didn't come to our neighborhood until nearly the end of the decade, when Mr. Kiessler on St. John’s Road bought an enormous RCA Victor Consolette, the flagship of the RCA fleet, for a lot of money. For at least two years his was the only known color television in private ownership, which made it a fantastic novelty. On Saturday evenings the children of the neighborhood would steal into his yard and stand in his flower beds to watch a program called My Living Doll through the double window behind his sofa. I am pretty certain that Mr. Kiessler didn't realize that two dozen children of various ages and sizes were silently watching the TV with him or he wouldn’t have played with himself quite so enthusiastically every time the nubile Julie Newmar bounded onto the screen. I assumed it was some sort of isometrics.
EVERY YEAR FOR NEARLY FORTY YEARS, from 1945 until his retirement, my father went to the World Series for the Register. It was, by an immeasurably wide margin, the high point of his working year. Not only did he get to live it up for two weeks on expenses in some of the nation’s most cosmopolitan and exciting cities—and from Des Moines all cities are cosmopolitan and exciting—but he also got to witness many of the most memorable moments of baseball history: Al Gionfriddo’s miraculous one–handed catch of a Joe DiMaggio line drive in 1947, Don Larsen's perfect game in 1956, Bill Mazeroski’s series–winning homer of 1960. These may mean nothing to you—they would mean nothing to most people these days, I suppose—but they were moments of near ecstasy that were shared by a nation.
In those days, World Series games were played during the day, so you had to play hooky or develop a convenient chest infection (“Jeez, Mom, the teacher said there’s a lot of TB going around”) if you wanted to see a game. Crowds would lingeringly gather wherever a radio was on or a TV played. Getting to watch or listen to any part of a World Series game, even half an inning at lunchtime, became a kind of illicit thrill. And if you did happen to be present when something monumental occurred, you would remember it for the rest of your life. My father had an uncanny knack for being there when such moments were made—never more so than in the seminal (and what an apt word that can sometimes be) season of 1951 when our story begins.
In the National League, the Brooklyn Dodgers had been cruising toward an easy pennant when, in mid-August, their crosstown rivals, the Giants, suddenly stirred to life and began a highly improbable comeback. Baseball in those days dominated the American psyche in a way that can scarcely be imagined now. Professional football and basketball existed, of course, and were followed, but essentially as minor spectacles that helped to pass the colder months until the baseball season resumed. The Super Bowl was years from its invention. The only sporting event that gripped the nation—the one time in the year when even your mom knew what was going on in the sporting world—was the World Series. And seldom did the race to reach the series hold America more firmly in thrall than in the late summer and early fall of 1951.
After months of comatose play, the Giants suddenly could do no wrong. They won thirty–seven of forty–four games down the home stretch, cutting away at the Dodgers’ once–unassailable lead in what began to seem a fateful manner. By mid–September people talked of little else but whether the Dodgers could hold on. All across the nation fans dropped dead from the heat and excitement. When the dust cleared after the last day’s play, the standings showed the two teams with identical records, so a three-game playoff was hastily arranged to determine who could claim the pennant. The Register, like nearly all distant papers, didn’t dispatch a reporter to these impromptu playoffs, but elected to rely on wire services for its coverage until the series proper got under way.
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Bill Bryson's African Diary
In the late 1940s and early 1950s after he became a little too saggy to fit into a Tarzan loincloth without depressing popcorn sales among cinema audiences, the great Johnny Weissmuller filled the twilight years of his acting career with a series of low-budget adventure movies with titles like Devil Goddess and Jungle Moon Men, all built around a character called Jungle Jim. These modest epics are largely forgotten now, which is a pity because they were possibly the most cherishably terrible movies ever made.
The plots seldom got anywhere near coherence. My own favorite, called Pygmy Island, involved a lost tribe of white midgets and a strange but valiant fight against the spread of Communism. But the narrative possibilities were practically infinite since each Jungle Jim feature consisted in large measure of scenes taken from other, wholly unrelated adventure movies. Whatever footage was available—train crashes, volcanic eruptions, rhino charges, panic scenes involving large crowds of Japanese—would be snipped from the original and woven into Jungle Jim's wondrously accommodating story lines. From time to time, the ever-more-fleshy Weissmuller would appear on the scene to wrestle the life out of a curiously rigid and unresisting crocodile or chase some cannibals into the woods, but these intrusions were generally brief and seldom entirely explained.
