The Thing Is with Steve Canavan - July 3, 2014

Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson
Share this article
Have your say

I’ve been a fan of Bill Bryson’s ever since he wrote the inarguably brilliant Notes From A Small Island.

That book is his musings during a trip around Britain and if you’ve never read it, you really should.

It has a very entertaining section about Blackpool, including his slightly cruel verdict on the Illuminations (“I suppose if you had never seen electricity in action, it would be pretty breathtaking”) and the observation that “on Friday and Saturday nights the town has more public toilets than anywhere else in Britain; elsewhere they call them doorways.” (Before you get too uppety, he does end up enjoying his time in Blackpool).

I like Bryson because he is responsible for a number of very funny lines, such as “if you can imagine a man having a vasectomy without anesthetic to the sound of frantic sitar-playing, you will have some idea what popular Turkish music is like.”

With all due respect to our EU friends, if you’ve read a better description of Turkish music I’d like to know.

I also like him because he started out as a journalist, which makes me as feel that one day there is a chance I too might be a multi-million selling, world famous author.

All I’m missing is talent but I’m sure, with practice, that will come.

Anyway I mention Bryson becaue I’m halfway through his latest book, One Summer: America 1927, which is pretty fascinating and focuses on, among many other things, how a young chap called Charles Lindbergh went from being a nobody to the most famous man on the planet in the space of a day or two.

Lindbergh did this by becoming the first person to fly from New York to Paris, a feat he achieved in 1927.

Now most of us are aware of Lindbergh and what he did, but only when you read Bryson’s book do you realise why it was such a big deal and why it made him so famous.

Attempting to fly in 1927 was incredibly daring – or more accurately, stupid – mainly because aeroplanes then were about as safe as jumping off a cliff sat on a metal tray.

Planes had started to be properly used for the first time during the latter stages of the Great War when some bright spark realised that hurling grenades and bombs from the air was a damn sight simpler than being sat in a muddy trench all day firing aimlessly at an invisible enemy sat half a mile away in another trench.

However, to say these new-fangled planes were reliable and safe would be like suggesting a tree is a good place to shelter during a lightning storm.

Up to 1914 the total number of people in the world killed in aeroplanes was about 100, says Bryson. By the end of 1918 that figure had risen to around 35,000 and the average life expectancy of a pilot was, unbelievably, just eight days.

This was because planes were being produced at astounding rates, despite the fact that no one really knew how to build them yet.

Things hadn’t improved a great deal by 1927, when Lindbergh somehow traversed the Atlantic in his plane Spirit of St Louis.

No one thought he’d succeed, with good reason. The plane’s designer, realising he had no real idea how far it was from New York to Paris, went to a public library and measured the distance on a globe with a piece of string.

Because the fuel tank was in front of the cockpit, there was no forward visibility.

Lindbergh had to guess he was going in a straight line at take-off (quite important when you think about it) and once airborne (and that nearly didn’t happen; his plane lifted off at the third attempt right at end of the runway and avoided some nearby telephone wires by a whisker) had to roll the plane so he could see how far he was off the ground through the side window.

He flew with two foot pedals and a stick between his legs. ‘When he needed to check his position, he would have to spread his work out on his lap and hold the stick between his knees,’ noted Bryson. ‘When it was night-time, he had to grip a small torch between his teeth.’

To keep the plane as light as possible – to ensure minimum fuel wastage and thus maximum mileage – Lindbergh even trimmed the white edges off his map.

The other task was simply staying awake, though Lindbergh reasoned that one of the (few) pluses of having an aircraft so tough to fly was that it would help maintain his concentration.

In the event - and by some miracle - he was right.

A shade more than 33 and a half hours after he departed New York, Lindbergh and his plane bounced down at an airfield in Paris.

It sparked joyous scenes all over the planet – this was as big in its day as someone landing on Jupiter and going for a stroll in shorts and flip flops would be now – and a 25-year-old, who had been utterly anonymous at the start of the week, was now on the front page of every paper and mobbed and cheered by hundreds of thousands of people everywhere he went.

The American president announced June 11 – the day the heroic pilot returned to America – would be known forever more as Lindbergh Day.

The Post Office bought out stamps; parks, streets, rivers, bridges and schools were named after him; and in Hollywood a young cartoonist called Walt Disney created an animation called Plane Crazy featuring a mouse.

He originally called the mouse Oswald, then changed it to Mickey and the rest is history.

There’s loads more but, you’ll be relived to know, not enough space to mention it.

Coincidentally, and in an attempt to become the next Bryson, I’m writing a book about how Blackpool FC got to the Premier League, but somehow a 0-0 away draw at Barnsley isn’t quite as exciting subject matter as the day some anonymous 
youngster changed the course of history.

Two young boys’ actions and the nine million who died after

Seeing as we are in historical mode this week, it was 100 years ago that two teenage lads caused the biggest loss of life of all time.

Nedjelko Cabrinovic and Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, and the 
rest you probably know - Europe imploded, went 
to war, and between 1914 
and 1918 nine million people died.

It is frustrating, but probably very fortunate for them, that neither Princip or Cabrinovic saw the end of the war they had started.

Both died from tuberculosis while in prison, Cabrinovic in 1916 (days before his 21st birthday) and Princip in 1918.

Before they popped their clogs however – and somewhat remarkably – neither showed any remorse for what they’d done or the horror they’d (albeit inadvertently) triggered.

“We are not criminals, we are honest people,” said Cabrinovic.

“We are idealists; we wanted to do good.”

There is protest and believing in a cause, and there is misguided madness.

Given what unfolded, they were very much in the latter camp.