Down Under – Bill Bryson – 9/10

“I believe I first realised I was going to like the Australian outback when I read that the Simpson Desert, an area bigger than some European countries, was named in 1932 after a manufacturer of washing machines.”

Is that not a fabulous cover for a book about Australia? A map (which manages not to leave off Tasmania) and ice cream. That’s what we’re all about.

“Clive James once likened the Opera House to ‘a portable typewriter full of oyster shells’, which is perhaps a tad severe”

This is my second Bryson read – I’ve also read his book on the UK, Notes from a Small Island. I’ve decided that I adore his writing when it’s about countries that I know. Which means I will have to stop reading his books because I don’t know any of the other places he’s written about very well. Unless he writes a book about northern Germany, or possibly airports, I’m out of familiar territory.

“Before us stood a sweep of bay as serene and inviting as you would find anywhere, and yet there was no environment on earth more likely to offer instant death.”

It’s clearly Bryson’s gorgeous mixture of dry, vaguely self-deprecating, ridiculous humour mixed with his genuine admiration for some of my favourite places. It is clear that he loves Australia – it shines off every page of this book. Oh, he’s terrified of all the deadly wildlife, and not so thrilled about the way the colonials treated the indigenous Australians (for that matter, we’re not doing all that much better now, given the huge differences in life metrics between immigrant and indigenous Australians), but his respect for the friendliness, openness and sheer beauty of the place is clear.

“I don’t wish to denigrate a sport that is enjoyed by millions, some of them awake and facing the right way, but it is an odd game. It is the only sport that incorporates meal breaks… It is the only competitive activity of any type, other than perhaps baking, in which you can dress in white from head to toe and be as clean at the end of the day as you were at the beginning.”

As usual when I read a book I adore, my copy is full of scruffy sticky tabs marking funny passages I want to quote (hence the inter-paragraph insertions). He is fabulously rude about Canberra and then finds a local girl who agrees wholeheartedly. I must note that about one-third of my family live in Canberra.

“I reckon if you were going to rank things for how much pleasure they give – you know? – Canberra would come somewhere below breaking your arm… At least with a broken arm you know it’ll get better.”

What blew me away about Down Under was that Bryson gets it. Why Australia is so fabulously brilliant and the people are so happy and why on earth do I live in London? Not only does he get Sydney’s beauty and Canberra’s astonishing dullness and the Nullarbor’s extraordinary flatness and Uluru’s significance; he drives around in the Outback for no particular reason and takes great delight in the story of a little old lady who manned a telegraph station on which a space mission became dependent. Bryson really cares about giving a comprehensive picture.

“These are people who get to live in a safe and fair-minded society, in a climate that makes you strong and handsome, in one of the world’s great cities – and they get to come to work in a boat from a children’s story book, across a sublime plane of water, and each morning glance up from their Heralds and Telegraphs to see that famous Opera House and inspiring bridge and the laughing face of Luna Park. No wonder they look so damned happy.”

This comes with the warning which ought to be printed on every Bryson work. “Do not read in public unless you are willing to suffer the embarrassment of snorting your tea out of your nose on the morning Tube commute due to inopportune laughter.”

“That is what a crocodile attack is like, you see – swift, unexpected, extremely irreversible.”

If you’ve been to Australia, if you are Australian, if you want to go: read this.

Additional info:
This was a personal copy, from Bookmooch.
Publisher: Transworld Publishers, 394 pages (paperback)
Order Down Under from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting costs.

15 thoughts on “Down Under – Bill Bryson – 9/10”

  1. I love Bill Bryson despite having not read any of him myself. My dad loves reading snippets from his books and the Cricket extract is a family favourite.

  2. “What blew me away about Down Under was that Bryson gets it.”

    YES! That’s exactly how I felt after reading his impressions of Europe on “Neither Here Nor There:: Travels in Europe”. Remember laughing my head-off during the Swedish chapter!

  3. I bought this recently and now I’m really excited to read it! I do love Bryson, but also I have about 8 of his books and I haven’t read them, for literally no reason! It’s madness!

  4. I love, love, love Bill Bryson and when I grow up, I want to be able to write like him. I also very highly recommend his “Short History of Almost Everything”. I never thought a book on scientific history could be so interesting and funny. It’s actually one of my favourite books, and definitely my favourite non-fiction book.

      1. I hope it’s as funny in German as it is in English! I haven’t tried any of his books in translation, so I hope they work and you won’t be disappointed!

  5. I’ve read several of his books, including this one and they are all clever and entertaining.. I hope to read more

  6. “On my first visit … I encountered the startling fact that in 1967 the Prime Minister, Harold Holt, was strolling along a beach in Victoria when he plunged into the surf and vanished. No trace of the poor man was ever seen again. This seemed doubly astounding to me – first that Australia could just lose a Prime Minister (I mean, come on) and second that news of this had never reached me.”

    I laugh every time I read this. The brackets just make it perfect.

  7. I haven’t read Bryson for years, and now I’m trying to figure out why because I remember him being just as funny as you describe. I particularly fancy the sound of his “Short History of Almost Everything”.

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