Bill Bryson: The road to Little Dribbling
Ah, Mr Bill Bryson again! His most recent tome is constantly in your face in every bookshop. But I continue to find him, in equal measure, both infuriating and endearing. Now that he has British citizenship (without giving up his American, of course), when he eventually shuffles off this mortal coil (not just yet I hope), he will be lauded as a proverbial ‘national treasure’. Though he has said many bad things about this little country of ours, they have always been pronounced from a podium of love. So, before I spell out some of his many redeeming qualities, justifying his future ennoblement as a ‘national treasure’, let me tip the balance a little.
Infuriatingly, what I struggle to like about Bryson’s travel writing is that he’s not really a traveller at all. He’s a dilettante of the travelling world. His journeys are seldom continuous, self-supported (his wife does most of his bookings) and don’t seem to have any obvious direction that provide any kind of logic to his meanderings. He pretends to be following his own ‘Bryson line’, from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath, but the only evidence that he actually does this is where he starts from (Bognor Regis) and where he finishes (Cape Wrath). Nowhere on the journey do we suspect he is remotely near the Bryson line. And given that the Scottish leg of the journey is no more than a quick train dash up to the far north west, visiting nowhere en route, I begin to wonder why he bothered in the first place.
I groan interminably when he assesses the worth of places on the strength of the kinds of shops and cafés on the high streets, and anywhere that has a bookshop qualifies it (in his biased opinion) for a 5 star rating. Too often he flits from town to town, has a coffee and a snack (groan-worthy repetition in every chapter), and within an hour or two he has formulated his opinion about the town (for better or worse), before flitting on to the next place. He never actually engages with anyone, apart from waiters and serving staff. He makes observations from afar, from inside his own little Brysonian bubble, and the inhabitants of these places will either be hugely delighted or mortally offended by his judgements. In short, he covers too many places, too superficially, without any evidence of continuity in his journey. His book amounts to a lot of disconnected snapshots, taken over a period of time, to fit in with his many other engagements, and (I suspect) a team of researchers have helped him to fill the gaps with what have become (endearingly) the many Bryson witty observations and capsules of British history.
Endearingly, however, he does have a lot of redeeming qualities, enough (in fact) to earn him a handsome living from the millions of books he has sold. His vantage point of being the ‘foreigner’ on British soil gives him a unique perspective for both lavishing praise and dealing out the dirt. After a few chapters, he has laid bare his personality and temperament so clearly that, if he were to visit your town or village, you reckon you could predict his reaction immediately. But you may not be sure that you would ever want him to pay a visit…….
The two literary devices that make his writings so eminently readable include his skilful use of language (he’s a master of the art of drawing word-pictures) and his sense of humour. The latter is a clever fusion of self-deprecating observations with reputation-destroying gibes and jeers directed at people and groups who need to learn a thing or two. The thing about Bryson is that he manages to criticise others with a smile on his face, making us all feel that he is on our side anyway, and he really loves us.
However, once I have had a dose of Bryson, I’m done for a year or two, thankful that he doesn’t churn out the books in multiples of anything other than one at a time.