Mr B and I were watching University Challenge on TV last night and - let's face it - not faring too well. There were, we agreed, far too many questions about mathematics, physics and the like and we were getting a bit
fed up with Jeremy Paxman pretending that, of course he would have known all the answers, even without them being written on his crib sheet.
Then, just as we were starting to feel uncomfortably challenged
(though it should be remembered that challenge is the name of this particular game) the very next starter for ten question posed to both teams was - which year is Bill Bryson writing about in his book "One Summer"? Neither Mr B nor I could contain our excitement:
"1927!" we chorused in happy unison. Not one of the contestants, learned as they undoubtedly were in Matters Mathematical, knew the answer.
We knew the answer because by happy coincidence, "One Summer" is
the latest book we are reading together. It is a most enlightening read. We are only a third of the way through and we already know more than we ever did about Prohibition, the Mississippi floods, Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic and the legendary
Babe Ruth - all related with good old Bill's delightful sense of the absurd.
The chapters on baseball are like a foreign language to me, though because of the way Bill tells the tale of home runs and stealing
second bases, it's rather like listening to a conversation in French. I may not understand a word, but I just love the accent. I have been to two baseball games in my life, one in San Francisco watching the Giants play in the most splendid of surroundings
and one in Canada. It is fair to say that my most lasting memory of both games is the Seventh Innings Stretch - introduced to the game, inadvertently, by President William Howard Taft who apparently stood up to stretch his poor, cramped legs only to find everyone
in the ball-park doing the same out of respect. There are, to be fair, other suggestions of the origin of the custom but I like this one best. "Take me out to the ball-game!" everyone sings while stretching arms, legs and anything else stretchable. I learnt
every word so that I could sing along.
Bill doesn't shy away from unpalatable truths. He plays back to us all the detail of the newspaper reports recording the exact number of deaths of chickens (1, 276,570),
cattle (50,490), horses (25,325) and hogs (148,110) in the floods that wreaked havoc in Mississipi. Shockingly a closer count was kept of livestock losses than human ones no doubt because, Bill tells us, in a stark reminder of the times, that most of those
who tragically lost their lives were poor and black.
Did you know that the inventor of the hot dog, that most quintessentially American fast food delicacy, was British? Or that when Lindbergh, days after his
historic flight, met King George V, our esteemed monarch was totally obsessed with how the master aviator had managed the most basic of bodily functions while in flight? These, and many more, priceless nuggets of information have enchanted us over the last
seven days - and we still have another 296 pages to read.
The year 1927 seems such a very long time ago. What would Lindbergh, challenging himself to fly across the Atlantic non-stop, make of the fact that
today there is talk of a one way manned flight to Mars? It's difficult to comprehend how much has changed from then to now. It's another age, beyond our ken...
And yet, and yet...Yesterday I received the sad
news that the oldest of our Nomination Whist group, the Indomitable May, has died, peacefully and surrounded by her family, in the nursing home where she spent her last few weeks. We will miss her earthy humour and her matter of fact take on life. Today, as
I was thinking of her long life, it struck me that, at 94, she would have been born in 1921. She would have been six years old at the time of the events Bill Bryson relates in "One Summer." How much she has lived through!
At our next gathering, tomorrow week, we will toast Our May in sherry and reminisce. I will tell about her sitting outside our house in her car, painstakingly refreshing her make-up, before making her way up the garden path to the front door. All of
us will remember her groaning " I hate No Trumps!" at strategic moments through our every game. And who could forget her haranguing the hapless Lib Dem candidate in a local election who had the misfortune to encounter her outside our house on one of his leaflet
deliveries. Nothing to do with his politics, she told him, all politicians were as bad as each other. "That was good fun!" she gloated, as she joined the rest of our Merry Gang, "He won't forget me in a hurry!"
nor, dear May, will we.