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Clement's Corner: The Bill Bryson Phenomenon

Owen Clement pays tribute to one of his favourite writers - Bill Bryson.

David and Patricia Watson, very dear friends of mine, introduced me to the writings of Bill Bryson in 1997 when they first loaned and then presented me with their copy of Notes from a Small Island, first published in 1995.

The book, or his idiosyncratic ‘notes’ as he put it, takes the reader on a light-hearted journey detailing the uniqueness of Britain. The reader is soon made aware of the rib-tickling place-names such as Great Shagging, Little Puking and The Buggered Ploughman. Page after page is filled with comical names including those other than towns or villages like a pub called Old Toe Jam for example.

Being a long-term resident of Britain, and being married to a Yorkshire lass, Bryson speaks frankly about the resourceful character of the British who have been conquered off and on since they went around in skins, and of what is happening to the historic buildings and sites that, in his opinion, should be preserved for posterity. In other words, he acts and speaks as a local not an outsider. He includes comments in Notes from a Small Island from discussions he has held with many well-known and not so well-known Britains. It showed, in my opinion, that he is an American with an English sense of humour.

I then read his A Walk in the Woods which is about the history and wonders of Appalachian Trail and Made in America. Australia came in for it in his book Down Under, where he once again did not shy away from criticizing certain practices and peoples, including those in power. He did so however in his own inimitable way with his tongue firmly stuck in his cheek.

As Dave Weich in an interview published on the Net says, “Bryson’s interests, apart from travel, cover other subjects as well. His detailed research is staggering, particularly in his two books Mother Tongue and A Brief History of Almost Everything. It's just like when you hear a great story or an anecdote in a bar and you want to rush right home and relate it to other people.

"Mother Tongue is one of Bill Bryson's earlier books. It is a superbly manageable and amusing treatise on the English language, where it came from, what it's doing and where it's going. This is a complex subject which needs the lightness of Bryson's touch to bring an affectionate and enthusiastic overview. Mother Tongue is not just about the history of English though. The book makes a decent attempt to cover the structure and logic of the English language. Bryson knows the value of dropping in a judiciously timed gag to lighten what could be a dry subject.

Bryson told Weich “I never set out to be a travel writer. I got into it entirely by accident. The first book, The Lost Continent, was essentially a kind of memoir. I'd been living in England for a long time, and after my dad died I decided to come home and travel around America, to look at the country and see how it had changed, and how I had changed, in the years that I'd been living away. Because I was freelancing, I was open to any suggestions or possibilities. I was interested in writing books on all kinds of subjects. An American publisher had seen some articles I had written on English language. She asked if I'd be interested in doing a popular history of the English language. This was at the very time I was going freelance, so I jumped at the chance. A book contract! As it happened, I was very interested in it. I was pleased to get that assignment.

"But for a while, I had these two parallel tracks: travel books, in the broadest sense, and books that were based on library research. The travel books took off, particularly in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth. That isn't at all to say I won't be doing other kinds of books or that I don't want to. I really kind of feel as if I've done some of the travel stuff as much as I can. I'd like to rest it for a while and go off and do something else.''

When Weich asked if he had another project in mind Bryson said, “I have a couple ideas, but nothing very concrete. In any case, I'm pretty much on the road until Thanksgiving.''

Bill Bryson’s fans look forwards with great anticipation to be taken along on his future journeys.

© Clement 2006


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