I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that no more than four people at a time ever paid money to watch a Jungle Jim movie. The series might well have escaped my own attention except that in about 1959 WOI-TV, a television station well known in central Iowa for its tireless commitment to mediocrity, acquired the complete Jungle Jim oeuvre and for the next dozen or so years showed two of them back to back late every Friday night. What is especially tragic about all this is that I not only watched these movies with unaccountable devotion, but was indelibly influenced by them. In fact, were it not for some scattered viewings of the 1952 classic Bwana Devil and a trip on the Jungle Safari ride at Disneyland in 1961, my knowledge of African life, I regret to say, would be entirely dependent on Jungle Jim movies.
I can't say it actively preyed on me that my impressions of Africa were based so heavily on a series of B-movies made in California more than half a century ago, but when a personable young man named Dan McLean from the London office of CARE International, the venerable and worthy charity, asked me if I would be willing to go to Kenya to visit some of their projects and write a few words on their behalf, it occurred to me that there were some gaps in my familiarity with the Dark Continent that I might usefully fill in. So I agreed.
Some weeks later, I was summoned to CARE's London offices for a meeting with Dan, his boss Will Day and a rugged and amiable fellow named Nick Southern, CARE's regional manager for Kenya, who happened to be in London at the time. We sat around a big table spread with maps of Kenya, while they outlined what they had in mind for me.
"Of course, you'll have to fly to the refugee camp at Dadaab," Will observed thoughtfully at one point. He glanced at me. "To avoid the bandits," he explained.
Dan and Nick nodded gravely.
"I beg your pardon?" I said, taking a sudden interest.
"It's bandit country all round there," Will said.
"Where?" I asked, peering at the map for the first time.
"Oh, just there," Will said, waving a hand vaguely across most of east Africa. "But you'll be fine in a plane."
"They only rarely shoot at planes," Nick explained.
This wasn't at all what I had had in mind, frankly. By way of homework, I had dutifully watched Out of Africa, from which I derived the impression that this trip would mostly take place on a verandah somewhere while turbaned servants brought me lots of coffee. I knew that we would probably visit a clinic from time to time and that someone in the party might occasionally have to shoot a charging animal, but I hadn't imagined anything shooting at me in return.
"So how dangerous is Kenya then?" I asked in a small controlled squeak.
"Oh, not at all," they responded in unison.
"Well, hardly," Will added.
"It depends on what you mean by dangerous, of course," said Dan.
"Like bleeding and not getting up again," I suggested. "Being shot and stabbed and so forth," I added.
They assured me that that only very rarely happened, and that it was nearly always one or the other. You had to be very unlucky to be shot and stabbed, they said.
"It's mostly diseases you have to worry about," Nick went on. "Malaria, schistosomiasis, trypanosomiasis."
"Rift Valley fever, blackwater fever, yellow fever," said Dan.
"Dengue fever, bilharzia—the usual tropical stuff," added Will.
But they pointed out that you can be inoculated against many of those and for the rest most people manage a more or less complete recovery, given time and a considered programme of physiotherapy. Many even walk again. I asked if there was anything else I should know.
"Well, the roads are a little dangerous—there are some crazy drivers out there," Will said, chuckling.
"But apart from that and the diseases and the bandits and the railway from Nairobi to Mombasa, there's absolutely nothing to worry about," Nick added.
"What's wrong with the railway?"
"Oh, nothing really. It's just the rolling stock is a little antiquated and sometimes the brakes give out coming down out of the mountains—but, hey, if you worried about all the things that might happen you wouldn't go anywhere, would you?"
"I don't go anywhere," I pointed out.
They nodded thoughtfully.
"Well, it'll be an adventure," Will said brightly. "You'll be fine, absolutely fine. Just check your insurance before you go."
And so it was that I became irrevocably committed to the African adventure which follows.
Saturday, September 28
We meet at the Kenya Airways check-in desk at Heathrow, the five brave souls who are to form our party from London. In addition to me and Dan, they are: David Sanderson, a thoughtful and kindly fellow who is soon to take up a post in Johannesburg as CARE's regional manager in South Africa, but joining us now in his capacity as urban specialist; Justin Linnane, an intent but amiable young maker of television documentaries who has volunteered to make a video record of the expedition; and the photographer Jenny Matthews, whose brilliant and compassionate snaps grace this volume. White-haired and sweetly unobtrusive, Jenny is easily the wonder of the lot. If you saw her in a supermarket you would take her for a schoolteacher or civil servant. In fact, for 25 years she has gone wherever there is danger—to Chechnya, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Rwanda. She is fearless and evidently indestructible. If things go bad on this trip, it is her I'll hold on to.
