by Bill Bryson
Genres: Non-Fiction / Travel & Adventure / Humour
“In the motel, I dumped my bag and reflexively switched on the TV. It came up on the cricket, and I sat on the foot of the bed and watched it with unwonted absorption for some minutes. Needless to say, very little was happening on the pitch. An official in a white coat was chasing after a blown piece of paper and several of the players were examining the ground by the stumps, evidently looking for something. I couldn’t think what, but then one of the commentators noted that England had just lost a wicket, so I supposed it was that. After a time a lanky young man in the outfield, who had been polishing a ball on his trouser leg as if about to take a bite from it, broke into a loping run. At length he hurled the ball at the distant batsman, who insouciantly lifted his bat an inch from the ground and putted it back to him. These motions were scrupulously replicated three times more, then the commentator said: ‘And so at the end of the four hundred and fifty-second over, as we break for afternoon nap, England have increased their total to seventeen. So still quite a lot of work for them to do if they’re going to catch Australia before fourth snack.”
The two-story compendium you see in the picture above is the first Bill Bryson I’ve ever owned, or read. I picked it up on a whim at one of our local bookfairs, knowing only that Bryson was a name in travel and adventure non-fiction and was supposedly funny. It was the first, but it won’t be the last.
I fell in love from the first few pages of the first story in the book, A Walk In The Woods (soon to be turned into a movie starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. Not happy about the choice of actors). Immediately, I wanted to step out my front door and walk to somewhere wild and far away. Although, maybe not as wild or far away as the Appalachian Trail. I don’t know that I’ll ever be willing to risk being eaten by bears after reading this.
But this review is not about A Walk In The Woods, it’s about the second story in this collection – Down Under. In which Bryson explores this fascinating country from east to west and top to bottom, by rail, car and foot, and manages to see more of it in 4 weeks than I have in my entire lifetime living here.
Firstly, a disclaimer. This book was written in 2000. Things have changed in Australia since then – in politics, in infrastructure, in global status, in most ways really. Bryson’s views in this book must be taken with a grain of 15-year-old salt.
Most of Bryson’s observations aren’t too surprising. The outback is vast and empty. Sydney is sparkling and sprawling. Adelaide is lush and pretty. Canberra is spacious but boring (not true! I’m offended!). But he does bring up some interesting points as an outsider. He speaks to white Australians about Indigenous Australians whenever the opportunity presents itself, persisting to ask questions and try to understand the situation even when it is clear that for some people the topic is uncomfortable. He learns of the events in our fractured history, and becomes aware that there is still a definite divide between the two peoples of the country. But although he seems to build a solid grasp of how the realities of life differ for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and reflects on this with sadness, he admits that he doesn’t know what the answer is to solving the problems, but that something needs to be done and now.
He also comments again and again on Australia’s invisible status to the rest of the world, despite the many examples given of feats of exploration, miracles of science and nature, amazing people and fascinating tales that emanate from the land down under. By the end of the book, he seems to be stumped as to why Australia has not been given the credit he believes it does deserve.
For me, the most amusing parts of this book were the (many) parts where Bryson obsesses over our diverse and bizarre flora and fauna, in particular, the fauna of the deadly variety. I can’t help but enjoy it when foreigners become fixated on the numerous dangerous creatures we share this space with, and how the hell we manage to not be killed every day. Bryson too can’t seem to fathom how we get away with it. I don’t know, Bill, we just do!
“You probably won’t see any redbacks out there,’ Sonja reassured us. ‘Snakes are much more of a problem.’
This intelligence was received with four raised eyebrows and expressions that said: ‘Go on.’
She nodded. ‘Common brown, western puff pastry, yellow-backed lockjaw, eastern groin groper, dodge viper….’ I don’t remember what she said exactly, but it was a long list. ‘But don’t worry,’ she continued. ‘Most snakes don’t want to hurt you. If you’re out in the bush and a snake comes along, just stop dead and let it slide over your shoes.’
This, I decided, was the least-likely-to-be-followed advice I had ever been given.
Bryson learns something through his travels about the Australian way – which is generally easygoing, laidback, witty and humorous, with a sense of community and “we’re all in this together”. He is most definitely taken with the country, and I believe the connection he felt on his trip is due to the fact that he likely personally possesses these qualities too.
Down Under, and indeed, Bill Bryson in general, will suit you if you love sarcastic humour, and are curious about the world around you and the people in it.
Did not like it – It was ok – Liked it – Really liked it – It was amazing