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    Bill Bryson

    I picked up Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There, his chronicle of travelling around Europe, for a quid at a charity shop the other week and have been dipping into it now and again. Its back cover features praise from The Independent, Time Out and The New Statesman. I remember reading and enjoying the book when it was first published circa 1989 and buying several more Bryson books on the strength of it. Reading this again though . . . eww.

    Much of it's amiable enough but he's intermittently leeringly sexist, treats the "gypsies" who beg from him more like mosquitos than human beings, implicitly decries African traders in Italian cities for depriving urban Italy of its native authenticity, thinks British unions are miserabilist, seems to see eye to eye with Farage on the European Union and has a series of passively hostile run-ins with receptionists, waiters etc which makes you wonder if the problem is him rather than the innate sullenness of Europeans. I'd hate to think that I felt a lot of this was "refreshing" 30 years ago but it certainly didn't strike me then the way it does now.

    #2
    1989 til today is as Bill Haley's Rock Around The Clock was to Prince's Purple Rain. Thirty years is a deceptively long time, and one's thinking can change quite a bit.

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      #3
      Hammerfest, Norway. En route to North Cape to see the Northern Lights

      Bill: Hello, here's my ticket for the next bus

      Clerk: I'm sorry Sir, we've no reservation for you. Last seat is Bjrille Bryjnsson, that's a Norwegian name

      Bill: Oh for fcuk's sake...(thinks)...so if this Bjilbo Bjisonkjiller doesn't show, can I have his seat?

      Clerk: No problem Sir, have a nice day!

      (in summary, casual prejudice quickly resolved- but like Wingco I enjoyed it at the time)

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        #4
        From memory, his stuff about Britain was quite cosy and consistent with John Major's warm beer and cricket fantasy land. He didn't invent that but, given where we are now, it is hard to find much charm in it. There was something suspicious about Bryson's avuncular image too. Most top rank travel writers are quite odd people. Bryson's sound bloke routine comes across as a ploy to conceal his probably being a bigger bastard than Paul Theroux.

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          #5
          I loved his Australian book, and the one about hiking in the Appalachians was quite good. Like his research books, I suppose writing those were journeys of discovery. The books he wrote from positions of familiarity -- the UK books, the autobiographical one, even the Europe trip memories -- are much less rewarding, and at times quite smug.

          I'll still probably read any new release by Bryson. FOMO, I suppose

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            #6
            I think I've still got a copy, certainly for a while I used to go back and see what he'd said about places I'd since been. I remember him being very sneery about Cologne and how they dared to put a "dreary concrete plaza" in front of the Dom (one person's dreary concrete plaza is another person's lively public space, seamlessly integrated into the environment, I suppose).

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              #7
              Originally posted by Benjm View Post
              From memory, his stuff about Britain was quite cosy and consistent with John Major's warm beer and cricket fantasy land. He didn't invent that but, given where we are now, it is hard to find much charm in it. There was something suspicious about Bryson's avuncular image too. Most top rank travel writers are quite odd people. Bryson's sound bloke routine comes across as a ploy to conceal his probably being a bigger bastard than Paul Theroux
              Aye, the first person he met in England- Dover landlady Mrs Smegma- seems to have recognised BB as a wrong 'un.

              The 'warm beer cricket' thing was already a fantasy when Agatha Christie wrote about in the 1930s. Check out Sarah Phelps' recent version of the ABC Murders for a grittier if equally depressing reality

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                #8
                Just to get it on the record, Bryson is a humorist writer. And humor typically doesn't age well. People roared at Fawlty Towers and today they cringe. That's just one of its inherent risks.

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                  #9
                  To Duncan: Sarah Phelps' represenation of 30s England as a seething cauldron of embittered xenophobia with a similar tone to 30s Germany was an interesting counterweight to the cosy chocolate tin nostalgia one often finds, but I found it very heaped on with a trowel and with a comically undisguised 2019 agenda, using an exaggerated caricature of the past to hit out at the enemy xenophobes and immigration-paranoiacs of the present day.

                  To WOM: interesting point, but only partly right. Comedy ages badly if it does stuff which causes offence to later generations, such as the casual racism and sexism of many 70s telly sitcoms. But a large portion of comedy doesn't age like that, and stays permanently wondeful and admired, because it finds its well-springs of humour in a world view which is unlikely ever to offend. To name just a couple of examples from literary comedy, the huge body of work of PG Wodehouse from the inter-war years, or Diary of a Nobody from the 1890s, are unlikely to cease being amusing any time in the foreseeable future.

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                    #10
                    I lapped him up too, in the early mid nineties. But yeah he's a reactionary cove and I find him unreadable now. Notes from a Small Island is Kingdom by the Sea in an anorak. And Theroux when he's making encounters up at least does it well. There's an egregious passage where he's supposedly eavesdropping on a convo between some poor but well read type and his kid in Edinburgh National Gallery and it fair reeks of bullshit.

                    His history of English stuff was full of myth and downright bollocks as well.

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                      #11
                      Originally posted by Evariste Euler Gauss View Post
                      To Duncan: Sarah Phelps' represenation of 30s England as a seething cauldron of embittered xenophobia with a similar tone to 30s Germany was an interesting counterweight to the cosy chocolate tin nostalgia one often finds, but I found it very heaped on with a trowel and with a comically undisguised 2019 agenda, using an exaggerated caricature of the past to hit out at the enemy xenophobes and immigration-paranoiacs of the present day
                      Agreed. She might as well have set it in the present

                      PS Next Xmas's Christie is Death Comes as the End, set in Pharaohan Egypt. Phelps isn't involved
                      Last edited by Duncan Gardner; 10-01-2019, 12:50.

