DOUBLEDAY 557 pages €22.99

Bill Bryson’s latest is another winner, a witty and engrossing snapshot of the USA in the summer of 1927.

It is above all a tribute to one of the signature events of the Twentieth Century, Charles Lindburgh’s successful solo transatlantic flight in May. Bryson thought at first of devoting the book to Lindburgh’s achievement, but broadened it , though throughout Lindburgh crops up, whether the flight itself, the amazing public reaction and adulation that followed or his extraordinary triumphal tour of the USA and abroad during that summer.

Other events made headlines that summer. The book’s secondary theme is Babe Ruth’s progress towards a new record (60) for baseball home runs, finally achieved on the last day of the season. It was also the summer of the “long count” during the Tunney – Dempsey title fight in Chicago, and, less pleasantly, the controversial execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in August.

For Bryson the year was a watershed in other ways, at a time when America was beginning to outstrip Europe and assert itself globally. The Jazz Singer was made, heralding the arrival of talking films. “Television was created. Radio came of age.” A Supreme Court Judgement paved the way for the indictment of Al Capone for tax evasion. In July the world’s leading central bankers took a fateful decision to lower interest rates, fuelling a share price bubble that, when it burst in 1929, precipitated the Great Depression. There were unprecedented floods in Mississippi. Work began on the Mount Rushmore sculptures.

But above all, the year was one in which “ a kid from Minnesota flew across an ocean and captivated the planet in a way it had never been captivated before.” Bryson portrays brilliantly Lindburgh’s achievement. At twenty five, he had worked for two years as an airmail pilot and was by 1927 an experienced and proficient flyer; flying, indeed, was the one thing he did well. With a tiny budget, he negotiated with a small company in San Diego, Ryan Airlines, to build a plane for $6,000 plus the engine cost.

The plane was rudimentary in the extreme. Lindburgh was unable to see out the front, as the fuel tank, for safety reasons, was placed up front behind the engine ( he banked sideways to see where he was!) . It had no fuel gauge; he computed his fuel use manually. It had no brakes and was made of cotton stretched over wood and tubular steel.

Yet Lindburgh managed to fly it over 3500 miles in 33 hours, finding his way unerringly by dead reckoning, calculating on his lap in an unstable plane. He passed Dingle as one of his reference points and circled the Eiffel Tower before landing in Paris on 21 May to a hero’s welcome. He ate only sandwiches, and used a bucket as a toilet – twice, as he confided to King George V. Bryson describes him as “unquestionably a candidate for the greatest pilot of his age if not all ages.”

September 25 2013


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