The first good news is that Kenya Airways has given us all an upgrade on account of our genial goodness and dapper manner, and so of course gets a glowing mention here. It is a nine-and-a-half-hour flight from London to Nairobi, and we are very pleased to pass it in comfort, with a better class of drinks and our own party packs.
An hour or so after we are airborne, by chance I come across an article in The Economist declaring Nairobi to be the new crime capital of Africa. My attention is particularly arrested by the disclosure that street children come up to cars waiting at traffic lights demanding money and if it's not given they rub balls of human excrement in the victim's face.
I share this information with my new companions and we agree that Dan, as group leader, will be our designated "rubbee" for the week. Conveniently, Dan is in the lavatory when the matter is discussed and so the motion carries unanimously. In order not to spoil his enjoyment of Nairobi we decide not to tell him of our decision until we see children advancing.
It is nighttime when we land at Jomo Kenyatta Airport and pleasantly cool. We are met by Kentice Tikolo, an immensely good-natured Kenyan lady who helps run CARE's Nairobi office and who shepherds us into waiting cabs. In Out of Africa, Nairobi was depicted as a sunny little country town, so I am disappointed to find that at some time in the past 50 or 60 years they took away that pretty scene and replaced it with Omaha, of all things. Nairobi is merely yet another modern city with traffic lights and big buildings and hoardings advertising Samsung televisions and the like. Our hotel is a Holiday Inn—very nice and comfortable, but hardly a place that shouts: "Welcome to Africa, Bwana."
"Oh, you will see plenty of Africa," Kentice assures me when we convene at the bar for a round of medicinal hydration. "We're going to show you lots of exotic things. Have you ever eaten camel?"
"Only in my junior high school cafeteria, and they called it lamb," I reply. I take the opportunity, while Dan is at the bar, to ask her about the street children I read about on the flight.
"Oh, that's the least of your worries," Kentice laughs. "Car-jackings are much worse. They can be quite violent."
"What a comfort to know."
"But don't worry," she says, laying a comforting hand on my arm and becoming solemn, "if anything goes wrong we have excellent hospitals in Nairobi."
We retire early because we have an early start in the morning. I am disappointed to find that there is no mosquito net around the bed in my room. Unaware that Nairobi is malaria-free, I slather myself with insect repellant and pass a long night sounding like two strips of parting Velcro each time I roll over in the bed and dreaming terrible dreams in which Jungle Jim, assisted by a tribe of white pygmies, chases me through the streets of Omaha with dung balls.
Sunday, September 29
In the morning we drive to Kibera, a sea of tin roofs filling a mile or so of steamy hillside on the south side of the city. Kibera is the biggest slum in Nairobi, possibly the biggest in Africa. Nobody knows how many people live there. It's at least 700,000, but it may be as many as a million, perhaps more. At least 50,000 of Kibera's children are AIDS orphans. At least a fifth of the residents are HIV positive, but it could be as high as 50 percent. Nobody knows. Nothing about Kibera is certain and official, including its existence. It appears on no maps. It just is.
You can't just go in to Kibera if you are an outsider. Well, you can, but you wouldn't come out again. Kibera is a dangerous place. We were taken on a walking tour by the district chief, an amiable giant named Nashon Opiyo, and three of his deputies, all Kibera residents. They are employed by the government to keep an eye—and occasionally a lid—on things, even though Kibera doesn't officially exist.
To step into Kibera is to be lost at once in a random, seemingly endless warren of rank, narrow passageways wandering between rows of frail, dirt-floored hovels made of tin and mud and twigs and holes. Each shanty on average is ten feet by ten and home to five or six people. Down the centre of each lane runs a shallow trench filled with a trickle of water and things you don't want to see or step in. There are no services in Kibera—no running water, no rubbish collection, virtually no electricity, not a single flush toilet. In one section of Kibera called Laini Saba until recently there were just ten pit latrines for 40,000 people. Especially at night when it is unsafe to venture out, many residents rely on what are known as "flying toilets," which is to say they go into a plastic bag, then open their door and throw it as far as possible.
