31. Down Under by Bill Bryson (2000) 315 p.


Bill Bryson is a very readable man. I read Notes From a Small Island for my first semester of Year 12 English (thank you, slipping standards of Western Australian public education) and quite enjoyed it. I also flicked through some of the early chapters of A Walk In The Woods in my university library. For somebody approaching the golden years he has a great sense of humour, and a knack for weaving random bits of fact and trivia into otherwise sequential travel narratives.

In Down Under (also published as In A Sunburnt Country) Bryson travels across a decent cross-section of Australia, taking in Sydney, Melbourne, the Queensland coast, the Northern Territory and some good chunks of WA. He is a middle-aged academic, mind you, and therefore his tours are generally geared towards the museum side of things; for example, he visits Shark Bay nor for its whale sharks or beautiful ocean or breathtaking landscape, but rather for its stromatolites, which are essentially living fossils and not exactly exhilarating. He also has a tendency to include a large amount of anectodes from motels, roadside stops and the like. While this can often be quite amusing…

“And how did you enjoy your stay, sir?” he asked smoothly.
“It was singularly execrable,” I replied.
“Oh, excellent,” he purred, taking my card.
“In fact, I would go so far as to say that the principal value of a stay in this establishment is that it is bound to make all subsequent service-related experiences seem, in comparison, refreshing.”
“Well, we hope you’ll come again.”
“I would sooner have bowel surgery in the woods with a stick.”

…it also bogs down the pacing, involving you in the tedious minutae of travel, and gives a frustrating sense of wasting time. On the same page that Bryson breathlessly tells you there’s so much to see in Australia, he complains about his inability to find a decent restaurant in a fly-speck town on the side of a highway.

Bryson is at his strongest when recounting Australian history, throwing in odd bits and pieces whenever appropriate, providing a quick guide to basic facts with plenty of wit and humour. (“Apart from founding Sydney, [Arthur Philip] had one other notable achievement. In 1814 he managed to die by falling from a wheelchair and out of an upstairs window.”) Somebody with absolutely no knowledge of Australia could read this book (and it’s an easy, entertaining read) and come away with a fairly decent understanding of Australia’s place in the world and what we are essentially like. I do enjoy reading what foreigners have to say about us, mostly because it’s always positive, and Bryson seems to have the correct impression. One of the major points he reiterates throughout the book is that Australia is curiously ignored on a global scale, of which we’re well aware, half-proud of and half-annoyed by.

Minor irritants include Bryson’s insistence on perpetuating the myth that Australia is crawling with deadly creatures, and his occassional lack of fact-checking. Well, the only thing I noticed regarding that was his Aum Shinrikyo nuke story in the early pages, in which he claims that the Japanese doomsday cult responsible for the Tokyo subway attacks also tested the world’s first non-governmental nuclear bomb in the Australian outback. This is patently untrue. I don’t know whether he just made it up or fell for a bartender’s tall tale or what, but jeez, do a little background research.

These are small annoyances, however, and on the whole I enjoyed this book quite a lot. Down Under is a reccomended read for anyone with a passing interest in learning more about my perennially overlooked nation.

Books: 31/50
Pages: 9650