A few home truths as Bryson journeys through history

Best-selling author Bill Bryson never imagined that a trip to his attic to investigate a leak in the roof would lead to a four-year project.

When the author, best known for his travel books and the popular science guide, A Short History of Nearly Everything, found a secret door which led to a tiny rooftop space, he realised he knew little about his own home or how people lived day-to-day through centuries.

Four years on, the resulting 483-page tome, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, features the minutiae of people going about their daily business through the ages.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

"Even Einstein will have spent large parts of his life thinking about his holidays or a new hammock or how dainty was the ankle on the young lady alighting from the tram across the street," Bryson reflects.

"I don't know how many hours of my school years were spent studying the Missouri Compromise or the War of the Roses, but it was vastly more than I was ever encouraged or allowed to give to the history of eating, sleeping, having sex or endeavouring to be amused."

The softly-spoken American, who made a home in Yorkshire until 1995 when he returned briefly to the US, recounts how people have lived on the domestic front, the hardships and discomforts they have endured, the etiquette and the differences in the living status of the rich and the poor.

As with so many of his books, Bryson is concerned with the quirky, the little habits which have evolved in our lifestyles, from why we always put pepper with salt to why men's suit jackets have pointless buttons on the sleeves.

"It took more research than I expected," he says. "When you start looking at the history of food, the history of cooking, the history of hygiene, they are big subjects. I should have stopped to think just what kind of a door I was opening."

He began the journey in his own house, a former Church of England Victorian rectory in Norfolk, and, leaving no stone unturned, Bryson, who is president of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, frets about the carbon footprint, the energy we waste making ourselves more comfortable and how the West takes its privileges for granted.

"Today, it takes the average citizen of Tanzania almost a year to produce the same volume of carbon emissions as is effortlessly generated every two-and-a-half days by a European, or every 28 hours by an American.

"The world is still green and lovely and attractive but there's a possibility it will stop being attractive as a direct consequence of the lifestyles that we've chosen to lead. We ought to be thinking about that."

Bryson, 58, was born in Des Moines, Iowa, the son of a sports writer. His mother was home furnishings editor at the local newspaper.

Unlike his father, who didn't want to move from Iowa, Bryson soon developed wanderlust and dropped out of college in the early 1970s to go backpacking in Europe. He arrived in Britain in 1973 – and fell in love with it.

Less than two years later, he married a nurse, Cynthia Billen, whom he met when going for a job at a mental hospital in Surrey.

As an innocent abroad, he went on to write a clutch of travel books, including Notes From a Small Island, while freelancing for a variety of newspapers and magazines, and with a growing family (he has four children) to support.

He lived in North Yorkshire for most of his career, and his love affair with this country continues.

"England is just home to me," he reflects. "My wife is English so I've married into the tribe, as it were. I feel comfortable here and this is where my life is."

Today, he cannot see himself ever leaving Britain, especially as he has five grandchildren here.

"Being a grandparent is the most wonderful thing in the world," he smiles. "When you have your own children, you are often so busy running your own life that you miss the magical side of it. As a grandparent, you can just look at your grandchildren and be completely smitten with them."

Bryson will be doing a book tour in the US in the autumn, when At Home is published there. But before then, he'll be having a well-earned holiday.

"There will be another book at some point but I'm going to give myself a bit of time off and read some books for pleasure," he says.

At Home, by Bill Bryson, is published by Doubleday, priced 20. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call free on 0800 0153232 or go online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk. P&P is 2.75.