In the rainy season, the whole becomes a liquid ooze. In the dry season it has the charm and healthfulness of a rubbish tip. In all seasons it smells of rot. It's a little like wandering through a privy. Whatever is the most awful place you have ever experienced, Kibera is worse.
Kibera is only one of about a hundred slums in Nairobi, and it is by no means the worst. Altogether more than half of Nairobi's three million people are packed into these immensely squalid zones, which together occupy only about 1.5 percent of the city's land. In wonder I asked David Sanderson what made Kibera superior.
"There are a lot of factories around here," he said, "so there's work, though nearly all of it is casual. If you're lucky you might make a dollar a day, enough to buy a little food and a jerry can of water and to put something aside for your rent."
"How much is rent?"
"Oh, not much. Ten or twelve dollars a month. But the average annual income in Kenya is $280, so $120 or $140 in rent every year is a big slice of your income. And nearly everything else is expensive here, too, even water. The average person in a slum like Kibera pays five times what people in the developed world pay for the same volume of water piped to their homes."
"That's amazing," I said.
He nodded. "Every time you flush a toilet you use more water than the average person in the developing world has for all purposes in a day—cooking, cleaning, drinking, everything. It's very tough. For a lot of people Kibera is essentially a life sentence. Unless you are exceptionally lucky with employment, it's very, very difficult to get ahead."
Every day around the world, 180,000 people fetch up in or are born into cities like Nairobi, mostly into slums like Kibera. Ninety percent of the world's population growth in the twenty-first century will be in cities. "For better or worse, this is where the future is," David said. Yet, amazingly, aid agencies like CARE can do little for urban slums like Kibera. The governments won't let them. "Mostly they won't permit any kind of permanent improvements because they fear it would just affirm Kibera's existence, and also they are afraid that it would encourage more people to pour in from the countryside. So they'd rather pretend these places don't exist."
"But they must know it's here."
He smiled and pointed to a big house—a compound—commanding a neighboring hillside only a couple of hundred yards from Kibera's edge. The house, David told me, was the Nairobi residence of Daniel arap Moi, president of Kenya since 1978. "This is what he sees every morning when he looks out his window. Of course they know it's here."
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Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words
a, an. Errors involving the indefinite articles a and an are almost certainly more often a consequence of haste and carelessness than of ignorance. They are especially common when numbers are involved, as here: "Cox will contribute 10 percent of the equity needed to build a $80 million cable system" (Washington Post). Make it an. Occasionally the writer and editor together fail to note how an abbreviation is pronounced: "He was assisted initially by two officers from the sheriff's department and a FBI agent drafted in from the bureau's Cleveland office" (Chicago Tribune). When the first letter of an abbreviation is pronounced as a vowel, as in FBI, the preceding article should be an, not a.
abbreviations, contractions, acronyms. Abbreviation is the general term used to describe any shortened word. Contractions and acronyms are types of abbreviation. A contraction is a word that has been squeezed in the middle, so to speak, but has retained one or more of its opening and closing letters, as with Mr. for Mister and can't for cannot. An acronym is a word formed from the initial letter or letters of a group of words, as with radar for radio detecting and ranging, and NATO for North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Abbreviations that are not pronounced as words (IBM, ABC, NFL) are not acronyms; they are just abbreviations.
Whether to write NATO or Nato is normally a matter of preference or house style. American publications tend to capitalize all the letters of abbreviations, even when they are pronounced as words. In Britain, generally the convention is to capitalize only the initial letter when the abbreviation is pronounced as a word and is reasonably well known. Thus most British publications would write Aids and Nato (but probably not Seato). For abbreviations of all types, try to avoid an appearance of clutter and intrusiveness. Rather than make repeated reference to "the IGLCO" or "NOOSCAM," it is nearly always better to refer to the abbreviated party as "the committee," "the institute," or whatever other word is appropriate.
