Travelling Companions 2
I seem to have decided on the pattern of reviewing these from most recently read and working backwards. Actually I’ve been enjoying the sunshine too much and haven’t had much inclination to sit, for more than a minute or two, in front of a computer screen if nobody’s paying me. This is one of my occasional extended reviews from Goodreads. Don’t be fooled by the unimpressed nature of the piece. Like many of you I am a big fan of Bill Bryson. I just don’t think much of this book. If you haven’t read any Bryson before and you’ve got a train or plane to catch then it will pass the time quite nicely. If you haven’t read any Bryson before, and there is a choice between this book and any other that he has written…choose the other.
Here’s the review.
He’s become the Paul McCartney of travel writing; once sublime and now pushing out books that we buy because he’s given us so much pleasure in the past. Maybe it’s very clever writing: the ageing scribe and observer returns to look at England and finds it changed mostly for the worse and so reflects this in his prose; also changed for the worse. There are a few laugh out loud moments; but these are largely fart jokes. I don’t mind a curmudgeon and age suits this persona. I just don’t much like the name dropping multi-millionaire with friends in academe spending half a day in so many towns and then bemoaning that they’re not what they could be. My own home town of Barrow* comes in for a particularly sneering write-off when he walks along the economically depressed Dalton Road and is offended that there are some unemployed people there making the place look untidy with their dogs. Surely, after travelling many miles (there is no other way of getting to Barrow) he might have had a wander around the rather good Dock Museum (after-all he does like a museum in middle class towns), the glorious beaches and nature reserves of Walney or the silent splendour of Furness Abbey, the incomparable loveliness of the Roanhead sand dunes and the Duddon Estuary, even Devonshire Dock Hall; all within walking distance of where he was. No, a cup of coffee in a chain was his idea of the acceptable face of a town I am very fond of. It’s indicative of someone fulfilling contractual obligations but doing so grudgingly and with bad grace.
I’m glad he finds fault with the political mind-set that sees cheese-paring as the route to making Britain great again (otherwise known as austerity, otherwise known as getting the poor to pay for the excesses and mistakes of the rich). We won’t improve anybody’s quality of life, or even save much money, by closing down libraries or removing greenery from urban plazas. But I’m afraid his outsider’s ability to spot the glories and weaknesses of British life has declined with passing years. Seeing the world through the windscreen of a car; and a big car at that; re-tracing steps he specifically says he won’t re-trace, re-hashing old material about the supposed delights of dried cake and hard biscuits, having a pop at a popular travel writer (in this case the pop-worthy HV Morton): it’s all a little tired. It isn’t a bad read but it is by no means a good one. Like Paul McCartney he re-invigorated his genre and delighted a generation. The old stuff is still worth the read (especially Notes From a Small Island and the wonderful Walk in the Woods) but this is the travel book equivalent of Red Rose Speedway.
The main criticisms of HV Morton (and it has become fashionable to find fault with old Harry) are that he made half of it up and the rest he painted with a rosy brush. (Putting aside his serial adultery and desire to see fascism established in England). I’m afraid Bill Bryson is guilty of both (rosy paint brush and inventing encounters, not multiple shagging and longing for the Third Reich to cross the North Sea). His meetings with people seem stage-managed and mostly fiction and his admiration of the English countryside comes across as shallower than it probably is; as well as touching the clichéd. I’m also surprised and disappointed that he’s reverted to the ‘short walk around and then into a pub for pints of lager before a curry and bed’ approach to exploring a town.
The book opens with Bryson’s publisher pointing out the money-making possibilities of Small Island Part II. The book is little more than an exercise in cashing in. (Incidentally it does get a little wearing when this very wealthy man objects to paying a few pounds entry fee, and downright patronising when he tells us we really should be putting more into cathedral collection boxes and be raising money for charity). The title is supposed to be an evocation of the unique and slightly humorous quaintness of English place-names. It equally serves as a description of the contents and prose style.
You’ve made your pile Bill. You’ve made us very happy with your early books. Perhaps it is time to enjoy a well-earned retirement where dribbling can be, and should be, a more private activity.
*Also known as Barrow in Furness, but only by outsiders. (See also Kingston upon Hull).