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                        #12
                        Originally posted by Lang Spoon View Post
                        I lapped him up too, in the early mid nineties. But yeah he's a reactionary cove and I find him unreadable now. Notes from a Small Island is Kingdom by the Sea in an anorak. And Theroux when he's making encounters up at least does it well. There's an egregious passage where he's supposedly eavesdropping on a convo between some poor but well read type and his kid in Edinburgh National Gallery and it fair reeks of bullshit
                        KbtS annoyed me reading it as a student to the extent that I wrote in complaining (no-one replied). He compared contemporary Belfast to Phnomh Penh in Year Zero. OK, no manners but what a critic etc. I've always enjoyed Theroux sr though, in part as he's also an Africa old-hand (I was there as a kid in the early 70s).

                        PT discussing the Old Firm with a gnarled Glaswegian:

                        "They play each other a guid six times a season. But there's nae allus a riot..."

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                          #13
                          Of his first two travel books, I loved the US one (Lost Continent?) and was much less enamoured of NHNT. I was never sure whether that was because at the time the stereotypes in the US book were not something i could challenge since I had never been, or just that it was funnier and better written. I have never gone back to it to find out. I don't think he's a terrible writer though and he's given me a lot of pleasure over the years, so i'm reluctant to pile in on him as per some on this thread. But, I;ll avoid going back to his old books, now, so it;s good that this thread exists :-)

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                            #14
                            Originally posted by WOM View Post
                            Just to get it on the record, Bryson is a humorist writer. And humor typically doesn't age well. People roared at Fawlty Towers and today they cringe. That's just one of its inherent risks.
                            I still think FT is funny but maybe that's just me.

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                              #15
                              Yes, much of FT is absolutely side-splittingly brilliant. Some of it has dated very badly, but only some of it.

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                                #16
                                Originally posted by WOM View Post
                                Just to get it on the record, Bryson is a humorist writer. And humor typically doesn't age well. People roared at Fawlty Towers and today they cringe. That's just one of its inherent risks.
                                I think that's a generalisation. Wodehouse, E.F. Benson. Leacock, immediately spring to mind. Still as gut-splitting today as they were back when. Some of Jane Austen's short stories are surprisingly hilarious. My sister sent me a six CD package of Richmal Crompton's 'William' stories for Christmas. I haven't read any since the late 50s and was amazed at how funny they still are, pushing a 100 years after they were written and though intended for kids.

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                                  #17
                                  I also loved the Lost Continent, I think because of the way it mixed humour with nostalgia (his father had recently died, and the book was partly a rediscovery of places he'd seen on family holidays) and anger at what he felt America had become. I would echo what Wingco says about Neither Here nor There. I enjoyed it when I read it, though even at the time it seemed somehow more lightweight than Lost Continent, but I wouldn't go back to it now.

                                  The Australia book was crap. He had no need to even go to Australia to write that. The sum of his observations was that Australians drink a lot and call each other 'mate', that there are lots of dangerous animals in Australia and that Aborigines are marginalised people in Australia - not that he bothered to talk to any.

                                  On the plus side, there's a chapter in Made in America, written around 1990, about 'political correctness' in language, which is far more thoughtful than much else that was being said or written on that topic at the time.

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                                    #18
                                    Originally posted by jameswba View Post
                                    The Australia book was crap. He had no need to even go to Australia to write that. The sum of his observations was that Australians drink a lot and call each other 'mate', that there are lots of dangerous animals in Australia and that Aborigines are marginalised people in Australia - not that he bothered to talk to any.
                                    It was very funny all the same, which was its purpose. Had he sought to write a documentary about Australia, it would have been crap. Had it been lacking in humour, it would have been crap. But he didn't and it didn't. He trained his eye on the absurd and riffed on it humorously. Job done.

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                                      #19
                                      Originally posted by Amor de Cosmos View Post

                                      I think that's a generalisation. Wodehouse, E.F. Benson. Leacock, immediately spring to mind. Still as gut-splitting today as they were back when. Some of Jane Austen's short stories are surprisingly hilarious. My sister sent me a six CD package of Richmal Crompton's 'William' stories for Christmas. I haven't read any since the late 50s and was amazed at how funny they still are, pushing a 100 years after they were written and though intended for kids.
                                      Weren't originally intended for kids. First stories were published in a woman's magazine. Lots of social satire in there.

                                      Never liked Bryson much. A stretched article. amiable enough, I guess.

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                                        #20
                                        Yes, Woman's Own was still publishing them in the early sixties. The early bound copies (I had my Dad's from the early 1930s) were certainly intended for children however — based on the illustrations, and type-size. It's true there wasn't a clearly defined line between children's and adult literature at that period as there is now. I think, like Peter and Wendy, Wind in the Willows, The Railway Children and many other classics they were broadly defined as "stories the whole family can enjoy," or something similar.

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                                          #21
                                          The William books are superb, Austenesque and clearly the result of forensic study of 11 year old boys (and in the case of Violet Elisabeth Bott, five year old girls).

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                                            #22
                                            Given the length of the stories the complexity of plotting is remarkable too. You know RC was really good because she has a Wetherspoons in Bromley named after her.

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                                              #23
                                              I think I only agreed to have kids so that I'd have an excuse to re-read Richmal Crompton. And Jennings.

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                                                #24
                                                I can't comment on rereading Bryson as I have only read any of his books the once and they aren't ever really books for returning to. What I will say is that the last book of his that I read was 'A Short History Of Nearly Everything' which was fantastic, portrayed scientists as the heroes they often are (in their professional lives anyway) and, in some ways, did more for the public understanding of science than Dawkins ever did.

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                                                  #25
                                                  Oh, his research books are very good indeed. The Shakespeare language one, the At Home one, the one about the year 1927... They are models of great non-fiction writing.

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