Finally, for the benefit of travelers who may have wondered why the British so often dispense with periods on the ends of abbreviations (writing Mr, Dr, and St where Americans would write Mr., Dr., and St.), it's helpful to know that the convention in Britain is to include a period when the abbreviation stops in the midst of a word (as with Capt. and Prof., for instance) but to leave off the period when the last letter of the abbreviation is the last letter of the full word—that is, when it is a contraction.
accessible. Not -able.
accommodate. One of the most misspelled of all words. Note -mm-.
accompanist. Not -iest.
acidulous, assiduous. Acidulous means tart or acid. Assiduous means diligent.
acolyte. Not -ite.
acoustics. As a science, the word is singular ("Acoustics was his line of work"). As a collection of properties, it is plural ("The acoustics in the auditorium were not good").
acronyms. See abbreviations, contractions, acronyms.
activity. Often a sign of prolixity, as here: "The warnings followed a week of earthquake activity throughout the region" (Independent). Just make it "a week of earthquakes."
acute, chronic. These two are sometimes confused, which is a little odd, as their meanings are sharply opposed. Chronic pertains to lingering conditions, ones that are not easily overcome. Acute refers to those that come to a sudden crisis and require immediate attention. People in the Third World may suffer from a chronic shortage of food. In a bad year, their plight may become acute.
a.d. anno Domini (Lat.), "in the year of the Lord." a.d. should be written before the year (a.d. 25) but after the century (fourth century a.d.) and is usually set in small caps. See also anno domini and b.c.
adage. Even the most careful users of English frequently, but unnecessarily, refer to an "old adage." An adage is by definition old.
adapter, adaptor. The first is one who adapts (as in a book for theatrical presentation); the second is the device for making appliances work abroad and so on.
adjective pileup. Many journalists, in an otherwise commendable attempt to pack as much information as possible into a confined space, often resort to the practice of piling adjectives in front of the subject, as in this London Times headline: "Police rape claim woman in court." Apart from questions of inelegance, such headlines can be confusing, to say the least. A hurried reader, expecting a normal subject-verb-object construction, could at first conclude that the police have raped a claim-woman in court before the implausibility of that notion makes him go back and read the headline again. Readers should never be required to retrace their steps, however short the journey. Although the practice is most common in headlines, it sometimes crops up in text, as here: "The new carburetor could result in an up to 35 percent improvement in gas mileage" (Des Moines Register). The ungainliness here could instantly be eliminated by making it "an improvement in mileage of up to 35 percent."
administer. Not administrate.
admit to is nearly always wrong, as in these examples: "The Rev. Jesse Jackson had just admitted to fathering a child with an adoring staffer" (Baltimore Sun); "Pretoria admits to raid against Angola" (Guardian headline); "Botha admits to errors on Machel cash" (Independent headline). Delete to in each case. You admit a misdeed, you do not admit to it.
advance planning is common but always redundant. All planning must be done in advance.
adverse, averse. Occasionally confused. Averse means reluctant or disinclined (think of aversion). Adverse means hostile and antagonistic (think of adversary).
aerate. Just two syllables. Not aereate.
affect, effect. As a verb, affect means to influence ("Smoking may affect your health") or to adopt a pose or manner ("She affected ignorance"). Effect as a verb means to accomplish ("The prisoners effected an escape"). As a noun, the word needed is almost always effect (as in "personal effects" or "the damaging effects of war"). Affect as a noun has a narrow psychological meaning to do with emotional states (by way of which it is related to affection).
affinity denotes a mutual relationship. Therefore, strictly speaking, one should not speak of someone or something having an affinity for another but should speak of an affinity with or between. When mutuality is not intended, sympathy would be a better word. But it should also be noted that a number of authorities and many dictionaries no longer insist on this distinction.
affright. Note -ff-.
Afrikaans, Afrikaners. The first is a language, the second a group of people.
aggravate in the sense of exasperate has been with us at least since the early seventeenth century and has been opposed by grammarians for about as long. Strictly, aggravate means to make a bad situation worse. If you walk on a broken leg, you may aggravate the injury. People can never be aggravated, only circumstances. Fowler, who called objections to the looser usage a fetish, was no doubt right when he insisted the purists were fighting a battle that had already been lost, but equally there is no real reason to use aggravate when annoy will do.
aggression, aggressiveness. "Aggression in U.S. pays off for Tilling Group" (Times headline). Aggression always denotes hostility, which was not intended here. The writer of the headline meant to suggest only that the company had taken a determined and enterprising approach to the American market. The word he wanted was aggressiveness, which can denote either hostility or merely boldness.
aid and abet. A tautological gift from the legal profession. The two words together tell us nothing that either doesn't say on its own. The only distinction is that abet is normally reserved for contexts involving criminal intent. Thus it would be careless to speak of a benefactor abetting the construction of a church or youth club. Other redundant expressions dear to lawyers include null and void, ways and means, and without let or hindrance.
