The brilliant wit and insight of Bill Bryson

neither here nor thereNeither Here Nor There is a travel book by best-selling author Bill Bryson charting his 1990 trip around Europe and which I recently finished reading.

It had been a long time since I last read a Billy Bryson book, maybe 10 years or more. I went through a phase where I read heaps of them and enjoyed them immensely.

Then, recently, someone brought back a movie from one of those video dispensing kiosks that have sadly replaced Video Stores in our neighbourhood. It was called ‘A Walk in the Woods’ starring Robert Redford, Emma Thompson and Nick Nolte.

Robert Redford played Bill Bryson, Emma Thompson his wife and Nick Nolte, his one-time travel buddy Steven Katz. The film was a dramatisation of Bryson’s book of the same name where he set off, as an unfit, 60-something bloke to walk the 3,500 km Appalachian Trail from Georgia in the South all the way up to Maine on the East Coast (Bryson had returned to live in the US after two decades in England.

It turned out to be a mildly entertaining, somewhat charming buddy movie – Bryson and Katz begrudgingly reunited – trying to do the impossible. Combined with some breath-taking scenery and funny moments (like when Katz seduces a plump, local woman at the laundromat, only to be hunted later by her rifle-toting hill-billy husband) it inspired me to read Bryson again and conveniently I found a copy of Neither here nor There sitting on my shelf.

The travelogue begins with Bryson on a long, uncomfortable bus journey in Norway to see the Northern Lights in Hammerfest (which he does finally see and describe in all their wondrous, spooky glory after wandering the remote town for weeks). Then after returning to England to wait for the coming of Spring, he heads back to Europe to begin the journey proper.

Beginning in Paris,  Bryson travels east through Belgium, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, the former Yugoslavia , Bulgaria and finally Turkey.

The great thing about Bryson, and what I believe all great travel writers do is they make you want to pack your bags and do some travelling of your own – but not by telling you that everything you encounter in the world on your travels is wonderful, but by piquing your curiosity.

Bryson is a master at combining the typical sightseeing stuff – museums, cathedrals, art galleries – with the more quirky, unusual places. He wanders of the beaten track, to find a hidden park, an interesting pub or a ruin, throwing in dollops of fascinating history and hilarious and often embarrassing stories about himself

bill bryson

The author Bill Bryson

As a self-deprecating chronicler of his own misadventures, Bryson is in a class of his own. He is happy to share his misadventures with women, descriptions of his less than trim physique and personal style (he comes across as quite geeky) and his penchant for booze, cigarettes and ogling the more attractive specimens of the opposite sex.

 

He also spends a lot of time complaining about the price of hotels and getting angry when he finds a museum he desperately wanted to see closed or is left disappointed by a city or place he thought he would like.  All experiences I could relate to.

I spent four days wandering around Florence, trying to love it, but mostly failing…there was litter everywhere and gypsy beggars constantly importuning and Sengalese street vendors cluttering every sidewalk with their sunglasses and Louis Vuitton luggage.

Bryson’s greatest gift as a writer and storyteller is his very dry, very sardonic sense of humour, which must have been finely honed by his years living in the UK.  Indeed it’s hard to imagine he’s actually American.

He is a very funny writer, something incredible hard to achieve, and I found myself chuckling of even guffawing every couple of pages at some amusing anecdote about local customs or over the top description of a terrible meal, strange hotel or unexpected experience.

Here’s an excerpt from his visit to a sex shop in Hamburg and his musing on inflatable sex dolls:

I was fascinated. Who buys these things? Presumably the manufacturers wouldn’t include a vibrating anus or tits that get hot if the demand wasn’t there? So who’s clamouring for them? And how does one bring himself to make the purchase? Do you tell the person behind the counter it’s for a friend?

Later he muses about what would happen if friends popped over while you were entertaining your “vinyl” friend, thinking that perhaps you have to shove the doll up the chimney and hope no one asks about the extra place setting.

But then he reckons, maybe he is just being a prude. Maybe people discuss their dolls in bars and so he imagines a typical conversation:

“Did I tell you I traded up to an Arabian Nights Model 280. The eyes don’t move but the anus gives good action.”

Also in Hamburg he is perplexed at why gorgeous women grow armpit hair which makes it look as if they are wearing “brillo pads” under their arms, remarking that “I know people think its earthy, but so are turnips”.

But from these hilarious musings, he can shift into serious mode. Following a return visit to the Anne Frank house, he writes:

One picture I hadn’t seen transfixed me. It was a blurry photo of a German soldier taking aim with a rifle at a woman and the baby she was clutching as she cowered besides a trench of bodies. I couldn’t stop staring at it, trying to imagine what sort of person could do such a thing.

From the hilarious to the deadly serious, Bryson keeps you entertaining from the start to finish. Hardly for a moment are you ever bored. The book is full of movement: train journeys, city walks and tumbles down hillsides.

There’s also a certain pleasure in following the adventures of travel writer before the age of the smart phone (and Google maps) and online booking websites.

In an interview to promote a new book a few years back, Bryson said he was  lucky enough to get away with ditching his copy editing job on the London newspapers and becoming a full-time writer.

“Then it was wonderful – there’s no better way to make a living than being a travel writer,” he said.

This passion for travelling and writing about his travels, makes reading Bryson a great pleasure as well.

 

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