By Greg Jenner
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Like many of the best ideas, the premise behind Greg Jenner’s debut book is extraordinarily simple – to trace the history of everyday life through the prism of a modern Saturday. Opening with ‘9.30 a.m. Rise and Shine’, each chapter deals with a different part of the day and is broken into small sections that examine the curious and the quirky ways in which history has led, say, to clocks to be fixed on our kitchen walls.
From waking up, the reader is guided through their breakfast, morning shower, evening drinks, and so on. We discover how the Vikings loved to have saunas; how the earliest evidence of a domesticated cat is from 9,500 years ago; and, how in the 1800s men were advised to ‘pay women the compliment of seeming to consider them capable of equal understanding with a gentleman’.
A Million Years in a Day is a bright, fun and enjoyable book. Unsurprisingly, I was particularly drawn to the chapter on drinks. Here, among many other things, Jenner describes the Gin Crisis of the early 18th century. During this period many gin distilleries emerged in England and people began drinking it, with gusto. It was cheap, powerful and popular. As Jenner writes:
…to walk around London was to literally stumble over the bodies of men, women and even children lying unconscious on the floor of drinking establishments, or even in the street, in huge heaps of intertwining limbs.
Jenner likens their plight to that of heroin addicts, and reveals how it inflicted ‘immeasurable damage’ until the Gin Act of 1751. This is just one example of many. From the story of Odysseus being scrubbed and oiled by a maid to 31,700 year old dog DNA, A Million Years in a Day is jam packed with historical trivia.
Sticking to a strict and predictable format will always run the risk of becoming slightly monotonous, but Jenner’s irreverent writing style makes this impossible. He is a natural wordsmith and each sentence is wonderfully crafted to bring the oddest aspects of human history to life in unexpected ways (to take just one example, an elaborate medieval salt cellar is described as being ‘like a gilded Tonka Truck crafted for a billionaire’s infant son’). There are similes aplenty as Jenner slips between high concept history and modern-day comedy anecdotes. He communicates directly with the reader from the beginning, offering one of the best opening paragraphs I have read in a long while.
An excellent debut from an exciting new author.
Ps. 9.30 a.m. wake up?? I wish!