AIDS is not correctly described as a disease. It is a medical condition. The term is short for acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Air Line Pilots Association for the group that looks after the interests of American commercial pilots.
airlines. "It is thought the company may also be in exploratory talks with another U.S. carrier, Alaskan Airlines" (Times). It's Alaska Airlines. "It was found only a few miles from where a Swiss Air jet crashed two years ago" (Boston Globe). It's Swissair. Perhaps because airlines so commonly merge or change their names, they are often wrongly designated in newspaper reporting. The following are among the more commonly troublesome:
Air-India (note hyphen)
AirTran Airlines (formerly ValuJet Airlines)
All Nippon Airways (not -lines)
Delta Air Lines (note Air Lines two words)
Iberia Airlines (not Iberian)
Japan Airlines (Airlines one word, but JAL for the company's abbreviation)
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (normally just KLM)
LanChile (one word, but formerly Lan Chile, two words)
Sabena Belgian World Airlines (normally just Sabena)
Scandinavian Airlines System (normally just SAS)
SriLankan Airlines (formerly AirLanka; note one word on
United Airlines (Airlines one word, but UAL for the company's abbreviation)
US Airways (formerly USAir, one word)
Virgin Atlantic Airways
"Alas! poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio," is the correct version of the quotation from Hamlet, which is often wrongly, and somewhat mysteriously, rendered as "Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well."
albumen, albumin. Albumen is the white of an egg; albumin is a protein within the albumen.
Alfa-Romeo for the Italian make of automobile. Not Alpha-.
alias, alibi. Both words derive from the Latin root alius (meaning "other"). Alias refers to an assumed name and pertains only to names. It would be incorrect to speak of an impostor passing himself off under the alias of being a doctor.
Alibi is a much more contentious word. In legal parlance it refers to a plea by an accused person that she was elsewhere at the time she was alleged to have committed a crime. More commonly it is used to mean any excuse. Fowler called this latter usage mischievous and pretentious, and most authorities agree with him. But Bernstein, while conceding that the usage is a casualism, contends that no other word can quite convey the meaning of an excuse intended to transfer responsibility. Time will no doubt support him—many distinguished writers have used alibi in its more general, less fastidious sense—but for the moment, all that can be said is that in the sense of a general excuse, many authorities consider alibi unacceptable.
allay, alleviate, assuage, relieve. Alleviate should suggest giving temporary relief without removing the underlying cause of a problem. It is close in meaning to ease, a fact obviously unknown to the writer of this sentence: "It will ease the transit squeeze, but will not alleviate it" (Chicago Tribune). Allay and assuage both mean to put to rest or to pacify and are most often applied to fears. Relieve is the more general term and covers all these meanings.
all intents and purposes is colorless, redundant, and hackneyed. Almost any other expression would be an improvement. "He is, to all intents and purposes, king of the island" (Mail on Sunday) would be instantly made better by changing the central phrase to "in effect" or removing it altogether. If the phrase must be used at all, it can always be shorn of the last two words. "To all intents" says as much as "to all intents and purposes."
all right. A sound case could be made for shortening all right to alright, as many informal users of English do already. Many other compounds beginning with all have been contracted without protest for centuries, among them already, almost, altogether, and even alone, which originally was all one. English, however, is a slow and fickle tongue, and alright continues to be looked on as illiterate and unacceptable, and consequently it ought never to appear in serious writing.
All Souls College,Oxford. Not Souls'.
all time. Many authorities object to this expression in constructions such as "She was almost certainly the greatest female sailor of all time" (Daily Telegraph) on the grounds that all time extends to the future as well as the past and we cannot possibly know what lies ahead. A no less pertinent consideration is that such assessments, as in the example just cited, are bound to be hopelessly subjective and therefore have no place in any measured argument. For a similar problem with futurity, see ever.
allusion. "When the speaker happened to name Mr. Gladstone, the allusion was received with loud cheers" (cited by Fowler). The word is not, as many suppose, a more impressive synonym for reference. When you allude to something, you do not specifically mention it but leave it to the reader to deduce the subject. Thus it would be correct to write, "In an allusion to the President, he said, 'Some people make better oil men than politicians.' " The word is closer in meaning to implication or suggestion.
altercation. "Three youths were injured in the altercation" (Chicago Tribune). No one suffers physical injury in an altercation. It is a heated exchange of words and nothing more.
alumnae, alumni. "Parker joined the other Wellesley alumni in a round of sustained applause from the podium" (Boston Globe). Alumni is the masculine plural for a collection of college graduates. In the context of an all-female institution, as in the example just cited, the correct word is alumnae. The singular forms are respectively alumna (feminine) and alumnus (masculine).
ambidextrous. Not -erous.
ambiguous, equivocal. Both mean vague and open to more than one interpretation. But whereas an ambiguous statement may be vague by accident or by intent, an equivocal one is calculatedly unclear.
amid, among. Among applies to things that can be separated and counted, amid to things that cannot. Rescuers might search among survivors but amid wreckage. See also between, among.
amoral, immoral. Amoral describes matters in which questions of morality do not arise or are disregarded; immoral applies to things that are evil.
Amtrak for the passenger railroad corporation. The company's formal designation is the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, but this is almost never used, even on first reference.
and. The belief that and should not be used to begin a sentence is without foundation. And that's all there is to it.
A thornier problem is seen here: "The group has interests in Germany, Australia, Japan and intends to expand into North America next year" (Times). This is what Fowler called a bastard enumeration and Bernstein, with more delicacy, called a series out of control. The defect is that the closing clause ("intends to expand into North America next year") does not belong to the series that precedes it. It is a separate thought. The sentence should read, "The group has interests in Germany, Australia, and Japan, and intends to expand into North America next year." (Note that the inclusion of a comma after Japan helps to signal that the series has ended and a new clause is beginning.)
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Bill Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors
Aachen. City in Germany; in French, Aix-la-Chapelle.
a/an. Errors involving the indefinite articles a and an are almost certainly more often a consequence of haste and carelessness than of ignorance. They are especially common when numbers are involved, as here: "Cox will contribute 10 percent of the equity needed to build a $80 million cable system" or "He was assisted initially by two officers from the sheriff's department and a FBI agent." When the first letter of an abbreviation is pronounced as a vowel, as in "FBI," the preceding article should be an, not a.
Aarhus. City in Denmark; in Danish, erhus.
abacus, pl. abacuses.
abaft. Toward the stern, or rear, of a ship.
Abbas, Mahmoud. (1935-) President of Palestinian National Authority (2005-).
ABC. American Broadcasting Companies (note plural), though the full title is no longer spelled out. It is now part of the Walt Disney Company. The television network is ABC-TV.
abdomen, but abdominal.
Abdulaziz International Airport, King, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem. (1947-) American basketball player; born Lew Alcindor.
Abidjan. Capital of Ivory Coast.
ab incunabulis. (Lat.) "From the cradle."
abiogenesis. The concept that living matter can arise from nonliving matter; spontaneous generation.
-able. In adding this suffix to a verb, the general rule is to drop a silent e (livable, lovable) except after a soft g (manageable) or sibilant c (peaceable). When a verb ends with a consonant and a y (justify, indemnify) change the y to i before adding -able (justifiable, indemnifiable). Verbs ending in
-ate drop that syllable before adding -able (appreciable, demonstrable).
-able, -ible. There are no reliable rules for knowing when a word ends in -able and when in -ible; see Appendix for a list of some of the more frequently confused spellings.
ab origine. (Lat.) "From the beginning."
abrogate. To abolish.
Absalom. In the Old Testament, third son of David.
Absalom, Absalom!. Novel by William Faulkner (1936).
Absaroka Range, Rocky Mountains.
Abu Dhabi. Capital city of and state in the United Arab Emirates.
Abuja. Capital of Nigeria.
Abu Simbel, Egypt; site of temples built by Ramses II.
abyss, abyssal, but abysmal.
Abyssinia. Former name of Ethiopia.
Académie française. French literary society of forty members who act as guardians of the French language; in English contexts, Franeaise is usually capitalized.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Institution responsible for the Oscars.
a capella. Singing without musical accompaniment.
Acapulco, Mexico. Officially, Acapulco de Juarez.
Accademia della Crusca. Italian literary academy.
acciaccatura. Grace note in music.
accidentally. Not -tly.
accommodate. Very often misspelled: note -cc-, -mm-.
accompanist. Not -iest.
Accra. Capital of Ghana.
Acheson, Dean. (1893-1971) American diplomat and politician; secretary of state, 1949-53.
Achilles. King of the Myrmidons, most famous of the Greek heroes of the Trojan War.
Achilles’ heel. (Apos.)
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